A debut novel and the first in a series, 'Night Owls' is solid entertainment but I'm not quite sure who or what it's actually supposed to be about. Maybe it's the literary equivalent of an 'ensemble film'. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it.
The 'Night Owls' of the title is an all night bookstore on the campus of Edgewood College, in the small town of Edgewood, MA, on the outskirts of Boston, and it's run by a vampire called Valerie McTeague. Given that, we might expect her to be the lead character and her shop the central focus of the story. However, she isn't and it isn't. Instead, the lead may well be Elly Garrett, who has no connection to the bookstore whatsoever and spends so little time in it that offhand I can only remember a single scene. Confused yet?
Well, let's not start with the title; let's start instead with the MacGuffin of the piece, which is a book. It's a dangerous book which is never named, perhaps because it's not written in English but in Creepscrawl, the runic language of what Elly calls Creeps and everyone else calls Jackals. What everyone agrees on is that these pack oriented werecreatures are firmly the bad guys in this world. The good guys are all the other supernatural creatures, from vampire booksellers to lesbian succubi via a cult called the Brotherhood.
Elly is the foster daughter of a renegade Brotherhood monk called Father Value, expelled for being too extreme for the rest of his extreme order. After he dies obtaining the book, Elly delivers it to Prof Clearwater, a former Brotherhood man himself, in Edgewood, and this sparks an all out war in the town as a nest of Creeps arrive to take the book back, a war into which everyone else supernatural is gradually and emphatically drawn.
Clearwater sends the book to Night Owls via Justin, one of his grad students who works there. Val, an experienced Hunter of Jackals realises what it must be and also that the magic in it transferred over to Justin after he unwisely opened it. Chaz, her daytime assistant or Renfield, is caught up inherently in whatever she's caught up in, and Sunny and Lia, the local pair of lesbian succubi, who aren't remotely as outrageous as that suggests, hop easily between being nice babysitters for Justin and lethal warriors when the fight comes.
Clearly Val is the focal character over all of these, as the toughest supernatural creature in town, but she's not into traditional vampire dominance and they're all drawn with as much care and attention as she is. Each of them is very much their own character with their own background to build their own story arc. Only Sunny and Lia are really supporting cast members and maybe not for long.
It's Elly and Cavale who fall outside of that. Cavale is the local warlock, to whom Val quickly turns to address Justin's problem, but he's also Elly's estranged 'brother', who found his way to Edgewood a couple of years earlier after escaping the clutches of Father Value, a moral question mark if there ever was one. Their upbringing under his fanatical eyes left them as broken a pair of siblings as you can imagine, but a highly talented one nonetheless, who are important players in the war with the Creeps.
While I did puzzle over who was really supposed to be the lead, I enjoyed the fact that none of them are. Perhaps it was Val's book until Elly showed up and gradually took over, but writer Lauren M Roy really doesn't favour any of her characters over any of the others and is eager to tell the stories of all of them, against the backdrop of those easy villains, the Creeps.
The positive side here is that 'Night Owls' works very well as a grounding to this series, introducing a bunch of believable characters and giving them each their own motivations to make us care about them. I can't remember the last time I was so hard pressed to pick a favourite: Val the vampire bookseller who refuses to toe the undead line, Chaz the snarky Renfield with a case of unrequited love, Justin the decent and loyal innocent, Elly the half-feral Creep-killer with her spike of silver or Cavale the local nutjob warlock working to fix his relationship with his sister. Maybe I'll be able to decide after another few books in the series.
The catch is that in focusing so hard on painting all those worthy characters in the foreground, Roy unfortunately skimps on the background, so we know little more about the Jackals by the end of the book than we did at the start; what little we get from their perspective is clearly aimed at setting up the characters who interact with them. We could very much have done with a far stronger insight into who these 'monsters' are and why everyone is so vehemently antagonistic to them. Their notable one-dimensionality is all the more notable because everyone else is so carefully fleshed out.
I've talked to authors who have written sci-fi/fantasy series with supernatural bad guys and they're very careful to avoid falling into the episodic trap of having each book feature a new, bigger and badder monster. While I'm very interested in where Roy is taking her good guys, I'm intrigued to discover what she thinks she can do with her bad guys. On the face of this book, I have nothing invested in them at all and they could easily vanish entirely from the series without anyone caring a whit. For them to continue on, we'll need to know a lot more about them than we've been told thus far.
I'd also like to see more of what goes on at Night Owls. For a bookstore that gives its name to the entire series, this one doesn't exactly make itself prominent in the opening volume. I'm hoping that it will as the series progresses, because I'm entirely sold on a vampire-run campus bookstore. What a great location for a supernatural series!
I'm leaping straight into 'Grave Matters', (click here for review) the second book in this series, expecting a lot more character development on the part of the various good guys, who also promise to be more numerous than in 'Night Owls' in an expanded ensemble cast. However I'm hoping to see some of that attention given to the location and the monsters too, because it's needed. ~~ Hal C F Astell