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Dark Debt
Chicagoland Vampires #11
by Chloe Neill
NAL, $16.00 400pp
Published: March 2015

Having finally come to the realisation that Chloe Neill's longest running series, the Chicagoland Vampires, which reaches book eleven here, is fun, easy-to-read fluff, I've been waiting for her to do something really surprising. She delivered that on one front in the previous book, shifting up my expectations of the series arc, and I was happy to find that she delivered again here.

Now, there are problems, don't get me wrong. The longer I read this series, the more I find myself unable to ignore those problems, but Neill writes so smoothly and effortlessly that I keep reading these books anyway and enjoying them too. There are givens here. Merit's alternately worthy and disappointing. Ethan is annoying. Mallory's not given the opportunities she deserves. And yet Neill remains as readable as ever.

There are two stories in play here; one of them an odd combination of inevitable, promising and disappointing, and the other the real surprise for this novel, with Neill explaining something that I've wondered about for quite a few books in a really good way.

The former involves Balthasar, Ethan's sire. Sure, Ethan's a four-hundred-year-old vampire who has ascended to become the master of Cadogan House in Chicago. Sure, he's a leader of men whose Cadogan subjects respect and admire him. Sure, he's a romantic lead, even if I'm still not buying into why Merit is so smitten with him. But he's also a vampire with a dark past, courtesy of his sire, and it has been a long-standing annoyance that he won't open up, even to Merit. He does here, at least a little. Sadly, it doesn't make him any more impressive in my eyes.

So it's inevitable that the Balthasar plot would eventually rear a particularly ugly old-world head and it does here. It's promising for quite a while because it puts Ethan in his place, shakes up the invulnerability that Merit has been cultivating and comes as a very blatant and public challenge. Sadly, it fades into disappointment.

The latter involves Navarre House, the third and quietest house of vampires in Chicago and the one that's been emphatically keeping itself to itself of late. It's seemed weird because Navarre is the oldest of the three houses and the house led by Celina Desaulniers, the master who outed vampires to the world and sparked so much of what we've seen over the mere year that this series has encompassed thus far. Yet Cadogan has consistently led the way. Now we know why and Neill sets up a neat way for that to be addressed.

How it sparks is really cool and I wondered if I should ignore it here on the grounds of being a spoiler. However, I think it comes early enough avoid that and the telling of it actually makes what I'm not going to cover more of a draw. Ethan and Merit go to a big party at Adrien Reed's house, a very rich and powerful man. There, a couple of vampire assassins attempt to murder Sanford King, one of the other guests, and our heroes inevitably step in to save the day. It's handled very carefully and the crucial detail is that one of the assassins turns out to be Will, Navarre's guard captain.

Oh yeah! That's a big scene and the ramifications from it are even bigger and, for the most part, I enjoyed the way Neill handled all those ramifications. Maybe that novel arc could have been a multi-novel arc but I'm not going to complain. It's still the best thing about this book. It also brings Morgan back into play as a better character than he's ever been and I'm really happy about that too.

The worst thing about the book is a really annoying chase scene. I fully realise that the hardest task an urban fantasy author with a series has is to continually build primary characters without ever turning them into superheroes who can't lose. For a year-old vamp, it's easy to suggest that Merit may have come too far too soon, but Neill tries to counter that here by having her lose her target in a chase and that comes off really badly. In only the previous book, I remember her pulling a race because she was faster than even Ethan, but now she loses to a human being? I don't buy that at all.

And that year-old vamp thing is bugging me too. Over eleven books and only a year in elapsed time, the vampire world has been rocked to its very core and fundamentally changed more than once and our Merit has been at the heart of all of that. Could everything have been achieved by spreading the stories out over years instead of months? Would it be less worthy a series if a vampire in Belgium, say, or Cleveland or Madagascar did some of the rocking?

As I continue to list all the things wrong with this book, I have to underline that they're often things wrong with this series that are becoming clearer. I rather liked this particular volume, more than quite a few of its predecessors, but eleven books inherently means a lot more thinking back about how it's continuing as much as what it's doing on its own merits, pun not intended.

The other one that leaps out has to do with the Red Guard, which secret vampire-monitoring society Merit has joined and has contributed nothing. Initially, it was fascinating, a great plot device at a point where it seemed incredibly needed. Over time, it's become an aside, a means for Ethan and Merit to bristle at each other, and in this book, almost an obsolescence. Jonah has always been a strong and worthy character and I don't buy into his lackluster showing in this book. He deserves better.

And so this is a mixed bag once more. I enjoyed it, because it's a hard task to not enjoy anything Chloe Neill writes. I become more and more aware of the flaws of the series as a whole, but this one fared better than the last few as an individual novel. Half of the plot is mostly fantastic, but the other half is quite the letdown. Some characters get to shine or find redeeming moments, while some get to disappoint.

And the series arc is about as far from clear as it's been at any point in the last half dozen books, which is interesting to me as there are only two more volumes left before Neill wrapped it up to shift gears into the 'Heirs of Chicagoland' series, which is two books strong with a third due next year. I'm eager to find out if things will become clearer next time out. Surely they must. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in this series click here
For more titles by Chloe Neill click here

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