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Hard Bitten
Chicagoland Vampires #4
by Chloe Neill
Ace, $7.99, 354pp
Published: May 2011

I picked up the next three 'Chicagoland Vampires' novels so I can progress a little further through the series I started as far back as 2017. It's urban fantasy with a kick-ass female lead (which is so prevalent that it ought to have its own genre name) and it's set in an America where vampires have made their existence known. As of now, werewolves have, too; which will have major ramifications and surely get the public wondering about what other creatures exist. They don't yet know what we know: there are a whole lot of them!

Our heroine is Merit, a vampire at Cadogan House in Chicago, at which she's the Sentinel, a sort of saviour without portfolio tasked with doing whatever is needed to keep the house safe but without having to run the department of security. She's long had a lust/hate relationship with her boss, Ethan, the Master of Cadogan House, but they got along better in book three and have no trouble working well together here, though Ethan is pushing for things Merit isn't willing to give.

As tends to be the case for this series, we jump into things very soon after the previous book ended, ready for a new major crisis to arise, which, you can be sure, it promptly does. Not only is there a new rave apparently about to happen, raves being an illegal all-you-can eat buffet for vampires, but the Mayor of Chicago, Seth Tate, is threatening Ethan because of them. Three of his constituents are dead and so he orders them stopped or bad legal things will start to happen to Cadogan House.

To make it worse, because problems are always more fun for us when piled on top of each other, there are protestors camped outside Cadogan wanting vamps gone; a new militia has sprung up to posture and threaten; and Darius West, the head of the Greenwich Presidium, so the most important vampire anywhere in the world, is about to make a visit to Chicago. When he visits Ethan, as the senior vampire in the city, and threatens receivership of Cadogan until he can get Chicago under control, Merit is forced to investigate everything on the sly, without House authority.

And, of course, that's exactly what we're here for, to see Merit taking care of business in the rough and ready manner for which she's known. She's very capable and she's learning how to control her powers, but she's reactionary and stubborn and still railing at the fact that she was made vampire without permission, even if it was done as a snap decision in order to save her life after an apparent assassination attempt.

There's a lot to like here. The focus for this book is the rave, which isn't the usual sort of rave, run on a larger scale and involving new factors that we haven't seen before, one of which is drugs. When the violence inherent in vampire raves overflows to bar fights, the problem doesn't just become more dangerous, it becomes more obvious and all the factions with a stake (sorry) in making vampires vanish have new ammunition. It's all a good way to flesh out the series and Chloe Neill does it effortlessly.

She also handles the mystery well. We know that there's a big bad boss who's responsible for the drugs and the raves but we don't know who it is and the setup is such that there are a bunch of candidates. After all, a variety of people are getting upset and lashing out; perhaps that's a defense mechanism and they're responsible for the problem they want solved. It could be Darius the head vamp, McKetrick the militia leader, Tate the mayor of the city, and even Celina Desaulniers, the villain of earlier books. Neill keeps us firmly guessing until she's ready for the big reveal.

The characters continue to grow. I like Merit a lot, especially now that she feels a lot more settled as a vampire. The implications of this book's core problem mean that she gets to visit other houses and the people there aren't all the same. Neill does just as well at crafting her vampires as any of her other characters, whatever species they happen to be. She even introduces us to another one, I should add. Apparently river trolls work as the muscle for water nymphs. Who knew?

And there's a real kick in the gut to wrap things up. I can plead guilty to assuming things earlier in this series, because they seemed so traditional, not to mention predictable. That some of them turned out to be true isn't a great compliment to the author, but an increasing number of them didn't and it's fair to say that she totally blindsided me with the end of this book. I really didn't see it coming and it carried a serious impact that will carry into book five and beyond.

It took me a couple of books to really get into this series but I turned the last page on the third, 'Twice Bitten', wanting to open the first page here. It took me eight months to actually do that but, when I did, it felt natural and I was right back in Merit's world just like that. Now I want to move on to book five even more, because things are seriously going to change for our heroine and a whole bunch of the other characters here. That's the mark of a good series. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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

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