Urban fantasy with a twist and a tough moral centre.
While I don’t particularly want to get into the brouhaha surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, I will admit that it’s piqued my interest in a number of authors of whom I had been only dimly aware. Sarah Hoyt is one of them and Draw One In The Dark is the first in a series of novels set in the Colorado town of Goldport.
The central character is Kyrie, a young waitress working in a cheap diner who just happens to have the power to shapeshift into a panther. Hoyt makes the quite sensible choice of not making this an origin story. Kyrie already knows (or at least suspects – she’s sort of in denial) that she can shift. This self-awareness is a trait shared by the two other main characters – Tom, a troubled young runaway who works at the same bar as Kyrie and Rafiel Trall, a local police officer who has been shifting for a good while and whose shapeshifted form is that of a ferocious, majestic lion. In refusing to tell a story that is exclusively about how Kyrie or either of the other two characters discover their shapeshifting abilities, Hoyt shifts the focus onto how the characters discover each other, how they learn to trust one another and, eventually, how they work together. That focus on character interaction is one of the novel’s real strengths.
That said, there is a mystery to unravel. Although the world of the shifters appears at first to be fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of depth to the book’s mythology, particularly during conversations in which some older shifters are discussing the origins of the book’s apparently ancient antagonist. Hoyt doesn’t reveal all the details but instead keeps enough back to hint at a much wider shadowy world – a world that is dangerous, violent and just plain weird. (I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that this book is the first urban fantasy novel to feature shapeshifting pheromone-flinging beetles.)
Although the plot starts slowly, it soon picks up pace and, I must say, never once did I feel that it dragged. The book’s action sequences are exciting and well-described and unusual coincidences early on in the novel are explained satisfactorily towards the end. It’s the unfolding relationships between the central characters, however, that make the novel so entertaining. The will-they-won’t-they of Kyrie and Tom (which is complicated in a very entertaining way by the tempting presence of Trall), the very well-realised relationship between Tom and the father who kicked him out of the family home several years ago – these have an air of authenticity about them that makes the book eminently readable, even as the reader’s (well, this reader’s at any rate) mind is coming to terms with the more fantastical and outlandish sections of the narrative.
In addition, Draw One In The Dark is a novel with a clear sense of morality. Characters are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and often seek to do the right thing, despite that choice appearing to be less convenient. Perhaps more significantly, characters are offered the chance of redemption and, by and large (and with one or two hiccoughs along the way), they take them. Call me an old-fashioned romantic, but I kind of like that.
Overall, then, Draw One In The Dark is a fast-paced, well-crafted novel, populated with a relatively small cast of mostly three-dimensional characters (I’m a little unsure about Keith, but Hoyt writes him with such panache, I’ll forgive him his quick acceptance of the madness into which he’s been plunged) who are genuinely engaging and with whom it is very easy to identify. The story hangs together really well, while leaving a few background threads dangling free to be picked up in later volumes. Speaking of which, I read this book on my Kindle. It is part of Baen’s free e-book initiative which puts out a selection of the initial novels in some of their authors’ series for free, which demonstrates an impressive confidence in the skills of the company’s authors. Well, Baen’s cunning ploy worked on this occasion, because the second book in this series, Gentleman Takes A Chance, is purchased, downloaded and ready to read. And if that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.