Seth's Reviews > The Scent of Shadows

The Scent of Shadows by Vicki Pettersson
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Jan 22, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: modernfantasy, sf-f-h, crap
Recommended for: Desperate readers and people willing to handle major problems in the faint hope of a better tomorrow
Read in March, 2007

It looks good. New author, first novel, recommendations on the cover by Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harris, and Diana Gabaldon(2). Woman becomes a Super-Powered Heroine fighting forces of darkness and it's supposed to have non-stop action, some hot sex scenes, and it's set in Las Vegas, always a great setting for supernatural action.

But look more closely. The back cover has a big, glossy picture of the author: an atractive brunette with a decidedly Linda Carter look. Large pictures of the attractive author on the back are always a warning sign(3). Then read the bio: ten years as a Folies dancer at the Tropicana. Could be good, she probably knows Las Vegas well.

Good and bad. Nice setup. Let's take a look inside....


This book is firmly in that unnamed subgenre where Harrison and Harris live: female POV modern supernatural fantasy/mystery/action with a promise of sexual tension. It's a fun subgenre. Unfortunately, this one falls into the most cop-out of traps in the female POV world, that a woman can only become a strong heroine if she was raped. Of course, she is the one raped because she fights the attacker to save her younger sister. And, of course, she goes from raped to vengeful to trained and effective. It's cheap writing and it cheapens (and demeans) rape victims, implying that they should use assault as a strengthening experience and not feel traumatized. Fortunately, it only shows up in 90% of heroine stories written by men and 89% written by women(4) :-(

The main character is basically ok. Joanna Archer, daughter of mega-wealthy father Xavier (uncommon names like that always indicate villains), whom she despises and who despises her. Her younger sister (the not-raped and therefore not-heroic one), Olivia, lives the life of a beautiful and mega-wealthy socialite, and we mustn't forget her being a Playboy Playmate a few months ago. Joanna spends her days practicing martial arts and her nights wandering the dangerous streets of Las Vegas, taking pictures for her occasional art exhibits and hoping for a chance to beat up a mugger or two.


So, let's fast-forward to/through the plot.

Joanna Archer has a rule: she never says no to a first date. It's a stupid rule and it only serves to set up the first scene (and is never mentioned thereafter), but it's billed as her reclaiming her sexuality after the rape by proving she isn't afraid to date(6). So we find her on a date with a repulsive man who turns out to be a homicidal supernatural killer.

Joanna gets away from him with the help of a police group that has been following him, led by her old high school boyfriend, who will play a recurring but meaningless role in the book.

The next day is the day before her 25th birthday. Which doesn't seem all that important, but boy-howdy is it. She and her sister visit Daddy, who reveals that he has evidence--a one-line, unsigned letter--indicating that Joanna is not his daughter. Her sister takes Joanna's side but Daddy cuts her out of the will anyway.

Being a close relative who doesn't hate a heroine-to-be is rarely a good idea. Let's start a clock ticking on her death right about now, why don't we? We'll need a stopwatch, not a calendar.

Fast-forward to that night through a couple of things: hot date with the ex-boyfriend, seeing the same bum repeatedly, hitting the bum with her car, watching his bones heal almost instantly, dire warnings from the bum that indicate he'll help her, but he can't until she's 25--ie, several hours later. Assuming she lives those several hours.

She goes to her (ex?)boyfriend's house for some hot sex told in a not-hot and overlong manner(8), then back to her sister's. Her sister Olivia, we learn, is some sort of super-hacker called (of course) The Archer. While she does some snooping on the (ex?)boyfriend for Joanna she gets a call from an ex-boyfriend who wants some stuff(9) back--at 11:45 at night. She agrees. Hecontrives to stick around until midnight.

Midnight comes around and Joanna turns 25(10) and immediately gets hit with something like the Highlander effect. She's basically useless; he attacks; her "reflexes" from training(11) kick in and she buries a knife in his chest. Olivia and Joanna sit down (next to his dead body) and relax, as you do when you just killed someone and his corpse is still bleeding out on your wall-to-wall. He (of course) gets up, throws Olivia out the (penthouse) window, and attacks. Obvious what happens next, but let's list it: Joanna beats him up, takes his own knife(12), cuts off his hands, and slits his tongue open(13) so he drowns in his own blood(14). You know, the usual heroine stuff.

After a brief and strange fight scene the bum explains that he is an Agent of Light and both the date-guy and the guy she killed were Agents of Dark. Joanna, being 25 now, has some sort of super-powers (they don't know what yet) and is capable of being an agent of either. Because, Ta-Da, she is the Fated One Who Will... do something. They aren't really sure what, but she has the powers of both Shadow and Light(15). It's the usual you're-better-than-everyone-else-but-untrained-and-untrustworthy business.

Superpowers are matrilineal; her mother was another Agent of Light who seduced the head Agent of Dark--a supernatural being of pure thought, yet still able to knock uglies and inseminate--and then went into hiding after giving birth to protect Joanna--by not being there to protect her. Today is her mother's birthday, increasing her power, and it's her father's birthday, too(16), so she gets a lot of his power as well. Whether his having a daughter post haste would remove some of her powers is left unsaid, but it sounds like something he should look into.

So the Agents of Light (the good guys, remember) do the obvious thing. They knock her unconscious and--without her permission--give her plastic surgery to look exactly like her sister and make Olivia's body look like hers before it's buried so everyone thinks Joanna's dead instead of Olivia. She is ordered back into Olivia's life to spy on Daddy.

So here's the book: Martial artist/playmate with super powers and the heir to a mega-fortune works with 11 other super beings (one for each star sign, although actually 5 of the good guys are dead at the moment) to fight the machinations of 12 bad guys (one for each sign and with related abilities to their counterparts). The "manual" for the super teams is a comic book series. She's the only one who can read both sides, of course (this actually makes sense to me). There are also trading cards of the agents(19). If we didn't have the Linda Carter-esque picture on the back I'd be certain this was plotted by a high school boy hoping it makes him famous enough to get his first kiss.

'Natch, the rapist is one of the Shadows(18).

The good guys keep doing things this way. They tell her what to do. She complains. They tell her again. She does it. She complains, but she's incapable of *doing* anything on her own initiative. And that's seen as a good thing. This is my main complaint with the book. I get really sick of a heroine who bitches about something that really is wrong, doesn't do anything, and never grows out of it.

The book leads through the inevitable plot stages: the super base, the alpha-female bitch-fight, the alpha-male bitch-fight, the traitor in our midst, the alpha-male being super hot but aloof, the mentor (who turned her into her bimbo sister against her will but is inexplicably lovable) kidnapped and tortured, alpha-male is not super hot, the revelation that the mentor has her emotions bugged (which is not creepy in any way and not at all stalkerish), wait--maybe the alpha-male *is* super-hot, trapped, escape trap, rescue the mentor, alpha-male will die unless she kisses him, fight with date-guy and rapist, rescue mentor, mentor will kill them all unless alpha-male kisses him(20), and the showdown with the thought-being (who isn't destroyed, of course).

We have to ask: is it fun-stupid, or stupid-stupid? Well, if you known going in, it's fun-stupid. If it were a comic book, it would definitely be fun-stupid. But even then, I couldn't stand the doormat of a heroine(21).

Wait, you ask, how's the writing? Pyrotechnic writing can save even a bad plot for some of us. Give us some examples of interesting bits!
So I will....
- And what a strange world it was when a woman had to lose herself in order to find herself.
- At the time I had no way of knowing Mr. Sand's true intentions, not like now.

Footnotes. Mostly snarky. Some deleted.
2: This whole group recommends one another all the time, which makes their recommendations basically useless.
3: Nora Roberts is fond of this, too. It's a holdover from the romance genre but it's out of place in the more SF/F end of the genre, no matter how attractive Linda Carter is. Um. The author, I mean.
4: Sadly, I made those percentages up and probably underestimated them.
6: This is the first warning that she thinks giving up control of her life somehow reclaims herself. Really.
8: OK, I don't like sex scenes in general, so it may be better than I think.
9: Stuff in this case being whips, chains, gags, etc. Playboy playmate returning fetish gear to her ex-boyfriend: sound like an adolescent male fantasy.
11: Reflexes always trumping electrical discharge in your muscles.
12: Memo: Always take the knife away.
13: I don't know what to say here. It's a slit down the tongue, if I recall correctly, making it forked. I really don't know what to say.
14: As you do.
15: She has the Powers of the Gloaming!
16: Maybe her mother and father hooked up at a Sag Singles dance?
18: If you didn't see that coming, I envy your innocence.
19: Future marketing tie-in?
20: Actually, this was kind of a neat twist.
21: It's all too common. But it really, really irritates me unless it's a point of character development.
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02/09 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael Ugh.

And it's only the first of ... twelve? Being the Zodiac and all?


Seth Well, the 2nd is actually much better and works to fix a lot of these flaws. And the short story in Holidays Are Hell (a prequel that goes into her mother, why she abandoned Joanna, and why the team is so obnoxious and nigh-handed to her) is quite decent.

Pettersson has promise and the world does have places to go. The more we see of her father the more fun the story becomes. So I'm hoping it's worth reading however many more she produces.

But yeah, I'm assuming 12.

I'd love it if she'd do one as a series of short stories. That may be her strength.


Martha I agree with a lot of what's said here -- I too gave it 2 stars, but despite the many issues with the writing, believe the overall idea is unique enough to show promise.

I too inwardly groaned when it's said that Joanna was raped, got into martial arts, wore dark clothing, and wandered around unsavory parts of town looking for her killer. I hated this bit for being cheezy and typical for about half the book, until it's discovered that the rape wasn't random -- she was specifically targeted and that they didn't just want to kill her, they wanted to break her. This, to me, is a bit of a twist on the standard ploy; the baddies aren't just after physical pain and death, they want to destroy minds and souls as well.

I've only just started the second book, but I hope that more of the true goals and intentions of the dark zodiac signs comes out. But I also hope that a lot of the cheeze disappears as well lol.


Seth A lot of the cheesiness is explainable when you consider that the villains are caught up in being comic book characters and as the books progress that is handled better and better. The first book really is a low point (although I'm not encouraged by the direction in the third).

Unfortunately, even explainable cheese is cheese and if the author isn't relishing it, it stays corny. (*searches for another bad food metaphor*)

The rape not being random explains the motivation behind the rape selection (although the rapist is still a rapist and would have raped some random person easy to victimize if not under orders to rape Archer); it does nothing to justify the offensive "get tough and get even, losing your humanity in the process, or else you're a pansy" response that no actual rape victim I know could stomach, at least that close to the event.

Still, I keep reading the books, so there is enough in there to hook me. None of my friends have been willing to read it--and they read all sorts of crap I push at them--so I don't know much about how they stack up against my library. I thought about it and there are series I've walked away from early because they were bad, so the Zodiac books certainly aren't at that level of badness (see my "crap" shelf for some examples).

Enjoy the books, though. #2 is very very good and #3 certainly isn't bad (in my opinion). Their low point is no worse than the low point of other series I read ("Jaz Parks" and the "Felix Gomez" books come to mind).

Check out the short story in Holidays Are Hell (it's the story of Joanna's mother, the Tulpa, and Warren around the time she surrendered her powers). It is excellent.


Martha Ah, I suppose you're right - the fact that the rape was part of an overall specific attack made it slightly better cheeze, but cheeze nonetheless and poor character development cheeze at that. It's true that I would have preferred that the whole rape thing not happen at all, especially as I'm sure the baby, that was only mentioned once in a dream sequence, will likely show up again (groan).

I'm glad to hear you liked the second book, I just started it last night and got as far as Joanna getting lost in a casino by jumping in and out of realities, which I guess they do all the time now? And I'll definitely check out Holidays Are Hell, thanks for the info!


message 6: by Pat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pat Patterson 18 - Sigh. I still have my innocence. Thanks Seth!


Seth Michael wrote: "Ugh.

And it's only the first of ... twelve? Being the Zodiac and all?"


FWIW, the series wrapped up at 6 books. And it has several better entries, especially once the primary action moves out of the city (either off-world or into the previously-forbidden/inaccessable desert).


message 8: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn I loved this review...who needs the book?


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