All Fired Up
Note: There are spoilers for the Not Dead Yet series in this review.
I really enjoyed Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet series of paranormal romances and was delighted when I learned she was planning a follow-up series which would focus on ‘baby vamp’ Evan Fournier. Evan was a troubled young man living with depression (and not doing so well) when we first met him and circumstances led to his becoming the one of the members of the found family formed by Wes and Hudson over the course of the trilogy. All Fired Up – book one in the Ashes & Dust series – opens around five years later and finds Evan – older, wiser and more confident in himself – in a much better place, having worked hard to get his life on track and learned to ask for and accept help when he needs it.
Evan works as a private investigator for Caballero Investigations, the firm set up by Wes and Hudson in Give Up the Ghost. Although all the employees are paranormals, the firm takes ‘regular’ cases as well as ones involving the supernatural, but when Wes and Hudson have to travel to London at short notice due to a family emergency, Hud makes it very clear to Evan that under no circumstances is he to take on any paranormal investigations while they’re gone. Not because he doesn’t trust Evan to handle them, but because those are the cases that tend to go sideways quickly – and Hud is a bit (!) of a control freak and very protective of those he cares about.
But when Dr. Anika Kozlow – a witch and Evan’s doctor and therapist – comes to see him, clearly very upset, and talking about a patient who recently died under suspicious circumstances, Evan knows he won’t be able to sit this one out. Called to visit a patient who had recently returned from a retreat for paranormals, Dr. Kozlow was shocked to see a literal shell of the woman she’d known.
“When I saw her, she wasn’t there. I mean, her body was. She was sitting in the recliner, breathing, he eyes open, but they were… empty.”
A diagnostic spell confirmed Anika’s suspicions:
“When I said she was empty, I wasn’t exaggerating. Her magic – her soul – was gone.”
And she’s since discovered that several of the patients she referred to the retreat have died in the same way.
Evan decides to check himself into the Rising Sun Retreat to see what he can find out. Everything seems above board at first; the location is great, the staff are kind and he falls in with a group of friendly fellow patients who show him the ropes. But there’s one staff member who makes him feel uneasy, a man known only as Red – because of the red tips in his hair (which, incidentally, are nowhere to be seen on the front cover!) – a member of staff so quiet, controlled and emotionless that he’s almost robotic. He’s pretty creepy and Evan is suspicious – but before he can find out much more, he comes dangerously close to becoming the soul-sucker’s next victim.
Firefighter Colin Zhang has absolutely no idea why he just tried to kill Evan; the last thing he remembers is heading into a burning building to rescue someone who’d been trapped inside, and he’d rather be anywhere other than with a bunch of crazy people talking about magic and vampires and telling him it’s 2024. It can’t be – the fire was just yesterday. In March 1990.
All Fired Up gets this new trilogy off to a great start. The mystery is fast-paced, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and it hooked me in right from the beginning; but the big draw was getting to spend some more time with the characters I’d come to know and love from the earlier series, and to see Evan start down the road towards a well-earned HEA – he’s been through some serious shit, and deserves to be happy. Evan is a complex, well-rounded character and I liked his insightful and wryly down-to-earth narrative voice – a very clear contrast to Wes’ mercurial personality and deadpan snark. Evan’s depression is realistically and sensitively portrayed; he’s fairly stable now, and although the old insecurities break through and threaten to throw him off balance from time to time, he’s very self-aware and determined not to fall back into the sort of downward spiral that almost broke him when he was younger.
I liked Colin and the way he’s already starting to fit in with Evan and his found family of supernatural beings – and an actual god – although he (Colin) isn’t particularly well fleshed-out as a character. Still, this is only the first book of three, so there’s room for more development there – and perhaps the fact that I’ve got to know Evan already via the previous series makes for an unfair comparison. I enjoyed the book very much, although a couple of issues brought my final grade down a bit. One is that Colin doesn’t freak out very much when he finds out he’s lost thirty-four years of his life – and not only that, but that he’s been used to – at the very least – do serious harm to a number of people throughout that time. He seems to accept both those things too easily, which was a bit odd. And in addition to having to come to terms with what he’d been forced to do and the fact that his old life is gone, Colin has to reconsider his sexual identity. Growing up at a time when AIDS was ravaging the gay community, he chose to deny the part of him that was attracted to men, but the realisation that things have changed considerably enables him to own the truth (that he’s attracted to men and women) and act on his attraction to Evan. I appreciated the way this realisation is brought about – but it’s something else Colin seemed to adjust to a tad too quickly.
That said, however, they make a good couple and there’s some very real chemistry between them. Both of them have suffered the loss of loved ones and will have to find ways to move forward if they’re going to be together in any real sense, and I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship develop as the series progresses.
As in Not Dead Yet, Ms. Burke sets an overarching plot in motion in this series opener. The villain of All Fired Up gets their just desserts, but the Big Bad – the brains behind the plot to steal magic and souls from members of the paranormal community –is still out there, and will no doubt be back to cause more trouble in the following instalments. With a sweet HFN for Colin and Evan – and the promise of more to come – All Fired Up is a terrific combination of page-turning mystery and tender romance, and is strongly recommended.