House on Fire
Note: There are spoilers for previous books in this review.
Jenn Burke’s Ashes & Dust – a sequel/spin off to the Not Dead Yet series – got off to a strong start earlier this year with All Fired Up, which finds Wes, Hudson and Evan running a successful PI business in Toronto five years after the end of Graveyard Shift. This series puts “Baby Vamp” Evan Fournier into the spotlight as the PoV character, and All Fired Up introduced a new love interest for him in the form of Colin Zhang – a firefighter who was believed to have died in the 1990s but who had actually been kidnapped and held captive by a witch who forced him to suck the magic from other supernatural beings. I’d strongly suggest anyone thinking about reading this one should start at the very beginning with Not Dead Yet, as there are a lot of recurring characters in these stories and you’ll understand the relationship dynamics more easily.
It’s been five months since the events of All Fired Up, and Evan is no closer to discovering the identity of whoever was behind the operation at the Rising Sun Retreat. During those months, Colin and Evan have begun adjusting to their mistakenly-formed bond, although Evan recognises it’s a lot easier on him than on Colin, who has to spend most of his days just hanging out in the Caballero Investigations offices instead of getting out and making a new life for himself (if Colin and Evan get too far apart physically, the bond causes them excruciating pain). Evan recognises that his feelings for Colin probably go deeper than Colin’s for him, but is determined to give Colin the space he needs to work things through and not to push him into anything he’s not ready for. When Colin asks if it might be possible to break the bond, Evan is dead set against it; for one thing it could be very dangerous, for another – he believes Colin won’t want to be with him without it.
The lives of everyone in the Westerson-Rojas household has been further complicated by the addition of Hudson’s brother Lance, whom Hudson has brought to live with them. Lance has no idea about the paranormal world, so they all have to work hard to keep him in the dark, even though Hudson knows he really should tell him the truth. But when videos showing shifters actually shifting headlined with messages such as “this is not special effects” and “they are all around us” begin circulating, it’s clear that Evan and the gang have far more to worry about than someone letting something slip in front of Lance.
In the middle of all this, Colin decides he wants to contact his former fiancée, Cynthia, thinking that he owes her an explanation about what happened to him all those years ago, and that maybe it will give both of them some closure. Cynthia drops a bombshell of her own, telling Colin that when he ‘died’, she was a few weeks pregnant and that they have a son, CJ, who has always known that Colin is his real dad. The news hits Colin like a punch to the gut – his anger and grief at everything he’s lost are very well portrayed – but he and Cynthia both agree that it’s for the best that they don’t tell CJ the truth.
To talk about the other plotlines in the book would be heading into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that there’s more hurt and heartbreak on the horizon for our heroes when there’s a horrific murder close to home and Evan finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – his loyalty to Hudson, and his love for Colin.
I enjoy spending time with these characters and was pleased to re-visit them, but House on Fire is obviously a ‘middle book’ with a lot of set-up and few answers. The novel feels disjointed and episodic; we move swiftly from one event to the next, but none of them are given much more than a cursory explanation before we move on to the next one. And the romance between Evan and Colin still feels a bit superficial; it’s been five months since they met and accidentally forged their bond, but I’m not seeing much more than a surface physical attraction there, and as we’re never in Colin’s head I get no sense of how he’s dealing with everything he’s been through – losing thirty-four years of his life, forming a magical bond with a complete stranger, and then having his first same-sex relationship – or even if he IS dealing with it. He and Evan share a bed and have sex, but it seems that any relationship progression (and I’m not actually convinced there’s been any as I don’t feel any real emotional connection between them) has taken place off the page. In my review of the previous book, I said that Colin wasn’t particularly well-fleshed out as a character, but as it was the first book, there was room for that to happen – but I can’t say that it does. Colin gets a lot of on-page time (because he has to be where Evan is) but because we never get his perspective and he doesn’t have much dialogue it’s hard to understand his character and equally hard to understand exactly why Evan is falling for him. There’s no doubt that Colin trusts Evan implicitly – even though he doesn’t appear to understand him at all at one crucial point in the story – but I don’t get the same ‘meant-to-be’ vibe from them that was there between Wes and Hudson from the start.
I can’t deny being a bit disappointed in House on Fire, although it’s got good bones – I just wish there had been some more meat on them. I enjoyed catching up with everyone, the plotlines are all intriguing and the author delivers some real emotional gut-punches while continuing to show Evan’s growing confidence in himself and his abilities, both as a PI and as a worthy second-in-command to the King of All the Vampires. But be warned; the major plotlines are unresolved and there’s a cliffhanger ending, so you might want to wait to read this until you can dive straight into the final book, Out of the Ashes next year. I’m giving House on Fire a qualified recommendation because I’m invested in this group of characters and I enjoyed the book in spite of its flaws.
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