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Crimson Wind by Diana Pharaoh Francis

January 4, 2011

December 28, 2010

Publishers: Pocket

Publication Date: December 28, 2010

Format: Mass market paperback

Status: Second in the Horngate Witches series, following 2009’s Bitter Night.

Source: Review copy from the publisher

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Witches

Location: This book takes place on the road, though the Hornsgate covenstead is in Montana. Some of the action takes place near Mount Shasta, which is located in Nothern California and Max’s ultimate destination, Winters, which I think must be in Napa Valley.

Other Info: Francis is also the author of the Path series and the Crosspointe series.

Book Description (from Goodreads):

THERE ARE GOOD GUYS. THERE ARE BAD GUYS. AND THEN THERE’S MAX.

Max knows what trusting the wrong person can cost you. Her former friend Giselle, a powerful witch, enslaved Max years ago, turning her into a Shadowblade—a deadly warrior compelled to fight for Giselle. But there’s more at stake now than Max’s thirst for revenge. The Guardians, overseers of the magical world, have declared war on humanity and on any witches not standing with them. Max and Giselle have come to an uneasy truce in order to protect what’s left of Horngate, their coven’s home. Max would do anything for Horngate—even give herself over to a mysterious otherworldly creature in the nearby mountains in exchange for his help. But first, she intends to save the mortal family she left behind. And Alexander, the Shadowblade warrior who could be her closest ally or her deadliest enemy, is going with her.

On a road trip into the unknown, Max and Alexander face wild magic, desperate enemies, and battles that bruise both body and soul. But the greatest challenge will come from unexpected revelations that test everything Max believes about who she is—and where her loyalties lie. . . .

Okay, first of all, how awesome is the name “Diana Pharaoh Francis”? I mean, it has Pharaoh in it. And it’s not Diana “Pharaoh” Francis. It’s actually part of her name. Although I suppose it could be a pseudonym. If so, it’s a cool one.

Sadly, my experience reading Crimson Wind was not as enjoyable as my fancies surrounding the author’s name. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I have not read Bitter Night, the first book in the Horngate Witches series. Darn these publishing companies! They’re determined to prevent me from keeping my promise about reading series books in order. Um, joking. I’m grateful for each and every book I receive. Honestly. But, now that I’m reviewing books as well as reading them, I have a much harder time reading books out of order. I think I may actually have been converted to the cause instead of just paying lip service. Silver Zombie is the case in point.

Fortunately–or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it–my issues with Crimson Wind were bigger than the fact that I read it out of order. But before I get into that, let me back up a sec and give you some of the plot. Crimson Wind‘s heroine is Max. She’s a kick-butt heroine of the over-the-top variety. Thirty years ago she was betrayed by her friend Giselle. Giselle is (and was) a powerful witch and she believes that Max is the key to the survival of her coven, Horngate. Since Horngate is  all Giselle’s concerned about, she felt justified in turning Max into a Shadowblade. And not just any Shadowblade, the Prime Shadowblade. Sadly for Max, the process has involved long hours of tortuous proceedings. It also resulted in an ability to go out in the daytime. She is even susceptible to the reflection of the sun from the moon. She is bound to Horngate and to Giselle by compulsion spells. Furthermore, Max had to leave her family and never see them again and that’s really the crux of Max’s hatred of Giselle.

As the description tells us, in Bitter Night, Max and Giselle reached a kind of truce in order to save Horngate. In the thirty years that Max has served the covenstead, she has come to care for the community. Her desire to save the covenstead–and the people within it–comes from Max herself more than the compulsion spells that Giselle has put on her. Max also cares for all the Shadowblades that serve under her. In fact, she’s willing to sacrifice herself for them. As Crimson Wind begins, Max is anxious about the family she’s left behind. Part of the agreement that she and Giselle made will allow Max to bring her family to Horngate and safety. Max’s journey to bring her family to the covenstead is the novel’s ultimate destination.

I wish I could say that Max makes the trip on her own, but she doesn’t. Alexander, a fellow Shadowblade Prime, goes with her. Alexander was bound to a different covenstead and a different witch, but the binding was dissolved in the first book. Alexander is sent with Max because he would be a threat to her status as Prime at Horngate if he stayed behind without her. I really, really wish he had stayed behind. He was boring. Francis wavers between making Alexander Max’s equal and making Max such an incredible warrior/leader/Prime/Shadowblade that no one can match her. It’s mentioned several times that Alexander is the only Prime that could challenge Max for her position at Horngate. He speaks without contractions because he was born in a time of precise speech. Okay, fine, but it still irritated me. Alexander is also Max’s romantic interest, which is not a relationship I cared to see develop. Personally, I thought the angel Tutresiel was more interesting and showed more promise. The chemistry between Max and the angel was far more interesting, but possibly that was because they spent so little on screen time together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why the Max/Alexander pairing held so little interest for me. It has some of the elements that make me (slightly) swoony in other romance novels. Alexander is clear that he wants Max and she’s resistant. I usually love it when the hero pursues the heroine with deadly intensity. But I felt like yawning when Alexander did it. Maybe because it was a pale echo. I can’t articulate the difference, so I’ll just reiterate: I give the romance a big “F”. And if you should know anything about me as a reader, it’s that enjoying the romance is central to my enjoyment of a book. If it’s not satisfying, it’s not for me.

That said, Crimson Wind failed for me in other ways. As I mentioned earlier, Max is an over-the-top kick-butt heroine. She can do everything, she’s stronger than everyone, everyone admires her, she’s self-sacrificing, she helps those in need. In short, Max is like a really strong Girl Scout with a foul mouth. Also, she gives everyone stupid nicknames. I never connected to Max. And since she narrates the half of the book that Alexander doesn’t, I confess I was relieved to reach the last page of this book.

There was a moment when, despite the endless, ridiculous detours, Max and Alexander finally reach her family, that I thought things might get interesting. They didn’t. There was a spark of hope and it was snatched from me. I can’t say anything else because that would involve major spoilers. Let’s just say there was a plot twist that had potential. I’m very sorry to say that Diana Pharaoh Francis wasted it. But she still has a cool name.

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