Diana Pharaoh Francis: Horngate Witches #1: Bitter Night and #2: Crimson Wind

Thirty years ago, Max was just an ordinary college student, rooming with her best friend, Giselle. That was before Giselle betrayed her, transformed her, bound her with spells. Now Giselle is the leader of the Horngate coven, a secret community of witches engaged in a silent cold war against their own kind, while Max serves as her Prime Shadowblade, a nocturnal enforcer and bodyguard. May hates Giselle for what she’s done, but the compulsion spells force her to serve and protect. They hate each other . . . and they need each other.

While it’s never been easy between them, it all goes to Hell in a big way when primordial forces arise, and drive the rival covens into all-out war against one another. The Guardians of magic have had enough of humanity, and they’re ready to wipe us all out and let magic run wild once again. The witches will serve them, or be destroyed. Horngate, however, refuses to do either; they’d rather fight for survival and for humanity. Now Giselle and Max, uneasy at best, have no choice but to work together. To protect Horngate, they’ll fight for their lives, turn enemies into allies, defy the immortals, bind angels, make unholy pacts, and use every resource at their disposal.

The addition of Alexander, another Shadowblade just as powerful as Max, to the cast, brings extra tension. He and Max have to deny their mutual attraction as they brave disasters both natural and unnatural in a desperate gamble to rescue those caught in the magical crossfire. Max’s family, people she hasn’t seen in decades, are in danger, and the apocalypse is upon us. Anything can happen as things rapidly spiral out of control. But can Max balance obligation, honor, and desire, or has she reached a breaking point?

The first two books in the Horngate Witches saga sketch out an intense storyline filled with raw emotion and adrenaline-charged moments. There’s nothing subtle here, from Max’s constant internal struggle, to the passion she shares with Alexander, to the conflicts they endure. Brutal fights, exploding volcanoes, warring angels, this series starts off strong and keeps revving that engine the whole way. By the time the second book really gets underway, it’s obvious that Francis isn’t afraid to cut loose and shake up her world. Many series seem to rely on a degree of subtlety, maintaining a status quo in which their heroes exist in secret. This one kicks down the floor and sets fire to the carpet and drapes to catch your attention, before throwing the furniture out the window. It’s anyone’s guess as to where things will land when it’s all over, but so far, we’ve seen a lot of change and forward momentum.

Max makes for an intriguing point-of-view character. Conflicted, bitter, resentful, she yearns to be free even as she acknowledges enjoying her superhuman powers and finding a family in the other people at Horngate. Stubborn, forthright, a blunt instrument, she’s a no-nonsense protagonist of the kickass heroine variety, and in this case, it works. Especially when she’s dealing with situations which can give her a run for her money . . .  like unkillable immortal entities, or supernatural disasters. There’s an interesting chemistry between Max and Giselle, with Giselle ruthlessly using Max, and Max alternating between grudging servitude, outright rebellion, and uneasy cooperation. There’s an even more interesting chemistry between Max and Alexander, in which they have to work together, yet they want each other, and it would be a bad idea, and there’s never enough time, and the world is ending, and Max is just too focused on other things. . . . It’s a bit more complex than the standard “girl meets guy, girl beds guy, girl kills things” dynamic that one sees a lot of these days, and it works.

I’ve greatly enjoyed these first two books in the series, and I’m eager to see how things evolve and change in future installments. This is urban fantasy with the volume set on high, rattling the windows and provoking the neighbors, and it’s a nice change of pace from the better-behaved series I usually follow. Give it a shot.

(Pocket, 2009 and 2011)

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