SPFBO Finalist Review: Sworn to the Night by Craig Schaefer

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Coffee’s Thoughts

If you’re familiar with the Dresden Files, this reminded me of a more intriguing version of Storm Front, told through the viewpoint of the competent cop Murphy instead of Dresden.

The story opens with an interesting framing device. A famous fantasy author is kidnapped by what seem to be demons. They demand that she tell them what she knows, which becomes the meat of the story.

“Fair warning then: This isn’t some sweet Disney bedtime story. This is a real fairy tale, with death and blood and suffering. And I never promise a happy ending.”

“Tell me how they did it. Tell me how they killed God.”

So yeah, I was intrigued as hell by the prologue.

Sworn to the Night is the convergence of two stories. The first is that of fantasy-book-loving Detective Marie Reinhart. She’s determined to take down the serial killer who’s dismembering sex workers, even when her department warns her to back off. When she continues, she learns that the killings may be linked to Ink, the deadly new drug that’s been running rampant in major cities.

The next story is that of Vanessa Roth. Nessa is a fledgling witch trapped in an unhappy marriage and taking medication for mental illness. She’s trapped in a comfortable prison, married to an extremely wealthy real-estate developer. Over the course of the book, she strives to seize control of her own life.

When Nessa and Marie meet, sparks fly and they fall for each other hard. Unfortunately for them, they’re the unwilling puppets to a greater power. Their romance is doomed to end in misery and death across countless lifetimes, like a dark and twisted fairy tale version of Groundhog Day.

After I finished Sworn to the Night, I learned that this is actually the start of Craig Schaefer’s culminating trilogy that wraps up his other three series (Daniel Faust, Harmony Black, and The Revanche Cycle). Characters from all of these series (including Marie and Nessa themselves) make an appearance. I didn’t know this going in, but I can confirm that this book doesn’t require any previous knowledge to enjoy.

In addition to introducing old and new elements seamlessly into the story, Craig Schaefer has completely sold me on his ability to spin a damn fine yarn. The writing is tight and efficient. The only time the pacing slows is when we jump into the head of one of the many villains, which often recontextualizes what we already know and redefines the path forward.

The main criticism I had was the characterization of Nessa and Marie regarding their relationship. I’m not a fan of “love at first sight” but was willing to accept the implied magical origin of their affair. The part that gave me pause was the sudden reversal in both Nessa’ and Marie’s personalities. Nessa is a timid, downtrodden individual throughout her POV and suddenly assumes a super-dominant type-A persona when we meet her through Marie’s eyes. And Marie flips from the relentless cop in pursuit of justice to a doe-eyed submissive lover. I get that there’s complex psychology and likely magic at play, but it was jarring to read.

There’s also a cult of evil dude-bro homophobes who like to spend their fraternity reunions participating in over-the-top ritual sacrifice. I was sort of okay with this, but it’ll be a divisive point for other readers.

Overall, these were mostly minor criticisms of an otherwise highly enjoyable book. Sworn to the Night is gripping from page one, and one hell of a ride. For fans of audiobooks, Susannah Jones is an excellent narrator. She excels at both male and female voices and adds a remarkable level of emotion to the dialogue. That said, the story alone is enough to convince me to pick up the sequel, and likely Schaefer’s other works as well.

 

Kristen’s Thoughts

It was very well written, there’s some great prose and fantastic imagery here, which made the world I imagined very dark and gritty, and so I was sucked right into the world, but I ended up faltering a lot in the second half of the book because characters I had liked in the first half became profoundly different in ways that I just didn’t grab onto. So, I liked the world that was built up, but in the end… well, I didn’t really like the main characters by the end.

I liked Marie at first, the cop who goes above and beyond even the law to help those she feels are in need. As the story progressed, I found that she had lost a lot of what I liked about her when Nessa and she had started a relationship and Marie became suddenly very submissive to her. I didn’t start out disliking Nessa exactly, but I didn’t ever really like her by the end of the story. There is certainly merit in her overcoming being timid and submissive to become her true dominant and witchy self, but I found that this change was far too sudden for me, and was rather jarring. It wasn’t the instalove that bothered me, as this story presented an actual reason for that, but Nessa was very suddenly ‘you’re mine and you do what I say’ and Marie was suddenly ‘yes, yes, anything for you’. I’ve no problem with a dom/sub relationship in a book, but if that was how it was going to go, I feel like there should have been more lead up to it than there was.

Perhaps there was more lead up to it though, in some of Schaefer’s other novels. This book appears to be the culmination of a few different series by this author (don’t worry, this series doesn’t necessarily require that you’ve read them), in which characters in this series, including Nessa and Marie, have played a part. I think that I probably would have enjoyed this book more had I read the series that came before it. I would probably have understood the characters’ motivations more.

So, all told, I liked it but I didn’t love it. There were definitely some cool and unique ideas presented here, and some lovely writing that told an interesting story, but I just could not like Nessa no matter what I did, and considering how much Marie ends up liking Nessa, I just sort of crinkled my nose at that whole dynamic and ran with it. So it goes, as they say.

Given all that, I’d say that I had 7/10 stars of fun with this one. Not my favorite finalist thus far, but definitely worth the read especially if you like Urban Fantasy with some interesting magical and ritualistic elements.

 

Esme’s Thoughts

My immediate impression of this book was Law & Order SVU meets fantasy. The main character is a detective that’s trying to apprehend a serial killer that is murdering sex workers and dumping their mutilated bodies in dumpsters. There’s a woman who’s gone missing recently, and given the timeline and pattern the serial killer is using, she believes she has just a few days left before she’s killed. This had a very dark tone to it, not only in violence and disturbing scenes, but also because the world itself felt grimey. If I watch too much Law & Order or true crime shows it starts to jade me a bit, and I sit and I wonder, “is everyone really this shitty?”  I’ve read other books by this author and enjoyed them, but I didn’t like this one as much as his other novels. It’s mostly due to the romance rubbing me the wrong way. There’s a lot of controlling and dom/sub aspects to their relationship. Even knowing the reason behind it, which is explained in the book and is better understood if you’ve read the other books – I still didn’t warm to it. This is another one where my personal taste didn’t match up to a well written book. If you like true crime dramas and wish there was some magic in it to make it more interesting – this could definitely be a great read for you. This is another one I had to sit and think about for a long time before coming up with a 7/10.

 

Wol’s Thoughts

This book initially had my attention – while paranormal urban fantasy isn’t usually my jam, Marie was a strong character and her obsessive drive to race against time and save a woman in peril was compelling. Her rapport with her partner and her roommate were well written and the case itself was intriguing, especially once we began to see the bigger picture. However, as the story went on it started to lose momentum and the characters weren’t working for me – the primary villains, a bunch of aging frat boys, irritated rather than intimidated. Marie’s romance with Nessa felt awkward and forced – I’m all about a good romance, but I didn’t really enjoy seeing a competent and smart lead character turn into a pushover whenever she was in the presence of Nessa’s schoolmarmish and unlikeable dom. Had there been some talk of consent between them to roleplay a sub/dom relationship I think I’d have given it more leeway, but in reality the characters just do a complete 180 whenever they’re around one another, and it strays into the wrong side of unhealthy – it’s explained quite thoroughly later on, but by then the bad taste in my mouth had set in. Some characters show up who are part of another series by the same author, but I haven’t read those works and felt little investment in them. This is the kind of book where the issues I had might actually appeal to other readers, however, rather than being due to an unskilled or inexperienced writer. The prose is solid, the author is clearly talented and I’ll check out his other work to see if it changes my perception of this novel, but unfortunately as a standalone it couldn’t hold my interest. 6/10.

 


Judges Individual Scores:

  • Coffee: 8/10
  • Kristen: 7/10
  • Esme: 7/10
  • Wol: 6/10

Final Averaged Score: 7/10

 

 

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