Wonders never cease. The second Mercy Thompson novel is leagues better than the first one, which was (to me) a pleasant surprise to begin with. And to raise the tally of unexpected surprises even further, the story this time focuses on vampires, probably my least favorite stock villain species in the whole horror food chain. Here's the deal. If you're going to be so uninspired as to give me vampires in the first place, then at the very least, make them ruthless slayers and defilers, with a merciless approach to exsanguination. Soak the walls and ceilings in crimson. Don't make them misunderstood, doe-eyed, politically correct pretty boys who only eat rabbits, for Lugosi's sake! Not being a teenage girl confronting the frightening, tantalizing mysteries of my budding sexuality, the whole temptation symbolism thing just doesn't hit me. If you're undead and you drain the blood of the living, then you're evil, dammit. Just own it.
Kudos to Patty Briggs for ignoring what must have been fantastic pressure to pander to the vampire-romance market and portraying her befanged denizens of the night as adequately nasty. On top of that, the boss monster in Blood Bound is not only a vampire but a demon-possessed vampire sorcerer. Which is piling on, sure. But that's what you're supposed to do in stories like this. Yeah, Briggs has her token good-guy vampire, Stefan, and there's the requisite tension between him and heroine Mercy Thompson that never quite gets sexual. Stefan and the vampire "seethe" to which he belongs tolerate Mercy, partly because she's good at working on their cars, and also because her own paranormal secret identity — as a native American-descended walker who changes into a coyote — has led Adam, alpha leader of the local werewolf pack, to take her under his protection by declaring her his mate (if in name only). Which means if the vampires lay a fang on her, they're looking at war.
The story this time opens in bravura fashion as Stefan persuades Mercy to accompany him on a visit to a vampire who's just arrived in town. In Briggs' world, underworld denizens have their protocols, like the yakuza. This bloodsucker has not only violated said protocols by failing to present himself to the local seethe, but he's already made a nuisance of himself here once before, and he needs a little intimidation.
Trouble erupts once Stefan and Mercy, in her coyote guise, arrive at the cheap hotel where the vamp is staying, and discover that he's killed everyone in the place and that he possesses powers of control he clearly shouldn't. Demonstrating that she's not one to shirk from a grisly horror setpiece, Briggs has the interloper — with the perfectly innocuous name of Cory Littleton — slaughter a terrified maid while Mercy and Stefan, rendered helpless, look on, unable to interfere. Gorehound cred established, Briggs hurls us confidently into her tensest and strongest story yet.
That Littleton is not only a sorcerer but demon-possessed quickly becomes apparent as Mercy and her allies investigate. The question at hand is just who would be insane enough to turn a sorcerer, a practice Littleton had already taken up while still human, into a vampire. What has brought Littleton to the Tri-cities, and why now? Is this some sort of direct challenge to the local seethe machinated by an unknown rival? While violent incidents begin to spike in the Tri-Cities area — some are direct killings by Littleton, others are random violent acts triggered by the demon's mere presence in the area — Mercy is told by none other than chief vampiress Marsilia that she may be the only one who can kill Littleton. The demon's influence is making the werewolves more volatile and unstable than they usually are. And with some local vamps and werewolves gone missing and feared dead (one of Mercy's closest lupine friends is savaged within an inch of his life), it seems only Mercy, with her skinwalker's resistance to vampiric influence, has a shot at slipping past Littleton's guard.
The story is more carefully and craftily plotted than I've made it sound. There are details to the core mystery that Briggs makes the mistake of conveying with too much exposition, as in a long talky scene where Mercy visits Stefan's home and interviews the humans who live there (who are basically his pantry). And I couldn't help noticing that this is twice in two books that Briggs has had Adam abducted and ass-whupped by the villain, requiring Mercy's rescue. If I were a lieutenant in Adam's pack, I might start wondering just how alpha my alpha was. It might be a good time to mount a challenge.
Still, the story is consistently involving as Mercy pieces together all the clues to Littleton's history, and just who may have been trying to use him. Littleton and his demon are far from the only problem Mercy is facing, and the final chapter ramps up the suspense for a hair-raising finish.
Part of me wonders if I should be annoyed that this book turned out as entertaining as it did, because of the risk I might start giving all this paranormal stuff that occasionally possesses my mailbox more attention. On second thought, nah. Briggs' magic isn't that strong. But she has, at least, convinced me to keep tabs on Mercy Thompson's netherworld adventures. And that's a spell to which I'd have sworn I'd be immune.