Author: Caitlin Kittredge
Publisher: Harper Voyage on October 28th, 2014
My thanks to Harper Voyager and Edelweiss for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
The first installment in a fabulous dark urban fantasy series—think Kill Bill with demons and gangsters instead of martial arts—from the award-winning author of the Iron Codex trilogy and Vertigo comic Coffin Hill
Ava has spent the last hundred years as a hellhound, the indentured servant of a reaper who hunts errant souls and sends them to Hell. When a human necromancer convinces her to steal her reaper’s scythe, Ava incurs the wrath of the demon Lilith, her reaper’s boss.
As punishment for her transgression, Lilith orders Ava to track down the last soul in her reaper’s ledger . . . or die trying.
But after a hundred years of servitude, it’s time for payback. And Hell hath no fury like an avenging Ava.
Ava is a Hellhound in the service of a reaper, a nasty job with an even worse contract. Essentially she’s the earthbound muscle for demon creeps: reapers can’t spend much time on earth, so they need Hounds to do their dirty work and collect the souls of the damned. Collecting these souls is easiest in her human form, when Ava can use a reaper-consecrated object called a Scythe (doesn’t have to be an actual scythe) that sucks the souls right outta those poor fools. Sometimes though, the hunt goes badly and Ava has to run them down in her hound form, ripping their souls out with her canines.
Hounds are super strong and fast, but they’re not exactly known for being intelligent or independent. Although she hates him, Ava depends on her reaper’s orders to keep her moving. Without them, she has nothing. It’s pretty bleak. Gary, Ava’s reaper boss, is a total and complete asshole who lives to see his Hounds suffer and amass as many souls as possible to pass on to the big kahuna.
But when a job goes wrong and Ava’s faced with an impossible mission – collect the soul of a man who’s evaded capture longer than she’s been alive – she realizes that she is smart and that she can be independent. She’s either going to kill Gary, or go back to Hell.
Of course, every loner-rogue-badass needs a sidekick, which is where Leonid Karpov, mob prince and necromancer, comes in. Ava and Leo do not meet under auspicious circumstances: I feel compelled to tell y’all that he actually has her strapped to a chair while he tortures her for information. And guess what? These two are so messed in the head that they just shrug it off and form an uneasy alliance afterwards. At first I was not having it, but the pragmatism of it all really suited them. Broken people finding each other, and all that.
They drive across America searching for the one that got away – from Gary, that is. If Ava can find Clint Hicks and take his soul, then she can keep Gary off her heels long enough to end him. There’s only one problem with Clint Hicks’ soul…he doesn’t have one. Turns out he’s not human either – and he’s got a beef with Gary’s boss. Well you know what they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So off Ava, Leo, and Clint go to track down the next baddie.
I feel like I can’t overstate how dark this UF is. You know when people describe a UF as gritty but they really just mean it’s not fluff? Well Black Dog is friggin’ gritty and well-deserving of that little “dark” raincloud. There’s the aforementioned torture, Ava’s grisly takedowns of various marks, a mob-owned brothel, and voodoo. It’s like a UF rule of thumb that voodoo is always gritty.
Gritty UF doesn’t always work for me, but Kittredge’s dark humour and Ava’s lovable screw-up persona had me loving Black Dog from page one. The first 85% of Black Dog (and I mean exactly, by 86% on my Kobo things were taking a turn for the worse) was really good. Not without flaws, but compelling and tightly written. But then the plot started driving past reasonable and took the exit straight into crazy town.
That big boss of Ava’s, the one who rules over Gary? Turns out that boss lady is Lilith – THE Lilith. And of course, she wants to unleash demon spawn on earth and create total chaos. Because that’s what every incarnation of Lilith does. The bizarre hits come quickly after that. We get a not-so schizophrenic woman who actually does see angels and demons, then jump to a very awkward and unnecessary sex scene followed by a super secret genetic lab in Hell. Major characters die and massive secrets about Ava’s specialness (of course) are revealed in a handful of pages.
Thankfully Kittredge saved the ending in the last three pages (cutting it a bit close there, eh?) and prevented Black Dog from ending on a ridiculous note. Although it wasn’t as good as it should have been, Black Dog is still a solid introduction to a dark UF world that I’ll be coming back to in the future. I’ll happily read the sequel, but I remain wary about fallen angels and Lilith(s).