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Review: Secret Ones by Nicole Murphy

secret ones nicole murphy 186x300 Review: Secret Ones by Nicole Murphy

Blurb: Shes from an ancient clan. He has no family. Can they save the world together?

Maggie Shaunessy is used to keeping secrets. Shes a fantastic teacher, but shes also gadda, part of a hidden, powerful race and she has a habit of annoying the wrong people.

Until Lucas Valeroso meets Maggie, he had no idea what awaited him: super-human powers, a smart and beautiful woman interested in more than unlocking his new abilities and, above all, a sense of belonging.

But dark ambition and dangerous bigotry are emerging in the gadda ranks. Lucas?s new family might cast him out before hes even truly found his place. And Maggie must work with new allies to find and retrieve a missing artefact before the entire world is changed for all time.

Vampires. Werewolves. Alpha males. Women in leather trousers. Regrettable tattoos. Snark. These elements are the mortar that binds so much of today's urban fantasy, joining together a vast body of work whose component pieces are, like a Monet, indistinguishable if one steps back a little. But while this interchangeability is great news for graphic design teams, who can simply overlay a series of different titles over the exact same cover image to infinity (and beyond), it's less so for the reader, particularly if one is not especially disposed to blood-sucking and hairy wolfy things. However, there are other, lighter, influences on the genre, and thanks to these, every now and then a book is released that doesn't quite fit within the vast mosaic of vamps and weres. Nicole Murphy's debut, Secret Ones, is one of these.

Murphy has created a world in which humans unknowingly live side-by-side with the Gadda, an ancient race that can draw immense power from the earth, and wield it with impressive facility. The Gadda necessarily live a secretive existence, and are fiercely protective of their customs and way of life. As such, they tend towards lives that are removed, both physically and culturally, from those of humans. In fact, careful measures to ensure that these worlds do not collide are taken, a point that is'illustrated when Maggie Shaunnessy, a young Gadda woman with humanist sympathies, is sent into temporary exile for incorporating the stories of the Gadda into a work of fiction. While she considers this an innocent enough act, her Gadda brethren feel otherwise, and she is sent back home to her family in Australia, where she takes up an administrative position at a university owned by her grandfather.

Enter Lucas Valeroso, bad boy mad scientist with a heart of gold. After a stellar career in the US, Lucas has been offered a position at the very same university at which Maggie now works. He accepts the role with some relief, seeing it not only as a way to advance his already impressive, but also as a means to allow him to escape from the strange and cruel Holly, who has over the years expended rather a lot of effort blackmailing poor Lucas over his sordid past. Things are looking rather good when Lucas arrives in small-town Winton'particularly when he catches sight of Maggie, with whom he is instantly smitten. But unfortunately, all manner of odd things begin to happen, and Lucas suddenly has to come to terms with the fact that not only is he a Gadda, and one most definitely from the wrong side of the tracks, but that someone is using all manner of arcane power to threaten both him, and Maggie's family.

While Secret Ones is a competently written novel overall, it is a first novel, and in places the execution does feel somewhat uneven. Probably the weakest part of the book is its beginning, where we are treated to a prologue that ties in to the book only much later on, and even then in only a very tenuous fashion. In addition, given the huge emphasis placed on keeping the worlds of the Gadda and the humans separate, it seems odd that Maggie would write a novel about the Gadda customsor that this would not be found out until she submits her thesis. As it is, Maggies misdemeanour seems to take place simply so that Maggie can be sent back to Australia to her family. However, while I understand that this serves to emphasise the distance between the Gadda and human worlds, it does seem strange that people are constantly jetsetting back and forth between Ireland and Australiaone cant help but feel if the narrative would feel smoother if everyone just stayed put.

However, its certainly not all bad news. Murphys strengths are in drawing richly imagined settings, and in creating characters with whom the reader feels an immediate affinity, and she gives her all in both of these aspects. It's all but impossible not to like Maggie and Lucas and the friendly familiarity they both ooze, and although their sudden declaration of love for each other feels a bit hasty (slow down, children!), one cant help but feel a little sappy when theyre around. In addition, while'though some of the minor characters do lean towards being archetypes, they still feel believable, and the reader almost feels part of a family (something seen in work by Charles de Lint and Paul Brandon, whose books Secret Ones recalls somewhat).'There are a few exceptions to this, however: Holly, the foundation-slathered would-be blackmailer is quite a flimsy character, and her presence seems entirely unnecessary: one can't help but wonder whether Lucas's shady past could not have been addressed in a more appropriate and believable manner. Similarly, I had a hard time swallowing the motivations (and peculiar persistence) of a bloke who travels all the way to Australia to profess his love to Maggie in some sort of post-coital fervour (particularly given the highly clinical descriptions of their one-off romp in bed!).

While readers who read largely for characters and setting (as I do) will likely be quite satisfied with Secret Ones, plot-oriented readers may find'that there is not a great deal urgency to'the narrative. While this can be a common issue with trilogies, I couldn't help but feel that this book was one rather long prologue to a meatier forthcoming tome. For example, we're introduced in the prologue to a book thief called Asarlai who has apparently stolen some vastly important volumes from the Gadda library. However, Asarlais impact on the plot is minimal. So minimal that I had to flick back to figure out who she was when she popped up again at last. All up, shes only given a few scenes worth of air-time (page time?), and remains rather nebulous and inchoate as a result. This makes her feel very much a peripheral threat, if she could be deemed a threat at all, and this, when set against the random assortment of monsters that Maggie defeats without raising so much of a threat, makes it difficult to believe that the Gadda are under any immediate threat. The Gadda make everything so easy: Maggie excels at everything she attempts, as does Lucas, and, in fact, every single one of the supporting characters. As such, its difficult for there to be much tension when monsters are busted as easily as dustbunnies with a Dyson. There are, however, threats of an internal schism within the Gadda, and one has to hope that this is the case, as it seems that pitting them against each other is the only way that things will become gloriously messy (and don't we all love messy!).

While Secret Ones doesn't offer the sort of high-concept plot readers may be used to in these sorts of novels, it is a relief to read something that doesn't re-tread the never-ending footsteps of standard urban fantasy faire. Murphy offers up some characters you'll enjoy spending time with, and an intriguing take on the 'secret clan' concept. I'll be interested to see where she takes the second in the series.

200px 3.5 stars.svg  Review: Secret Ones by Nicole Murphy

With thanks to Harper Voyager for the review copy.

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