I’ve added a ‘Best Series’ section because these series have been a major source of reading pleasure for me in the past months and because I think they are good examples of why series are such fun to read. ‘Firebrand’ was one of those ‘I’ve read the first, I need the rest right now‘ series. ‘Alpha & Omega’ was a series that started off as ‘OK’ and matured into ‘That was great. Can the next one be as good?’. ‘The Last Policeman’ was a trilogy that started off as quirky and depressing but which, by the third book, had become something emotional and profound.
I stumbled over it Helen Harper’s ‘Firebrand’ series in July, when the weather was hot and I wanted something easy and fun to read. I consumed the first book ‘Brimstone Bound’ in a couple of days and was so taken with it that i read ‘Infernal Enchantment’, ‘Midnight Smoke’ and ‘Scorched Heart’ back to back.
The Firebrand series is set in an alternative London in which supernaturals are known and legislated for parts of the British establishment and tells the story of Emma Bellamy who, in the first book, is two weeks away from graduating as a Metropolitan Police Detective when, for her final assignment she is sent not to cybercrime as expected but to the only-screw-ups-get-sent-there Supernatural Squad, responsible for policing the city’s Vampire and Werewolf populations, together with sundry other supernaturals. It wasn’t the assignment that Emma wanted but she decides to make the best of it. She gets murdered on her first day on the job. After that, things got complicated.
What follows is a series of entertaining supernatural thrillers with good world-building, clever magic systems, engaging characters, wrapped around decent mysteries.
I think some of the energy of the books comes from the fact that they were published so close together. The first three books were published between at monthly intervals from September 2020. The fourth book was published in May 2021. A fifth book, ‘Dark Whispers’ was published this month and is now on the top of my TBR pile.
I started reading ‘Alpha & Omega’, as a kind of filler while I waited for the next Mercy Thompson book to come out. By the fourth book ‘Dead Heat’, that had changed. Although the two series share the same world and timeline and have an overlapping cast of characters, the Alpha and Omega series has developed a distinctive voice of its own. They’re not fillers anymore. They’re books I look forward to because I know that I’ll slip into them completely and learn more each time. The fifth book ‘Burn Bright’ was the best of the series so far.
The Alpha and Omega books feel quite intimate. They’re very focused on Charles and Anna and how they see the world and each other. The two of them are very different and both of them sit just outside the typical range of werewolf supernatural types. Each book has a threat or challenge that must be overcome. There are always violent confrontations and complicated magic but the plot of each book is also always wrapped around a theme or themes. In ‘Dead Heat’ it was about family and what that means when part of the family is supernatural. In ‘Burn Bright’ the themes were about betrayal and what it means to be an outlier in a Pack
The is a decade between the publication of the first book in the series ‘Cry Wolf’ and the fifth book ‘Burn Bright‘. I think one of the charms of the series is seeing the growing strength of Patricia Briggs’ writing and her deepening understanding the characters she has created.
‘The Last Policeman’ trilogy is a wonderful achievement. It considers what happens when all of us find out that we have no future. That, in a few months time, an asteroid is going to strike and the world is going to end. That all we have is now. That there is no later. What makes it unique is that the story is told through the eyes of Hank Palace, a neuroatypical man for whom the end of the world has brought the fulfilment of an ambition. He finally gets to be a homicide detective.
The first book, ‘The Last Policeman‘ was a slow burner that I underestimated when I first read it but which was still glowing in my imagination months later. It wasn’t the plot of Palace trying to solve a murder in a world that’s falling apart that stuck with me. It was the overwhelming feelings of despair and desperation that the book was soaked in that clung to me like gasoline in my clothes.
I left it nearly a year before I read the second book in the series ‘Countdown City’ set seventy days before the asteroid strike. Here’s what I wrote at the time.
“Countdown City” is not a very exciting book. It’s too realistic for that. Excitement is replaced by controlled despair, desperate hedonism, creative denial and a slow but inexorable ending of everything for everyone.</p><p>What kept me turning the pages was Hank Palace. He is a strange man: honest, loyal, law-abiding and almost totally lost in the world he lives in. There were times I wanted to scream at him and slap him and make him wake up and face reality, except I think I prefer his reality to mine. In his place, I believe I would just stop. Hank creates purpose and meaning for himself and does his best to help others. If this makes him Quixotic then I guess that shows that Don Quixote was a nicer man than I am.
One of the things that started to emerge in ‘Countdown City’ was that Hank Palace, the man everyone thinks is odd, the man who sometimes struggles to understand other people’s behaviour, has a firmer grasp on reality than the people around him. His sister, energetic, defiant, bright, and the only person he really feels connected to, is determined to save the world through the work of some secret cabal. Hank is completely incapable of seeing her efforts as anything other than self-delusion.
As the end of the world approaches, it seems that for most of us, self-delusion is what keeps us going.
It was the final book in the trilogy, ‘World Of Trouble’ that prompted me to put ‘The Last Policeman’ series on this list. It was pretty much perfectIn this book, Hank finally starts to crack under the pressure of the impending end of everything. He becomes obsessed with finding his sister and uncovering the truth behind the organisation that whisked her away from him. He spends large parts of the novel deeply distressed and frustrated at his inability to work the problem, find his sister and solve one last case.
Hank knows he’s no one behaving rationally. That the chances of him finding his sister are slim. That his relentless manic pursuit of clues may simply be a distraction from the imminence of the death of the world. But that doesn’t mean he can stop. It simply makes him more desperate and increases his absolute need to know.
My favourite moment was when he came across an isolated family group who had been shielded from the knowledge of the asteroid by their leader. As he has lunch with them, Hank realises that the strange, now unfamiliar thing he is seeing in their behaviour is the simple happiness that comes from knowing that you have a future. He wonders why he’s only able to see that happiness because it has been taken from him.
I won’t talk abut he puzzle that Hank solves except to say that it was very cleverly done and highly emotionally charged. I won’t share the ending either, although it burns bright in my memory. It was perfect. Deeply affecting and yet wonderful in its own way. I’ll remember it for a long time.