Rough Justice, by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press)
Continuing stories that center on the same cast of characters, advancing their relationships yet complete in themselves, face a number of hurdles. Whether linked short stories, novellas in this case, or entire novels, they must furnish enough backstory and setting to orient the reader. The first episode is in many ways the easiest; everything is new, nothing taken for granted. Often the protagonist explores the world via the plot, taking the reader along. In subsequent stories, the task requires progressively higher levels of finesse to give the reader the necessary history and detail in a smooth, unobtrusive fashion without interrupting the dynamic flow of action. Too much information will becalm the reader in a Sargasso Sea of exposition; too little creates disorientation and puzzlement.
At the same time, each story must stand on its own in terms of plot: inciting event, reversal, tension building to a resolution, and so forth. Not all ends need to be neatly tied up, but the reader should finish with a sense of satisfaction.
Rough Justice succeeds to a greater or less degree in these areas. Two concepts drive the story: a set of characters, avatars of ancient Welsh figures, who lead the Hunt, giant black red-eyed hounds and all, while wrestling with their previous incarnations and present lives (an attorney, a PI, and an ex-biker, all living just outside present day Chicago); and a very nifty murder mystery, complete with twisty turns, devious motives, and red herrings. PI Olivia (“Mathilda of the Hunt”) is on the brink of ordering the deadly finale to her first Hunt when her qualms allow the condemned man to escape. The Huntsmen claim to have an infallible supernatural method of determining guilt according to their “rough justice,” but Olivia isn’t convinced. She and her lover, attorney Gabriel (Gwynn in the old story) investigate what turns into a double murder/coverup/setup. That part is sneaky enough to please anyone who loves a puzzle.
The problems arise with the way the ancient Welsh myths play out in the lives of Olivia, Gabriel, and Ricky (Arawn). There’s an enormous amount of backstory and lore including how these three learned of their past lives, their roles in the Hunt, history and rules for same, the romantic triangle between Mathilda, Gwynn, and Arawn and how it relates to Olivia, Gabriel, and Ricky (or not). Plus the personal stories, relationships, and dark secrets of the three modern characters. This is where Rough Justice succeeds less well.
A certain amount of this setting and history is of course necessary but much more is presented in ways that paralyze the forward momentum of the pot. Although the story opens with the dramatic Hunt, it’s soon bogged down in backstory and long discussions of why the head Huntsman would set newbie Olivia up with a questionable verdict (and the question of whether the Huntsman is manipulating Olivia is never resolved).
On the other hand, Gabriel’s abusive, now-senile mother is being cared for by two women whose roles and relationships were never clear to me – family, professional caregivers, or fae guardians who strangely know little of Gabriel’s childhood? Therein lies the problem of trying to develop novel-length subplots in novella-sized chunks while reiterating everything that has gone before.
The setting and characters are intriguing enough to interest me in searching out the earlier installments of “Cainsville Tales” and certainly looking out for newer ones, especially if they contain similarly fascinating mysteries, but I can’t help thinking this tale would work better as a single-volume novel.