by Cassie Alexander, fantasy (2012)
St Martin's Press, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-312-55339-5
What drew me to Cassie Alexander's Nightshifted is the fact that, one, there is hardly any mention of the hero in the synopsis on the back cover, and two, there are no Immortals, Shifters, Guardians, Defenders, Protectors, Warriors, Brotherhood, or another dire euphemisms for the now oh-so-so clichéd "this is a series featuring twenty woo-woo bohunks sleeping with some woman that is supposed to be you" premise. Oh, and the phrase "falling for a zombie" also has my hands reaching out to this book instinctively as well.
You may have heard of the urban legend of a hidden floor in a medical establishment, accessible only through some secret method known to select few people, where gruesome experiments and such are conducted. In Nightshifted, there is a secret floor at County Hospital, only, instead of gruesome experiments, this is the floor where wounded spooks and victims of these spooks are treated.
This floor, Y4, are run by a staff under the watchful eye of the mysterious beings known only as the Shadows. The Shadows are ancient beings that could have come straight out of a story by HP Lovecraft, as they feed on emotions and sensations, mostly pain, and a very ancient contract allows them to mark County Hospital as their territory as well as feeding ground. And there is no better way to feed than to run a hospital, no? The pain that streams from the patients at a daily basis will be a veritable buffet to these beings.
But the Shadows only watch and make sure that things are run in order, showing up only when their operation is threatened to protect what they consider theirs. The day-to-day operations are carried out a staff of humans, which include our heroine Edie Spencer. A resident nurse, she was, er, "recruited" into service after her brother Jake experienced a near-fatal overdose, in exchange for the Shadows doing something to prevent Jake from being able to get high.
At any rate, Edie is enjoying the perks of being a nurse, with the added bonus of cranky spook patients that can kill you if you are not careful, when she finds herself dragged into the mystery involving a missing vampire girl whose name was mentioned by one of her patients before he died. It isn't long before she's dragged into what seems like a brewing feud between two vampire factions, or Thrones. Fortunately for Edie, she would find allies in unexpected places - allies that include werewolves, shapeshifters (which are more like doppelgängers - beings that can from one human form to another - instead of lycanthropes), and even a zombie (the well-preserved Haiti type instead of the movie sort).
I want something different, and that's what I get here, how nice. Okay, it's not too different: there seems to be a love triangle in the works here, groan, although that could be just cynical old me who seems guys nice to the heroine as potential love interests nowadays. We can all thank Laurell K Hamilton and all those non-stop deluge of urban fantasy romps in the market a year or two ago for that. But there is no overt romance here, just the potential starting up of one (or two). There is sex here, but the heroine treats such episodes in a matter that would seem cavalier when compared to other heroines who would justify every shag scene with poetry about soul mates and what not.
Edie really comes off like an overworked and stressed out nurse here, and the hospital environment here isn't shiny or pretty. This is not a story that glorifies medical personnel as larger-than-life heroes, instead it is actually quite true to life. Doctors are assholes, patients are rarely accommodating, and the hours can be a killer. Edie does show some traits that are mandatory in heroines like her - sarcasm, episodes of ineptness that are still considered awesome by the other good guys in this story, that kind of thing - but she's also close to burning out. She's an interesting heroine, really.
And the story is pretty intriguing. The spooks here are not divided into noble love interests and evil villains, instead they are what they are. The vampires here, even those who help Edie, view humans as blood bags and pawns. The nice zombie eats meat to regenerate his flesh every time his body gets a battering, and it is possible that he is served human flesh during his stay at Y4. These spooks, by embodying typical tropes of the horror genre, manage to be different from the usual romantic urban fantasy spooks where vampires are arrogant aristocrats and werewolves are arrogant territorial blue-collar types. Thus, they are interesting.
The story is fast-paced and it zips quickly to a gory action-packed finale, with very little about it being predictable or familiar. So yes, there is much about this book that is very readable, engaging, and fun.
The only downside, I feel, is how the heroine often screws up, but the secondary characters often coddle her or, in really perplexing moments, praise her for her actions, when in truth she would have bungled up catastrophically if other more capable people hadn't stepped in at the last minute. I don't mind this, in this story at least, because Edie is a human nurse - the newest nurse, at that - and she is way out of her depths here. I actually like how the author doesn't give Edie last moment awesome special powers or have some prophecy declare Edie the most amazing snowflake in the universe. Edie's failures feel like a real consequence of a mere human being thrust into a dangerous scenario involving spooks who love to eat souls, blood, flesh, and other bits that Edie would not want to give up voluntarily.
There are also very few closures here, but that's to be expected from the first book in an urban fantasy series. If you are looking for a standalone book, however, this one may not be what you are looking for. The lack of closures makes it hard for me to give any definitive verdict about the series. But when it comes to this book, I am certainly intrigued by the setting, the characters, and the way the spooks are portrayed. The plot in this one has me convinced that the series is probably worth sticking around for a while. So for what it's worth, I think I will do just that.
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