Smoke and Shadows (Darkest Night, Vol. 1), by Tanya Huff

Last season on Lifetime (and a couple Canadian stations), check there was a program called Blood Ties, for sale that featured a PI named Vicki Nelson, decease her former police partner Mike Celluci, and her vampire sometimes lover, Henry Fitzroy. It’s based on a series of books with “Blood” in the title by Tanya Huff, but they seem to have replaced the book’s character of Tony Foster, street kid and sometimes lover to Henry, with Coreen, who does appear in the first book but not after that. I kind of understand why they did that, because being bisexual would not be cool on network television. In any case, all of that is to say that this book is the first volume in a companion trilogy to the “Blood” books; it contains Henry as a character, but it follows Tony Foster. Tanya Huff is Canadian, by the way, and has written a couple dozen fantasy and science-fiction books.

Tony Foster is a PA for a third-rate Canadian show, shot in Vancouver, called “Darkest Night.” It’s about a vampire detective named Raymond Dark, and the show is heavy on bad dialogue and special effects, and light on actual facts. In any case, he’s learning a lot, because someday he wants to be a director. But then, while on the set, the shadows start acting strangely. Shortly after that, the ‘victim of the week’ (on the show) turns up dead in her dressing room. Other weird things start happening on the set, and eventually Tony asks the special effects wizard, Arra Pelindrake, if she knows what’s going on . . . since she seems to. Why is that? And why are the shadows behaving so weirdly?

I like Tony. I’ve always liked Tony, who is good at wisecracking and making light of situations. It’s also good to catch up with Henry — who, by the way, in the books writes romance novels, not graphic frickin’ novels (it’s called IRONY). At the most basic level, it’s really nice to know that Tony has made something of himself by age 24. The new characters that she’s added, such as Chester Bane (the owner of the production company), Amy (the Goth office assistant), Zev (the orthodoxly Jewish music director), and Lee (the unnervingly attractive costar), are all interesting as well. With a minimum of details (except, perhaps, in Lee’s case), Ms. Huff manages to make the characters come alive. Sure, she relies on some stereotypes (especially about Amy), but the characters really shine.

Ms. Huff has a degree in radio and television, and as such can give a lot of details about the process of making a television show that are a little out of the way. Yes, a lot of us have seen enough ‘backstage’ shows that we know what goes on with the actors, but how often to we get to see the process from the point of view of one of the low men on the totem pole? As a PA, Tony does a little of everything: retrieve stars, run errands, change batteries, hand out script changes, and other things. Of course, this may not exactly be what all PAs do, because we are explicitly told that CB Productions is not interested in hiring more people than necessary (and by ‘necessary’ I mean ‘the union minimum’), but it makes Tony’s day busy.

The mystery in this book is a little contrived. In the “Blood” series, it seemed that all of the mysteries and all of the supernatural/preternatural beings were organic; they made sense in Canada, as much as vampires and demons and Egyptian gods make sense anywhere. This one felt a little bit . . . not so organic. I don’t want to go into why I didn’t feel it was so well-integrated into Ms. Huff’s slightly alternate Vancouver, but I think it’ll be obvious to readers as well. However, I so love the world that she’s set up that, back a couple years when I read this for the first time, I cheerfully read the second and third. I don’t think you have to know all the background with Vicki Nelson in order to enjoy these books, but it can’t hurt. Recommended for fans of humor with their fantasy, who don’t mind things a little dark (death, mostly). 4/5 stars.

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