Dead Man Walking (Dante Valentine, book 2), by Lilith Saintcrow

Apparently, yes, it’s her real name. It’s almost as if her parents wanted her to write Gothy urban fantasy. (I wish my parents had wanted me to write Gothy urban fantasy.) She has a pretty impressive website and a large back catalog, including a novel (related to this one) serialized on her website. (That novel is adults-only, it should be mentioned, and entitled Selene.) Prior to this, I’d reviewed the first book in this series (here), the first book in a different series (the Watchers; here), and her lone experiment in high fantasy (to my knowledge; here). All of the books feature incredibly strong female characters with significant past hurts, and all have quite innovative settings and uses of magic.

Since this is the second book, I’ll cut here. After Japhrimel, the Fallen demon, gave her a significant portion of his power and then died, Dante (Danny) Valentine has been . . . different. First, different physically (she’s impossibly, perfectly beautiful now); second, different in terms of power (she’s still a Necromance but she’s a lot more powerful); third, different mentally (she’s still suffering a lot from his death). Now, however, psions in the town are being killed in horrific ways, and Gabe (the detective on the case; also Danny’s friend) needs her help. Besides, what better way to conquer grief than work? Except when the work brings up old childhood traumas that may be worse than the grief . . .

A good deal of this book is delving into the depths of Danny’s subconscious. Not only do we get a lot of the grief from Japhrimel’s death, it’s what charges the pain behind all the other events in the book. The grief from her old mentor’s death seems stronger because she’s in an emotionally fragile state; anything that may happen to any of her other friends seems significantly worse, as well. On top of all that, she’s forced to confront the specter of her abusive child and teenage years at the school for orphaned or otherwise disadvantaged psions. I was torn between admiration of her overall strength, and riding just on the edge of disbelief that she could handle all this and not turn into a vegetable.

On the other hand, while I found what happened during her childhood shocking and horrible, it did not strike me in any way as an unrealistic extrapolation of how child abuse might happen in Ms. Saintcrow’s near-future world. Psions are in so many ways second-class citizens, because of their varied powers: they have tattoos on their faces showing their specific kind of power; they are universally distrusted (even between various types of psions); the poor students are treated a step better than slaves. It’s kind of an interesting reflection of our world, if one uses the psions as an allegory for visible minorities. The adults are distrusted; the poor children almost never have an opportunity to improve themselves; the ‘normals’ find them quite wonderful when they’re necessary, but otherwise they wish they would disappear.

The mystery story was actually fairly well-crafted; all the pieces fit together well, and I found the locked-door aspect of the plot itself (a lot of shields were blown up from the inside) an interesting twist on an old classic. Those who like some plot with their angst are going to find this mystery a bit fascinating. Obviously the main thrust of the story is Danny herself, her emotional development, and her interpersonal relations, but unlike a lot of urban fantasy stories, I found the mystery in this one satisfying. I’d definitely recommend it to urban fantasy readers, but not without reading the first volume — too many things won’t make sense. Ms. Saintcrow has left enough open threads in this book to make reading the next volume nearly mandatory. 4/5 stars.

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