Book Review: Devil’s Call by J. Danielle Dorn
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Inkshares (July 18, 2017)
Length: 254 pages
From the moment I started reading Devil’s Call, I was rapt. J. Danielle Dorn masterfully draws the reader in with her incredible debut, a horror-fantasy western featuring an emotional and gritty tale of revenge.
Written in the form of a letter from the narrator to her unborn child, the novel chronicles the life of Li Lian MacPherson, also known as Lily, a mixed-race witch who hails form a long line of magically gifted women. It is the mid-1800s when most of America is still wild, unsettled country. Lily was raised by her mother and her coven of aunts and cousins in a roadhouse in St. Louis, but youthful wanderlust soon led to her Texas where she first met Matthew Callahan. Even though she was a runaway and the young soldier was tasked to bring her home, the two of them ultimately bonded and fell in love, got married, and moved out to build a new life together on the Nebraskan frontier. Soon, the couple was expecting a baby.
But that was when the horror came. On a dark winter night, three men entered their home and murdered Matthew in cold blood before riding off without a trace, leaving Lily alone and pregnant in a world that believes her to be responsible for her husband’s death. Turning her grief into rage, Lily sets out on a quest for vengeance, using her magic to follow the killers across hundreds of miles of untamed land. Devil’s Call is our protagonist’s record of this journey, written so that the daughter growing inside of her will one day know the story of her parents and understand why her mother took all the risks she did. Lily also knows there’s a good chance she will not survive to tell her tale in person, for eventually it becomes clear that the mysterious enemy she seeks may not even be natural or human.
Anyone who follows my reviews probably also knows that I have a predilection for western-flavored fantasy, and Devil’s Call is easily the best I’ve read in years. First and foremost I loved Li Lian, a unique heroine who is as fierce in her pride of her magical heritage as she is in her devotion to those she loves. She felt like a genuine character from the start, her words in this journal ringing true to the depths of her experiences and emotions. So moonstruck was I by the tale of how she and Matthew met and fell in love that when his eventual killers arrived and shot him dead right in front of her, the scene and its repercussions damn near broke my heart. Then there is her unborn child, whom Lily frequently addresses in her writing. Every confession and heartfelt piece of advice leaves no question as to her love for her baby, but as more is revealed about the three men she is chasing, it becomes clear why her quest is leaving her torn. Still, everything about her character exudes strength, independence, and a will to fight on. Lily is likeable, believable, and she drives the story in such a way that every page and every step of the way had me cheering her on.
There’s also no way I can talk about excellent characterization without giving mention to Roger Hawking. A butcher with a shady past who ends up allying with our protagonist and lending her support, Hawk became a major character in his own right when the anticipation of learning more about his backstory became nearly as strong as needing to find out how everything will end. The scenes between him and Lily feature some truly excellent dialogue, and the great banter between them while they traveled kept things entertaining, though in truth the plot hardly needed any help in that department; this was a fast-paced story that never had a dull moment.
And of course, I adored the setting. It probably goes without saying, but atmosphere has a lot to do with what makes a good western, and it’s one of the main reasons why I love the genre. I’m also very particular when it comes to what I enjoy. Generally, fantasy mashups are allowed a lot more leeway, but there are still a number of essential elements that I have come to expect—which this novel delivered marvelously, I might add. It stresses the harshness of Lily’s world, where violence and death are always lurking around the corner. And despite the raucous saloons and busy telegraph stations, what we get to see here is a lot more wilderness than civilization. Picture all this and wrap it all up in a light veil of magic, and this should give you a sense of what to expect from Devil’s Call.
All told, this book was a poignant and riveting experience that took me by surprise. Westerns are always fun, and westerns with revenge plots are even better, especially when the struggle between good and evil is portrayed in such a heart-wrenchingly personal and visceral way. Even before I had a chance to start Devil’s Call, I had a strong feeling that I was going to love it—I just didn’t expect how much. So far, it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It had everything I wanted, from a strong and compelling heroine to a mesmerizing fast-paced plot that is guaranteed to engage, captivate and leave you breathless.