Red-Headed Stepchild by Jaye Wells (Book Review)

Earlier this year, in January, I set myself a very particular reading challenge. The goal of this reading challenge was to read through 25 different SFF series (link), from across the genres and across times. To be specific, I wanted to read through at least 12 of these various series, to get a start on them. I hit that mark sometime in July, with Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy #1: The Assassin’s Apprentice (review). As of last month, I added another notch to that reading challenge by reading Jaye Wells’ first Sabina Kane novel, The Red-Headed Stepchild.

Throughout the year, I’ve read all sorts of novels, good, bad, decent, meh, everything. Fortunately, Jaye’s novel proved to be one of the better ones. Urban Fantasy wasn’t all that big a genre for me until late last year and since then I’ve had a lot of fun with the genre. For me, The Red-Headed Stepchild stands as one of the better examples of the genre, a really fun and interesting story throughout, with a hell of a lot things to recommend itself.

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In that front-cover featured endorsement, Kat Richardson says that this book is “brassy, sassy, and hip”. I find myself in full agreement with that assessment. The Red-Headed Stepchild reminds me very strongly of all the positive things I found in Amanda Carlson’s debut from last year, Full Blooded, which featured a female werewolf protagonist and was an exhilarating ride from start to finish. The same holds true for this book as well. Of course, Amanda’s novel came out just last year, while Jaye’s novel has been around for a while, but all the same, I found them both to be very similarly exciting and amazingly written books.

The story starts off with Sabina Kane, a vampire who works as an assassin for her grandmother, kill one of her best friends. She has been told that this friend has turned traitor and is plotting to overthrow the power of the Dominae, three ancient female vampires who rule over the vampire clans. From the get-go, Jaye presents her protagonist with a moral dilemma that also ties into her sense of duty and the level of trust she has in her grandmother and the Dominae. It was a fantastic start to the novel. It gets you in the protagonist’s head right off the bat, and starts the story with lots of tension and drama.

The way that the story unfolds after this point, this serves as an excellent teaser for what drives, motivates and inspires Sabina. She believes in her friends and she trusts them. But above all that, she trusts in her own blood, in her grandmother. It was her grandmother after all who took her in despite her mother’s mistake: falling in love with a mage and the two of them consummating their love, resulting in Sabina’s birth, which is somewhat of a big taboo for both vampires and mages. This in itself springboards a lot of the conflict in the novel, especially since Sabina’s mixed heritage is a sticking point for her, one that has caused her to face a lot of bias over the years, even now when she has proven herself as a capable assassin and a devoted follower of the Dominae.

This is a defining element of Sabina’s nature, something that is reinforced throughout the novel, and becomes a plot point in and of itself as the story goes on, because the being that she is sent to kill next is a half-demon, half-vampire who is putting together an army of other mixed-breeds and even some pure-breeds in his quest to overthrow the Dominae.

Sabina isn’t the only character of note in the novel of course. She is surrounded by some really well-built characters, some of whom happen to fall into what I’m (somewhat) coming to learn are tropes of the urban fantasy genre.

We have Sabina’s hot and sexy love interest, the powerful mage Adam who is sent to bring Sabina to the safety of the Mage clans, in order to reconnect her to that side of her heritage, her family. This is largely a subplot in the novel, but I found to be one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. It helped raise the question of whether or not Sabina has been lied to her all her life by her grandmother, whether all she has been taught over the years concerning her family was a lie or not.

Then there’s Clovis, the vampire-demon that Sabina has been sent to kill. He was an absolutely vile character, in a way that most urban fantasy villains appear to be. He is depraved and he is ruthless. And there’s a brief pseudo-romantic dynamic between him and Sabina, a consequence of Sabina’s mission to get close to Clovis and then assassinate him as per her orders. His motivations weren’t always wholly clear to me, and that took away some of the fun of the novel, but largely, he did provide some great moments.

There’s Vinca, a faery, who is one of the followers of Clovis and who becomes one of the most enjoyable characters as the novel goes on. She is one of the reasons why there is so much humor in the novel, aside from Sabina’s own sass, and the hilarity that another minor character brings to the story. Vinca also acts as a sort of seer, given that she is a faery and in the world that Jay has created, faeries have prophetic powers. That sets up an interesting dynamic between Vinca and Sabina, one that stays strong all through the end of the novel.

And that brings me finally to Giguhl, a demon of the higher planes who is sent to kill Sabina early on in the novel, but ends up becoming her pet instead, that too as a cat. Just that situation makes me laugh. Jaye squeezes that entire situation for all its worth and Giguhl becomes hands-down the best character in the novel from a humor point of view. Every scene he was in was a joy to read, packed to the brim with condescending humor and a ton of hilarity otherwise. Especially when he loses all his cat-hair. That was a premium touch.

The novel raises a lot of personal questions like that for Sabina, and it goes to great lengths to answer as many of them as can be answered. However, there aren’t any easy answers, not by a long shot, and Sabina goes through some pretty tough challenges to figure out everything for herself.

All the revelations that are introduced in the novel flow out naturally from the narrative. And they make some great reading throughout. Particularly the hard truths about both of Sabina’s families, her vampire and mage heritages. Additionally, Jaye packages it all together with some great pacing, with never a boring moment throughout. Everything that is introduced in terms of world-building has a place in the novel, and none of it is forced at all. That’s something I really enjoyed. Jaye tells a really focused story, start to finish.

For a debut novel, I think this was a really great effort, and The Red-Headed Stepchild definitely stands as one of my favourite novels that I’ve read this year, beyond a doubt. It has some really great characters, some really good mysteries, and a great ending that promises lots of good things to come with the sequel The Black-Haired Mage, just the title of which gets me excited already.

Rating: 8.5/10

Posted on September 21, 2013, in 2013 Reading Challenge, 2013 Writing Challenge, Book Reviews, Challenges, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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