Blood Debt by Nancy Straight

Blood Debt - Nancy Straight

Well this was a surprise. Not that you can tell from the cover (unless you're VERY good with constellations), this is a PNR, about Centaurs no less. And it's really pretty good. And for some reason, it really got me thinking, so this is going to be a weirdly long review even for me.


Summary: On her deathbed, 22yo Camille's mother finally gives her the contact info for the father she's never known. Once she gets up the courage to contact him, she finds herself drawn into a family she never knew she had, and discovering her true and sometimes disturbing heritage as a supernatural being, after having been raised as a perfectly normal California girl. Insert love interest, five new brothers and a batshit crazy grandma, and madness ensues.


The mythology is really well handled, and in an intriguing way. Early on in the book, before she knows for sure what she is, the heroine considers if her family might be part of some weird cult, and in fact, religion is a reasonable metaphor for the mythology. On the one hand, we have the story Cami's new stepmother Gretchen tells her, about what Centaurs are, why they were "mistaken" for half horse and depicted that way in early imagery, and (considering they're supernatural beings) it's fairly reasonable. It doesn't bring up being god touched or created by Zeus, or anything about their actual origin. It's kind of the modern non-evangalistic progressive church version. Then we meet grandma Zandra and she's practically the Westboro baptist church. In her version, the centaurs were literally created by Zeus in the fields of Thessaly, in line with the old greek myths, were literally half horse until Zeus modified their bodies and her own families progenitor Chiron is quite literally up there looking at us from the stars in the form of Sagittarius. (oh she's completely evil and a total whackjob too, hence being the Westboro church in this here analogy, rather than your average ordinarly baptist church). It's hinted fairly clearly that neither of these versions are completely correct either, and by the end of the book, that's becoming a plot point. 


I really really like this approach. It's smart, and gives a real sense of worldbuilding, while allowing many many possibilities going forward.


What didn't work for me quite so well, was the societal setup (this might be a bit spoilery, but I'll try not to overdo it.) On the one hand, we have a warrior society where some 80% of children born are male - Gretchen hypothesizes this was a necessary adaptation when perhaps an equally high percentage of adult males fell in battle. However, while the men are strong and capable, the women have an advantage, in various forms of psychic ability and prescience. This gives women a great deal of power, since they are largely responsible for business success, and are of course highly sought after for marriage purposes. It also means they are incredibly sheltered before marriage, and the idea that Cami dated boys at all is unfathomable to her brothers.


Book cover for Blood debt by Nancy StraightSo while nominally a matriarchal society, this power doesn't really manifest until post-marriage. And while the woman chooses her spouse, it's again a nominal choice, when it's made very clear that in fact parents arrange marriages all the time, and while a choice is rarely forced on a girl, a particular boy might well be forbidden if deemed unsuitable. Again the religious metaphor raises it's head, we have the relatively progressive family of Cami's father and brothers, where the boys will be more or less allowed to marry anyone they like if they are lucky enough to win the numbers game and get chosen, vs the old school grandma style of "you're going to marry this guy, and I'm going to physically restrain you until the wedding night so you can't do anything about it".


Naturally Cami rails against all of this - even when she meets a boy who she's utterly crazy for, she wants to date him and get to know him, not announce him as her betrothed on the spot. Again, I liked this, it was the natural reaction. 


Incidentally this whole setup, with mating for life (even widow(er)s don't remarry, ever), being chaperoned at all times etc, leads to a fairly chaste PNR. In fact there's no sexytimes at all until very late in the book, and even those don't amount to more than teenage making out.


There's also a very complicated love square going on (yes I said square, the heroine Cami even calls it that and laughs herself at how ludicrously weird it is), but it's not at all the kind that makes me usually rail against love triangles, where two equally unlikeable guys are up for a TSTL girl. In fact it's kind of the opposite, and it's all in reaction to the crazy societal setup the Centaurs insist on.


Here we've got two very likeable guys, one of whom she's stuck with but doesn't want, and one she does want, but not enough to get stuck with having to marry, yet, and to complete the square the girl who is in love with the first guy, but also stuck - engaged to the second. There's also a bit of insta-lust going on, but it's not insta-love, and Cami actually recognises that and reacts appropriately by telling mister I want you guy that she wants to date him and get to know him, not marry him, no matter what the entirety of Centaur society is going to think about that.

(show spoiler)


On top of all this world-building madness, there is in fact a plot, and it's nuts, and so is Cami's grandmother, who's driving the crazy bus here. The first half of this book is Cami meeting her family, learning about her new society, and trying to figure out her place in it, or if she even wants one. The second half is practically a convoluted Gothic horror, and while that might sound like a bad thing, it somehow works. For me at least. 


Finally there are whole bunch of other subplots involving Cami's friend Daniel, her possibly missing twin brother who may or may not actually exist, a mystery involving yet another cult-like subgroup of centaurs called "the lost herd" and a whole "how exactly, if Centaurs mate for life, did she end up little sister to five big brothers without her stepmother emasculating her father" question. And more to the point, why, since it seems to have been engineered, by who we don't know.


Anyway, there's plenty to like here, and while the set-up of the Centaur society is bizarre, unlike most of these books I've read, Cami's reaction to that is exactly what it ought to be: she hates it, and even if she's more or less stuck with most of it, she sure as heck lets everyone know what she thinks, and that she has no intentions of abiding by every single little rule set down for her.


So overall, I liked this a lot more than I was expecting, even if some of it is completely nuts.  The heroine is likeable and a bit feisty, and although she has the occasional brush with TSTL even she admits that to herself in the aftermath. The Centaur world is entertainingly fresh, and the major plot of this book is wrapped up and instead of a cliffhanger, there's a proper setup to the next book in the series, which I will very likely read.