Deep Down by Deborah Coates (Tor, March 2013)-Hallie Michaels finds herself settling back in to the day to day chores involved in the upkeep of her father’s South Dakota ranch. It hasn’t been long since she solved her sister’s murder and feelings of restlessness are starting to creep in. When she encounters a dark shadow one morning, which knocks her to her feet and sends a shooting pain through her head, the first inklings of dread begin to take hold. Hallie can see ghosts, which she assumes is a side effect of her death, and subsequent resuscitation, in Afghanistan while on a tour of duty with the Army. However, she was hoping she’d get a break since solving her sister’s death. Yeah, not so much. When she gets a call that an elderly neighbor, Pabby, needs her help, she arrives at her ranch to find it surrounded by black dogs, which only she and Pabby can see. These dogs are harbingers, indicators that death is near, but Pabby doesn’t plan to go quietly. Pabby wants Hallie to help her find a way out, and Hallie agrees to do her best. It also seems like one of the dogs has latched on to Hallie, making for not unpleasant, if odd, company.
Meanwhile, Hallie continues to try to get closer to the enigmatic young deputy Boyd Davies, and although it’s obvious that he’s attracted to Hallie, and cares about her, something is haunting him, holding him back. Turns out the haunting is very real, and has something to do with Boyd’s past. In fact, a rogue reaper is on the loose, and Boyd seems to be his target. Hallie’s determined to help not only Pabby, but Boyd, whether he likes it or not. As magic gathers and dark forces begin piercing the thinning veil between the living and the dead, Hallie may have to make a journey that may save Boyd’s life, but end her own.
If you read my review of Wide Open, the first in this series, you know how much I fell in love with Deborah Coates’s effortless writing and her no nonsense heroine Hallie Michaels. The South Dakota landscape is as much of a character as Hallie and Boyd, and the subtle horror will make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And in this series, subtlety is key, and partly why I love it so much. You won’t find graphic violence and gore here, but you will find utterly absorbing storytelling and more atmosphere that you can shake a stick at. Creeping dread and surreal scenes are an integral part of the author’s style, and superior dialogue and an eye for the little things that make us human round out one of the best contemporary fantasy series out today. If magic realism, atmosphere that constantly crackles like a brewing thunderstorm, and just plain superb writing, is your thing, you’re in for a treat. There’s a reason Wide Open was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Deep Down appeared on next year’s ballot.