Dead Letter Day is the most recent installment of the Messenger Series by Eileen Rendahl. This is an urban fantasy/paranormal series which is vastly entertaining and which does just enough new things with tropes to feel fresh.
I'm horribly biased when it comes to Eileen Rendahl, because I met her at a library fundraiser and now we're Facebook friends, dont'cha know. So I was nervous about reviewing her books, because if I hated them it would be…awkward. Fortunately, I love this series! There are three books in the series so far and although this review is officially of Dead Letter Day, all of the books earn some variant of a B grade. Dead Letter Day came out in March 2013 and is the newest release. It's easiest for formatting purposes if I pick one book to review, but consider this to be a review of the series as a whole.
The messenger series involves the adventures of Melina Markowitz. Melina is able to see supernatural beings. These beings manage to co-exist with humans and with each other, but not without a lot of tension, so humans like Melina have to be “Messengers”. They take messages back and forth between werewolves, vampires, and a whole range of less famous supernatural beings, and if they don't, something bad happens to them (in Melina's case, she tried going on strike as a teen and ended up with magically horrible acne – it's better now). Melina's policy is not to interfere with events but simply to deliver messages, but when one message appears to be especially lethal, she decides to find out what's going on and how to stop it.
The first book, Don't Kill the Messenger, is the roughest (in terms of writing quality, not in terms of harrowing events), although it's still wildly entertaining. It's set in Sacramento, California, which is where I live, and every other page has a specific place reference. Melina can't pull off the freeway without the exit being named. The name-dropping is constant, but also accurate. For instance, it's true that if you want a great breakfast in Sacramento, you need the French toast at Tower Cafe. This was great fun for me, but I wondered if the frequency and specificity of the references would be distracting to other readers. Also, the plot is a little slow, because the world is being set up.
Having said that, I liked the world building and the characters. I liked that while Melina is a terrible communicator, Ted is a great one, who just lays it all out there every time. I believe Ted's super power is cutting through Big Misunderstandings that could otherwise consume the entire series. And I loved this line in a way that only a Sacramentan can: “Anybody who lives in Sacto can tell you that nothing good happens at night on Fruitridge road”. Sing it, sister.
The second and third books, Dead on Delivery and Dead Letter Day, are more confident. The name-dropping is less frequent, but there's enough of it, combined with good descriptions over all, to give the books a strong sense of place. The plots move better too, since the groundwork for the series is already laid. There's enough exposition in each book so that you can jump in with any book, but not so much that it's annoyingly repetitive. Each book is wrapped up nicely. It's clear that this is a series, but we aren't left dangling off any cliffs.
This isn't the most original series on earth, but it has a fresh feel to it due to being well grounded in an actual place, and due to twists on the familiar tropes. It's a bit of a misnomer to call this 'urban fantasy' given that it takes place in downtown Sacramento, which, frankly, isn't that much of a city (it's a great place but hardly a metropolis) plus the suburbs, the Delta, and the foothills. My bias towards Sacramento aside, I liked the shift to a more varied setting than the big city. A hinted love triangle gets resolved pretty quickly, and so does the whole “I must conceal what I am from everybody in my life” idea. And when a character who loves a vampire realizes that he's been sneaking into her room to watch her sleep, she doesn't think it's romantic. She thinks it's horrifying.
Other than the fact that all the events happen where I live, my favorite thing about this series is that the characters keep moving forward from book to book. I hate it when a series in any medium tries to extend its lifespan by making the characters forget everything they learned and restart their relationships at the start of each new book. Melina is a stubborn person and her learning to trust others is a slow process, but she does seem to make steady progress, and the relationships that she has with others (and that others have with others – there's a strong supporting cast) move forward as well. It's nice to see characters develop in realistic ways – slowly sometimes, and not always in the direction you expect, but clearly affected by the events that they take part in and by the other people around them.
Which leads me to the “strong romantic elements.” The first book sets up a bit of a love triangle involving a vampire doctor and a human cop. This is wrapped up pretty quickly. Alex, the vampire, has that sexy vampire thing goin' on, but Melina never expresses any serious desire to want a relationship with him and he doesn't seem seriously interested in a relationship with her, although he clearly cares about her. Mercifully this hinted triangle is done with by the end of book one – it's well done while it lasts but I personally get tired of triangles quickly.
The relationship with Ted, the human, is much more interesting and progresses quite nicely. I like Ted, and he is a great partner for Melina. I mentioned the communication thing, and he's also patient, honest, and as the series progresses, he becomes a little more layered. He's not so perfect that he's boring. There's also a strong cast of supporting characters who have their own relationships happening. So I wouldn't call this a romance series, but it does have enough romance in it to keep someone like myself, who likes some romance thrown into everything, very happy.
As I said before, this is not a neutral review. I'm biased because I like the French toast at Tower Cafe, and I'm biased because I like Eileen. But I do think that even an un-biased reader will find this to be a solid, fun, exciting addition to the urban fantasy/paranormal series line-up, and the books keep getting better as the series goes on. Am eagerly awaiting the next book!