Review & Giveaway: This Case Is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova

This Case Is Gonna Kill Me
Phillipa Bornikova
Tor Books
Original Edition September 4, 2012
ISBN 978-0-7653-3389-6

When I learned the next book I was going to review was an urban fantasy with vampires and werewolves, I made a bet with myself:  that the gorgeous, busty, wise-cracking, worldly, human heroine would break out the leather before the end of the first chapter (and my more cynical self was betting on this happening on the first page).

I was right about one thing – Linnet Ellery, the heroine of Phillipa Bornikova’s new novel, This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, is human.  Otherwise, I was way off base, and what I could bank on by the end of the first chapter was that I was completely hooked on this book.  It’s fresh, it’s imaginative, it’s urban fantasy that captivates rather than capitulates to the genre.  It’s wonderful.

Set in modern day, the world that Linnet inhabits is very much like our own.  The only real difference is that in Linnet’s world, vampires, werewolves and the elven Álfar “came out” in the 1960s, and have established themselves as an integrated (well, at least it well populated cities) element of society.  The expected stereotypes are still at play:  vampires are cool (literally), cultured and somewhat resistant to change; werewolves tend to irrationality, irritability and use brute strength;  Álfar are beautiful, vain and routinely utilize glamours to enchant those around them.

But what is different in Ms. Bornikova’s treatment of a supernatural environment is that these things are not hidden; the accommodations to this new-ish segment of society may be discreet, but they are accepted.  A wonderful example of this occurs at an upscale Manhattan restaurant:  the server asks the well-to-do vampire patron, “Do you wish to cup, or will this be a natural feeding?” and then presents him with a vampire menu, complete with “thumbnail sized photos of the hosts as well as descriptions of their diets and the nuances of their blood”, and draws a screen around the diners when the vampire actually partakes.

Into this setting, we meet Linnet.  She is the daughter of an elder family of Connecticut, fresh out of law school and starting her new job at Ishmael, McGillary and Gold, one of the “White-Fang” law firms (read: run by vampires, established, rich, traditional and powerful).  She’s human, short (5’1”), cute rather than beautiful, somewhat geeky (by her own admission), with a bit of a stubborn streak, especially when she’s told she can’t do something.  She knows that even though she was head of her class in law school, she only got the job at IMG because of her connections – which include being fostered in a vampire household whose liege lord is old friends with one of the managing partners.

At the bottom of the pecking order, Linnet has only one assignment:  to help on a dead-end probate case that had been in contention for 17 years.  She fears that she will be consistently shunted to the side as more glamorous and savvy associates get the plum assignments – until all of a sudden her life takes an unexpected and violent turn that makes it very apparent that the case she is working on is not all that insignificant after all.

But as refreshing as the subject matter is, equally impressive is how effortlessly Ms. Bornikova opens this world to us, and how seamlessly she confronts and integrates elements against which so many other authors have stumbled.  For example, attempts are made on Linnet’s life but she manages to escape due to unexpected and intervening circumstances.  Often, we as readers have to simply accept these convenient coincidences as the character living a charmed life.  But in This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, that element of luck is acknowledged and questioned – but not explained.  Why?  Because there is simply too much going on to fully explore this yet – and that feels right.  (It also allows with some certainty, that there is going to be a sequel or series with Ms. Ellery, which feels right, too.)

Explication is also seamless.  When pausing at the end of the first chapter, it hit me that I already knew a heckuva lot about about Linnet and her world, but I didn’t remember it actually being explained to me.  It simply flowed from the story and the prose.  Here’s an example:

Deep inside, I felt that primal shiver of fear.  Intellectually, I knew it was unwarranted.  I was in no danger.  I was a woman, and vampires didn’t bite women.  I had also been raised in a vampire household.  I had watched Mr. Bainbridge feed every night from the time I was eight until I graduated from high school.  But that old lizard brain that had kept us safe when we first swung down from the trees was convinced that I was prey and that I was standing way too close to a predator.

Seems somewhat innocuous, right?  But look at what has been established:  that even though Linnet has insider information on vampires (having lived with them for most of her life), she is still an outsider.  That vampires don’t bite women (a definite departure from the standard vampire lore, and not really explored in the book until much later – when it makes sense in the story line to do so – and even then, not deeply), that she has a rather smart aleck way of thinking… and that she easily experiences fear.  Well played, Ms. Bornikova, well played.

The environment of a prestigious law firm is a wonderful setting for building this world, too.  The politics of power and influence are heady enough; add to that the layer of vampiric eternal life and inhuman sensibilities and you have the makings for some mighty nasty games being played.  Color this with insights into the changing views of society (“In fact, the court had contended, that relationship [progeny via bite] was closer than the relationship with children produced by sex and birth, because the act of Making showed such a high level of intent.”), and changing social mores (“…until the Powers started living in places like Muscle Shoals, they were never going to be fully accepted.  They were going to continue to be a source of titillation and dread…”) and you have a wonderful milieu in which to play out the tale of a young woman rising to the challenges that appear before her – even if those challenges include attacks by werewolves, machinations by vampires and a foray into the Seelie court.

The story does get a little frantic towards the end, as the action gets faster and the danger mounts.  There are times when you wonder, “really?” when the bad guys seem to be just a tich more inept than they should be at this stage of the game.  But by now, that’s quibbling.  What we really want is to follow Linnet, for she has become a complete character, with confidences and insecurities and relationships that ring true, even if we do not or cannot share them in our own lives – we still relate to them.  We also know that Linnet will survive (what, with that good luck of hers?), but the bigger question is – who will survive with her?  She will emerge, but we’re pretty sure she won’t be unscathed – what will Ms. Bornikova have to build on?

For surely, this is just the first of multiple volumes in the story of Linnet Ellery.  There are too many ideas whose time had not come, too many questions that were answered but not explored, too many contacts that hold more promise than could be played out in this book.  I’m hoping for a full series rather than simply a sequel, because I think Linnet has a long way to go as she gains her footing the concrete jungle of New York and beyond (and beneath?).  And I’m willing to go every step of the way with her.

This giveaway is now closed. 

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