Sunday 1 April 2012

CBR4 Books 29-31: "The Ash trilogy" by Shiloh Walker

Total page count: 1177 pages
Date begun: March 17th, 2012
Date finished: March 24th, 2012

The Ash Trilogy:
1. If You Hear Her - 3 stars
2. If You See Her - 4 stars
3. If You Know Her - 3.5 stars

If you're only interested in romance, these can be read independently, as all three books contain a couple getting together at the end. However, all the couples get together while investigating a brutal murder and trying to catch a devious rapist/serial killer, and the killer's identity is not revealed until midway into the third book. So if you want an answer to the mystery/suspense part of the series, you're going to have to read all three.

There are three couples in these books, and most of the major players are introduced in the first book. We get points of view from the serial killer (who's clearly been going undetected for years), but all we know is that he is a local in the little town of Ash, Kentucky and that he lives a normal life, unsuspected by all around him, when he's not kidnapping, raping and killing young women. In the first book, his plans start going wrong. One of his victims briefly escape, and while he initially enjoys the brief diversion of hunting and then recapturing his victim - the woman's screams as she's running through the woods are overheard.

Lena Riddle wakes up and hears the terrified woman screaming. Lena is blind, and living alone though, so she obviously can't see anything to help the local sheriff's department. They look in the woods close to her house, but it's been raining, and there's no trace of anything suspicious. While Lena is blind, she's certainly not powerless. She lives alone with Puck, her trusty seeing-eye dog, and works as a chef at the local inn. Because she was woken up by the screams, several men at the sheriff's department want to brush off the incident as a dream.

The only one who seems to believe her is Ezra King, who's in Ash on leave from the State Police. A few months ago, he was nearly killed by a gunshot wound to the leg. The wound still pains him, but not as much as his missing memories from the night when he discovered that his partner (and sometime lover) was dirty, and he ended up killing her in the gunfight that nearly finished him off too. He and Lena went on one date, before Ezra realised he was still too messed up by his past, and certainly not ready to deal with the strong feelings he's feeling towards Lena. When he overhears her at the sheriff's department (he's there reporting some vandalism on his property), he can tell that she's distressed, and when investigating around his properties, all his instincts tell him that something is off in town, and he decides to help Lena get to the bottom of it. In the course of investigating the screams Lena heard, the two grow closer, and start a relationship.

The second couple, who find each other over the course of the second book, are Hope Carson and Remy Jennings. Hope is introduced in the first book, coming to Ash to help her (and Lena's) friend Law Reilly, as his personal assistant. Law has lived in Ash for nearly a decade, but hardly anyone in town knows what he really does for a living. They know that he's wealthy, prefers to keep to himself, lives on the edge of town and doesn't seem to go to work like regular people, but only a select few know that he's a famous crime writer. Law, Hope and Hope's ex-husband Joe Carson grew up together, and Law blames himself for not realising that Joe was bad news. Joe and Hope got married shortly after high school, and because she and Law lost touch, he never found out how abusive and controlling Joe got. As the star football player, later a police officer and a golden boy in their little town, no one believed Hope's side of the story, and she was driven to try to commit suicide and later involuntarily institutionalised by her husband, before finally managing to escape him and get a divorce.

Law is the only man she trusts, and she's alone in his house (he's away to attend an author colleague's funeral) when the killer decides to shift suspicion onto Law by dumping his most recent victim's corpse in Law's shed. Unaware of Law's absence (fully alibied because he's surrounded by lots of credible witnesses) and that Hope witnesses his dark clad form dumping the body, the killer's plans are further complicated, rather than helped by this turn of events. He decides to get rid of Hope and Law, by making it look as if the two killed a sheriff's deputy, then Hope beat Law to a pulp with a baseball bat, and proceeded to slash her own wrists. Unfortunately for the killer, Ezra and Lena find both Hope and Law before either of them die.

Remy Jennings is one of two District Attorneys in Ash, brother of the Mayor, related to at least a third of the town, and Ash's golden boy in the way Joe Carson was in Hope's home town. It's his job to prosecute Hope, but it quickly becomes obvious that Hope in no way could have carried out the attack, but her medical records show that she has a history of mental instability and suicide attempts, so it's not that easy for her to convince the sheriff and Remy that she didn't try to kill herself. Remy's biggest problem is that he was instantly attracted to Hope the first time he saw her in town. Now she's either the aggressor, or victim, in one of the most complicated cases ever in Ash. Getting involved with her would be deeply unprofessional, and it's obvious that she has a lot of emotional baggage.

The third book centres on Law Reilly and Nia Hollister. Nia is the cousin of the poor woman who was found in Law's shed. The first time the two meet, Nia (having heard wildly incorrect rumours in town) shows up on his doorstep with a gun, determined to get vengeance for her beloved cousin. She threatens Law and Hope, but almost instantly realises that neither Hope nor Law had anything to do with the abduction, abuse and murder of Joely Hollister. Law and Nia (like all the other couples in this trilogy - I suspect there must be something in the Ash water supply) feel an instant attraction to each other, but don't meet again until about nine months later, when Nia arrives in town convinced that her cousin's killer isn't really dead (as it was meant to look at the end of book 2). She's put her career as a photo journalist on hold to investigate her cousin's death, and finds similarities to her cousin's murder when reading about a victim in Chicago. As this took place six months after the killer supposedly was killed in Ash, it may mean that the killer is still on the loose, and that the inhabitants of Ash are completely unaware of the fact. Her explosive chemistry with Law ignites as soon as she's back in town.

Ezra King is now sheriff in town, and married to Lena King. Hope and Remy are engaged to be married, and Law is trying to be happy for his friends. Neither Law nor Ezra were entirely happy with the solution presented to them by the sheriff's department at the end of book 2, but until Nia shows up with new evidence, there is little they can do. The killer, thinking he's now safe and clear, has realised that he needs to stop his "game" for the foreseeable future, as he only got away through pure luck last time. He's not at all happy to see Nia back in town, poking her nose into places it doesn't belong. He can't remove her, as her disappearance would make everyone suspicious, and has to settle for trying to drive her out of town. However, his luck is about to run out, and the three couples join forces and resources to finally unmask and identify him.

In many ways, I think Walker's Ash or If you trilogy work better as suspense novels than romances. All three romances, while different, are a bit too similar. All three couples more or less fall in love at first sight, even in the unlikely case where Nia points a gun at Law, and Hope, and instead of being afraid or angry, Law's reaction is pretty much being turned on. It requires more suspension of disbelief than I am comfortable with. I also think Walker could have introduced more suspects with regards to the killer. It turned out to be pretty much exactly who I thought it was, without having really given the matter any conscious thought. In a suspense story, it would've been a bit more satisfying if we'd had more suspects and red herrings.

Hope and Remy's story was my favourite of the three. Everything from the introduction of Hope into the story and her past and vulnerability, as well as the way she develops, learns to trust her own strengths and abilities was really well done, and I just liked her and Remy as a couple more than the others. This trilogy was a perfectly diverting read, but nothing mind-blowing, and I certainly don't agree with the many superlatives I've seen it garnering on various review sites on the Internet. 3 stars to book 1 and 3, and 4 stars to book 2.

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