Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dark Oracle

Dark Oracle, by Laura Bickle (writing as Alayna Williams), is an urban fantasy with a strong element of suspense, not too unlike her other series.  Tara Sheridan is an oracle with a gift for reading the Tarot.  Her mother had the same gift, and both were members of a secret society, Delphi's Daughters, who trace their "lineage" back to the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece.  Tara, however, who was initiated as a child, wants nothing to do with the Daughters.  Instead, she uses her talents secretly to work with the government as a criminal profiler.  One case she was working on went badly for Tara, and she has since been living as something of a hermit, hidden away in a cabin in the woods with no one but her cat for company.  

She gets pulled back into that life when an old friend of her mother's (who is also one of the Daughters) comes to ask Tara for her help in an investigation that is of great interest to them, for reasons she doesn't really go into.  Tara is reluctant, but ends up agreeing to help.  The Daughters have connections in some very high places, so she gets called in as a consultant to assist Agent Li in New Mexico, where a clean-up crew is already hard at work on the scene of an explosion at a government lab in the desert.  The man responsible, the physicist Dr Magnusson, is gone without a trace, but the agency and the military are both very interested in finding him.  So interested, in fact, that Magnusson's daughter, herself a graduate student in physics, is also now a target.  Tara and Agent Li soon find that if they want to protect themselves and Cassie Magnusson as well, they will need to put aside their differences and trust each other.  In doing so, Tara also finds that as reluctant as she was to take on this case, and as eager as she is to be done with it once more, it may not be as easy to walk away this time.


After finishing both Embers and Sparks, I hunted for Dark Oracle every time I set foot in a bookstore.  And I actually really liked this one almost as much as I enjoyed those.  It doesn't necessarily have a huge urban fantasy feel to it - it seemed more like mystery/suspense to me, with a heavy mystical element.  But that is fine with me.  I fell in love with urban fantasy, yes, but before I came across this  genre, I was already a big fan of mystery and suspense.  Combine the two, and I am more than content with the outcome.

I love the idea of the Daughters of Delphi, and I won't lie, I kind of wish it were a real thing and that I were an initiate.  The members are all oracles, though their talents vary widely.  Tara and her mother work with Tarot divination, but the current Pythia (basically, the group's leader) is a pyromancer, and another member who features prominently in the story is a geomancer.  Though not quite like the geomancers you come across in World of Warcraft, which is kind of where my mind kept straying to when the practice was brought up.  Bickle's geomancy is more realistic, in that the character doesn't rain fire down upon anyone or things like that.  It involves the reading of ley lines and divination using crystals and runes...things like that.

Once again, I got the feeling that a lot of research went in to the writing of this book; the science behind the dark matter is very interesting, and seems sound.  I am no physicist, though, so don't hold me to that.  The important thing is that this is fiction, and it seems accurate enough to not cross the line into being science-fiction.  Actual physicists, feel free to disagree with me, because you obviously will know more about that part of it than I likely ever will.  But my disbelief, it is suspended.

The occult side of things was obviously well-researched, too.  Divination fascinates me, though I never have looked into it as much as I would like to.  Reading Dark Oracle has me itching to start reading up on things again.  Every time Tara pulls out her deck to consult the cards, I was tempted to get out one of my decks and practice some spreads myself.  I particularly liked that through Tara's interaction with Agent Li, Bickle addresses the common misconception about divination that leads to most people's wariness and disrespect of it:  when someone does a reading, regardless of the method, they are not necessarily telling you your future.  It's the same as with your horoscope.  The future isn't set; all the reading provides is insight into potential outcomes...what could occur if events continue along their current path.  It's up to you if you make the decisions which lead to those outcomes or not.  

Yes, of course there are skeevy scam artist types who will charge an exorbitant fee for a reading, and don't necessarily even have the intuition or experience to do a good reading.  Some might just "interpret" what they see in such a way as to tell you what they know you want to hear, or what they know will keep you coming back.  But that doesn't mean the entire practice of divination is inherently phony, or that all people who practice some method or other of divination is shady and out to suck your wallet dry.  

I know that Delphi's Daughters will still leave readers with the impression that people who practice divination are total kooks.  They are definitely a pretty kooky bunch, it seems, at least when they get together for some frivolity.  As a whole, they remind me of the Aunts from Practical Magic.  But I hope that the way Bickle handles the subject, making it less Hollywood (if that makes sense) and more everyday (albeit on the down-low), will prompt some of you to read more about it for yourselves, and to judge a little less harshly.

Tara herself I liked quite a lot.  She's scarred emotionally as well as physically, and that's left her extremely vulnerable.  She's not so vulnerable that she's some kind of simpering damsel in distress, however.  She's stronger than she thinks.  She gets right on down to business, and throughout the development of the case, she manages to grow quite a bit with regards to her personal setbacks.  Agent Li is sensible as well, but he's a suit and definitely not a huge believer in things of occult nature.  They seem an odd pairing, but since Tara mostly lives trying to play down her gift, and doesn't follow the same hippie lifestyle as some of the other Daughters, they end up meshing a little better than one might think at first.

I would have liked to learn a little more about Delphi's Daughters, and Tara's history with them, but perhaps there will be more of that in the second book of the series.  I'm also hoping for some more development with Tara and Agent Li's partnership.  Things there didn't really feel quite resolved to me.  Also, I would be all over it if there were a prequel of sorts, going into detail with the backstory about Tara's experiences on the job and with the Daughters that made her want to close herself off from the world.  I feel like she had a lot of bitterness and a little hostility toward the Daughters, but that most of it didn't seem justified based on the information we were given.  Granted, she does come to feel that perhaps at least some of that was misdirected anger, but when she mentions that the Daughters have day jobs outside of being members of a secret society of oracles, I just wondered why she felt she needed to cut herself off from them in order to pursue her career in criminal psychology, especially since she uses her talents as an oracle in order to do her job anyway.

Either way, though, the closer I got to the end of the book, the less willing I was to put it down, and I said "oh shit" more than a few times while reading, so I figure that's a pretty good sign that Bickle has a talent for writing stories that I find engaging.



Pocket Books

Series Info: What came before this book?  What's next?
Delphic Oracle
* Dark Oracle (Book 1)
- Rogue Oracle (Book 2)

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