3 out of 4 stars
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“If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.” Years of training as a soldier had drilled that warning in Hester Trueblood’s head. But when she saw a gold coin out in the Iraqi desert, she went against her instincts and picked it up, triggering a spell that bonded her to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war.
M. L. Doyle’s The Bonding Spell, the first book of The Desert Goddess series, follows Hester six years after the bond was activated. Her life is drastically changed. While being the vessel of a goddess has its share of perks (e.g., superpowers and immeasurable wealth), it also came with a few caveats. Hester is now fighting a different type of war, one that involves ogres and monsters and witches, all the while struggling to keep the goddess from taking complete control of her body and mind. Inanna’s feelings for a certain demigod, Gilgamesh, further complicate matters. And let’s not even start on the goddess’ voracious sexual appetite! Hester’s plate is full, but a sinister force is on a killing spree, dishing out extra helpings of pain and suffering that threaten to tear apart everything that Hester holds dear.
Doyle certainly knows how to keep things interesting, concocting a genre-crossing story that blends elements of fantasy, mythology, mystery, and romance. The writing is quite engrossing, with Hester’s first-person narration shedding insight into the depths of her bond with Inanna. Throughout the narrative, Hester’s internal struggles are laid bare. Should she tell her family her secret? Should she surrender herself to the goddess? Are her feelings for Gilgamesh truly hers? Doyle then ramps up the suspense with each page, as dark family secrets are unraveled and exposed.
The mystery unfolds at just the right time, with just enough breadcrumbs to point readers to the culprit but with just as much red herrings to lead them astray. The sheer number of characters — human, divine, or otherwise — makes this a difficult case to crack, but the resulting relationships add layers of intricacies to an already complex plot. The cast is notably diverse, both in terms of ethnicity and sexuality. And although the narrative sometimes meanders to the mundane affairs of other minor characters, Hester’s internal and external conflicts tie everything together and keep the story on track.
However, there’s more than a bit of wish fulfillment in Hester’s story. In a snap, she became wealthy enough to own a restaurant and live in a luxurious apartment, so powerful that she’d win in an underground mixed martial arts fight (where she’s the only female competitor), and much too desirable that a retinue of men (and one demigod) are all positively eager to do her bidding. This is my biggest problem with the book: Everything Hester has doesn’t feel earned. Doyle shows us how it all began, but then she skips to a time when Hester has already adjusted to her new life. We don’t see the mistakes, the doubts, and the dilemma that anyone in Hester’s situation would have done or experienced. It's hard to relate to her fear of losing herself when we don’t know who she was before Inanna came into the picture. Glossing over the first six years of the Hester-Inanna bond is, I think, a huge missed opportunity.
I wavered between a rating of 2 and 3 stars. Apart from the issue cited above, the text had several punctuation mistakes and glaring spelling errors (e.g., “inpatient” instead of “impatient”), especially in the second half of the book. However, there’s a good, solid mystery here that detective fiction enthusiasts would surely enjoy. Fans of fantasy and mythology would also love how embedded these elements are in the story. Overall, I’d have to go with a rating of 3 out of 4 stars.
Potential readers should note that the story contains a fair amount of gore worthy of a horror movie flick, some graphic scenes of death reminiscent of a Criminal Minds episode, as well as allusions to child abuse that might trigger some unsuspecting readers. A couple of racy scenes and occasional instances of profanity also make this unsuitable for younger readers.
The Bonding Spell
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