|I’ve reviewed almost all of Deborah Smith’s novels released during the past 12 years, and given 5-heart ratings to many of them. Hands down, she’s my favorite author of the decade, the one whose books have always been auto-buys even when she was dropped by her bone-head publisher and I had to track them down from the small publishing company she founded with several fellow Southern authors. I avoided writing this review for weeks because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that Soul Catcher, an urban fantasy novel by Smith written under the name Leigh Bridger, was really disappointing. There were traces of the Deborah Smith magic, but the romance, secondary characters and plot all fell short of expectations.
Ever since she was a little girl, Livia Beltane has heard voices telling her to use her artistic talent to fight demons. By the time she reached her 25th birthday, the tough, tattooed heavy drinker has lost everyone she loved. She ekes out a lonely existence tending bar in beautiful, funky Asheville, North Carolina. One night Livia lets her guard down long enough to flirt with an attractive customer, whose body turns out to be hiding the most evil demon of them all. Battered and molested, Livia finally learns the full truth. She is a Soul Catcher, who over the course of many lifetimes has battled demons with her unique powers to trap and banish them. The demon who brutally attacked her has been after her for centuries, and this time he intends to completely destroy her, body and soul.
Fortunately, Livia has allies in her fight, including three friends whose souls have stood by her in various incarnations, and numerous spirits who inhabit the animals, rocks, and buildings around her. As Soul Catcher, her greatest weapon should be the Soul Hunter who fights at her side, and Livia does start getting messages from a man with an Irish brogue named Ian who claims to be her husband. But the problem is, Livia has no memories of Ian, even though they’ve been lovers numerous times since the American Revolutionary War. And the body Ian has found to inhabit for now is the same one that the maleficent Pig-Faced Demon used when he assaulted and raped Livia. The Soul Catcher can’t complete her task without her Soul Hunter, but how can she overcome her mistrust and her lifelong fear of letting anyone get close to her?
Like any good urban fantasy, Soul Catcher is a classic good vs. evil story, but I missed the shades of gray from Smith’s earlier novels. Instead of multi-faceted adversaries such as First Lady Edwina Jacobs in Sweet Hush and Stone Senterra in Charming Grace, the book features a black-hearted demon who only wants to cause Livia as much pain as possible before killing her. While Smith has never shied away from darkness in previous novels, the violence in Soul Catcher is particularly grisly and borders on gratuitous.
The love story between Livia and Ian also fails to match up to several of Smith’s unforgettable couples, most notably Claire and Roan of A Place to Call Home. Ian never came alive for me as anything more than a hunky guy with a cool accent who has stood by Livia in various manifestations, and the conflict caused by Livia’s inability to get over the fact that Ian’s body once housed a demon who raped her was not one I wanted to explore. Hopefully their romance will be developed further in Soul Hunter, the next book in this planned trilogy.
On the positive side, Smith’s strong sense of place works in her favor as she portrays the North Carolina Smoky Mountain region with great detail and affection. The various spirits who aid Livia in her fight are a fascinating combination of American and Indian folklore with a bit of Biblical reference thrown in. And Livia herself is a strong character, prickly and dark but good-hearted, wryly humorous, and loyal to a fault.
The fact that Smith is using a different name for this series indicates a radical departure from her earlier work, and perhaps the comparisons I cited aren’t fair. If you like urban fantasy novels and aren’t familiar with Deborah Smith’s prior novels, you may have a very different opinion from mine. As for me, I will file this one away as “not my cup of tea,” and eagerly await Smith’s next contemporary romance.