#SPFBO Review: Hound and Key

Key has lived her entire life in captivity, forced to use her magic to kill the enemies of Ariadne, an ageless woman with powerful magic of her own. Key knows she and Ariadne are both members of the Hand of the Gods, five souls reborn through the ages, but Key remembers none of her past lives. She chafes against Ariadne’s control, and longs to escape to lead a life of her own.

Eric has worked for Ariadne for years in ignorance of her secrets, but now coincidences and bad luck are piling up. When he talks his way into the compound that houses Key and the other members of the Hand, he learns the truth about Ariadne’s magic—and the murders she’s committed with it. Together, Eric and Key escape and set out to find Lantern, the one member of the Hand Ariadne has never managed to capture—and who may know how to stop her for good.

Goodreads Link: Hound and Key
Author: Rhiannon Held
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Rating: 3/5 stars

So this story is a little complicated and it takes a while to find out what it’s really about. I mean, it’s clear from early on that it’s going to be Eric helping Key and the other Powers, but there’s a twist about one-third of the way through which changes some things and ups the stakes. It doesn’t help that it has a very choppy writing style which was hard to get into and sometimes I had to re-read sections to make sure I grasped the meaning. It felt like the writer had tried too hard to “tighten up” the writing by eliminating filler words, etc., but left many of the sentences so bare-bones or even fragmented that they were hard to parse. I think maybe they were going for a hardboiled/noir feeling, particularly for Eric since he’s kind of like a private investigator.

There’s obviously meant to be an emotional component with a romantic? connection between Eric and Key, or at least physical attraction, but it develops so quickly it almost seems to be a default. Like Key is only interested in Eric because he’s the first guy she’s had access to in years, and Eric is too quick to look for a replacement to the woman who died on their first date. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t feel Eric was very sympathetic, and he only got worse when his life changed to become more challenging. I wanted Key to ditch him and go by herself but later things happened that made them stuck together.

There is an interesting mythological component which references the past lives of the Powers and the gods who created them, which is probably intended to hint at connections to several/all major cultures/religions, but it’s given in such tiny pieces that it’s hard to feel like it’s anything more than the barest threads of a story. It would have been helpful to get the name of at least one god, or some kind of identifying traits, rather than just saying “all the gods” and “the youngest god.” Or make the references to real-world cultures more obvious.

The one thing that this story does well is action. When the characters are running away, sneaking into places, and using their Powers in creative ways, it reads smoothly and it held my interest. The shorter, less descriptive sentences work well for action. But when they stop to talk (or argue while refusing to really say anything important) or try to unravel a mystery, the choppy writing style gets in the way. I found myself skimming a lot just to reach the end.

LGBT representation: this came into the story in an unexpected way. Early on, the characters all seemed more or less straight, except for one throw-away thought when Key considers sleeping with women (but this seems like more convenience than actual attraction–again, the emotions were all very underdeveloped). But later we find out that because the Powers have been reborn so many times, and not always as the same sex, they don’t feel as tied to their current biological sex. In particular, two of the Powers have a long-standing romantic relationship across many lifetimes, in many combinations. But they’re both in male bodies in this incarnation and one of them goes “no homo!” so hard it hurts.

Overall, I’m not sure what I feel about this book. It was pretty scattered, like it was trying to do too many things but didn’t manage to do most of them well. I don’t know who I would recommend it to. Maybe if you like hardboiled urban fantasy with mysterious ancient powers and a main couple who sleep together the second time they meet, you’ll enjoy this book. It doesn’t have the detailed historical references of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy or the snarky humor of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but those are the first two urban fantasy series that come to mind.

This story was in SPFBO 4 last year.


I'm an author, a blogger, and a nerd. I read and write fantasy.