Cold Clay
Juneau Black

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

Welp, I’m still not impressed with the writing, but this series has hooked me good. I’m currently in the middle of a fight with myself over whether it would be better to run away to Thune, Murk, or Shady Hollow, which, you know, isn’t a great fight to be having. (Spoiler alert: They’re all wonderful. I can’t decide. It’s not fair.)

Either way, Cold Clay is the sequel to Shady Hollow, which took us through the most eventful summer the titular village has ever seen. This is followed almost immediately by an equally eventful autumn, starting with a gruesome discovery in the rabbit-owned Cold Clay Orchards. Known for their delectably plump, juicy fruits, the poor rabbits get the shock of a lifetime when they realize their least fruitful apple tree was planted over the bones of a long-dead moose. After a bit of a runaround, the bones are identified as Julia Elkin, missing wife of coffee shop owner Joe Elkin. Julia disappeared eleven years ago and was presumed to have walked out on Joe after a tumultuous marriage, but the discovery of her corpse triggers an investigation into gentle-hearted Joe. Wanting to take some sort of action, Deputy Orville Braun arrests Joe completely without evidence.

This doesn’t smell quite right to Vera Vixen, an experienced investigative reporter employed by the Shady Hollow Herald, and she sets out to clear Joe’s name despite her budding relationship with Orville. Though Orville warns her to keep her foxy nose out of trouble, especially in view of the trouble she got into over the summer, Vera doggedly pursues the case with the help of her best friend Lenore Lee, owner of Nevermore Books. Unfortunately, she has very little information to go on, and her work is complicated by Orville’s stolid insistence on keeping her out of the loop. She finally gets a breakthrough when she consults the oldest member of the vast Chitters family, who tells her Julia was toting a suitcase on the night she disappeared. This leads Vera and Lenore to the suitcase, which in turn leads them down a rabbithole of clues, possible leads, and misdirection. As with Vera’s last investigation, some villagers are more helpful than others, and at least one would like to silence her altogether. (Oh, and also Lefty somehow winds up in prison again, though it could not be clearer that he has nothing to do with Julia’s death.)

Meanwhile, BW Stone – skunk, professional cigar-chomper, and editor of the Herald – gets it into his head that Vera is just the reporter to do a full slate of articles on newcomer Octavia Grey, a sleek mink who recently moved to the village and opened an etiquette school. (His enthusiasm largely stems from Octavia’s purchase of some very expensive ad space.) Vera is less than delighted with the dull assignment, but agrees to get BW off her back; however, her interest in the project plummets completely when she comes to the conclusion that Orville has jilted her for Octavia. What starts as a bit of a bummer takes a more ominous turn when Vera begins to realize that none of Octavia’s stories add up, in addition to which Julia’s recovered suitcase includes a stack of letters from a mysterious, fashion-obsessed friend who just so happened to be in prison at the time the letters were written. One thing leads to another, and Vera finally identifies Octavia as the murderer, arriving at the school in time to find Orville already drugged and Octavia smugly in command.

With Orville out of the way and Vera a captive audience thanks to some spiked tea, Octavia launches at once into her villain monologue, in which she explains that Julia was her mark while she was in prison. Having successfully manipulated Julia into embezzling money from Joe’s Mug, Octavia intended to take both the money and Julia and make a run for it; by that time, however, Julia had realized that Octavia had burgled the von Beaverpelts’ mansion after her release, and she backed out of the plan. This might have been all right if Julia hadn’t also threatened to go to the police, but, since she did, Octavia murdered her and buried her under an apple tree. Octavia now plans to set fire to the school, thus neatly rubbing out both Orville and Vera before she flees yet again, but her diabolical scheme is foiled when she realizes that Vera switched their tea cups when she wasn’t looking, leaving Octavia to drink her own sleeping pills.

After Joe’s exoneration, Octavia’s arrest, and Lefty’s latest release, life returns to normal in the village. Orville and Vera resume their interrupted relationship while Joe resumes the running of the coffee shop, though a bit more sadly now that Julia is definitively dead. As a final grace, Vera privately tells him that Julia had a change of heart at the last minute and that she would have stayed but for her own murder, and that the money she embezzled might still be hidden somewhere nearby – possibly even in Joe’s house. The grateful, grieving Joe invites her into the shop for some pie, and the case closes out as neatly as the last one did.

The writing is mediocre at its best and cringe-inducing at its worst, but I actually had a better time with this book than I did with the last one. I’m more used to the characters; the humans-in-animal-suits vibe – which, by the way, I’m still low-key getting – doesn’t bother me anymore. I genuinely enjoyed this book without caveats or reservations. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it is a good, absorbing read. The characters are generally endearing, with some obvious exceptions. I don’t normally go for pushy reporter-type characters, but I love Vera. I love her friendship with Lenore; they always have each other’s backs, and they’re always down for an adventure. Though I don’t especially love her relationship with Orville – again, the interspecies thing weirds me out – I’m giving it time. I just started Mirror Lake, which sounds like it will focus more on Vera’s relationship, and I like what I’ve read so far. I also, of course, love Joe – how could you not? He is so sweet and so genuine, and my heart hurt so badly for him this book. And, though she isn’t presented as the most sympathetic character, I do like that we get to know about Julia’s change of heart. My heart hurts for her too, and for the son she left behind. I wish she had made it home safely that night, even if it would have meant canceling this entire book.

Unfortunately, this book is also more gratingly predictable than the first; Octavia is so clearly the villain from the moment Vera begins to analyze Julia’s letters that she seemed like a red herring, and her reveal falls flat because the solultion is far too obvious. No disrespect to Vera, but I don’t know why it took her so long to figure it out. I am also confused about some of the character arcs: while I like the direction the story has taken with Esmeralda “Esme” von Beaverpelt, a former heiress who now works at Joe’s Mug, I’m not sure why the von Beaverpelts are supposed to be living under reduced circumstances. As far as I know, they still own the sawmill, and should therefore be profiting from it. Perhaps they’ve taken a pay cut to make up for the money extorted by Ruby Ewing, but it still seems odd, especially as they haven’t yet abandoned their mansion. On the other hand, Esme’s sister Anastasia (“Stasia”) still behaves like a spoiled heiress and I honestly didn’t think I’d go for that, but I’ve gotta say, her first encounter with Octavia is comedy gold. (At the same time, of course, I still don’t know why she doesn’t have as much money as she used to. It’s not like the beavers were ousted by Howard Chitters and his large family.)

If that sounds like a whole lot of negative, it isn’t really. These are small issues I had with the book, which don’t actually detract from my enjoyment of the series or the world. I really love the village of Shady Hollow. As a Redwall surrogate, it has been doing a reasonably good job with the setting, the food, and just the general cozy, small-town vibe. (Not me looking up leek and onion stew recipes at one or two in the morning, and then being sad when I couldn’t find any.) I was on the fence about the series when I reviewed Shady Hollow, but now I’m hooked enough that I am actually contemplating buying an official Joe’s Mug mug. I’ve managed to resist it so far, which is good considering my mug cabinet is already packed; still, it’s a possibility for the future. If I ever got serious about running away to a fictional town (and somehow found the means to do so), Shady Hollow might win solely on the strength of my desire to add Joe’s Mug to my daily routine. While I still wish the writing were better, I am in this series for the long haul. Here’s hoping for at least another ten books.