I had the audiobook version of this on pre-order. I dived into it the morning it was released and, by the time I'd reached the end of the first chapter, I was already impressed.
One of the challenges in a series like this is how you do the "previously on Mercy Thompson" bit to remind me of what happened in the last book, which I read almost a year ago, without making me want to go "I KNOW all this. Get on with it already." Patricia Briggs managed it expertly, weaving the references in to support the current story, making them an integral part of the telling rather than a preface or an interruption.
The other challenge in a book like this is to get the reader hooked in the first chapter. Patricia Briggs is good at this. She often starts by focusing in on the chaotic but happy domestic life of the pack, getting you comfortable, reminding you why you like these people, making you care again and then ends the chapter with the sudden emergence of something that puts Mercy and or the pack under threat. In "Smoke Bitten" she's given this formula a new twist. Within the first few minutes, you know that something is wrong in Mercy's marriage: something that's making her sad; something she doesn't understand. Then you get a demonstration of the problem and only when you're getting immersed in that does something truly weird happen that only Mercy sees.
I loved the elegance of this, the care that goes into the structure, the stumble-free prose. the fast, effective characterisation, the connection of these supernatural creatures to issues and emotions we can all relate to and an apparently endless ability to think up new bad guys.
"Smoke Bitten" lived up to the promise of the first chapter. The focus stayed firmly on the problem with Mercy's marriage but we still got a new, very scary, bad guy, the return of a well-known bad guy in full stalker mode, and the re-emergence of Underhill, who may or may not be a bad guy but is definitely scary, even when she's being friendly.
What I admired most was the way in which Mercy's marriage problems, even when manifesting in their supernatural mating bond and corrupting, nasty magic, remains something real about the nature of trust, in yourself and each other and the need constantly to renew and demonstrate the trust, even in times of trauma.
Patricia Briggs manages to do that without it becoming corny or clichéd and while maintaining the pace of a pressure-filled plot. I really liked the way the magic was visualised this time. It reminded me a little of how Jane Yellowrock sees her soul home but Patricia Briggs gave the concept a twist that made it unique to Mercy.