Undercover (Federation Chronicles #1 – Brandt, Sera, and Ash) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, 2008)
That isn’t to say they aren’t erotic – they are damn erotic – but so much of erotic science fiction is heavy on the unusual penises or having some earth woman show an alien what love really is (and hey, I’m not judging since I read it). What gets missed in that emphasis is kickass world-building with deep conflict and political machinations which highlight the flaws in society, while hopefully giving the reader insight into the inequities in their own world.
Lauren Dane does all this in her Federation Chronicles. And she does it so well that it leaves me reeling and wanting more.
You do have to be comfortable with the erotic part, and a reader unused to a high level of steamy might find the first book a baptism by fire since it involves not just two people, but three and is heavy on a BDSM dynamic. But in case you’re worried this is going to be “who puts what in where,” don’t be. This is Lauren Dane, the writer who gave us contemporaries like the Brown Siblings series and the Chase Brothers series, and paranormal series like Cascadia Wolves, the de La Vega Cats and the recently concluded, terrific Bound by Magick series. Triads pop up all the time in her writing, sometimes accepted by the culture, sometimes not, and she deftly highlights those tensions while infusing the relationship with such emotion that you are cheering for everything to work out (and it does, thankfully, since it’s a romance novel!). While Dane has written this series so each book can be a stand-alone, with world-building like this, I’d strongly recommend reading all of them in order to truly appreciate the story arc.
Public domain image via Pixabay
The Federation is actually a federation of universes (or ‘verses as the citizens refer to them) settled by humans descended from Earth colonists generations upon generations ago, with a network of official Portals linking vast distances to shorten travel and enhance commerce. Comprised of millions of people and controlled by Houses, a handful of powerful families wield sole control over the masses. Think of the Houses as medieval aristocracy in terms of power and financial control and you won’t be far off. Members of the Houses are “Ranked,” meaning they possess tremendous status and privilege in addition to vast quantities of wealth at their disposal. While ranked men and women can have affairs with unranked people, it’s extremely limited in nature, with the more prominent ranked having to enter political marriages arranged (or at least approved) by the head of their House. Naturally with this arrangement, the men often have unranked mistresses, basically courtesans, and Ranked women are raised to think only of enhancing their family’s status through marriage as their destiny.
The first book, Undercover, focuses on Lieutenant Sera Ayers, an outstanding operative for the Federation military, known for using her facility with languages and cultures to good effect in undercover operations. Coming from an extremely modest background, she’s worked hard to find her place, but has finally achieved a level of respect from her superior officers and her peers and assembled a crack team which she leads successfully. When she’s called into her CO’s office and told that her team has been reassigned to someone else so she can work with the two men in front of her on a secret assignment, she’s both stunned and enraged, primarily because the one man, Ash Walker, is the ranked jackass who stole her heart ten years ago and then shredded it with the offer of becoming his official mistress when his arranged marriage was announced and finalized. She ran from him then and she’s going to run from him now, but not before landing a terrific punch to the face.
Ash Walker knew Sera was likely to still be angry with him, even after a decade apart, but he didn’t expect this strong a reaction. He’s never stopped loving her and while he knows that she is perfect for this mission, he also knows that he’s hoping that he can show her that they can finally have a future together. His sham of a marriage fell apart after only a few years, and the best thing he got out of it was the man sitting next to him, his once brother-in-law, Brandt Pela, who is not only his best friend but his occasional lover as well. Ash suspects – no, he knows – that Sera might be the final piece to bring the three of them together, if she would just lower her defenses.
Image purchased under a web license from Shutterstock
Brandt Pela might also be a wealthy ranked man but he sees what Ash stubbornly doesn’t, that Sera was so shattered by Ash’s treatment of her years ago that her lack of trust endangers their mission, especially since Ash constructed their cover so that Sera would have to pose as his mistress. Brandt knows that Sera is astonishingly beautiful and obviously a terrific soldier. Since he quickly decides he wants something more permanent with her as well, he offers to have her be his mistress on the mission, with the clear understanding that they will have to have sex and that the world they are traveling to is going to expect him to share her with Ash.
Sera hates Ash (and her reaction to him after all these years) but she doesn’t have a choice in this assignment. With the good-looking and considerate Brandt trying to make it work with switching the proposed roles, she accepts his offer, knowing that this mission is dangerous both physically and to her heart. When she discovers that her understanding of Ash’s choices ten years ago was not as clear as it should have been – and that the betrayal they are slowly uncovering on their assignment strikes at the heart of Ash and Brandt’s families – Sera decides she will do whatever it takes to fight for her world, even if it means having her heart broken all over again, this time by two ranked men.
I’ll be honest, this book is the most painful of the entire series for me to read since Sera and Ash are still both so raw from their loss of one another, even if it has been a decade. Sera was young and naive, at least to the point that she didn’t understand that Ash’s marriage involved the livelihood of tens of thousands of unranked people like her. Ash is an entitled ass who still doesn’t get it, but he is so in love with Sera and so tender with her as her relationship with Brandt develops that she is able to take the risk and be with him once more. Both Brandt and Ash are dominant, which works fine as Sera loves being a submissive to them (only in the bedroom, however), and the M/M action between Brandt and Ash *fans self* is quite steamy, even though Sera is their ultimate focus. Even though BDSM is not my thing, Dane writes it so well that it was clear the dynamic was about satisfying everyone’s desire to express their love and affection for one another, so it never made me uncomfortable.
I was so wowed by how Dane managed to figure out an HEA for these three since I spent a large part of my first reading desperately trying to brainstorm how on earth she could solve the problem of their status inequity. Yet these two ranked men use everything at their disposal to follow their hearts and find happiness, while also shedding the cover they’ve held for years of dissipated playboys, enabling them to be honest about both their undercover military service while at the same time honest about their love for Sera and each other. As tough as the first half of the book is, the last 30 pages always initiate a gigantic burst of warmth in my chest as it all comes together!
Relentless (Federation Chronicles #2 – Abby and Roman) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, 2009)
The second book in the series, Relentless, is actually my favorite (by a close margin, but still manages to move ahead). Centered on the Federation’s home world of Ravena, the focus of power and commerce in this polarized world. The powerful heads of houses and their heirs meet in councils to discuss issues and events, and the recent exposure of corruption in the houses of Walker and Pela (fortunately by two honored sons from those houses in the military) have stirred unrest among the unranked.
Heading it is the beautiful and dynamic Abbie Haws, a respected barrister and head of an organization which seeks greater representation for the unranked among the Houses. Abbie considers herself fortunate when she can get one of the House’s personal assistants to return her calls, but she draws attention when a nursemaid to one of the Houses is accused of stealing and fired, coincidentally right before she would qualify for her pension and retirement. The ranked members of the House involved are incensed, and Abbie is almost attacked in the courthouse. That near assault draws the attention of the most powerful man in the Federation, Roman Lyons, the head of House Lyons.
Lauren Dane mentions in her acknowledgements page that she wanted to specifically thank actor Daniel Craig since he was her inspiration for Roman Lyons, and I defy you not to think of that sexy actor as you fall for Roman. Married incredibly young at the age of 17 in a political union, Roman produced two wonderful sons quickly and then watched their mother waste away to a disease brought on by her last birth. Serious and intense, Roman has the weight of millions on his shoulders with literally the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of people directly working for the benefit of House Lyons.
Daniel Craig (the sexy beast). Whether he’s playing James Bond on screen or Roman Lyons in my head, he brings sensuality and incredible strength of purpose to the role. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
So naturally he’s astonished when he meets the troublesome Abbie Haws in his office to discover that the two of them have an immediate, combustible chemistry, one he has literally never experienced before and which ends with her having an orgasm within 10 minutes of their meeting. (That is my kind of meeting!) The two of them recognize that there is something there but the need for privacy is vital as the press getting a hold of any whiff of anything between them would be disastrous. Considering the work Abbie is doing, work that Roman grows to respect and wants to foster, her reputation would be horribly undermined with the taint of sexual connection between them. Roman also knows that as the head of House Lyons, it’s his duty to negotiate another political marriage and strengthen his House.
Knowing that there is no future is no guarantee of not falling in love. Abbie takes Roman undercover to see the lives of the unranked he controls while she gains insight into the unbelievable pressures and responsibilities he has. The Roman Abbie discovers is a man who adores his two sons and is incredibly loyal to the people who work for him. In turn, Roman discovers the truth behind Abbie’s many scars and realizes that a woman who has every reason to despise the ranked instead confronts them daily working to forward the rights of average person. The more each of them uncover, the more amazing their connection, and a hopeless love develops between them, one that they both know must end. For Roman the agony is knowing he will have to deal with everything in his life without the joy and fire that is Abbie grounding him; for Abbie it’s knowing that she will need to go on with her life seeing Roman on the vids (video) and hearing about him at every turn, particularly after he’s married to someone else.
Image purchased with web license via Shutterstock.
Oh. My. God. There is no way you don’t come away adoring Abbie – the love she has for her family (and they for her), her handling her narcissistic and idealistic father, the older brother who almost went to jail for her before accepting a military position instead, the ex-fiancee who has remained a good friend. Particularly after hearing the crucible she went through at such a young age when she was assaulted, you will be ready to get BFF necklaces and take her out for a drink! Roman is actually her perfect match, as her playful demeanor offers him an outlet he never before possessed and his intense support with no agenda other than helping her is a welcome relief from the many people who demand a piece of her. Their heat is off the charts – muy caliente – and when that sensuality is combined with the tenderness between them, it’s enough to break your heart, particularly knowing how doomed they are.
Which brings me to the number one reason why I think this book should be made into a movie. Of all the books (and the whole series would be an incredible movie franchise if middle America wouldn’t flip out at the M/M action and the triad relationships), the ending of this book, literally had me standing up shouting “Yes, YES!!” the first time I read it (and I still do a fist pump with each subsequent re-read). Dane just surprises the hell out of me with her ability to pull an emotional yet believable HEA out of what previously appeared to be thin air. Suffice it to say that you’ll be so much more in love with Roman than you were before, if that’s possible.
Insatiable (Federation Chronicles #3, Phantom Corps #1 – Daniel and Carina) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, 2010)
The third book, Insatiable, stars none other than Abbie Haws brother, Daniel, who works for Roman Lyons’ chief military officer in what’s known as the Phantom Corps. In fact, Dane has created a mini-trilogy within the larger construct of the Federation Chronicles, continuing the story arc of political corruption within the Federation and demonstrating how the brave men and women of this elite undercover force ferrets out information and eliminates threats to the universes.
This book brings in a fascinating angle to the series’ story arc of the growing threat to the Federation by exposing us to the threat inherent in Imperial territory. The Imperial ‘Verses are the direct competition and insidious enemy of the Federation although no conflict is officially declared. One of the most powerful men in this ‘verse is a sick bastard by the name of Fardelle, who is about to marry off his twenty-three year old daughter Carina to further cement an alliance with one of his underlings.
Carina has perfected the facade of a shallow, stunningly beautiful woman just waiting to be married off to further her father’s agenda. Her mother, Fardelle’s first wife, has worked quietly behind the scenes to undermine her husband and support her children at every turn, for all the good it’s done her. Her oldest son literally disappeared and his name stricken from all records and portraits, her youngest son died suddenly of a mysterious and virulent illness, and now her daughter is to be married to a violent lecher who will make the rest of her life a hell. Stealing vital data chips from her husband’s home office, Carina’s mother convinces her to accept the coded data as a subdermal chip, intrinsically linked to her body’s system so that in order to extract the data, Carina must be alive. Contacting Federation forces, Fardelle’s wife arranges for an operative to ferry Carina to Federation territory and safely out of her father’s hands.
Carina agreed to be the carrier thinking that this would undermine her father’s evil while helping her and her mother escape, and she’s dismayed at the last minute by her mother’s announcement that she plans to stay behind. Carina fleeing a horrible marriage is believable versus the more treasonous implications of the two of them disappearing. When the handsome but bossy operative Daniel Haws arrives in disguise, Carina can tell she’s in good hands even if the agent in question treats her like an utter moron.
Public domain image courtesy of Pixabay
Daniel is shocked at not only how beautiful Carina Fardelle is, but how her public face of a vapid, shallow daughter of wealth completely disappears and in its place is that of a vibrant and capable young woman eager to experience the world and feel her freedom. He must get her out of Imperial territory alive, however, and back to Ravena where the information on her chip can be decoded. Fardelle is suspected of trafficking in bioweapons with the goal to attack Federation outposts and the human costs could potentially be in the millions. Yet as he and Carina evade Imperial forces with the help of his fellow agents, Daniel finds himself sexually and emotionally pulled toward this brave young woman, all the while knowing that when they return to his home planet she will be inundated with proposals of marriage from ranked men. But Carina didn’t escape her father’s control to not take the reins of her own destiny, and she knows her future includes Daniel, if he can let go of his belief system to see it.
Dane does a terrific job showing us the phenomenal pressures of Carina’s life, pressures which force her to don an impenetrable mask in order to avoid detection. But although Carina is a virgin, she is a sensual, slightly naughty one with a propensity for voyeurism, so she has plenty of tricks up her sleeve and she plans on trying all of them with Daniel. There is no way for Daniel to resist her for long, at least not once his instincts confirm that this bold, courageous woman is the real Carina, and he knows she may just be one person he can never let go. I loved them as a couple, adored their heat, and felt that the sense of imminent threat to the Federation was so well done, I wasn’t sure what was making my pulse pound more – Carina and Daniel’s sexy times or the urgent need for them to get her information back to Ravena ASAP! Meeting the other members of the Phantom Corps helps understand the dynamics of their operation while introducing us to a few key people, namely the heroes of the next two books.
Mesmerized (Federation Chronicles #4; Phantom Corps #2 – Andrei and Piper) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, 2011)
The first fellow Phantom Corp agent with his own book is Andrei Solace, the enigmatic assassin who helped Carina and Daniel get to Federation territory. Now in Mesmerized, with the escalation of animosity from the Imperial forces a growing rumor – particularly with their use of mercenaries to traffic bioagents and ammunition – Andrei is sent back to his home planet to investigate. There is one mercenary in particular who he never forgot and who he is sure will help the Federation. But seeing her means confronting his past and, more importantly, having the strength to walk away…again.
Piper Roundtree thought Andrei might have died when he disappeared at age 17 and it broke her young heart. Always best friends, their affection for one another became an all-consuming young love which had them taking one another’s virginity. But Andrei and Piper both lived a hardscrabble existence on the wrong side of the law, and while Piper had her siblings, Andrei was alone after his mother died and his siblings were taken away. After his arrest, the Roundtrees never saw him again, only comforted by the occasional packets of credits marked with a single “A” that helped them survive in their isolated compound during the hard years.
But when Andrei turns out to be the mysterious sniper who just saved Piper and her family from annihilation at the hands of Imperial soldiers pressuring her to ferry illegal cargo, Piper has the realization that nothing has changed regarding her feelings for Andrei. Yes, he’s now a man when she loved the boy, but realizing the work he’s done and how he has made himself into a deadly soldier only makes her more determined to show him that he is loved exactly for who he is. Andrei knows that who and what he is will only stain this incredible thing that he has with Piper, but he can’t help needing her, even when he knows he should push her away.
Andrei was a sexy beast in Insatiable and had a demonstrated wry sense of humor, but seeing him revisit his painful past is worth it to find Piper again. She is so upbeat and stubborn (both in the best possible way) and most importantly, she knows him well-enough to understand all the shame and worries he brings to their renewed relationship, allowing her to blast past those barriers one at a time. For Andrei, being an assassin and spy is so much of who he is (and that part of him that he doesn’t want Piper to know) that for him to see her actively take part in his life – using her shady contacts, her ability to bluff and her amazing piloting skills to help him and the Federation – is this eye-opening moment where it occurs to him that his vocation doesn’t have to be separate from the love of his life. I adored them both and cheered for them to figure it all out, even when the ending of the book broke my heart with Piper’s loss during the plant raid.
Captivated (Federation Chronicles #5 ; Phantom Corps #3 – Vincenz, Julian and Hannah) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, 2012)
That final mission in Mesmerized had a big impact on more than just Andrei and Piper. In Captivated, we see the story begin back at the raid, as Vincenz Fardelle (Carina’s older brother who disappeared and then enlisted in the Phantom Corps) helps raid the plant in an effort to discover more about his father’s Imperial plans for bioweaponry. As he is making his way through the deserted labs, he spots a naked, filthy woman, clearly tortured, in one of the glass cells. Glancing at the lab’s information to insure that she is not infected or dangerous, he’s angered and horrified to discover that she has been subjected to an experiment for over a year at being deprived of touch or interaction of any kind other than experiments involving pain or violent treatment. He scoops her up and takes her to the transport to get her out of that hellhole prior to its detonation.
The woman, who is identified as scientist Hannah Black, is naturally terrified of doctors of any kind, reminded all too much of the experiments and pain inflicted upon her in her captivity. Vincenz, who has rejected his father’s name and taken his mother’s surname Cuomo, is in a relationship with fellow Phantom Corps member Julian Marsters. Brought together soon after Julian lost his best friend in the attack on Ravena in Insatiable, Vincenz and Julian discovered that their love for one another has pushed back the darkness they each carry. Perhaps because of this, they empathize with Hannah’s struggle to fight to gain back the pieces of her shattered memory and personality, immediately protecting her from the Federation doctors who want her in a hospital under their care.
In the weeks after her rescue, Hannah feels nothing but frustration at her fragmented intellect combined with intense affection for the two gorgeous men who protect her. Deprived of human touch for so long, golden Vincenz and the dark Julian keep her sandwiched between them at night, making sure one of them is always close by for her to hold if she needs them during the day. When it becomes clear that she was kidnapped for a reason by the Imperial scientists, Hannah agrees to undergo a painful experimental treatment which will hopefully amplify the piecing together of her memory in order to help the Phantom Corps with information. In the process, a part of herself she thought permanently lost – that of sexual desire – returns with a vengeance and is embarrassingly directed at the handsome soldiers who saved her.
While Vincenz and Julian may have begun their acceptance of Hannah into their home based on the need to protect her, the weeks of witnessing her daily bravery have deepened their feelings into much more and they both admit to each other that their feelings are quite carnal. Helping Hannah reclaim this part of herself as well is nothing but a pleasure to all three of them, but with Julian still withholding a part of himself over grief for his friend and Vincenz facing his father’s demons in an important mission, Hannah wonders if the feelings she has for these two men will have to come to an end.
Public domain image via Pixabay
Okay, this is the book practically tied with Relentless as my favorite of the series. Vincenz and Julian are both hot and sweet with one another – brainy, hunky soldiers with dark pasts who nevertheless find something precious and wonderful in one another. The development with Hannah is all the sweeter for them not realizing it was anything they needed or wanted, they just woke up one day realizing that her happiness was incredibly important to them and that she was a woman whose beauty, inside and out, made her an intrinsic part of their relationship.
Hannah is an amazing character and I think Lauren Dane is nothing short of masterful the way she conveys how Hannah’s brain has morphed into something truly different, yet how that change has simply revealed the core of her amazing personality. Seeing Piper and Andrei again was a pleasure, particularly when they both explain how Vincenz and Julian are seriously stepping in it and hurting Hannah. There’s no way you don’t have a smile on your face when Andrei lectures the two of them on how to treat a woman! Dane offers great further development of threat from the Imperial forces and a really exciting denouement when we return to the compound from which Carina escaped back in Insatiable. There is joy and heartbreak in the final showdown, but once again, an unexpected HEA that makes you cheer for this triad and the future they have together.
While Dane has made clear that while she is busy juggling other projects in 2014 (and I’m looking forward to them!), she’s is planning at least two more books in the series – Wil (the hot head of the Phantom Corps who we have already seen flustered by a woman back on Ravena) and Deimos (Roman Lyons oldest son who I carry a crush for based on how much he loves his father and how he wants to help Abby). Her website states that she’s hoping their books will come out in 2015, but luckily for us, these five books are so amazing that whenever I get itchy for fabulous science fiction, I just reread them!
I did want to address the cost of the books – the ebook editions are strangely expensive (like around $11) which I don’t understand at all, but there are mass market paperbacks for each of them with a normal price of $6, and honestly, whatever you pay, they are utterly worth it. I have most of mine in paper format, but considering where they rank in my list of favorite series, I’m going to slowly add the ebook versions since I like to have both formats for books I consider to be romance classics, and these fit the bill.
Many thanks to Lauren Dane for being such a kickass writer that she can do multiple genres with aplomb. She has another (what sounds like) science fiction story (unrelated to the Federation chronicles) coming out this week in a duology with Megan Hart, There All Along, and Dane’s story “Land’s End” about a lone gunman and the woman who’s town is attacked, sounds amazing – I’ve already pre-ordered it!
If you enjoy science fiction, love science fiction erotic romance, or just plain love Lauren Dane, do yourself a favor and get the Federation Chronicles on your to-read list ASAP. This a phenomenal series by a phenomenal writer – you’ll love it!