Before you even start, yes, I am aware that the paranormal romance world is literally flooded with vampire books that are barely spell-checked to say nothing of actually comprised of vibrant characters and a well-drawn world of darkness. I’ve read some of them and threw more than a few across the room in disgust. Sister, I hear you.
Because, let’s be honest here, there are certain things we all expect from a vampire romance, right? First off, the hero (and it is the man who is the vampire, more often than not), has to actually be an honorable person. He can be a bad boy, but even bad boys have their own code of what’s right and wrong. Invariably he is strong and possesses a warrior mentality (how else can a vampire survive all those years?). He’s got to be a little damaged, maybe a lot damaged, but not past redemption. A sense of humor, even one long buried, is not mandatory, but helps bring out the sexy in our fanged friend.
Oh, and speaking of sexy? Vampire heroes have this one nailed (no pun intended). I don’t like a man whore (well, a reformed man whore, a la Bones from the Night Huntress series is more than okay), but he has to know his way around the sheets and have a skill set he can bring to the…ah…table. I want to see bursting into flames outside of exposure to the sun, if you get my drift.
The heroine of a vampire romance has a list of requirements she must meet as well. A good heroine has to have her own type of power to bring to the match so she and our vampire hero are on even ground at least in some areas. She must have heart, serious heart, involving the ability to love fiercely since the mark of the vampire hero is that he often doesn’t feel worthy of love after his years of loneliness. She can’t be cowed easily since Mr. Bossy Bitey-Man is likely to have gotten his way for far too long, and the heroine’s ability to stand up for herself will help the hero understand that he must treat her as an equal.
Are you scoffing at me? Telling me that these books are as rare as a clean port-o-potty during the last day of your state fair? Well, Ms. Skeptical, please look over here and let me introduce you to my new favorite author, the lovely Kendra Leigh Castle.
You might remember Kendra from my kvelling over her novella in the recently reviewed, Vacation with a Vampire, a novella which led me to the related novel she published, Renegade Angel (which was fabulous!!). Seeing the reviews for her Dark Dynasties series and also noticing the third book was available as an ARC from NetGalley, I decided to request it, and based on my faith in her, purchased the first two books in the series.
I was not disappointed! In fact, Kendra’s Dark Dynasties series just made my short list of books I will buy in pre-order and pay full price for since they are so damn well-written. Let’s take a look at the three books in this series and you can tell me what you think, eh?
Dark Awakening (Book 1) – Ty and Lily’s story
Hey, guess what is sexier than a vampire? A vampire with Fae blood running through his veins who can shift into a gorgeous black cat. And what’s even sexier than a prowly, sinuous, shape shifting vampire?
How about a SCOTTISH one.
Get your glass of ice water while you can because Tynan MacGillivray is not going to put aside his sex appeal because you decided to wear too many layers today. Ty is one of the Cat Sith, a vampire sired by a bloodline with a heritage from the Fae which allows its members to shift into beautiful and ferocious black cats.
Unfortunately, this ability is far from valued in a world in which vampires are judged by allegiance to the different dynasties. While once all were considered unique and equal, a hierarchy emerged centuries ago and the Cat Sith are considered the “guttertrash” of the vampire world. Condemned to either be at the fringe of vampire society or to work as slaves to powerful vampires, the majority of Cat Sith have accepted their fate to serve the cruel aristocrats, although their enforced servitude chafes.
Ty has been favored by Arsinoe, the beautiful female vampire who leads the Ptolemy dynasty. Once benevolent toward her Cat Sith subjects, times are changing and not for the better. With her highblood vampires being slaughtered and a powerful Gypsy curse blamed for the murders, Arsinoe has dispatched Tynan, her best Cat Sith tracker and assassin, to find a seer, a human capable of seeing beyond the grave.
Looking for almost a year, he has just about given up when he stumbles across a beautiful English professor, Lily Quinn. He is drawn by her scent to drink her blood and avail himself of the sexual chemistry between them, but before he can enjoy either pleasure, Ty spots an unusual mark on her collarbone, a mark that indicates Lily is claimed by another vampire dynasty rendering her untouchable. Her mind is also closed to him, a fact which marks her as a seer. Saddened by his assignment and the need to deceive her, he goes to her home to explain that he must take her to his vampire leader and deludes her into thinking she can return to her life.
But Lily and Ty find themselves under siege quickly – it seems that Ty isn’t the only one looking for the Seer. On the run, the two of them become painfully aware of the heat between them while learning more about one another. When an attack reveals Lily’s prodigious power, power no human should possess, an understanding of the mysterious dreams she’s experienced since childhood hint at a heritage that puts in her far greater danger than she was before.
I think what blew me away the most in Kendra Leigh Castle’s writing was the almost effortless introduction to the complicated world of vampire dynasties and its politics. The hierarchy of creatures with “highblooded” vampires as a tier of cruel aristrocrats bent on exploiting all other creatures captures the key facet of my top requirement for a paranormal world, namely how it must reflect to some extent the flaws of our own, and prejudice is a good place to start.
Lily is a special person who finds herself almost relieved to finally understand why she has been so different since childhood and the love she has for Ty helps her make the sacrifices necessary for his survival. For Ty, having found a person who sees him for more than his devalued heritage opens his eyes to the transformative power of love and gives him the courage to not only keep Lily safe, but attempt to challenge the very foundations of the only world he has ever known.
The captivating world and wonderful protagonists are actually equalled by the rich secondary characters introduced, characters we naturally want to see more of. Ty’s blood brother on the run, Jaden, and the lovely werewolf he insults at the Chicago safe house, Lyra, were clearly sure bets in the world of a series and the next book lets us into their world.
Midnight Reckoning (Book 2) – Jaden and Lyra’s story
Jaden is happy to have escaped the yoke of the Ptolemy dynasty and has pledged allegiance to the new Lilith dynasty which recognizes the equality of the Cat Sith. With the dissatisfied Ptolemy gunning for the newest vampires on the block, however, vigilance is everyone’s middle name.
When Jaden overhears an altercation during reconnaissance and investigates, he astonished to find the feisty werewolf, Lyra, about to be forcibly mated. Although he is not supposed to interfere in werewolf politics, he intervenes and she is able to escape, albeit after not demonstrating a tremendous amount of gratitude. Considering how rude Jaden was to her the last time they met this isn’t shocking, but when he finds the necklace she lost in the fight, he realizes that his animosity stems from the fact that he’s attracted to her.
This is a horrifying realization. Vampire and werewolf interaction, especially anything romantic is strictly forbidden by both species. In the world of powerful vampires the only creatures more looked down up than the Cat Sith are the werewolves. In turn, werewolves cannot stand “bloodsuckers” and consider them immoral opportunists with no honor.
Thinking that if he sees her again he can convince himself of the temporary nature of his attraction, Jaden heads to the small town in upstate New York that Lyra’s pack calls home. Discovering that she is the daughter of the alpha has pieces beginning to click in Jaden’s mind. He realizes she must be swamped with men attempting to mate her in an effort to annex her political and physical power for themselves.
But the problem goes deeper than that. Lyra’s father explains to Jaden that Lyra is bent on defying centuries of gender expectations by challenging for the beta position in the pack (and thus the heir spot to being the future alpha) and he knows that as good a fighter as she is, she’ll be killed. After seeing Jaden kicking ass vampire style, the desperate father asks Jaden to stay at their house and spend the next month teaching Lyra to fight in the hope that she can learn enough to survive and possibly win.
Lyra is irritated with herself for being so attracted to everything about this vampire, and having him under the same roof isn’t helping her REM sleep much. As Jaden reveals his past and lets her behind his cool vampire exterior, the more right and comfortable it feels to be with him, but she knows this path leads to disaster, for her and for the pack she wants to serve. The hot kisses they exchange ramp up the tension further, and stray vampires coming out the woodwork to kill Jaden only highlight the danger of his presence in pack territory. When all the conflict comes to a head, the fallout is like nothing you’d imagine!
Okay, I did NOT see the bad guy coming on this one! Kendra Leigh Castle displays a mystery/thriller writer’s mastery of weaving competing elements and story strands and giving a few of them a nice twist so you don’t see the unexpected outcomes coming down the pike. This is so rare for a romance writer, but an incredibly welcome talent (there are romantic suspense writers who could take lessons from her). Great continuing story arc from previous book of the Ptolemy vampires bent on causing trouble and I love the development of how Lily is leading the Lilith dynasty into a new era with her openness to alliances like those with werewolves and the Cat Sith. Jaden and Lyra are both hot and sweet together, with each of them filling an emptiness in one another that they didn’t realize existed.
Shadow Rising (Book 3) – Damien and Ariane’s story
In the last two books, we met Damien, the Cat Sith who had pledged himself as a mercenary to the House of the Shades rather than be enslaved by the Ptolemy. On the surface a conscienceless rogue, he nevertheless has helped his Cat Sith brothers Ty and Jaden even when being paid to do otherwise.
As one of the Shades best trackers and assassin, he’s been contracted to find a missing Grigori, a rare breed of vampire characterized by their massive size, white hair and purple eyes. Little is known about them other than their desert dwelling habits and firm policy of non-interference – this is a dynasty of vampires known as the “Watchers” for a reason. Strange that one of them should go rogue, but Damien isn’t being paid to think about it.
Ariane has been a Grigori for over 900 years but she’s treated like a child by the other ancients in their desert compound, never allowed to go off the grounds and reduced to gleaning information about the outside world from books and the humans who are brought to them for sustenance. When her best friend Sammael goes missing and her archenemy Oren is charged with his return, she decides to break the rules and go searching for him herself.
Naturally she and Damien cross paths and both of them are shocked at the meeting. Damien has spent so long with a deadened heart that he’s amazed at the level of fascination both his human self and his cat are experiencing at the smell of this woman. Granted, even with her terrible wig, her lavender eyes (to say nothing of her body) make her the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen, but if there is one rule Damien religiously adheres to, it’s the one that states he works alone. The fact that she seems innocent enough to have grown up in a fairy tale tower seems like an additional complication.
But after Ariane displays how her centuries of near captivity have been spent in honing fighting skills, he’s willing to consider a compromise. Ariane is experiencing lust and desire for the first time and it’s all directed at this gorgeous British vampire with his sandy blond hair and roguish eyes. Damien is brutally honest with her about his many faults and is more than up front about his inability to form attachments, but she sees past the surface to the latent sense of honor and profound loneliness he’s battled for years.
As they both attempt to untangle their true feelings for one another, political machinations of the dynasties put everyone in danger. Other assassins are sent after Sammael and his brother Lucan with Ariane caught in the crossfire and the exposure of a Grigori secret threatens to destroy the world as they know it. With one vampire dynasty weakening and the others bent on protecting their power, it seems unlikely that Damien will be able to face his personal demons and find the happiness with Ariane she seems bent on offering him.
Okay, I’ve loved Damien for two whole books and it was NO surprise to discover this witty hedonist was a former (maybe Regency?) rogue whose father was an Earl. Ariane’s innocence was exactly what he needed to slide under the layer of defenses he’d erected around his heart. The progressing story arc of the continued dynasty struggle was interesting and I enjoyed the additional information surrounding the Empusae dynasty and its problems as well as seeing Vlad Dracul, the head of the Dracul dynasty. That blond, Romanian scholar prince has got some serious sex appeal and I cannot wait to read about his story!
Immortal Craving (Book 4) – Tasmin and Bailey’s story (due out in January 2013?)
The end of the NetGalley ARC had a delicious teaser for the next book in the series, which I totally didn’t expect but was elated to find.
This next installment will star Lily’s good human friend (and animal lover with a penchant for drooly dogs, like her black Newfoundland, Grimm) Bailey Harper partnered with Tasmin Singh, a Rakshasa, a breed of vampire shifter (who can turn into lions) long thought extinct. Immortal Craving, their story, is probably going to come out January of 2013 if the time between publication of the previous books is any indication. The Newfie isn’t the only one drooling in anticipation of this book!
Summary or have you bought them yet?
The only thing I love more than finding a good author is finding a good author with a kick ass series and Kendra Leigh Castle fits the bill. Yes, the whole vampire-as-shifter piece is unusual and sounds like it could be weird, but you probably are an experienced enough reader to realize that any unusual story in the hands of a good writer has tremendous potential. This author has demonstrated a writing style that melds fascinating world building, great characterization, and heart-thumping romance in one series that doesn’t disappoint. Isn’t it what we all want from a good vampire romance?
Take a look at Kendra Leigh Castle’s Dark Dynasties series and be prepared to remember why you liked vampire romance in the first place. She’ll renew your faith in inhumanity. ;-)