I do not understand why so many otherwise normal romance readers get their panties in a bind admitting they enjoy paranormal romance, particularly shifter romance. Haven’t we all felt the lash of people judging us for reading romance? Why would we do this to each other? Sheesh, people.
A good shifter romance is sexy, steamy, and has a fabulous world you can dive into and not resurface until the last page is read. There’s lust and usually the idea that the shifter has a sense of finding his or her “mate.” But the really good shifter romances show the intense attraction between the hero and heroine grow into a deep abiding love based on the knowledge that comes with truly understanding someone. Really amazing shifter romance, like good steampunk, uses the concept of the “other” to highlight issues of racism and discrimination that exist in our world and show us noble characters determined to fight it.
Guess what? Jennifer Ashley writes the amazing kind of shifter romance in her Shifters Unbound series.
You might remember my shameless kvelling over Ashley’s incredible historical romance books, the Highland Pleasures series starring the uber-hot Mackenzie men, and it’s a credit to her versatility that she can transition into paranormal with seemingly effortless grace.
In the first book of the series, Pride Mates, our heroine Kim Fraser boldly goes to the heart of Shiftertown, where the government makes all the shape shifters live, to research a pro bono case her law firm assigned her. Her client, a shifter, has been accused of killing his human girlfriend and Kim is convinced of his innocence, but she knows the jury will be all too willing to believe his guilt. Most people see shifters as wild animals, barely controlled by the magical collars they are forced to wear to keep them from giving in to their violent animal instincts. When her client informs her that no one will talk to her unless she convinces Shiftertown’s second-in-command, Liam Morrissey, of the seriousness of her mission, Kim bravely heads out to do just that.
Liam is a sexy, Irish (yes, I said Irish) feline shifter kept continually busy helping his father run their pride and settle Shiftertown’s disputes. Over 100 years old, yet looking a hunky thirty-something, he’s delighted with the spunk of this gorgeous lawyer. He’s never been attracted to humans before, but for this curvy brunette with her determined chin and brave attitude, he’s willing to defy his father’s edict to get rid of her and actually help her do her job. It doesn’t take him long to realize that this woman is the mate he’s been waiting for all his life, but he also knows that to truly claim her would ruin her career and the life she’s so carefully built.
Anyone who loves the Highland Pleasures series will see a few similarities in how Ashley constructs her characters. Her heroes are strong and often playful, but have tortured pasts and secrets they slowly dole out to the heroine as she earns their trust and love. The female leads are feisty (who else can stand up to these alpha males?) but loving, and usually take one look at the males’ close family relationships, either genetic or purposely chosen, and realize that they are keepers. Kim and Liam have such amazing banter that you are grinning like an idiot half the time and the sexual tension and love scenes have you reaching for a glass of ice water and it’s not because Ashley transmits a sense of the Austin, Texas heat.
The world-building is what totally blew me away. I knew Jennifer Ashley had the ability to plunge me into a vivid world (she did it with Victorian England and Scotland already with the Mackenzies), but I had no idea she was capable (or quite honestly that any author was capable) of placing me in an all-too-believable world of discrimination and secrecy. Shifters were created by the duplicitous Fae, who attempted to breed humans and animals with magic to create an army. This backfired as shifters were too powerful to become docile. Hiding among humans for centuries, the shifters were feared and hunted when their presence became known. With poor infant mortality rates and facing regular starvation, Liam, his widowed father, Dylan, and his brothers Sean and Kenny decided to have their families take the collar – a magical Fae-infused device which would control their violent tendencies by inflicting tremendous pain upon them.
This process was unbelievably painful, yet being able to control their feral tendencies and live in relative peace with each other (and among different species of shifters, unheard of in the wild) was the reasonable trade-off. Yet Kenny lost his mate when she gave birth to their son, Connor, and Kenny died later at the hands of a feral shifter, leaving his father and brothers to raise his son. But while human governments think they have shifters under control, in actuality this group has been trained in brilliant subterfuge for a millennia They have coping strategies unknown to humans, both regarding the collars that attempt to control them as well as in living their lives within the ghetto-like confines of their towns and the Jim Crow-like laws which rule their behavior. It’s a brilliant world, all too believable once you get used to the idea of shape shifters.
The second book in the series, Primal Bonds, focuses on Sean, the second brother and the all-important guardian of Shiftertown. Sean Morrissey is bonded to the Fae-infused sword of the Guardian, a sword created by one of his ancestors and handed down through his family. His job is vital to shifters yet makes him a feared individual among them – the sword is used to dispatch shifters to the Summerland or their afterlife, making him a specter of death. Because women shy from anything permanent with such a sober job description, he offers to mate-claim Andrea Gray, the niece of family friend (and his father’s lover) Glory, despite never having set eyes on the wolf shifter.
Andrea is half-Fae, half-Lupine and that heritage has made her life a misery in the Colorado town she grew up in. When the jackass son of the leader tries to forcibly mate-claim her, she turns to her aunt for help. Getting off the bus in Austin, Texas, she’s astonished that the man kind enough to mate-claim her so she can make her escape is the gorgeous Guardian of the town. His Irish accent and underlying playfulness is a fascinating counterpart to his all-too-serious job, but the Fae part of Andrea is called to Sean. On his part, Sean realizes this is no mere claim-of-convenience as the gorgeous wolf with the dark gray eyes is someone he must take to mate. While swirling power struggles among the shifters and the Fae try to keep them apart, Andrea and Sean might hold the key to freeing the shifters from some of the bonds that try and hold them.
Sean is a total hunk, playful in his own way like Liam but more intense and with plenty of guilt due to his job description. Andrea is different from all other wolf shifters because of her Fae side, and Ashley does a terrific job of introducing us to the world of Fae as Andrea begins to uncover more information about her father and some of her remarkable abilities, particularly with Sean helping and protecting her.
The prequel novella, Shifter Made, is the prefect next step to the series to read after Sean and Andrea’s story. The relationship Sean has to the sword of the Guardian (and Andrea’s affinity to it as well) makes the story of the sword’s creation so welcome. The master sword maker and metalsmith Niall O’Connell hates the Fae, remembering how they enslaved his people, and he has his hands full raising his motherless sons and keeping food on the table. When a beautiful Fae princess comes into his life to ask him to make a sword, he knows there is no trusting her, but her beauty cannot be denied. Alanna has been sent by her manipulative brother to medieval Ireland to put her own brand of magic into a sword that will bring the shifters to heel, but she has other ideas of rebellion, ideas that expand beyond helping the shifters after she feels the attraction to the ruggedly handsome Niall.
I have to admit to a real soft spot in the shifter novel universe for bear shifters (I guess I go for the big, cuddly type that can turn badass when properly riled) so I was ecstatic when Ashley released Bodyguard, the novella about the Kodiak bear-shifter, Ronan, who works as bouncer at the Morrissey’s shifter pub.
Plenty of shifters shop at the funky novelty store owned by Elizabeth Chapman and her sister, Mabel, so when Ronan is in there late one night looking for a present for his housemate Rebecca, the last thing he expects to see is the cute human owner being held at shotgun point by some punk kid. He doesn’t think twice before shifting and taking down the would-be killer even though the cops who come on the scene arrest him for attacking a human.
Elizabeth does not need all this attention from the police but there is no way she isn’t coming to the defense of the kind – and seriously hot – shifter who got shot and arrested for his pains. She does what he asks and calls in Shiftertown’s leader and his human mate who is a lawyer. Hoping it will all blow over, she’s dismayed to discover that the brother of the obnoxious sociopath who was going to kill her is an equally scary organized crime boss and he’s determined she won’t get to testify. Ronan insists on taking her to his house and it’s not long before she gets a good look at his caring nature and his luscious body.
Ronan realizes quickly that Elizabeth is hiding something huge about her past, but he trusts her, so much that when the Morrissey leaders try and force her to tell them her secrets, Ronan mate-claims her to keep them at bay. Slowly showing her she can trust him, this burly bear lets Elizabeth come to him to share her sweet kisses and her body, which he is happy to guard. When another threat from her past is unleashed, Ronan is happy to take on all comers and insure that this tough, sexy human is his forever.
I just want to cuddle up with a bear as patient and kind as Ronan (but who turn into a gigantic, enraged Kodiak bear when necessary) and this novella at $.99 on Amazon.com is a total bargain. We get a slightly different combination of partners in the third official novel (the fifth work) in the series, Wild Cat, when Ashley decides to move out of Texas to the Las Vegas shiftertown. Eric Warden came to Austin in Sean and Andrea’s story, Primal Bonds, on Dylan Morrissey’s suggestion and stayed to help them fight the Fae threat. He’s back on his home turf with his sister and second-in-command, fellow feline shifter Cassidy , who is commemorating the one year anniversary of her mate’s murder.
Cassidy has a problem, though. She’s being followed and shot at by an unknown assailant and when she tries to escape in cat form to an abandoned, half-built highrise to evade him, the cops show up. Las Vegas Detective Diego Escobar can’t believe that he has to go up to the 51st floor to figure out what has happened to the cops who investigated the trespass call. But hearing shots fired, he doesn’t have a choice – he’s just got to put the horrible night out of his mind when he almost fell to his death and then watched his partner and best friend get shot in front of him. It’s easy to forget when he sees a gorgeous Snow Leopard, clearly a female shifter, shift to her naked female form to save him when her assailant is busy shooting at them both. Getting her free takes some doing, but he’s responsible for her and, by God, he’s going to figure out what’s going on. He doesn’t know much about shifters, but this stunning blond is all he can think about and he’s vouched for her behavior and her safety.
Cassidy can’t believe that this human is stirring her blood in a way she hasn’t experienced since her mate’s death. She knows someone is hunting her but she cannot figure out why. Diego doesn’t understand shifters, but he doesn’t back down from Cassidy or her alpha brother Eric, so his strength is clear. Can they trust him with their secrets, at least enough to figure out what is going on? Particularly if they are right and the duplicitous Fae are involved again?
I was leery of moving the Shifters Unbound storyline out of Texas (I love my Morrisseys and Ronan!) but Las Vegas has an equally as compelling shifter presence and I did like Eric Warden. Luckily Cassidy is a terrific character, honestly mourning her mate but displaying the shifter openness of not denying what she is feeling for the sexy Diego Escobar. Ashley’s usual adept characterization is fabulous and the story arc is one that continues themes laid down in previous books with plenty of loose ends to be continued in future ones. It’s wonderful.
Jennifer Ashley’s propensity for writing meaty novellas in between the full-length novels are a series reader’s dream, especially since they never feel half-assed or with a plot simply tacked on like so many other authors. In Hard Mated, we are back in Austin with the Morrissey’s tattooed tracker Spike, who has just been informed by an adorable human that he is the father of a cub. Seeing as the mother of his child was a shifter groupie one-night stand and that shifters have a hard time fathering children, this astonishes him, but no more than discovering that the formerly vibrant woman is dying of cancer. Her death leaves him with the custody of a wild little cat shifter who simply won’t behave. Spike might be able to break feral shifters to his will but he has no skill set for dealing with a willful little boy who just lost the only Mom he ever knew.
Myka is mourning the death of her best friend, Jillian, and worried about her little four-year-old son Jordan. She found Jordan’s shifter father working off steam at a fight club and it’s clear he doesn’t have other children. His physical appeal can’t be denied – the guy is gorgeous – but he also didn’t say a lot so she has no idea whether Jordan is safe with him. Myka’s also got the major problem of losing her livelihood if the stable owners where she trains quarter horses for a living decide to sell since there’s no way she and the other workers can buy such an expensive facility, but as important as that is, Jordan takes precedence.
Spike’s son is cutting a destructive swath through his house and even his grandmother doesn’t seem to know the best way to deal with the little guy. His job as a tracker means he’s at the leader’s beck and call, but Spike is all too aware that Liam Morrissey doesn’t really know him or trust him. Liam inherited Spike from the previous shifter leader, the megalomaniacal Fergus, after killing the bastard in a dominance fight. Spike likes working for Liam and thinks he’s a better leader, but he finally has something in his life, Jordan, that is more important than running Liam’s errands. When Myka shows up to check on Jordan, something clicks inside Spike. With her clear-eyed gaze and perceptive mind, Myka sees past Spike’s tough facial expression and tattoos to the giving person who cares for his family and wants to do the right thing. The fact she’s comfortable sassing the leader of Shiftertown and telling him how he doesn’t appreciate Spike only makes him that much happier. But past threats put Myka and little Jordan in the line of fire and Spike decides that he’s willing to fight anyone, and sacrifice anything, to keep them both safe.
I loved Spike and the perspicacious Myka, but was dying to get back to Las Vegas. While Cassidy and Diego had their plot line in Wild Cat, the other burning question was what was going to happen to Iona Duncan, the secret shifter living as a human who Eric Warden met and was attracted to? In the fourth full-length novel of the series, Mate Claimed, we get our answer.
Eric has kept a close eye on the stunning and sexy Iona Duncan since the minute he scented her in the shifter bar. An unclaimed female shifter, secretly living as a human, is a powderkeg waiting for a spark, but Eric is reluctant to drag her into Shiftertown and slap a collar on her like he knows he should. Iona is in the prime of her fertile years and clearly beginning the mating frenzy. After having denied her shifter side for her whole life, she needs Eric to help her accept who she is, and he is more than willing to help this raven-haired beauty.
The problem is that Eric had a mate long ago and has a fully-grown son, the powerful Jace. He knows that he should bring Iona in and encourage one of his unmated males to claim her but there is no way he can do that. The months of tracking her (and kissing her senseless) has been a way of keeping her all to himself, but he realizes a move will have to be made, and soon, since Iona is finding it tougher to keep from her panther form as the restlessness of her frenzy takes over. He is not about to let this beautiful woman go feral if he can help it. That Eric also has to deal with the idiot humans relocating a town of Lupine shifters into his Shiftertown is an unwelcome distraction. He’d much rather be spending all his time helping Iona than fighting dominance battles with Graham, the new wolf leader determined to oust Eric.
Iona does not know what to make of Eric. Yes, with his rock hard body and green eyes, he sets her blood on fire, but Iona has kept her shifter self hidden for years, not just because she would have to take the collar, but to protect her mother and sister who could go to jail for keeping her off the government radar for those decades. That Eric doesn’t try and force her to his will, just tempts her constantly, is a mark in his favor, but the world gets more dangerous when the town council chooses her construction company to build the new houses in Shiftertown. Iona is exposed to more shifters, including the wolf leader challenging Eric, and she is now caught between them.
Iona is a giving person who is nevertheless strong and dominant whether in human or her panther form. I loved how Eric held himself back, playing with Iona sexually (and boy, did they play! Yowza.) but not pushing her to have sex even though he knew with her mating frenzy he could have easily convinced her to succumb to him. This was honestly one of the most psychological books in the series so far, with Iona wrestling with accepting her nature and easing into the Warden family and Shiftertown prior to giving herself fully to Eric. On the flip side, Eric knows he wants Iona and readily admits that there’s no way another man will have her, but he has to undergo an emotional realization that he actually loves her, an epiphany that means he has to acknowledge he’s ready to move on from mourning his lost mate after all these years. It’s deeply moving, yet Ashley mixes sex and love in the perfect dose, all the while giving us conflict within Shiftertown (Graham and his Lupine crew) and the new villainous threat of humans, past and present, who experiment on shifters. I think it’s one of the most mind-blowing books of the series!
At the end of Mate Claimed, there is a delicious preview of the next full-length novel of the series, Tiger Magic, which stars the super shifter Iona frees from the government facility, the tiger with no name. He’s relocated to the Austin shiftertown and helps a beautiful human with car problems, but I’m thinking with that hunk of cat, she’s going to be getting much more than she bargained for (lucky woman)! But since that book is not coming out until June 2013, I’m more intrigued by the lack of information regarding the next interim novella, to be found in Angela Knight’s anthology, Unbound, to be published March 5, 2013. How can we not have an inkling about who this will focus on? Will it be Peigi, the damaged uncollared shifter freed by Cassidy and Diego, and Reid, the Fae who loves her? Ellison, the hunky Texan wolf tracker (I’m hoping Ellison gets his own book, FYI)? Well, both Kindle editions are pre-ordered, so I’m all set.
No matter who is the focus, I guarantee that, in the hands of Jennifer Ashley, it’s going to be another amazing shifter romance. Thanks for all your hard work and imagination, Jennifer!!!