Archive | November, 2012

Alpha Angels and the Kick Ass Heroines Who Love Them: Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter Series

27 Nov

Angel’s Blood (Guild Hunter #1) (Berkley, April 3, 2009)

There is a fine line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance and I’m sure I’ll do a “Professor Tori” post on exactly what that is, because it’s darn interesting. Nalini Singh, a powerhouse author in the romance world, writes both with enough crossover that she’s not easy to pigeonhole. The good news is that she’s such a talented writer you don’t care what category she falls in and simply lay back and savor every word of her books. As with all overviews of series, this post will naturally hold some spoilers since you can figure out from one novel later in the series what has happened earlier, but I’ll do my best not to give it all away and just give you the highlights.

Most of the Guild Hunter series falls under the category of urban fantasy, with characters engaged in a battle of good versus evil in an urban setting, characters like Elena Deveraux, a Guild Hunter. Elena lives in a New York not far removed from the one we know, except for one rather large difference. In her New York, angels rule large swaths of the world as territories, granting immortal life to chosen humans who are made by them into vampires – vampires who enter into indentured servitude to angels in exchange for their extended life.

But not all vampires are able to leave their human independence behind for the necessary amount of time to pay back their debt, or they fail to follow the careful proscribed rules regarding how to treat humans. Once they step outside the line, an international organization, the Guild, comprised of the best vampire trackers anywhere, dispatches one of its own to run down and subdue the rogue vampire. These trackers are often endowed with an additional ability to actually scent vampires and gravitate to the Guild. This is not just because their nature makes them unhappy if they are not doing the work they were meant to do, but also because they don’t truly fit into any society. The angels are remote and inaccessible to everyone but vampires, the vampires see humans as food, and humans view Guild Hunters with suspicion.

In Angel’s Blood, this is the world Elena Deveraux knows, but she came into her ability in a brutal way, watching most of her family brutally slaughtered by a mentally ill vampire when she was just a child. Rejected by her surviving father and sister, the Guild has become Elena’s life and she’s damn good at what she does. Her friends in the Guild are real family and she loves the life she’s made for herself.

It’s a life that quickly takes on new meaning when she is summoned to the Angel’s Tower, headquarters of Raphael, the archangel who rules the East Coast with New York as his base of operations. She has seen the angels, flying to and from the Tower roof from the balcony of her apartment, but never thought to see any angel in person, to say nothing of the angel, Raphael himself. At most he does his business through the Seven, the seven angels and vampires utterly loyal to him who conduct his business and punish those who step out of line. Raphael has contracted her to do a job, but why on earth can’t he just go through the Guild like business as usual? When she finds herself on the roof of the Tower facing the most beautiful creature she’s ever seen, she realizes nothing in her life would ever be the same from this moment on.

Raphael is fascinated by the human hunter in front of him. Her gorgeous blond hair is a stark contrast to her honey skin and North African features but what strikes him most is her demeanor. Only a fool wouldn’t be scared in the presence of an angel with their prodigious strength and mental power, and Elena Devereaux is not a fool. But despite her fear, she is able to demonstrate her amazing scenting ability and stand up to him to demand respect, even knowing she could be killed.

He has always been attracted to warrior women over the centuries that he’s been in existence and this one has him truly fascinated. He even thinks he could trust her, which is a good development since what she will be tracking could wreak destruction on not just her corner of New York but the whole world. But this human holds her in hands the power to also end Raphael’s existence by making him vulnerable in a way he’s never been before, and it may mean the death of them both.

Let me make perfectly clear that I challenge anyone to come up with an alpha male more alpha than Raphael. When your love interest is about a thousand years old, has prodigious physical strength, possesses major mental powers, and holds the ability to kill or have killed almost anyone he knows, well, it’s not boasting to know you are the top of the food chain and everyone serves at your pleasure. That Nalini Singh understands that Raphael’s alpha constitution is both a flaw and a strength is what makes her such an incredible writer. Raphael struggles to understand the boundaries that Elena insists on and is, no lie, ready to die for in order for them to be equal in at least one way in their relationship. Elena must be Elena and for a while you’re not really sure if Raphael has the ability to change, since he’s never asked to by anyone. Ever.

But the act of beginning to respect Elena’s needs, of negotiating with her so he can exercise his desire to protect from other dangers like himself, and of finding a way to be her equal in their relationship is an unadulterated joy to witness. She is more important to him than asserting his power just because he can, and that’s unbelievably sexy.

Angel’s Pawn (Guild Hunter #.5 – Ashwini and Janvier’s prequel novella) (Berkley, March 3, 2009)

In Angel’s Pawn, we have a prequel to Angel’s Blood with Elena’s fellow Guild Hunter, the former dancer, Ashwini, once again in the South on the trail of her perpetual nemesis, the sexy vampire Janvier. He’s always managed to make peace at the last minute with the angels who send her after him but they’ve taken each other on some pretty fun chases over the years. This time, the court of angel Nazarach, filled with cruelty and intrigue, has fallen under suspicion and Ashwini and Janvier must go in as partners to determine what really is going on. Can Ashwini keep reminding herself that getting involved with Janvier is a bad idea or will his sweet southern drawl and good looks supercede her good sense?

Major warning. Ashwini and Janvier will have their own book in the future but this isn’t it; rather this is a novella that is meant to show the complexities of the angel system of rule and the level of cruelty which exists within the structure. The side benefit is that we get to see the smokin’ level of sexual tension (and essentially the inherent sympathy) between these two characters, who are fantastic. Janvier shares the vampire allure of someone who has lived for centuries, with all the sensual knowledge inherent in that existence. Yet for all those years, Janvier sees something unique and special with Ashwini, who doesn’t lack her own secrets and perspective. For her to be drawn to what she must hunt (a vampire in general and Janvier specifically), is a dangerous situation for both her body and her heart.

“Angel’s Judgement” (Guild Hunter #1.5 –  Sara and Deacon’s story) in Must Love Hellhounds anthology (Berkley, September 1, 2009)

Novellas for series often crop up in anthologies and the Guild Hunter series is no exception. In Must Love Hellhounds, we find Angel’s Judgement (also available along with several other series novellas in the anthology Angel’s Flight) which, despite it’s being named #1.5 in the Guild Hunter series, should be actually numbered. #.75 since it happens at least a year or so prior to Angel’s Blood.

It’s an important year. Sara Haziz is a Guild Hunter and a good one despite her small size. Her current boss is ready to retire and he wants to name her the next Guild Director, a job she’s not 100% sure she’s up to, but she’s interested. While the angels decide if she’s right for the position she also must solve a mystery regarding someone targeting vampires, a mystery man identified by victims as  a Guild Hunter.  When a gorgeous, gigantic man shows up to question her collared vamp, she can’t help that her heart is beating faster and she wants to lick him all over. She might capture vampires but she’s only human.

Sara’s astonished to discover that the huge man helping her is none other than Deacon, the Slayer, whose job it is to hunt Guild Hunters if they go rogue. She had no idea that he was so young, so good looking, or the same famed weapons maker she’s admired for years, but with his warm hands and deep voice, she’s more than a little drawn to the total package. He’s also a great partner, but she realizes that this case is getting more complicated by the minute. If she accepts the Guild Director job, she’ll be Deacon’s boss, so there’s no relationship allowed there. She also can’t ask him to leave his work since he’s a private person who would abhor being with a woman who had a highly visible job, involving glittering parties and political machinations.

Deacon can’t believe the crappy description he got of Sara Haziz; why did no one mention that she was a petite, curvy goddess? The way she handles a crossbow would make any weapons master hot and Deacon plans to get the most out of their time together. It’s lonely being the Slayer. Who wants to really get close to someone who may be assigned to take you down one day? But Sara doesn’t seem afraid of anything and it’s easy to see she’d make a great Guild Director – particularly with the angels constantly testing her toughness, distracting them both while they are trying to solve this case. But more difficult than the constant fighting is when he begins to realize that walking away and leaving Sara to pursue her bright future might be the hardest thing he’s ever done.

If you don’t adore Deacon and Sara…well…I have no use for you. You have a dead heart, because these two are a fabulous couple, great hunters, and clearly meant to be together. The ending was AMAZING and actually chokes me up and makes me grin like an idiot, all at the same time. Genius.

Archangel’s Kiss (Guild Hunter #2) (Berkley, February 2, 2010)

In the next full-length book in the Guild Hunter series, Elena wakes up from her year-long coma more than a little surprised at her transformation. In Archangel’s Kiss, we see the ramifications of Raphael’s unconscious decision at the end of Angel’s Blood, namely that he has made her an angel, a phenomenon which has not occurred for thousands of years. Her friends are ready to storm the Tower (after being put off for almost a year they’re convinced she’s dead or a vampire) and Elena can’t get over the stunning dark wings the color of twilight she’s sporting.

Raphael is elated that Elena is finally awake, but as a newly made angel she’s almost more delicate than she was as a human. He takes her to the Refuge for safety and to learn how to be an angel, but she faces threats there as well, from his enemies who are irritated at this show of Raphael’s ability and who realize that Elena is his only weakness. Although he wants to give her plenty of time to find her wings and train with his Seven to be strong again, an unspeakable crime leaves him with no choice but to call upon Elena’s tracking ability, even when the ultimate danger comes knocking at his door.

For Elena she realizes that being “immortal” isn’t a reality for another couple of centuries and she’s got to get strong fast for both her sake and Raphael’s. She’s unbelievably annoyed with him for being such a mother hen and his behavior causes a major renegotiation of their relationship; she has to make him realize that she’s got to be herself or die trying. His Seven see her as a weakness and are not thrilled (well, most of them aren’t thrilled) at her continued presence in his life, but they resign themselves to protecting her for Raphael’s sake, especially if it means beating the crap out of her in the practice ring to help “train” her. With any luck, her natural strength, her new wings, and the efforts of the Seven will help her face the threat so determined to end her life with Raphael before it even has a chance to begin.

Such a great book on so many levels! Seeing the natural outcome of the power shift between Elena and Raphael (and how Raphael is such a total newbie in even having a relationship) is actually very sweet and hot and you share Elena’s frustration when Raphael is treating her with kid gloves, particularly in the bedroom. A big part of this book happens at the Refuge, the secret area where the angels are born and raised, guarding their most important asset, their young. Not only does this help us understand them better, but it also introduces many characters, like the teacher Jessamy of the broken wing, and the various members of Raphael’s Seven who we haven’t yet met. The more I find out about archangels, particularly the psychotic ones, the less I like them, and the risk they pose to Elena is a very real one, particularly when a certain archangel gets in her head to dredge up the dark ghosts of Elena’s past.

Archangel’s Consort (Guild Hunter #3) (Berkley, January 25, 2011)

With the archangel Cadre reshuffling after their recent balance of power has changed, Elena and Raphael return to New York in Archangel’s Consort and Elena begins to feel she can get on with her life. Wearing Raphael’s amber (and he hers) means they belong to one another, but when she is called upon to do her Guild Work again after a vampire attacks a girls’ school, what she finds has her loyalty split between the Guild and Raphael, and it’s not easy. The fact that one of her half-sisters was the actual target also complicates things, specifically because it stirs up a life’s worth of animosity and secrets between her estranged father and herself.

When one strange thing after another begins to happen, it becomes clear that more than a vampire is at work and Raphael begins to withdraw, suspecting his mother, the archangel Caliane. Elena begins to realize that what’s worse than having a mother-in-law is having an archangel mother-in-law who disappeared after going the archangel version of batshit crazy. Powerful archangels have the ability to “sleep” for centuries in order to restore themselves and indications are occurring that Caliane could be awakening, possibly not in a restored state, with disastrous results for the world and for Raphael.

The mother-in-law storyline is a wonderful device in his novel, as it adds a layer of relationship complexity in a story that could easily be about Elena adjusting to life as a angel out in the world, as a Guild Hunter with torn loyalties and as a daughter forced to face painful secrets. An old nemesis is certainly present stirring up trouble and Elena has to also deal with the members of the Seven who love her and the ones who definitely don’t. Where other authors could have let the series slump, Singh is full speed ahead, with Elena fighting for Raphael as he faces the dark reality of what he could easily become.

Archangel’s Blade (Guild Hunter #4 – Dmitri and Honor’s story) (Berkley, September 6, 2011)

After reading so much about the Seven, the angels and vampires who make up Raphael’s elite guard, it’s wonderful to have a novel devoted to one of them, and Singh does not leave us wanting as she focuses on the hottest, sexiest member, the seductive vampire Dmitri in Archangel’s Blade.

Dmitri’s been a pain in Elena’s ass from day 1, but a hot pain in the ass  and the reader never doubts his loyalty or his deadliness. He’s an old, old friend of Raphael’s (their relationship began when Dmitri was human centuries ago) and Raphael is only person who actually understands why Dmitri is as dark as he is. This particular vampire is only capable of finding pleasure in pain because all the love was violently removed from his life in one fell swoop long ago.

Honor is a Guild Hunter who lived through inconceivable torture at the hands of vampires. She’s been holed up in Guild Headquarters trying to recover, but she is only too aware of how shattered she is, and her friends can see it too. Yet when her boss Sara asks her to work with Dmitri on a case, she’s not sure she is going to be able to follow orders. There is no doubting that Dmitri is stirring something within her that hasn’t moved since before her trauma, but he’s not to be trusted and she needs the next man to touch her to be trusted above all else. Plus, ever since she’s spent time with Dmitri she has been having vivid dreams of someone else’s life and she suspects it might be his. It’s disturbing and making her feel things better left alone.

This book gets a lot of strong feedback on Goodreads, with people either loving it (it’s Dmitri after all) or taking vocal issue with the very paranormal piece of Honor’s past. I not only have no problem with it, I adore the solution, since I choose to think of Dmitri’s centuries of man-whoring as his violent acting out after losing the only thing which meant anything to him, his family. Because someone with such violent passions is bound to have only one true love, Singh did exactly what any writer should have done and yet showed us how strong and different Honor was from any woman Dmitri knew before. It’s pure gold and there is something extraordinary at seeing someone so dark embrace love again.

Angels of Darkness (Guild Hunter #4.5 – Noel and Nimra’s story) (Berkley, October 4, 2011)

The next novella, Angel’s Wolf, published in the anthology Angels of Darkness, takes us away from Raphael’s court but with a tie to it nonetheless. Noel was a victim in a previous book, a vampire tortured so profoundly that he wished he had been able to die. Sent to the court of the angel Nimra, Raphael’s foremost angel in the Louisiana territory, he expects nothing but cruelty from her, even though she is breathtaking. But as he sees the respect she shows all who work for her and the love she receives in return, he questions how she is able to maintain control. In the world he knows, angels must show brutality and ruthlessness to the forces who would otherwise usurp their power.

Nimra has a particular power that lets her harm only those who would seek to harm her or encroach on her territory. She has carried the pain of loss through the centuries and now an attack from within has her horrified that she has a traitor in her midst. Nimra is grateful for the competent and masterful vampire Raphael has sent to help her, but she can see how damaged Noel is from his attack and how his strong personality could easily try and dominate her own. The question remains whether it would be worth the challenge to have such a partner, especially one that makes her heart feel that which she thought it never would again.

Noel is heartbreakingly wonderful, an alpha hero who manages the trick of respecting the angel who rules while also being a man around her in the fullest sense. His distrust of her is only natural after what he experienced, so it’s all the more meaningful as he slowly lets down his barriers, encouraging Nimra – loyal and kind Nimra – to do the same. If you’re an animal lover, do yourself a favor and have tissues handy. This one is a doozy.

Angel’s Flight (containing all previous published novellas and the new novella, Guild Hunter #4.75 – Jessamy and Galen’s story)

The next anthology is actually the one that readers wanting the whole series should get, as it compiles all of the previous novellas mentioned (Ashwini and Janvier in Angel’s Pawn, Sara and Deacon in Angel’s Judgement, and Noel and Nimra in Angel’s Wolf) plus a new novella, Angel’s Flight.

Angel’s Flight focuses on one particular angel we already love and respect, the lovely, willowy teacher in the Refuge, Jessamy. She has been the angel historian for centuries, but because of her crippled wing, she has the task of teaching the little ones their history. While she adores working with the children, her self-consciousness about her condition has kept her from having meaningful relationships with men since she is all too conscious she is not the equal of an angel who will naturally want to fly with his lover.

Galen is the new weapons master to Raphael, having transfered from a rival court where he had no hope of advancement. He’s hoping to give his loyalty to Raphael and eventually become one of his guard and is prepared to work his butt off to prove himself to this impressive archangel. One look at Jessamy and Galen begins to think he could win something much more than just a position in Raphael’s court, he could win a woman’s heart. But part of that game will be convincing her of her own worth and showing her how she is more free to choose than she currently believes.

Oh my God, Galen is such a guy, exactly what you would expect from a weapons master who is brawny and makes killing tools out of leather and steel! But the unlikely pairings are the ones that we like the best, aren’t they, and intellectual, delicate Jessamy with someone who could probably star in a gladiator movie is the ultimate odd couple. A hot odd couple, FYI, and he sees exactly who Jessamy is and what she’s been hiding all these years. Not content to allow her to stunt her potential, he challenges her every step of the way, pushing her out of her comfort zone while providing unconditional backup. This novella is actually a prequel and could easily be read prior to any of the series, but it’s great where it is, giving more insight into the two characters and a lot more insight into angel politics (a nice segway into the next full-length novel) and the Refuge.

Archangel’s Storm (Guild Hunter #5 – Jason and Mahiya’s story) (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

Rather than an Elena and Raphael book (the next one is due out in 2013, I believe), Singh focuses on another member of the Seven, and a damn elusive one at that for the next full-length novel. Jason is the ultimate spymaster for Raphael, an angel with wings black as night who can cloak himself in shadow and hear whispers on the wind of political machinations happening around the world.

In Archangel’s Storm, this ability makes Jason the perfect angel to send to the court of rival archangel Neha. Neha is the queen of poison and her court is beautiful and very deadly, particularly to her consort who has just turned up murdered. Neha had kept him imprisoned for centuries after she discovered he had cuckholded her with her own sister, who produced a child from the union, the Princess Mahiya.

Mahiya may be young in angel years but she’s old in the ways of Neha’s political manipulations. Growing up in an environment where she could trust no one, surrounded by selfish angels who knew Mahiya’s very existence was a reminder of her sister and her consort’s ultimate betrayal, wasn’t a condition that lent itself to fast friendships. She had even been used before by male angels bent on having her body and heart only to break her for Neha’s pleasure.

It’s a history that makes her wary when the dark and beautiful Jason arrives to investigate the death of Neha’s one true love. Mahiya has her own reasons for helping him and quickly realizes in his presence that here is one angel who could really break her heart. He’s noble and kind, sensual and deadly, and Neha finally might have met her match in him and his ruler, Raphael. When Mahiya and Jason realize that Mahiya’s own past is playing a part in the deadly game afoot in the court, they also are aware that he is probably her only hope of survival.

I wasn’t sure what I thought of Jason being the next in line for his own novel (I, like everyone, am waiting with bated breath for Bluebell’s story) but I should have just trusted Nalini Singh who has never, in any series, led me wrong. Jason is a strong hero more than capable of holding an entire book on his strong shoulders and the erosion of his spymaster wariness of Mahiya is a pleasure to witness. Seeing this poor young angel finally find a measure of happiness after a lifetime of living under Neha’s thumb is its own reward as well and I adored the ending when she finally realized what her life could finally be. So sweet.

The year 2013 will be a good one with more Guild Hunter books on the horizon. Honestly, between this and the Psy-Changeling series, I give Nalini Singh a major tip of the hat for her productivity. For a writer to produce so many books and novellas in multiple series each year – and that they each are of outstanding quality with zero slacking visible – makes me think that she’s a writing genius and a productive one at that. If she ever needs anyone to come do her laundry or walk her dog, I’ll fly to New Zealand if it means helping her get more writing time behind her computer!

Many thanks to Nalini Singh for her fertile imagination, unparalleled writing ability and to Berkley Romance for having the good sense to publish her. All your hard work is appreciated, I promise. :-)

Doranna Durgin Adds Another Strong Shifter to her Sentinels Series with Kodiak Chained

25 Nov

Kodiak Chained (Sentinels #5) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, November 13, 2012 for paperback, December 1, 2012 for ebook)

For people who enjoy paranormal romance, there are always bigwig authors like Nalini Singh, Jennifer Ashley, and Shelly Laurenston to satisfy a desire for sexy shifters who protect what’s theirs, but what if you are high and dry between releases? Truth be told, there are plenty of highly mediocre shifter romances on the market and once burned, twice shy. However, I’d strongly encourage you to take the plunge with Doranna Durgin and her Sentinels series, particularly since she just added to it with her latest novel, Kodiak Chained.

Durgin has created a world in which she has rooted an ancient sibling conflict and obscured it through time, with growing repercussions for her modern characters. Long ago a woman married a druid and had a son, a son who possessed the magical ability to change into a wild boar. After her husband was killed, she was given to a Roman and had a son with him as well. The second son felt the power given to the first was wrong, and vowed to hunt him in order to protect the people who could not shift. The descendants of the boar, many of whom took other animal forms, felt their duty was to the earth, to protect it and the weaker forms of life (human or animal).

What makes Durgin’s world building so clever is that she shows how, in modern times, all this noble protecting from both sides has gone a little south. The people who identify with the intentions of the ancient Roman son call themselves the Atrum Core. While technically they answer to their princes and have treaties in place in order to live with a strict set of rules alongside the shifters, known as sentinels, the reality is that many of them are filled with hate, hate manifesting itself in mad scientists and magic wielders bent on shifter destruction. The sentinels are certainly our heroes and heroines, but even they struggle as much of their world suffocates under layers of bureaucracy and out-of-touch leaders.

I approached this series slightly backwards, becoming intrigued with the world via the NetGalley of Kodiak Chained and then purchasing all the books in the series (which were all a pretty terrific value at around $3.50 per ebook for 240 to 280 pages each) and reading them in order. I don’t think it’s necessary to read all of them to understand what’s going on, but they are certainly enjoyable with a few really standout novels that I’ll be rereading in the months to come. Let’s tackle them in order, though, so you can be brought along slowly (skip ahead to the book you’d like information on if you’re already familiar with some of these!).

Jaguar Night (Sentinels #1) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, April 1, 2009)

The first book published in the series was Jaguar Night and it does a terrific job orienting readers to the backstory of the world as well as the current bureaucratic struggles. Dolan Trevino finds himself on the dusty Texas ranch where his older brother met his death years ago trying to protect a young coyote-shifter mother who could wield powerful magic, magic that has been hiding an object the Core would do anything to get their hands on. Now the ranch is in the hands of the daughter of that shifter and Dolan finds he is fascinated by this strong woman who wants nothing to do with sentinels, no matter how in danger she might be.

Meghan Lawrence can’t shift herself, nor does she have the ability to wield strong magic like her mother could. Raised by her aunt after her mother was murdered when Meghan was just a child, she remembers that they were both pretty much written off by the sentinels and she’ll be damned if she’s going to help them now, not even when their emissary is an unbelievably sexy jaguar shifter. She sends him on his way but when she finds him dying after an attack, treating him is a given and she’s shocked to find that the bond between them is much stronger and more compelling than she realized. What’s more, the more time she spends with him, the more her own previously weak magic is awakened. Whether it will be in time to save them and the ranch she loves from the Core, is another matter entirely.

It’s immediately apparent to even a city reader that Durgin knows what she’s talking about when she describes ranch life (and for the matter, her animal observations are outstanding throughout the series – she’s clearly part naturalist). Meghan is easy to sympathize with considering the level of rejection her family experienced from the sentinels who believed them too weak and just wrote them off as not being an asset. Add to that her mother’s mysterious death and she’s carrying a decent amount of resentment that seems justified.

Dolan is a bit of a rogue sentinel, equally as scarred in his adolescence with his brother’s loss. Now he has to deal with a frustrating brevis (sentinel headquarters) not listening to him when he tells them he needs agents at Meghan’s ranch yesterday since there have already been Core encroachments. Dolan knows that Meghan’s mother (who was working with his dead brother) hid a powerful book the Core desperately wants, a book that would shift the already tenuous balance of power in their world. While Dolan wants that book, he wants Meghan more and keeping her safe is his top priority.

It’s intriguing that Durgin does not cave to the traditional shifter trope of finding a magically bound partner as a and calling them a “mate” – she never uses that word and I’m guessing it might be due to her scientific accuracy (for most predators, that bond is hardly a permanent one). You never doubt the strong bond between the hero and heroine however, nor how evil the Core and their goals are. My next favorite character was easily Meghan’s Lipizzaner gelding who added to both the plot and my enjoyment of the book!

Wild Thing (Sentinels #.5) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, May 1, 2009)

Durgin chose to release a prequel short story,entitled Wild Thing, a month after Jaguar Night. Mark Burton is a non-shifting sentinel who still carries much of his lion character in his tracking and prescience abilities and right now he is assigned to watch Tayla Garrett. When hasn’t he been watching her is the better question. Ever since this cheetah was a few years behind him in high school, he’s been mesmerized by her long-legged grace and copper hair, so much so that she’s starred in his fantasies for over a decade. Now that they are working out of the same brevis headquarters he sees her all the time but she doesn’t even spare him a glance.

Tayla has had a crush on Mark since the first moment she saw him, but he always had some girl on his arm back then and didn’t seem to notice her. Not wanting to be a complete fool, she developed strong calluses where he was concerned and just decided that she didn’t see him. Ever. Now that she’s screwing up regularly at work with an important assignment around the corner, she’s ordered to work with Mark. Finding out that her boss, Nick, thinks that her problem is that she’s never been initiated – and that Mark is the man to do the job – has her horrified and aroused.

This short story does a great job bringing home a major point about sentinels. In order to fully access their magical abilities and, in fact, find a balance of power within themselves, they have to go through initiation, which is a carefully managed sexual partnering between two sentinels. (In fact, this understanding helps when reading the fourth book in the series, Tiger Bound.) Because of their animal selves, sentinels are very open about their sexuality, but it doesn’t mean that emotion is taken out of the equation. Tayla has basically ignored other sentinels because in her heart she sees only Mark, instead settling for relationships with humans. Once she realizes that Mark has had feelings for her all along, nothing is going to stop her from being with him, particularly Core agents who want to make sure their latest assignment fails.

Lion Heart (Sentinels #2) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, July 1, 2009)

This was a nice little transition to the second book in the series, Lion Heart. Lyn Maines was the competent tracker and team player we met at the end of Jaguar Night and she’s back on the trail of Joe Ryan, a suspicious sentinel holed up outside of the Grand Canyon. Joe’s partner died and he came into a large amount of cash, cash that would have been helpful to pay for his half-sister’s bone marrow transplant. When Lyn goes to investigate some strange Core involvement in Ryan’s area, she comes face to face with the mountain lion and despite wanting to believe in his guilt, he’s not what she expected.

Ryan should be cynical enough by now not to be surprised when the gorgeous little ocelot sentinel shows up. He’s amazed at her tracking ability but even more so by her ability to shield him. He hasn’t begun to tell brevis headquarters the extent of his power surfing ability and power is what rolls off these sacred mountains in waves. But something is tainting that power and endangering the lives of the people and animals who call the place home. Ryan tries not to feel hurt that Lyn refuses to trust him, but he needs her all in so they can figure what’s really happening.

You don’t have to read this book to understand other books in the series, but there are a few key pieces in it. One of the characters, Anorrah the communications specialist, is on her first field assignment and she screws up, badly. Add to that the incident at the Flagstaff hotel which injures a large group of sentinels (and these injuries factor strongly as plot points in future books) and you have story arcs that show up time and again in the series. Probably the biggest piece to take away whether or not you choose to read it is that Joe Ryan is another Rogue sentinel who, like Dolan in Jaguar Night, knows what the hell he’s talking about and brevis chooses to not listen. Another good example of how the bureaucratic structure is not used to a quick response.

Wolf Hunt (Sentinels #3) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, January 1, 2010)

Speaking of all the sentinel bureaucracy, one leader’s name keeps cropping up and that’s Nick Carter, the wolf second-in-command of the Southwest brevis. Everyone knows he’s really in charge since the older boar-shifter, who is technically in charge, seems disengaged to put it mildly. Nick is a savvy wolf whose human hair appears gray but is actually the hoarfrost on his gray wolf’s coat. In his book, Wolf Hunt, he’s heard about purebred dogs going missing and, knowing the Core likes animals for their sick magic experiments, goes to the local dog show to ferret out information.

And that’s where he spots her, the stunning black haired woman, dressed in head to toe clingy black who turns heads everywhere she goes, and not just because of her beauty. She’s so clearly wolf and has never learned to hide it as all sentinels are taught. Even while his body is responding to her, Nick is irritated. All sentinels in his jurisdiction are supposed to report to him and he has no idea who this woman is. They approach each other and rather than submit to him, she challenges him to a playful race in their wolf form, right then and there. And then takes off.

Jet is elated when Nick accepts her invitation to play. The Core is responsible for transforming her from a wolf to a woman and they continue to hold her pack hostage. She’s been instructed to bring them Nick Carter but she sees what they didn’t tell her, that underneath his tailored suits he is a true alpha deserving of respect, unlike the cruel people who manipulate her at Core headquarters. When she sees further proof that the amulet she was given to subdue Nick  after they promised her that no harm would be given, understanding of Core perfidy sinks in. Jet tells him who she is and her dismay at how she’s been lied to, unable to be anything but honest.

To call Nick astonished that the woman who sets his blood thrumming through his veins is an actual wolf is an understatement. As she cares for him after the amulet works its debilitating magic and tries to call in help from his “pack” (her name for the sentinels who work for him), he quickly comes to the realization that there is a serious mole or moles at brevis. He wants to free his people of this particular Core villain and also wants to help Jet, who is at the organization’s mercy since they planted her with an amulet where they can cut her off from her wolf at will, a torture she must be freed of. The thought that she might return to her wolf self and never see him again after freeing her pack sickens him, but his position of responsibility means that he must do the right thing, no matter what the cost.

This is one of my favorite books in the series and it’s easily due to Jet. She has no ability to dissemble and there are a lot of human customs she has little use for (like modesty). That she entrances Nick is no shock but it’s gratifying to see the man who is always thinking politics and team assignments finally letting loose the inner wolf inside himself with her guidance. She imprints so strongly on him that her loyal nature is readily transparent and just makes her that more appealing.

Tiger Bound (Sentinels #4) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, August 1, 2012)

My other favorite book in the series is next in line, Tiger Bound. We’ve met Maks Altan as a go to team member, silent but strong, in previous books and seen him badly wounded in Lion Heart as well as frustrated and recovering in Wolf Hunt. Finally sent on assignment, Nick Carter chooses to send Maks, who has been cleared for duty by brevis medics (although some have their doubts) who seems the best person for the job since he was originally found as an abandoned adolescent tiger in that part of the country. Granted it’s a puff first assignment back, guarding a sentinel healer/psychic who is having some trouble, but Maks has always done what he’s told and he is a protector by nature.

The last person Katie Rae Maddox expects to brevis to send is a recovering Siberian tiger – she’s a Chinese water deer, for goodness sake! How can she relax enough to have him help her, hoping that he won’t see her as prey? Even stranger is the fact her healer self is telling her that something is wrong, much more wrong than just the muscle and bone damage Maks took back in Flagstaff. His injuries seem related to memories dredged up from being back in the mountains where he was originally found but another huge part of it seems to be Katie and the flaming attraction between them. Are they both crazy? Is it just her healer ability gone awry, forming a connection where there is none?

I love shifter heroes who are big, strong, and silent and Maks fits the bill. He’s heavily damaged, physically from the Flagstaff debacle in Lion Heart and emotionally from an incredibly rough start in life. His mother was bred in Core captivity and she died helping him escape, living on his own in the woods as a child/tiger cub from the age of four. Maks hasn’t lacked for female companionship but his reaction to Katie is totally beyond what’s normal for him. Rather than fighting it, Maks uses his Buddhist approach to life of just…being. He takes each moment as it comes, a lesson he’s happy to share with her. Though Katie is a deer, she’s no doormat either, and her stubborn nature is exactly what’s needed to puzzle out some of the scary symptoms Maks is experiencing. Seeing how her healing binds the two of them together is incredibly sensual and emotionally beautiful.

The stunning Kodiak bear which Ruger shifts into.

Finally, we come to the fifth book in the series, Kodiak Chained, the NetGalley that inspired my foray into all things Doranna Durgin. Ruger is the steady healer/bear also injured in the Flagstaff explosion in Lion Heart only his wounds are more catastrophic in impact to the sentinels. Previously considered one of the most powerful healers (and one that can kick-ass and be a great team member to boot), somehow he can no longer access his healing power. He’s still a warrior and he knows plenty of medicine and herb lore, but to lose the power he’s had since adolescence is a huge blow to his self-identity. When he spots a lovely female black bear, Mariska, at a Celtic festival, his heart and body don’t hesitate to take her up on her invitation to go back to her house. He feels like this is the start of something special, something that might inject a little meaning in his life at a time when he could most need it.

Which is why he feels to horribly betrayed when he sees Mariska sitting at the table near Nick Carter as he greets them as a team for their next assignment. The feeling morphs into complete anger when he next hears that her assignment is to guard him, taking away the one final piece of himself he can offer his friends. It’s clear from her face that she knew all of this prior to sleeping with him the night before, so clearly he was the only one feeling like there was anything special between them. It’s a punch to the gut he can’t hide and his fellow teammates and friends are pissed that this female bear – clearly smelling of Ruger, so there’s no doubt what they were up to last night – has taken him out in front of everyone.

Mariska does not need a blinking neon sign to tell her that she has screwed up royally. She was so excited to work with the Southwest brevis and especially Ruger for fieldwork when she has done mostly guarding. When she saw him at the festival, her soul just responded to him and her bear impulsiveness took over. She knew he was going to take her assignment badly but she had no idea the extent to which her behavior could be seen as betrayal. Not only was she an idiot, but now the whole team has made it perfectly clear that they can’t trust her after she’s played their friend. No amount of apologizing to Ruger seems to matter and she has the distinct feeling she’s lost something precious, right when she had just found it. Now all she can do is try and do her job as best she can, but it might not be enough.

I get really uncomfortable when a main part of the storyline involves one of the protagonists betraying another – fake betrayal I can almost handle since you know it will at least come out in the end – but actual betrayal? Mariska is likable enough barring her total stupidity – could she really not keep her pants zipped long enough to let Ruger know her true job there? But her behavior is meant to show us her forthright and impulsive behavior, which thankfully is combined with enough honesty that you know she has a chance of clawing back. Ruger is pretty stubborn himself (maybe it’s a bear thing) but his grounded nature and the respect he has from every member of team is a good indication of how great he is as a person and he can’t hold out against Mariska’s nature for long. It’s fantastic to see Jet again and I loved seeing the tenderness between Maks and Katie as they help on the mission. It’s like old home week, with a new romance blossoming to boot. It’s a good addition to the series and we don’t lack other characters to star in future novels.

Above and beyond her actual novels, Durgin needs slightly better brand management, at least as it relates to her Goodreads account. She is missing a link to her webpage from her Goodreads page (and no indication of her Facebook or Twitter accounts, which she definitely has). Social networking cannot be overemphasized for authors! I was also concerned that there was a lack of consistency regarding how the books in this series were cataloged – books 1 through 3 clearly have the parentheses with the series name and book number present, but the last two books are listed without the series mentioned as part of the title. This would be very frustrating to a new reader, particularly since I think you’d be several shades of lost without reading the previous books.

Tiger Bites (Sentinels #3.5?) by Doranna Durgin (Harlequin Nocturne, December 1, 2011)

Super annoying is the fact that, left out of the series list entirely, was the short story, Night of the Tiger, which finally tells Marlee’s story (Marlee was one of the sentinels working in the brevis headquarters who had been programmed since childhood to help the Core). While I think $2.51 is overpriced for 48 pages, I’ll probably cave and get it since it was clear that Durgin was building Marlee back into everyone’s good graces. I’m guessing since this was published in 2011 that technically this story should be listed as Sentinels #3.5.

Harlequin Nocturne has a good stable of paranormal writers like Kendra Leigh Castle, Laura Kaye and Bonnie Vanak, and I feel terrible for not knowing that Doranna Durgin was such a solid show horse. I’ve enjoyed the Sentinels series and will be sure to purchase future additions to this series, not only to revisit characters I now know and love, but also to enjoy new heroes and heroines in this interesting new world. Thanks, Doranna!

Anna Campbell Delivers an Angsty, Erudite Read in Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed

24 Nov

Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed (Sons of Sin #1) by Anna Campbell (Forever, September 24, 2012)

Historical romance was the subgenre that originally brought me into the world of romance (thanks to my mother’s addiction to them), so I have a distinct fondness for a good historical, so much so, that I’m super picky about who I read. For me, it needs to be the family and world building of Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series, the passionate Victorian excess of Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzies, or the spunky, untraditional heroines of Sarah Maclean.

One surefire way to capture my interest is to have excellent writing. Often I’ll yammer on in a review about the great characterization or the way the author brings a period alive and you can infer that this takes a certain amount of writing talent, but then there are authors who have such an excellent turn of phrase that I almost physically feel their words in my mouth as I read, savoring not just the plot but my word journey in getting there.

Anna Campbell has the deft turn of phrase and ability to tug (hard) on the emotional heartstrings that few writers possess, with a raw intelligence behind her pages which sets her apart from the many run-of-the-mill historicals currently on the market. That said, she is also one of those writers who feel the need to have truly tortured characters, to the point where you feel emotionally wrung out when you finish one of her books.

It’s easy to see the levels of pain in this book just in glancing at the description. Scarred Jonas Merrick was declared an official bastard by the courts in his childhood, a declaration that broke his Viscount father’s heart. After being tortured and facially scarred when he was young, he and his father moved abroad. He returned to England unbelievably wealthy and spit in the face of his cruel cousin who had usurped his title by building a luxurious mansion right on the boundary of the title’s historic manse. Jonas has also set a plan of revenge, collecting all the chits of the Viscount’s wife, Roberta, who has quite a gambling problem. His blackmail involves her coming to his remote Devon castle and spending a week as his mistress.

But it’s not Roberta who shows up on his doorstep, but rather her unmarried sister, Sidonie Forsythe. Clearly a virgin sacrifice, rather than be irritated by his plan going awry, Jonas is strangely fascinated by the lush, stubborn beauty so determined to take her sister’s place. Sidonie expected to be repulsed by this man who had manipulated her sister so cruelly, but she is seeing flashes of the man beneath the scars and finds herself intrigued. She must convince him to give her Roberta’s IOUs so her abusive husband William doesn’t have yet another excuse to beat his wife, but the stakes quickly spiral out of control with Jonas’ gentle seduction. Sidonie realizes her heart is on the table and that she also holds a secret which could turn what feeling Jonas has for her against them both.

The first two-thirds of this novel was an utter delight. Falling high on the sensuality rating scale, the sex between Jonas and Sidonie was tender and extremely hot, with the setting a gothic delight. Watching them break down barriers and really intimately know one another’s souls as well as their bodies was an unadulterated pleasure, so much so that you were cheering for them both to find their happy ending. But Anna Campbell seems to be one of those crafty authors who insist on torturing her characters. I’m more in favor of external forces keeping characters apart than setting them against each other, so this was hard for me to take, even while I continued to admire her writing. A big piece of my irritation was I actually felt that Sidonie’s reasoning was rock solid. She trusted herself in Jonas’ hands but he hadn’t shown any empathy toward her sister, so I understand why she wanted to take care of her first before helping him.

It was also uncomfortable to me the degree to which Sidonie had to run after Jonas and convince him that they should be together, and that wrap up and subsequent epilogue felt a little quick to me. Can’t I have a little more time to enjoy the two characters together actually happy and free of secrets? I’m guessing Campbell means to give us more of them in the next book, as Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed is the first in the Sons of Sin series. Since she introduces in this book the two men, both now peers, who had saved Jonas from unspeakable cruelty at Eton, the future heroes are already established. All three men suffered at the hands of gossip since it was well-founded that each of them was actually a bastard. Jonas was the only one disinherited, but it appears that the next book, A Rake’s Midnight Kiss (coming out in late August 2013) will feature Sir Richard Harmsworth bent on an interesting quest which could vindicate for once and for all his claim to his title. Suffice it to say, there is an intriguing young woman to help him along his journey.

Naturally I’m hoping I won’t be quite as wrung out reading Richard’s story as this time around, but with Anna Campbell’s outstanding writing luring me forward (and the desire to see more of Jonas and Sidonie happy), I’ll gird myself for an emotional roller-coaster ride and get ready to enjoy her wonderful writing.

The Latest Men Out of Uniform Novel by Rhonda Nelson Proves She’s Surely “The Professional”

23 Nov

The Professional (Men Out of Uniform #13) by Rhonda Nelson (Harlequin Blaze, November 1, 2012)

Someone needs to explain to me how I have managed to be such a huge fan of romance – and of the Harlequin Blaze line, for that matter – yet prior to today, I haven’t read any Rhonda Nelson. What was I thinking? Nelson is renowned for her great sense of humor, well-paced books and a series that weaves previously loved characters right into the fabric of each new book. Her Men Out of Uniform series has been published since 2006, with this book, The Professional, being the thirteenth book in the series. That is a lot of staying power.

Her excellent reputation is well-deserved. I spent my time alternating between smiling like a lunatic at the characters’ antics and fanning myself from the outstanding sexual heat between our hero and heroine. I mean, when the first time the two main characters have sex, it’s under the desk on the floor of an office they are breaking into? That’s “I gotta have you right now” sex and I can usually turn down my thermostat when I’m reading it.

As with the whole series, our hero has recently joined the now well-established Ranger Security firm. Jeb Anderson left the Army Rangers after he ignored his instincts and obeyed his commander, resulting in everyone on the team he led being killed. His guilt over being the sole survivor when he was responsible for their lives is profound, but he’s trying to get on with his life and do right by this job.

His first assignment is an odd one. All the times he’s been undercover, it’s never been as the grandson of a Viagra-dealing womanizer at an old folks’ home, but there’s a first time for everything. Okay, so the “home” is actually a high-end retirement village that’s basically spring break for the over 60 set, but Jed’s got a mission. Discover who has been stealing the high end jewelry items from the unsuspecting residents. Initially the resident masseuse, one Sophie O’Brien, looks like a prime suspect, but one look at her chocolate brown eyes and sweet expression – to say nothing of how everyone at the home treats her like an adopted granddaughter – and Jed’s infallible gut is telling him she’s not responsible. Something lower than his gut is also clueing him into another kind of feeling, and there’s a distinct impression that – just by seeing her – his whole world has finally changed, for the better.

Sophie knows all of the residents incredibly well. Her grandmother, who raised her since she was six, movedinto the retirement home during her final years giving Sophie the farm she grew up on and a sizable inheritance, much to the annoyance of her psychopathic family. Still missing the woman who gave her the only love and stability she ever knew, Sophie has resigned herself to being surrounded by a bunch of unofficial grandparents, all of whom are inveterate matchmakers. When one of the residents mystery “grandson” turns up, Sophie is shocked and dismayed to find that her whole body reacts to sexy Jed Anderson’s mere presence. She’s had some bad experiences with men and has sworn them off for the time being, and right now she’s indignant that a mystery person is stealing from the people she loves. She vows to stay focused and figure out what’s going on, but her body, the senior citizens of the home…and fate…seem to have other plans.

His First Noelle (Men Out of Uniform #14) by Rhonda Nelson (Harlequin Blaze, December 1, 2012)

This book honestly reminded me a little of some of the paranormal romances I enjoy with the level of destiny involved with the hero and heroine. Their unbelieveably powerful physical attraction is recognized by them both as being a sign of their rightness for one another, a fact further emphasized by their profound ability to read each other in ways never before done by even the people closest in their lives. Jed is a fabulous hero, “on fire” level of hot, but also self-deprecating when appropriate and always honest about his feelings for Sophie. She combines the best of a heroine – a rough past which she has overcome and filled with caring for the people in her life along with a strong sense of duty with her life’s work. I loved them both separately but together they were downright combustible.

And the humor! My God, Nelson is a master craftsman when it comes to funny scenes. I couldn’t decide which I liked better, the scene where Jed walks in on his pretend “grandfather” in a turquoise and black zebra-stripped speedo “ready” for his date, Jed breaking into Sophie’s farm covered in goat manure and freaking out at the peacock cry, or the discovery that the retirement home director is a dominatrix who calls herself “The Whippet”! All of them had me grinning or laughing out loud and they provided a terrific contrast to the set-the-wallpaper-on-fire sex scenes, which were as charged with emotion as they were with animal sex appeal.

Since Nelson took the time in the prologue to show the connection between Jed and his twin brother Judd, it was wonderful that Judd was basically a continual presence by reference, text, or FaceTime call throughout the novel. His book, His First Noelle (#14) is available in paperback right now, with the ebook releasing December 1. I’ll definitely be reviewing it as part of my Countdown to Christmas series of blog posts because I can’t get enough of these two! Bizarrely, neither The Professional nor His First Noelle is listed on the Goodreads Men Out of Uniform series page? Why is that?

You also cannot deny the outstanding value of this purchase. For $3.82 for the Kindle edition ($5.25 for the paperback), you get both The Professional and the first book of the Men Out of Uniform series, The Player, (448 pages!) so you have a chance to see if you like the first book of the series as much as the thirteenth book (my answer was a resounding “yes”). I think that after reading both books and discovering the first one was as compelling as the latest addition, I’m on board for Rhonda Nelson and this series, since she’s clearly, hands down, a “professional.” Thanks, Rhonda!

Heart of the Dragon’s Realm Combines Fantasy and Romance to Supply a Wonderful Reading Adventure

22 Nov

Heart of the Dragon’s Realm by Karalynn Lee (Carina Press, October 29, 2012)

It’s been a while since I’ve read a romance that was a fantasy, but in the midst of baking for the holiday, I realized that was just what I was in the mood for. Luckily I had Heart of the Dragon’s Realm amidst my NetGalley offerings and it fit the bill.

Kimri is the headstrong princess of one of the riverland countries at war and her brother needs the bride price she can bring. When the peaceful and mysterious mountain-king offers for her, his finely wrought swords are a deciding factor in the acceptance of the betrothal. She’s resentful at being sold, yet her adventurous nature, one that had her cut her hair and disguise herself as a soldier before being caught, can’t help but rise to the adventure of her situation.

She’s even more relieved when she arrives in the city of Helsmont, for not only is the handsome King Tathan solicitous but he informs her that in his country they observe the tradition of a year-long betrothal so both parties have a chance to know one another and cry off if the match doesn’t suit. Kimri is astonished and relieved, and that positive feeling grows as she is allowed by all and sundry to be exactly who she is. She can ride her horse, visit the baker and smith, and learn the beautiful tradition of sword dancing handed to the people by the dragon they believe lives in the mountain.

But as her heart warms to Tathan and chooses him as her husband, a cloud passes over her happiness after she hears her brother the king has been captured. Tathan has to remain neutral and cannot hand over the ransom, driving Kimri to make a rash decision that might save her brother but cost her everything her heart wants in this cold mountain kingdom. Unless the magic of the dragon can somehow come to her aid, that is.

This would be an excellent book for someone who doesn’t like hard core fantasy but enjoys a small element of magic and the politics and traditions of another world. Kimri is an outstanding heroine (the entire book is told from her perspective) and it’s easy to fall for the silent but warm Tathan, particularly when the informal people of Helsmont are factored in. The political issues are well-developed and logical, and my only criticism is I think the fantasy element most evident at the end of the book should have been threaded more firmly through the first three-quarters of it as well. While there is a pull between Kimri and Tathan and they exchange kisses, the sensuality level of this novel is very mild with the final consummation of their relationship literally happening lovingly and discretely in the last couple pages.

Karalynn Lee appears to have written other science fiction and fantasy novellas (to her credit, this book was only 134 pages but I thought felt like a longer book as nowhere did the plot feel compressed to me) so I may try a couple having enjoyed this one so thoroughly. A major criticism however is that she almost proudly states on her website that she is not present on any social networks. Excuse me??!! I think it’s vastly irresponsible of any author to not be promoting their work and connecting with reader on sites like Twitter and Facebook. She doesn’t even have a fleshed out Goodreads page! If there’s anything that might make me not read her work, it’s this choice of hers since I like to connect with the authors I enjoy and know I’m going to hear about the latest publications or authors they enjoy through these avenues of communication.

While Heart of the Dragon’s Realm might be a wonderful book in a medieval like setting, modern authors need to join the 21st century and promote their terrific novellas on social networks! Face your own dragon, Karalynn, and hop on already. :-)

Read Faster By Switching Effortlessly Between Audio and Ebooks with WhisperSync

22 Nov

I don’t do it as much anymore since my commute to work isn’t that long, but back in the day I would listen to audiobooks all the time. Particularly in library school, I had a two hour commute (each way) with a ton of heinous city traffic, so audiobooks were a lifesaver. Not only would they allow me to do my reading for my literature classes while driving, but my involvement in the book made me incredibly patient about delays and tempered my road rage when jackasses cut me off.

However, the drawback to audiobooks when I didn’t have a long commute was that I wanted to enjoy the paper book or ebook, but that meant fast forwarding to part I was up to if and when I went back to the audiobook. Frustrating. Add to that that audiobooks are incredibly expensive, and you’ve got a recipe for abandonment, which I did.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon, known for creating good partnerships and being on the forefront of ereader technology, came up with a solution this fall for my dilemma. Calling it WhisperSync, they have worked with Audible, one of the leading audiobook vendors, to allow readers who purchase both a Kindle book and an Audible audiobook (with WhisperSync enabled) to be able to effortlessly go back and forth between formats, with the ebook or audiobook automatically picking up at the last place read. Cool, yes?

YES. The biggest complaint of all enthusiastic readers is “I wish I had more time to read!” so if it’s easier to read while you’re cooking, gardening, knitting, cleaning, working out, etc. you are getting through more books (and probably are more enthusiastic about those activities). Whether you have one of the Kindle ereaders or you are using a Kindle app on another device, you can utilize this new feature. What’s impressive to me is that the audiobook as an add-on is highly affordable (the expense of audiobooks can be quite prohibitive), I mean who wouldn’t get The Hunger Games audiobook add-on for $3.95, particularly if you had kids (*cough*) you wanted to entertain in the car?

Bimodal reading – physically reading the words while hearing them – actually improves and understanding, both for struggling readers as well as high-functioning readers. As an educator I’ve known this for a while, and encouraged it with ESL students who benefit from hearing the book as they are reading it. So many nuances of meaning can be extracted from the tone of voice and inflection of the narrator, and when you are unfamiliar with a word, hearing it pronounced gives you much more confidence in using it because you know you aren’t making a mistake. For the Kindle Fire line of ereaders, Amazon now has Immersion Reading, where a purchase of both the audio book and physical book comes together and you can actually read along with the performance of your book. Take a look at Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, announcing WhisperSync and Immersion Reading.

If you are someone who just likes audiobooks and listens to them all the time, check to see if your local library has a subscription to Overdrive, one of the leading vendors supplying audiobooks to nonprofit institutions. With just your library card, you can download the latest titles and best audiobooks on the market for free to your smartphone, computer, or ereader (they even just added the Kindle), keeping it for whatever length of time your library allows it to be checked out. On the Overdrive main page, there’s a place to put in your zip code and search for libraries near you who might offer this service. I think this service is a terrific use of your library, and clearly an affordable way of enjoying the medium for most people. Being able to download a couple audiobooks prior to a long trip – for free – seems like a great use of your tax dollars at work!

Keep in mind my one pet peeve about audiobooks which is the narrator has to be good! If you have a narrator you can’t stand, this is not going to work (and be open about narrators of different sexes than the characters – a good actor can work through that dissonance). Be sure before buying any audiobook, you listen to the sample (there’s usually a play button right under the book cover image) to make sure you’re going to have the best possible experience.

Happy listening! :-)

Building the Perfect Hero: A Study Using Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas

21 Nov

The perfect hero – Sebastian St. Vincent from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas (Avon, February 2006)

I recently listened to one of my downloaded RWA Conference sessions, “Building the Perfect Hero” run by authors Jenna Kernan, Susan Meier, and Debra Mullins at the 2011 conference. I was wowed by their whirlwind tour of all the details necessary to build the ideal hero (I could barely keep up when typing notes and I am a fast typist!) and I couldn’t help but think, of all the romance books I’ve read who is a perfect hero?

Since I’ve read over a thousand romance books at this point, I sifted out only the five star books in my Goodreads account, keeping the four stars in mind. One five star book was hands down my favorite – Devil in Winter, book 3 of the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas. A Victorian era historical romance, I’m not compelled to reread the series over and over (like I do with Kleypas’ Hathaway series – I have to read all five of that series two or three times a year) but it’s rare a two month period goes by without my treating myself to a hot bath and Devil in Winter. In my opinion, it’s the best romance novel. Period.

Kleypas’ Wallflower series centers on four young women – two American heiresses, one penniless British beauty and a stammering redhead with a good dowry – who have discovered they are not hot properties on England’s marriage mart. They form a close friendship, determined to help one another find a good marriage and hopefully happiness. In the book prior to Devil in Winter, the oldest American heiress has managed to marry the Earl of Westcliff, but not before being kidnapped by his former best friend, renowned rake Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent.

In the opening of Devil in Winter, Sebastian is in his comfortable London townhome nursing the bruises from the beating Westcliff gave him after kidnapping his fiancee. Sebastian needs to marry an heiress, and quickly, since his wastrel father has spent almost the entire family fortune and Sebastian is rather used to a certain level of comfort. When Evangeline Jenner, the quiet redhead wallflower, turns up on his doorstep, unaccompanied, he has no idea if she’s there to berate him for his miscalculation in snatching her friend Lillian away from her betrothed or if she’s there to proposition him.

The answer is the latter. Evangeline (Evie to her friends) has kept secret from the other wallflowers just how bad her situation is. Daughter of a well-born woman who died young and cockney gambler, she has lived her life with her mother’s family with only visits to her father, the famous Ivo Jenner, owner of a renowned gambling club. Jenner has provided Evie with a substantial dowry and would inherit his fortune upon her father’s death, but that’s not helping her prospects. While lovely, no one looks twice at her due to her shyness and stammer, both conditions which can be laid at the feet of her highly abusive relatives. After they announce she will have to marry her corpulent and cruel cousin so they can benefit from her fortune, Evie takes a gamble herself. If Lord St. Vincent was desperate enough to kidnap a woman who didn’t want him, wouldn’t he be willing to elope with one who did?

One of the possible mental images for Sebastian

Sebastian agrees, a little surprised that he, a notorious womanizer, has never noticed just how beautiful this awkward young woman is. He bundles her to Gretna Green and then returns her to Jenner’s so she can nurse her father, who is rapidly dying of consumption. The transformation he undergoes in the course of the novel as he falls in love with Evie is what makes him the ideal example for crafting the “perfect hero”.

Using the some of the structure of their workshop, I’m going to highlight why Sebastian is such a perfect hero, but let me first point out that when Kernan, Meier and Mullins use the term “perfect” they are talking about a man who can carry a romance novel on his broad, muscled shoulders (along with the heroine, naturally). He may be perfect for the heroine, but like a rough diamond, a certain amount of transformation is going to take place on his journey and that, after all, our desire to see just that is why we bought the book in the first place. Be warned, if you are unfamiliar with this classic romance, there are plenty of spoilers in this post!

Strong Description of Hero

The first part of crafting the perfect hero is giving the reader a strong description of him. While readers of the Wallflowers series have met Sebastian in the other novels, it’s important that we see him through Evie’s eyes. Sebastian is known for his physical beauty, his wit, and his womanizing, so we already have a sense of a clever but selfish man clearly willing to put his own needs before others.

She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks…

There was nothing kind, sensitive, or remotely boyish about him. He was a predator who undoubtedly liked to toy with his prey before killing it. Staring at the empty chair where he had sat, Evie thought of how St. Vincent had looked in the firelight. He was tall and lean, his body a perfect frame for elegantly simple clothes that provided a minimum of distraction from his tawny handsomeness. His hair, the antique gold of a medieval icon, was thick and slightly curly, with streaks of pale amber caught in the rich locks…His smile itself was enough to steal the breath from one’s body…the sensuous, cynical mouth, the flash of white teeth…Oh, St. Vincent was a dazzling man. And well he knew it.

What I liked so much about the points being made in the workshop was the idea that the description of the hero needs to be richer than just a police blotter sketch of what he looks like. Using the description to incorporate backstory, speculation, attraction, perceptions, unique detail and possible conflict are ways of maximizing a physical description into something much more powerful to the reader. Jenna Kernan’s accompanying handout from the session has some terrific examples of this rich description.

Cultural Heritage

A view of 1840s British society – life would have been largely characterized by being seen at the right events

In contemporary romance, we live in an age where so many heroes and heroines come from diverse cultural and religious traditions, aspects of their culture that clue us in to their character based on how they embrace or reject these pieces of themselves. For historical romance, usually our main characters are white and well-born, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to consider their cultural heritage.

For Devil in Winter, understanding Sebastian means understanding the early Victorian culture of the time period and how it would shape his view of himself as a dissipated nobleman and also affect his view of women. As the son of Duke (and a very old dukedom at that) he would have gone to the best schools and universities, yet be raised for a life of indolence since his father was controlling and uninterested in having his intelligent son help him.

Yet for all we understand that, however distasteful to the modern mind, this profound regular waste of money in a society marked by horrible poverty at its base was accepted by the majority of citizens as simply the natural order. Noblemen were seen as wastrels and the hardworking poor led shortened lives. But Kleypas doesn’t make poor financial ability one of Sebastian’s flaws, unlike many of his ilk. Instead we are given to understand that Sebastian, while enjoying comfort, is not totally of this world of the profligate, but at the same time he’s hardly blazing a progressive trail, either. After hearing of his father’s unbelievable waste, Evie expresses her horror.

“No wonder you’re poor,” Evie said, appalled by such waste. “I hope you’re not a spendthrift as well.”

He shook his head. ‘I have yet to be accused of unreasonable financial excess. I rarely gamble, and I don’t keep a mistress. Even so, I have my share of creditors nipping at my heels.”

“Have you ever considered going into a profession?”

He gave her a blank look. “What for?”

“To earn money.”

“Lord, no, child. Work would be an inconvenient distraction from my personal life.”

Women were also divided into categories usually women you could marry (suitable, dowered, relatively class equivalent) and women you had affairs with (often from the same class, frequently married or widowed).  With no loving female relatives, Sebastian’s view of women is highly skewed as his womanizing puts him largely in the company of the type of women he can sleep with, and virgins like our heroine are very, very different.

Understanding not only the current status of Sebastian’s history and character, but more importantly the type of heritage which has formed him (and to his credit, I can’t imagine the heir to any dukedom taking up a profession) gives the reader a foundation when we watch him change as a result of his falling for Evie.

Naming Your Hero

The actual St. Vincent coat of arms from the Earl of St. Vincent (no relation)

It was interesting to hear in the workshop how authors choose the names of their hero. Names are definitely meant to evoke a visceral response in the reader and taking into account historical uses and the sound of the name (soft consonants could mean a smooth operator, shorter names with hard consonants denote men of action) is crucial.

Sebastian is derived from a Greek word, sebastos, meaning “venerable” which is turn is derived from the Greek verb sebas meaning “awe or reverence”. More tellingly regarding this Sebastian is it is also related to the Greek verb sebomai which translates as “feel awe, scruple or be ashamed”. A big piece of Sebastian’s transformation in Devil in Winter stems from his realization of how innocent Evie is in stark contrast to the debauchery he’s participated in and for which he now feels ashamed. His past gets in the way of his future when he worries he’s literally not good enough for her and the idea that he could taint her, ruining the part of her he admires the most, if he sticks around.

I think the St. Vincent part of his name (since we don’t ever read of a different surname, I’m assuming St. Vincent is both his surname and his title) certainly conjures up two reactions. First, it poses a foil for the current state of Sebastian when the reader first gets to know him. While his appearance brings a fallen angel to mind for Evie, she knows that his looks (and name) actually are the opposite of his behavior to date. Second, St. Vincent as a name hints at Sebastian’s true nature. From the start, he begins taking care of Evie and recognizing the wonderful qualities in her. Like a true saint, Sebastian is almost martyred when he literally dives in front of a bullet for Evie. It’s a very appropriate label for him.

It sounds as if many writers use resources like The New American Dictionary of Baby Nameswhich, despite its title, actually covers names from all cultures, explaining their meaning, the centuries and decades the names were popular, and any important literary references to the name. If you are looking for online resources, the Baby Name Voyager lets you put in a first name and see its rise and decline in popularity, at least from the 1880s to the present.

Family Matters

Heroes (and heroines) always bring a lot of emotional baggage as a result of their family experience, whether it be good or bad. It shapes the person they are.

Everyone brings baggage to a relationship. Sometimes it’s a little overnight bag of quirks and at other times it’s several steamer trunks worth of crappy home life and a violent adulthood, but our family and background shapes us. Even when your hero’s family is not present, they are still in your novel, since their influence for good or ill impacts how your hero will behave and react to events and people.

On their hellish drive to Gretna Green, Evie and Sebastian talk a little about themselves and their backgrounds, both as a way to pass the time (like soldiers in foxholes bound together by discomfort) and to know each other better since they are marrying. When she asks him if he has any family, he tells her his mother died when he was an infant, leaving him with his four doting older sisters. But all that love drastically changed when he was a child and he lost three of his siblings to scarlet fever – as the male heir he was sent to safety. His eldest sister married but she died in labor as well, leaving him with no one but an emotionally distant, spendthrift father.

Evie was very still during the matter-of-fact recitation, forcing herself to remain relaxed against him. But inside she felt a stirring of pity for the little boy he had been. A mother and four doting sisters, all vanishing from his life. It would have been difficult for any adult to comprehend such loss, much less a child.

It’s Evie’s understanding of this pain in his background – she’s a keen observer and an astute reader of character throughout the books in which she appears – that allows her to push through the walls he desperately tries to erect toward the end of the book when he is overwhelmed with feeling for her. After almost losing her again, he decides to send her away, on the surface for her “safety” even though the threat is removed, but in reality because he can’t handle his emotions or even put a name on them.

…He broke off and stared at her incredulously. “Damn it, Evie, what is there for you to smile about?”

“Nothing,” she said, hastily tucking the sudden smile into the corners of her mouth. “It’s just…it sounds as if you are trying to say that you love me.”

The word seem to shock Sebastian. “No,” he said forcefully, his color rising. “I don’t. I can’t. That’s not what I’m talking about. I just need to find a way to -” He broke off and inhaled sharply as she came to him. “Evie, no.” A shiver ran through him as she reached up to the sides of his face, her fingers gentle on his skin. “It’s not what you think,” he said unsteadily. She heard the trace of fear in his voice. The fear that a small boy must have felt when every woman he loved disappeared from his life, swept away by a merciless fever. She didn’t know how to reassure him, or how to console his long-ago grief. Raising on her toes, she sought his mouth with her own. His hands came to her elbows, as if to push her away, but he couldn’t seem to make himself do it. His breath was rapid and hot as he turned his face away. Undeterred, she kissed his cheek, his jaw, his throat. A low curse escaped him. “Damn you,” he said desperately, “I’ve got to send you away.”

Of course, he doesn’t and in fact Evie reassures him that the unsettling new feelings surging through him are not only natural but that he will adjust to them in time. As with so many crisis moments in romance novels, fear motivates a character to make a drastic decision, in the hope that they’ll avoid pain. Half the time the character isn’t even fully thinking through the situation. In Sebastian’s case he thinks that by sending Evie away, he’ll both keep her safe and have time to get a handle on his feelings. I think he would have lasted a whole hour without her before ordering his carriage!

Moral of the story: always consider what the family of the hero has given him and, in most cases, how it relates to his internal conflict (which is a whole separate section below).

Flaws

I gather from the knowing murmurs of the crowd at the RWA workshop and from the statements of the authors themselves, editors will often ask for a character’s “fatal flaw”. It seems like writers don’t seem to prefer that term (and it does sound like a terminal disease diagnosis, so I can’t blame them) but understanding the flaws of a character, and more importantly comprehending how to use those flaws in the course of a story, is the mark of a good writer.

What is a flaw, then? A flaw is a trait unique to your character that can be perceived as negative. Habits, attitude, or even physical imperfections all constitute areas for possible flaws. These details help people relate to the character which makes the story compelling, and a compelling story keeps readers coming back. (And as an aside, the speaker mentioned that stories must possess four qualities: they must be interesting, compelling, credible and consistent. I agree. Usually when I get cranky at a book, one or more of these pieces are missing.)

According to our experts, flaws play a few key roles in a story. Let’s take Sebastian as an example, specifically the flaw that he seems to be by his very nature, selfish. This is even acknowledged by the other characters in the book, like when Evie’s friend Lillian comforts Evie that Sebastian will not die of his wounds. “‘He’s not going to die you know. It’s only nice, saintly people who suffer untimely deaths.’ She gave a quiet laugh. ‘Whereas selfish bastards like St. Vincent live to torment other people for decades.’” But Sebastian’s selfishness plays a key role, one that I don’t think could have been fulfilled by different kind of flaw.

  • The flaw needs to fit in the story. Considering the fact that this is a story of a selfish man transformed by love, it’s a great fit.
  • Make your character empathetic but not perfect. Selfishness is often a developmental stage and the argument can be made that his age, his financial circumstances, his lack of responsibility and the absence of anyone who loved him all gave Sebastian a rather extended adolescence. The sudden acquisition of a business and a lovely wife who depends on him to live up to her expectations are all bound to challenge his selfish flaw.
  • What purpose will the flaw serve? Sebastian’s selfishness forms a clever barometer of his level of transformation (see the transformation section below for more information on this key factor in a perfect hero). He relapses here and there, but for the most part is faced with one situation after another in which he must choose to put his own comfort and needs behind that of others, thus eroding his selfishness and beginning his transformation.

The key piece to remember about flaws is that a hero shouldn’t possess a flaw that doesn’t in some way contribute to the story. Like everything, valuable word space is not to be squandered and detailing a flaw is no exception.

Internal Conflict

The hero’s sudden realization that his core belief is actually incorrect is a lot like the coyote having an anvil fall on his head. It’s painful and often requires recovery time.

Meier, Kernan and Mullins make the point in their workshop that all internal conflict arises from what they term “an incorrect core belief” the character has regarding themselves. This was utterly fascinating to me, since I hadn’t really spent any serious brain time contemplating core beliefs as they relate to characters, but obviously it is a great way to go more in depth with characterization.

A core belief is a broad and general conclusion people form based on life experience. Basically everything people do is for the express purpose of avoiding pain and creating pleasure. In thinking about Sebastian’s previous history of womanizing, it’s obvious that, in taking into account his personal history of losing his mother and four sisters, his core belief regarding women is that 1) women are designed to give him attention and 2) women don’t stay. These key points would make it a logical behavioral choice to sleep with plenty of women who are admiring you for your beauty and the great sexual reputation you have and then leave them before they can leave you. Core beliefs rule behavior.

However, most people have an incorrect core belief and these are core beliefs where the conclusion is not based on fact but instead often relate to shame or lack of trust (in self, in others, in life in general, you name it). Certainly Sebastian’s internal conflict centers on his understanding of his nature, which he feels is that of a totally debauched nobleman unsuited for life with Evie. You could say his incorrect core belief is that he doesn’t feel he can be trusted with anything innocent because prolonged contact will sully that which he most admires. His belief is delivered in the novel under various guises and with his characteristic wit, as evidenced by his reaction when Evie stubbornly refuses to move to Sebastian’s nearby townhome and instead insists on staying in the gambling club to nurse her dying father around the clock.

“I was afraid you might say that,” he replied dryly. “It’s a mistake, you know. You have no idea of what you’ll be exposed to…the obscenities and lewd comments, the lecherous gazes, the groping and pinching…and that’s just at my house. Imagine what it would be like here.”

While in the midst of attempting to prove himself to Evie, Sebastian even ponders how his very past would corrupt her, preventing him from having any real relationship.

He was in a peculiar state, struggling to understand himself. He had always been so adept at handling women. Why then, had it become impossible to remain detached where Evie was concerned? He was separated from what he wanted most, not by real distance but by a past tainted with debauchery. To let himself have a relationship with her…no, it was impossible. His own iniquity would saturate her like dark ink spreading over pristine white parchment, until every inch of clean space was obliterated. She would become cynical, bitter…and as she came to know him, she would despise him.

The fact that this supposition is incorrect is even reinforced by other characters who see the truth. While awaiting her husband and Cam, Lillian tells Evie that Westcliff believes Sebastian to be in love with Evie, a fact which startles her and gives her hope. When she asks why the Earl thinks this, Lillian answers.

“…Westcliff sees an odd sort of logic in why you would finally be the one to win St. Vincent’s heart. He says a girl like you would appeal to…hmm, how did he put it?…I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like…you would appeal to St. Vincent’s deepest, most secret fantasy.”

Evie felt her cheeks flushing while a skirmish of pain and hope took place in the tired confines of her chest. She tried to respond sardonically. “I should think his fantasy is to consort with as many women as possible.”

A grin crossed Lillian’s lips. “Dear, that is not St. Vincent’s fantasy, it’s his reality. And you’re probably the first sweet, decent girl he’s ever had anything to do with.”

Every editor wants to see characters grow, and having them correct an incorrect core belief is the easiest way to satisfy this need in a story. It doesn’t happen overnight, but instead it’s a gradual change with a satisfying ending. It begins with awareness “What if I’m wrong?”  The hero starts to watch for times when he’s wrong, begins experimenting with the veracity of his belief, and then finally undergoes the realization that he’s wrong. By using the idea of correcting the incorrect core belief, we can see how internal conflict leads right into breaking character or “the big transformation.”

Breaking Character or the Big Transformation

A phoenix rising from the ashes is a decent metaphor for a character’s transformation.

Our workshop authors tell us that “Donald Maass calls this the BIG TRANSFORMATION, not just character growth but the moment when the character is changed forever and will never be able to go back to who and what they were before. He calls this: ‘deep-down, soul-shaking, irreversible transformation for good and always.’” The easiest way to demonstrate this change is to show the hero putting someone else’s needs above his own. Despite the constant reminder, usually from Sebastian himself, that he is self-centered, evidence begins to pile up throughout the novel to the contrary.

The early flashes of kindness are the first clue that there is more to Sebastian than merely being a selfish womanizer and Evie sees this when she is taking stock of her fiancee’s character on the hellish ride to Gretna Green.

As the journey continued in a companionable vein, Evie was aware of a contradictory mixture of feelings toward her husband. Although he possessed a large measure of charm, she found little in him that was worthy of respect. It was obvious that he had a keen mind, but it was employed for no good purpose. Furthermore, the knowledge that he had kidnapped Lillian and betrayed his own best friend in the bargain, made it clear he was not to be trusted. However…he was capable of an occasional cavalier kindness that she appreciated.

After they arrive back in London as a married couple, they proceed straight to Jenner’s so Evie can see her father. Sebastian almost instantly begins to evince a strong interest in the gambling club he and Evie are about to inherit. For a man of his dubious personal background, a gambling club is all-too-familiar territory and he has a strong knowledge base. But having declared to Evie his abhorrence at anything resembling work, she’s surprised at his demeanor.

“I’m going to go over every inch of this place. I’m going to know all it’s secrets.”

Taken aback by the statement, Evie gave him a perplexed glance. She realized that subtle changes had taken place in him from the moment they had entered the club…she was at a loss to account for the strange reaction. His customary languid manner had been replaced by a new alertness, as if he were absorbing the restless energy of the club’s atmosphere.

The only thing that Sebastian is more interested in than the club is Evie, who is still refusing to sleep with him out of self-preservation. His obsession with Evie rapidly becomes apparent to others. Cam Rohan (future hero of the first novel in the Hathaway series, Mine Till Midnight) works in the club, having been friends with Evie since she was a child. Sebastian is jealous of their comfortable relationship and warns Cam to stay away from his wife, a wife he has said he has little interest in, despite evidence to the contrary. Cam observes:

There it was – a flash of warning in St. Vincent’s ice-blue eyes that revealed a depth of feeling he would not admit to. Cam had never seen anything like the mute longing that St. Vincent felt for his own wife. No one could fail to observe that whenever Evie entered the room, St. Vincent practically vibrated like a tuning fork.

His obsession with Evie reaches a crescendo when, after some passionate kissing, Sebastian asks her why she won’t sleep with him when it’s obvious she desires him. She lets him know that she has too much self-respect to become one of a stable of women who he sleeps with.

“All right,” Sebastian said huskily. “I agree to your terms. I’ll be…monogamous.” He seemed to have a bit of difficulty with the last word, as if he were trying to speak a foreign language.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good God, Evie! Do you know how many women have tried to obtain such a promise from me? And now, the first time I’m willing to take a stab at fidelity, you throw it back in my face. I admit that I’ve had a prolific history with women -”

“Promiscuous,” Evie corrected.

He gave an impatient snort. “Promiscuous, debauched – whatever you want to call it. I’ve had a hell of a good time, and I’ll be damned if I say I’m sorry for it. I’ve never bedded an unwilling woman. Nor, to my knowledge, did I leave anyone unsatisfied.”

“I don’t blame you for your past…or, at least…I’m not trying to punish you for it.” Ignoring his skeptical snort, she continued, “But it doesn’t make you an especially good candidate for fidelity, does it?”

His tone was surly as he replied. “What do you want of me? An apology for being a man? A vow of celibacy until you’ve decided that I’m worthy of your favors?”

Struck by the question, Evie stared at him.

Women had always come far too easily to Sebastian. If she made him wait for her, would he lose interest? Or was it just possible that they might come to know each other, understand each other, in an entirely new way? She longed to find out if he could come to value her in ways beyond the physical. She wanted the chance to be something more than a mere bed partner to him.

“Sebastian…” she asked carefully, “have you ever made a sacrifice for a woman?”

He looked like sullen angel as he turned to face her, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, one knee slightly bent. “What kind of sacrifice?”

That drew a wry glance from her. “Any kind at all.”

“No.”

“What is the longest period of time you’ve ever gone without…without…” She floundered for an acceptable phrase. “…making love?”

“I never call it that,” he said. “Love has nothing to do with it.”

“How long?” she persisted.

“A month, perhaps.”

She though for a moment. “Then…if you would forswear intercourse with all women for six months…I would sleep with you afterward.”

Six months?” Sebastian’s eyes widened, and he threw her a scornful glance. “Sweetheart, what give you the idea that you’re worth a half-year of celibacy?”

“I may not be,” Evie said. “You’re the only one who can answer that.”

It was obvious that Sebastian would have loved to have informed her that she wasn’t worth waiting for. However, as his gaze traveled over her from head to toe, Evie saw the unmistakeable glow of lust in his eyes. He wanted her badly.

“It’s impossible,” he snapped.

“Why?”

“Because I’m Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I can’t be celibate. Everyone knows that.”

He was so arrogant, and so indignant, that Evie suddenly had to gnaw on the insides of her lips to keep from laughing. She struggled to master her amusement, and finally managed to say calmly, “Surely it wouldn’t harm you to try.”

“Oh, yes it would!” His jaw hardened as he labored to explain. “You’re too inexperienced to understand, but…some men are possessed of a far greater sex drive than others. I happen to be one of them. I can’t go for long periods of time without -” He broke off impatiently when he saw her expression. “Damn it, Evie, it’s unhealthy for a man to not release his seed regularly.”

“Three months,” she said, “and that’s my final offer.”

“No!”

“Then go find another woman,” she said flatly.

“I want you. Only you. The devil knows why.”

But in the end he agrees. So astonishing is this promise that when Evie tries to convince her friend Annabelle (the heroine of the first Wallflowers novel) how Sebastian is changing by trying to be celibate, Annabelle almost has a heart attack and exclaims, “Good God. I don’t believe St. Vincent and the word ‘celibacy’ have ever been mentioned in the same sentence before.”

Evie’s idea works amazingly well, with both of them spending time together refurbishing and running the club. He continues to kiss her (and in some very provocative places) but they don’t have sex. After Sebastian takes a bullet for Evie while protecting her from a deranged assailant, he realizes that he in all likelihood won’t survive the infection that’s bound to set in. Lord Westcliff, his former best friend, had come to see that Evie was all right and to offer to take her home to live with him, but is able to see just from Sebastian’s demeanor that he has strong feelings for Evie. Returning to help combat the fever, Westcliff has the unique experience of Sebastian begging for protection for Evie, and apologizing to Westcliff for kidnapping Lillian. This uncharacteristic behavior prompts the following reflection from the Earl’s perspective.

To receive an apology from a man who had never expressed a single regret about anything, and then to hear him practically beg for his wife’s protection, led to an inescapable conclusion. St. Vincent had, against all odds, learned to care more for someone else than he did for himself.

In caring for Sebastian as he thankfully recovers from his infection, Evie begins to provoke both admiration and fear in Sebastian. He is moved by her tenderness and desires her presence all the time but finds himself overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings for her.

He hadn’t comprehended her strength before now. Even when he had seen the loving care she had given her father, he hadn’t guessed what it would be like to rely on her, to need her. But nothing repelled her, nothing was too much to ask. She was his support, his shield…and at the same time she undermined him with a tender affection that he had begun to crave even as he shrank from it.

Even after Sebastian is up and about, a second attack on Evie causes him to feel that it’s too risky for him to love her. Luckily it’s transparent to her what is happening and she’s accumulated enough confidence at this point to speak her mind and gently demand what she needs from her scared husband.

“You’re not trying to protect me. You’re trying to protect yourself.” She hugged herself to him tightly. “But you can force yourself to take the risk of loving someone, can’t you?”

“No,” he whispered.

“Yes. You must.” Evie closed her eyes and pressed her face against his. “Because I love you, Sebastian…and I need you to love me back. And not in h-half measures.”

She heard his breath hiss through his teeth. His hands came to her shoulders, then snatched back. “You’ll have to let me set my own limits, or -”

Evie reached his mouth and kissed him slowly, deliberately until he succumbed with a groan, his arms clamping around her. He answered her kiss desperately, until every part of her had been set alight with tender fire. He took his mouth from hers, gasping savagely. “Half measure. My God. I love you so much that I’m drowning in it. I can’t defend against it. I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is that if I give in to it entirely -” He tried to control the anarchy of his breath. “You mean too much to me,” he said raggedly.

In the end, the real resolution of Sebastian’s big transformation comes when he finally understands that Evie knows him and loves him for himself, understanding every sordid thing he’s done in the past, and she is still the same wonderful, innocent person he first fell in love with, unchanged by this intimate knowledge..

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sebastian interrupted roughly. “Your stammer would never bother me. And I love your freckles. I love -” His voice cracked. He clutched her tightly. “Hell,” he muttered. And then, after a moment, with bitter vehemence, “I wish I were anyone other than me.”

“Why?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Why? My past is a cesspool, Evie.”

“That’s hardly news.”

“I can’t ever atone for the things I’ve done. Christ, I wish I had it to do over again! I would try to be a better man for you. I would -”

“You don’t have to be anything other than what you are.” Lifting her head, Evie stared at him through the radiant shimmer of her tears. “Isn’t that what you told me earlier? If you can love me without conditions, Sebastian, can’t I love you the same way? I know who you are. I think we know each other better than we know ourselves. Don’t you dare send me away, you c-coward. Who else would love my freckles? Who else would care that my feet were cold? Who else would ravish me in the billiards room?”

Slowly his resistance ebbed. She felt the change in his body, the relaxing of tension, his shoulders curving around her as if he could draw her into himself. Murmuring her name, he brought her hand to his face and nuzzled ardently into her palm, his lips brushing the warm circlet of her gold wedding band. “My love is upon you,” he whispered..and she knew then that she had won.

You can see from these excerpts how Kleypas manages to do it all. She shows the minimization of Sebastian’s flaw of selfishness, resolves his internal conflict by correcting his incorrect core belief that he would somehow corrupt Evie and alter her personality, while simultaneously completing the transformation he began in the first chapter. It’s a masterful piece of writing and characterization. Jenna Kernan also has a great handout on some of the key features of this big transformation (along with other terrific examples of transformation) that would be of great use to anyone working on their own perfect hero.

Since the tagline of Tori Macallister is “because in love we discover our best self” I’m naturally a huge fan of the big transformation. I firmly believe that strong, true, unselfish love for another person is the crucible that can strip away our worst qualities and transform us into a better person. Lisa Kleypas, by creating the immortal character of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, gives us literally a textbook example of creating a perfect hero. As a final note, I thought I’d leave you with a list of the other perfect (or damn close to it by these criteria) heroes I can read over and over again.

Perfect Heroes I Never, Ever Tire Of:

  1. Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, from Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas
  2. Cam Rohan, from Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas
  3. Leo Hathaway, from Married by Morning (Hathaways #4) by Lisa Kleypas
  4. Bones, from Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost
  5. Simon Cynster, from The Perfect Lover (Cynster #10) by Stephanie Laurens
  6. Alasdair “Lucifer” Cynster, from All About Love (Cynster #6) by Stephanie Laurens
  7. Sylvester “Devil” Cynster, from Devil’s Bride (Cynster #1) by Stephanie Laurens
  8. Cameron Mackenzie, from The Many Sins of Lord Cameron (Highland Pleasures #3) by Jennifer Ashley
  9. Ian Mackenzie, from The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #1) by Jennifer Ashley
  10. Lucas Hunter, from Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh
  11. Nicholas St. John, from Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord (Love by the Numbers #2) by Sarah Maclean
  12. Douglas Kowalski, from Midnight Angel (Midnight #3) by Lisa Marie Rice
  13. Dimitri Belikov, from Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead

Enjoy your perfect hero, whoever he is, whether reading about him or creating him from the ground up. Just like the heroine who believes in him, he’s worth all the hard work to see him become a better, wiser person in love.

Jill Shalvis Gives Us Strong Men and Sweet Animals in her Animal Magnetism Series

20 Nov

Animal Magnetism (Animal Magnetism #1 – Lilah and Brady’s story) by Jill Shalvis (Berkley, February 1, 2011)

Jill Shalvis has incredible writing strengths which make her one of my favorite contemporary romance authors. She writes strong, damaged heroes, sexy heroines often as funny as they are beautiful, and always gives us a strong sense of place, usually a terrific small town where everyone is in each other’s business. After reading her Lucky Harbor series this summer, I went on a MAJOR Jill Shalvis binge (Don’t believe me? Take a look at my Goodreads account), digging up her other series and Harlequin single titles to devour. One of the best series in her ouvre is, without question, the Animal Magnetism series.

“Come for the cover, stay for the writing” could be tagline of this group of terrific romance novels. Every cover has a hot, bare-chested man and/or an adorable animal – how many women could resist that? But this series offers readers plenty of content between the covers, never fear.

After ex-military men forming a security company, the next best series trope in romance is a sibling group. Sometimes they are related by blood and sometimes they are fostered siblings, but the bond between adults who grew up in rough circumstances, economic or emotional, cannot be broken. It also lays a good foundation for the pending romantic attachment; even the most damaged hero or heroine stands a chance at love if they can have a relationship with a sibling.

In the Animal Magnetism series, we have three foster brothers, Adam, Dell and Brady, living in a small town called Sunshine in the Bitterroot Mountains area of Idaho. All of them had troubled childhoods before being placed with the same caring rancher who offered them the stable home and firm discipline they’d been lacking. While they’ve gone away, they eventually return to Sunshine, a few of them putting down more roots than others.

This is what the Bitterroot Mountains area of Idaho looks like – I can understand why the characters never want to leave it!

In the first book, Animal Magnetism, Brady has finally returned to Sunshine to visit his brothers, Dell and Adam. Dell owns the veterinary clinic in town and splits his time between lavishing love and attention on needy animals and doing the same with the female population of Idaho. Adam, who served a stint in the National Guard, returned home after a terrible mission in which half his team was lost. He’s wrestled in stoic silence with the PTSD from that event but has channeled his talents into a successful dog training venture specializing in Search & Rescue. Brady was Special Forces, with his talent being flying helicopters into highly dangerous situations, but he’s back to being a civilian and has taken some time off from the company that sends him all over the world to fly at a moment’s notice.

When Brady’s parked car gets rear-ended by a flustered young woman, he’s more interested in her big eyes and the way her utilitarian Carhart pants pull across her lovely bottom. The fact that she’s got a potbellied pig, a duck and two puppies in her truck is an intriguing element in the mix. Lilah Young can’t get over how a bad a day she’s having. Her kennel business is paying the bills, but she’s been staying up studying for her online classes and she just paid the price when she plowed into the truck belonging to the total hottie visiting town. His truck seemed to have little damage but hers is the worse for wear and it’s not like she has the money to fix it. Brady is kind enough to drive her home to her cabin next to the kennels so she can give him her insurance information and she impulsively kisses him, thinking she’ll never see him again. Imagine her surprise when she finds him in Dell’s veterinary clinic and Adam introduces Brady as the other foster brother she’d never met.

Brady is just as surprised to see this compelling woman joking with his two brothers, who clearly consider her part of the family. When his brothers bribe him with the tempting offer of rehabbing a sweet helicopter so they can use it for their business, it’s the vision of Lilah as much as spending time with them and the bird that has him agreeing to stay a month. Although he’s made it clear that anything between them is temporary, Lilah decides to seize life with both hands and let this fling with Brady evolve to what it will be. Brady finds himself addicted to Lilah, seeing the way she cares for everyone and everything, all the while maintaining her independence. As the days tick by, he’s unsure he’ll be able to let her go and maintain his personal policy of not getting involved.

Animal Attraction (Animal Magnetism #2 – Dell & Jade’s story) by Jill Shalvis (Berkley, October 4, 2011)

Of the three books in the series, the first is my favorite, largely due to Lilah. This is the woman you want as your best friend – she’s open, funny, and honestly acknowledges her feelings (at least to herself). Watching her fall for every animal in her care and weep bitter tears when she gives them away to a good home because she knows it’s what best for them, gives you a clear sense of how she’s going to approach a relationship. Brady is smoking hot, but he’s also got a heart that instantly recognizes Lilah is something special. Seeing him reveal his playful side and his emotions to Lilah is one of the most heartwarming parts of this book. Setting the stage for all three volumes in this series, the secondary characters of the animals are nothing short of fabulous – little did I realize I would be so captivated by the antics of a duck and a lamb!

In Animal Attraction, we get insight into the fact that there’s more between Dell and his gorgeous redhead receptionist, Jade, than meets the eye. She’s the one woman whose never fallen at his feet, but over the last eighteen months of her running his office with incredible efficiency, she has managed to become an intrinsic part of the family he, Adam, and Brady have created. Her announcement that she’s returning to Chicago in a month has Dell a little panicky, particularly after they share an unexpected kiss in his truck that puts Fourth of July fireworks to shame.

When Dell sees Jade frightened out of her cool exterior by a kid in a Halloween mask, and PTSD surface, he and Adam realize something horrible has happened to her in her past. Helping her is a given, and he convinces her that she’ll feel more in control if she begins to learn self-defense. She agrees to do it, dedicating herself to wrestling control of her life back into her own hands. Being regularly in Dell’s arms doesn’t hurt anything and as they draw closer, she’s worried she can’t keep her feelings at bay. But Dell is a playboy who doesn’t let any woman in, ever, so how can she take a chance on him?

Dell is a fabulous character – warm and charming, he nevertheless has a ton of intelligence and deep feelings, with Shalvis drawing him so three-dimensionally you’d believe it if he walked off the page. Jade is frustrating in her self-containment but since we have insight as to why she is that way (and what she is afraid of) she’s simultaneously incredibly sympathetic. The real joy in this novel is watching Dell and Jade reveal the innermost parts of themselves to each other, because you know that these two private people are not in the habit of letting anyone in to their emotions or past. Some of the final scenes in Chicago had me cheering, and it wasn’t due to the s’mores that Jade was making!

Rescue My Heart (Animal Magnetism #3 – Adam & Holly’s story) by Jill Shalvis (Berkley, November 6, 2012)

It was hard not to wait with an impatient toe tapping for the third book in the series since you knew it was going to focus on the silent Adam and the rich, blond who seemed to drive him crazy, Holly. I was disconcerted to find out two pieces of information that I didn’t know from the previous books: 1) that Adam and Holly had been secretly together when they were teenagers and that 2) everyone believed Holly to be married the whole time she was storming in and out of Adam’s life with her rancher father’s golden retriever puppies.

That information definitely set the stage for the story. Holly and Adam are two of the most frustrating hero/heroines you’ve ever rooted to get together. Stubborn and remote are adjectives that can apply to both of them, in spades. When the story opens, Adam is coming off a rough and search and rescue, his rambunctious yellow lab, Milo, in tow and thinking about how he just wants a hot shower and to sleep for a couple of days. The last thing he expects to be confronted with is a scared married bombshell by the name of Holly, worried that her aging father is not answering his phone after three days of camping by himself. The only person she trusts to track him is Adam, who finds himself moved by Holly’s transparent fear.

She insists on coming with him and, with just the two of them and Milo looking in her father’s favorite haunts, layers get stripped off Adam and Holly (and I don’t just mean their clothes) as they find out truths about their respective pasts. To say that Adam is emotionally remote is almost British in its understatement, and I sided with Holly that she should be frustrated that every pushy male in her life – her father, her brother and Adam – all had made decisions for “her” benefit without every consulting her. Argghh!

Holly is almost always angry and indignant, mostly as a shield against Adam, for whom she has never stopped having feelings. It exhausted me listening to her internal conflict as she realizes she still has feelings (physical and emotional) for Adam and determines not to succumb to them. Adam is equally as strangle-eligible as Holly is the one woman who really lights his fire – the only one he ever has loved – yet he is so convinced of his inability to love anyone that he offers her no encouragement. It felt like it took two-thirds of the book for these two to work through the initial bulk of their feelings in order to reach a point where they would entertain the thought that there could be a chance things would work.

My mental image of the wonderful Search & Rescue dog, Milo.

Thank heavens for our previous characters and for the dogs, Adam’s Search & Rescue dog, Milo, especially (although Holly’s father fosters S&R puppies and Thing 1 and Thing 2 are pretty terrific). The presence of the two very happy couples of Brady/Lilah and Dell/Jade, who knew that Adam and Holly were meant to be together, kept me from committing character homicide a couple of times. I can’t say that I got totally into this book like I did the first two, but I was happy to see them work through their issues. You can’t argue that once Adam is in, he’s in. Nothing halfway for Adam! Part of my reluctance to embrace them is a personal prejudice I have – I’m just not a fan of the rekindled or second chance romance.

I did love the introduction of Holly’s brother, Grif, who regularly skyped her from his military post, as well as Holly’s grade-school teacher (and socially awkward) best friend. The next book in the series, entitled Rumor Has It, will focus on this unlikely pairing and I’m already looking forward to August 2013 because of it. Jill Shalvis is a terrific author with characterization and a talent for creating a small-town setting that has you calling a mover, you are so in love with the place. Try the Animal Magnetism series and enjoy both her two and four-legged characters in these terrific romances!

Bayou Heat Lives Up to Its Name in This Reissue from Donna Kauffman

19 Nov

Bayou Heat by Donna Kauffman (Loveswept, November 12, 2012) – originally issued in 1996

Louisiana is a popular place to set sensual romance novels. I think it’s a combination of the heat and the Cajun culture, which gives a taste of the exotic right in the United States. Add in the voodoo religion, a smattering of Cajun French, and the sweltering heat and you have a recipe for a sexy romance.

Which is what Donna Kauffman thought back in the 1996 when this book originally came out. Loveswept, the publisher, at that time was a division of Random House and responsible for some very popular romance novels in the 1980s and 1990s. While this imprint disappeared for a while, I gather the publishing house decided to resurrect Loveswept as an ebook-only line, launching a new website dedicated to e-romances. In addition to new romance novels, (like the long anticipated Iced by Karen Marie Moning, the spin-off series from her Fever novels) Loveswept has cleverly mined its backlist to discover any titles that would benefit from a cover makeover and hold up to today’s market.

What they found was several of Donna Kauffman’s novels, and I, in turn, found them on NetGalley. The new covers are FABULOUS (and believe me, these books needed them) but with any reissue you need to worry about whether the content holds up after 15 or so years, right?

The original cover of Bayou Heat from 1996. I’m not sure this would have worked for me even in the 20th century!

No danger here. Bayou Heat did not feel like a recycled romance in the slightest despite it’s lack of technology and only a couple of sex scenes (which is not what you expect looking at that cover). Instead I was sucked into this tale of Dr. Erin McClure, an ethnobotanist who discovers her sexy Cajun guide bloody and almost unconscious in her rented bathtub – oh, did I mention she was naked and ready for her shower? Teague Comeaux enjoys the view, thinking that this mental image does not match what he thought he’d be guiding through the bayou. From the first moments between them, Kauffman does a skillful job showing the web of sexual attraction while also highlighting how these two characters have trouble communicating with one another.

Teague has baggage – of the Samsonite 6-piece collection variety. He, like his half-brother, was born on the wrong side of the blankets to the wealthiest man in the parish. Although his father married his mother, it was a tumultuous relationship at best, one that led this unstable woman to commit suicide. Teague was taken in as a mourning teen by his grandmother, the local voodoo priestess who lived out in the bayou. While he loves her for raising him, one family member after another has rejected him for who he is, so much so that he left Louisiana as soon as he could and has only recently returned. What no one but the local sheriff knows is that Teague spent his time away from the bayou working undercover for U.S. Customs. Once he caught wind of an operation centered in his former backyard he got himself reassigned and purchased a local pool hall as his front. Now he has a feisty scientist stirring up emotions he never wanted to feel and shattering every image he possessed of how scientists are supposed to behave, an unexpected twist which could endanger his current job.

A vision of the Louisiana bayou.

Erin McClure was raised untraditionally, to put it mildly. The daughter of a scientist herself (whether he was an anthropologist or another ethnobotanist, I couldn’t quite put my finger on) she grew up among a variety of cultures and highly self-reliant, camping in the Amazon by herself at the age of thirteen. As frustrating as her sexy new Cajun guide is, she needs his connections to the local voodoo priestess in order to her work, work she began with her father and now continues after his death. That he sees her as a desirable woman – something none of the academics she’s worked with before have done – is secondary to her mission.

There were a few pieces of this book that I found disconcerting. There wasn’t a ton of physical description, so it was hard to get a handle on how the two main characters looked. Call it a pet peeve, but I like a regular reminder or a reference to something other than the expression in their eyes, to keep me grounded. My vision of Teague and Erin was pretty blurry and I found it annoying in parts. Also, while I’m sure it mimics real life to perfection, I felt that a good part of the dialogue between Erin and Teague or Teague and his half-brother, Marshall, to suffer from lack of clarity. How exactly did Marshall have a hand in the smuggling venture? And what precisely were they smuggling from Haiti?

Kauffman’s writing strengths have me willing to read the other books I’ve pulled from NetGalley. The sensuality rampant between the characters was excellent and she has serious chops when it comes to writing body language and letting the reader literally see the attraction between characters. She also manages a nice balance between having enough authentic cultural details thrown in her books but doesn’t go the route of info dumping explanations of the culture. With her writing, I don’t think I would have minded more explanation, but I also admire a writer who gives me enough of a head start and then trusts me to look things up on my own.

This foray into Kauffman and the Loveswept line has me intrigued and wanting to try more. Thanks to Donna Kauffman for writing a book which holds up over time and thanks to Random House for reviving it. :-)

Jeaniene Frost Offers a Compelling New World in Night’s Darkest Embrace

18 Nov

Night’s Darkest Embrace by Jeaniene Frost (Pocket Star, November 13, 2012) – ebook only

The mark of a truly amazing author is when they write a story completely out of the series you fell in love with and you still adore it. No resentment, no “this sucks because it’s not the characters I love”, just pure fabulous writing from the first word to the last. If you’ve read this blog before, you are aware that I think Frost has created the best vampire series with her Night Huntress and Night Huntress World books (which is saying something since there are a LOT of vampire books out there!).

Jeaniene Frost is a writer who always lives up to my high expectations of her, so much so that I think her pajama top must showcase a milk bottle and the catchphrase “Filled with Awesomeness” on it. Since I monitor her website like a hawk and make sure I’ve read everything listed on her Goodreads page, I knew that there was an anthology, Haunted By Your Touch, containing an novella by her that I hadn’t checked off. Since it wasn’t part of the Night Huntress series, I didn’t feel it was a gigantic problem for me to be patient until it was released as an independent ebook, so I preordered it months ago and patiently waited.

When it popped up on my Kindle app this week, I felt like presents had suddenly become part of Thanksgiving! At only 100 pages or so, it was easy to sit and devour it in one sitting and then bask in the non-tryptophan afterglow of her writing.

Haunted By Your Touch by Jeaniene Frost, Shayla Black, and Sharie Kohler (Pocket Star, October 26, 2010) – available in paper and ebook form

It turns out that Frost is the queen of paranormal, no matter what her characters’ names or the setting she’s created. In Night’s Darkest Embrace, she gives us multiple dimensions laying alongside our own world with some creatures – those with varying degrees of demon blood – able to move between them. Mara is part-demon and as teenagers she and her cousin Gloria foolishly went into Nocturna, the dimension accessible to them, as an adventure. It ended up being an adventure, all right, with the two of them captured by pureblood demons bent on taking them to a neighboring dimension they called home and absorbing their essence (and yes, you have to kill someone to do that).

Rafael, the sexy ruler of Nocturna mysteriously showed up and managed to free Mara, warning her to not return until she was older since purebloods prefer children, but the kidnappers disappeared with Gloria, who was never seen again. Over the years, Mara has returned to Nocturna again and again in the hope that she would see one of the men who took them and enact her revenge. As time has gone on, though, she finds herself more and more attracted to Rafael but he’s never given her a good answer as to why he was in the middle of nowhere when he rescued her. She worries that he’s somehow connected to the pureblood trade in part-demons, but her body seems to possess less moral fiber since it sings whenever he’s nearby. When Mara realizes she can use the blazing attraction between them to uncover the truth, she does so despite her misgivings and finds out that Rafael is much, much more than he seems.

It’s Frost, so her characterization is pitch perfect, and you feel like you get a wonderful sense of Raphael even though the story is told solely from Mara’s perspective. Plenty of conflict and reasonable doubt, but not piled on to the point where you begin to feel hopeless about the couple being able to ever get together. If there’s anything you can count on with Frost, it’s also her sense of humor coming through in her writing and this story is no exception.

“Rafael,” a clear voice demanded. “What do you think you’re doing with that female?”

“Taking her to my room to ravish her, Mother,” he replied shortly….

“Eh, I’ll see you afterward then,” she replied in a disinterested voice.

The other writing strength Frost is renowned for is her red-hot love scenes, and this novella does not disappoint in that arena either. I was fanning myself during key points in the story but what makes Frost’s love scenes so unbelievably steamy is not just the choreography of the scene, but the way she depicts the emotional connection between the characters and how their physical consummation pushes the plot forward. It’s exactly what you want from a romance writer and Frost delivers every time.

At a mere $1.99, this is the perfect Frost work to enjoy while you are waiting for Twice Tempted, the next book in the Night Huntress World series. So whether you are a Cat and Bones fan or proudly wear your “Team Vlad” t-shirt, do yourself a favor and take a look at Night’s Darkest Embrace. You’ll gain a new appreciation of an author who simply cannot write anything that’s not fabulous.

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