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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!