Archive | July, 2013

Urban Fantasy For Lovers of Badass Women and the Alpha Males Who Love Them: The Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews

30 Jul

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2007)

Urban Fantasy is a genre packed with badass, incredibly strong female protagonists matched by alpha males so strong and sexy that it’s a wonder they don’t take over the world (and sometimes they do). Magic abounds in these books (a hallmark of urban fantasy which is usually set in cities) and the fantasy piece involves a massive struggle of good versus evil, with swirling political forces pitted against the heroine who, with her allies, desperately attempts to thwart them and keep the world in balance.

Readers of this blog already know of my love of the Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost, which so many readers put in paranormal romance when I think it fits urban fantasy far better as a subgenre. The husband and wife writing team of Ilona Andrews has a corner of the strong female protagonist market with their Kate Daniels series, a group of books that I would cheerfully call the height of its genre. In honor of Magic Rises, the sixth full-length and latest book in the series published today (and yes, it’s included in this post), I thought I’d do a full series review.

While lacking the sexual explicitness of Frost’s work (sadly, but don’t worry there’s a decent amount of hot nookie), this series combines fantastic writing, a mind-blowing story arc, phenomenal world-building, characterization so strong you forget they aren’t real people, humor so funny you’ll be stealing the lines to look clever with your friends, and the best fight scenes I’ve ever read (in fantasy or otherwise).

Because of the many books, novellas and short stories in the series, the below overview undoubtedly has spoilers in it, so be warned. This is the kind of series review I like to read – one that tells you what order to read each book, short story and novella as well as gives an understanding of the conflict without giving away the farm – but some people get cranky about it. Sadly, anytime you have a series this long (and awesome) this is a necessary evil. You can’t just write descriptions with “uh…and stuff happens with Kate and…some other guys!” So bear with me.

Some Key Players:

  • Kate Daniels – professional mercenary with a lot of secrets in her past, including the source of her extremely powerful magic
  • Curran Lennart (aka the Beast Lord) – head of the “The Pack” or approximately 1500 shapeshifters in the Atlanta area, of various clans separated by type
  • Saiman – a polymorph who can change his appearance at will; businessman who supplies valuable information, tech and magic; operates according to his own set of ethics
  • Ghastek Stefanoff – ambitious Master of the Dead who operates out of the People’s casino and is the main contact person for Kate in her investigations
  • The People – the name assigned to the group of individuals who pilot vampires and who work for the global organization headed by the ancient and mythical Roland; cold, devoid of ethics, and the enemies of shapeshifters (or anyone else who gets in their way)
  • Derek Gaunt – young werewolf tied to Kate via a Blood Oath in the first book and who rapidly becomes a friend and partner; strong abilities mark him a potential future alpha
  • Julie Olsen – a young street kid whose mother is murdered; becomes Kate’s ward; has a highly sought after magical ability that must be kept under wraps
  • Andrea Nash – Knight of the Order and a beastkin, or type of shapeshifter the majority consider an abomination; werehyena who also happens to be a deadly accurate Master of Arms with any weapon that fires
  • Raphael Medrano – male Alpha of the Hyenas, partnered with his mother the female Alpha, Aunt B; runs a Pack business specializing in reclamation
  • Jim Shrapshire – Kate’s friend and occasional partner from the Mercenary Guild; Cat Alpha and Head of Pack Security

Note that I actually number these books and put them in strict chronological order in the series since the events in even the short stories and novellas end up building the overall story arc and/or characters. If a story is not written from Kate Daniels’ point of view (POV), I’ve clearly labeled it “Kate Daniels World.” This is a little different from the way that term is used and the way the stories are ordered and labeled on Goodreads, but I think it’s much clearer if you believe in tackling a series in strict order like I do.

Magic Bites (Book #1)

In the first book of the series, Magic Bites, the world of Kate Daniels is one hauntingly familiar yet startlingly different from our own. Set in Atlanta (with occasional forays to Savannah), Kate lives in the near future where our world has disintegrated under the burden of waves of magic which come unpredictably, rendering technology useless. Magic is a power most people can access to some degree, but it’s an advantage to be able to powerfully wield it, particularly with vampires and were-creatures around, mingling with witches/warlocks as well as human users.

Kate is a mercenary attempting to stay off the larger radar and simply make a living, but plans change when she is notified that her guardian Greg has been brutally murdered. Kate had been somewhat estranged from Greg as he wanted her to join him in working for the Order, a group of Knights who serve the larger community by exterminating horrifying supernatural creatures (who often wreak havoc on the populace) and investigating strange happening. Kate attempted to join before but her anti-authority outlook didn’t jibe with the larger culture of the Order.

Magic Graves by Jeaniene Frost and Ilona Andrews (including Kate Daniels #.5 “A Questionable Client”) (Amazon Digital Services, 2011)

With Greg dead, the Order decides to let Kate, a trained mercenary active in the Mercenary Guild, work as an adjunct to find Greg’s killer, particularly to discover if the murder had anything to do with his work. Slogging her way through his things, she discovers missing young women, a dead vampire, and test results that might implicate a shifter.

This does not make for an easy investigation as vampires – skeletal creatures who are “steered” by masters – fall under the power of the People and their rulers, while all were-creatures in the area are under the jurisdiction of the Pack, led by the Beast Lord. And Kate isn’t exactly going to win a diplomacy award anytime soon since her style is more “annoy people until they tell her what she wants to know.”

Using the contact of a fellow mercenary and were-jaguar, Jim, she makes contact with the Beast Lord, aka Curran, who is more than contemptuous of her and her so-called abilities, throwing obstacles at her right and left, but reluctantly agreeing to work with her out of respect for her deceased guardian. The vampires stonewall her at every turn, and even traditional investigating only turns up few clues.

Amidst it all, we see that Kate is eager to hide her abilities, which include swordplay that is like an extension of herself and magical power beyond anything anyone around her can manage. A few people suspect her abilities, but she is careful to not reveal too much, even as she and the people around her deal with an unholy being bent on murder and destruction.

Another aspect of Ilona Andrews that I love is, because the Kate Daniels novels are written in the first person, they make a point of giving you a different perspective, specifically Curran’s. Curran Vol. I, has a companion story to Magic Bites, detailing a brief version of the moment Curran and Kate meet from his (rather disdainful) perspective. You can also read the scene for free on Ilona Andrews’ website.

“A Questionable Client” (Book #0.5) in Magic Graves anthology

Curran Vol. I by Gordon Andrews – includes scenes from Curran’s perspective from the first three books (noted in text of review). You can read the stories for free on Andrews’ website or get them in a collection for $.99.

Because Kate has an acquaintance/friend, the mysterious, ethically bankrupt Saiman who helps her (for quite a price) in Magic Bites, I do recommend readers of the series purchase the dual anthology of Magic Graves in order to read the prequel, “A Questionable Client” detailing the first time Kate and Saiman work together. Not only does it shed light on their relationship and Saiman’s power and abilities, but it gives a great deal of insight into Kate’s character and her encyclopedic knowledge of magic and folklore.

Magic Burns (Book #2)

In the second book of the series, Magic Burns, Kate is now in the position of liaison offered her at the end of Magic Bites, and she has the somewhat joyless job of negotiating between the Order, the Mercenary Guild, the Pack, the People, and humans. She’s at least got a regular salary and she can live in Greg’s apartment which she inherited when in Atlanta, occasionally going back to her house in Savannah. It’s a living.

Magic Burns (Kate Daniels #2) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2008)

With the waves of magic coming more unpredictably, people get a little out of control, including a crazed arsonist she and Jim go to apprehend. Their preference for a live capture is thwarted when a mystery assassin puts several cross bolts into their perp.

With Jim called away on pack business, Kate is left to pursue the mystery man who can seemingly disappear into thin air. She finds him in the midst of the Honeycomb, a dangerous area of Atlanta filled with shifting magic. Kate also stumbles across a young girl whose mother and her coven have gone missing, possibly after freeing a god or goddess that they did not intend to release.

Taking the young girl, Julie, home with her, she discovers the girl herself is a conduit for powerful forces who seem to want the her, Curran and his Pack, as well as Kate’s new friend Andrea from the Order. The pressure to figure out what the hell is going on (and then defeat it) bonds them together as valuable allies in an effort to protect an innocent girl and protect the city. For bonus scenes from Curran’s perspective, our fabulous authors have given us his rescue of Kate after she almost dies after the fight with the Reeves as well as Curran’s uber-sneaky wooing of her when he plies her with chicken soup.

Magic Strikes (Book #3)

Magic Strikes (Kate Daniels #3) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2009)

When Magic Strikes, the next book in the series, opens, Kate seems to be settling in to her life, gaining confidence as an official mouthpiece for the Order. Exhausted by a harrowing day, Kate has a lot going on. Her werejaguar friend Jim refused her official help with a shapeshifter death, Derek the young werewolf previously bound to her with a blood vow tried to steal something from Kate’s dangerous acquaintance and now she owes Saiman a favor. He cashes in by insisting that Kate accompany him to the Midnight Games, illegal arena fighting with a smorgasbord of creatures fighting to the death, in order to evaluate the fighters for him.

Derek is not only unrepentant at getting caught, knowing Kate will not turn him into Curran for punishment, but also convinces Kate to use her time with Saiman at the games to pass a note to a beautiful young girl on the Reapers team. One look at the girl’s fellow fighters and Kate knows something is wrong – they are way too physically perfect plus they definitely have it out for Saiman. When they kill Saiman’s imported Minotaur and attack him and Kate as they leave the arena, Kate knows something is very, very wrong and Derek is in danger.

Now she’s caught up in a vortex where Jim and some of her friends have gone rogue (and the clock is ticking on Curran hunting them down to kill them according to pack law), one of her good friends might die, and she is determined to kill those responsible even though that would mean outing her and her abilities to exactly the kind of people she’s been trying to avoid. Pursuing this course also means running in the opposite direction from Curran and whatever tentative trust and feeling has been growing between them.

In the world of awesome bonus material is my absolute favorite, Curran’s perspective of the oh-so-sexy hot tub encounter at the arena between His Furriness and Kate. Prior to that amazing scene, there is also Curran’s mental fury at being trapped in the loup cage by Kate as she attempts to delay his pursuit, and his insight into Kate as he talks Julie into letting him out. Helpful in understanding exactly what Curran feels for Kate is the story that happens in the interim between this and the next book in the series when Jim’s investigation turns up some pretty dangerous information about Kate’s past and he has to show it to Curran in the best interests of the Pack.

Magic Mourns (#3.5 novella – Kate Daniels World – Andrea…with plenty of Raphael)

Magic Mourns (Kate Daniels World #3.5) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2011) – this story was also published in the anthology Must Love Hellhounds

Watching werehyena Raphael desperately attempt to woo Andrea (particularly with her self-hatred of her beastkin nature – a nature she must hide from the Order or lose her job) has been both amusing and wonderful. In this interim novella to the series, Magic Mourns, readers can see these two embark on an adventure together.

Andrea is busy answering Kate’s phone at the Order while her friend recovers from the wounds received at the end of Magic Strikes. A citizen complaining about a were-animal running away from a dog the size of a house qualifies as reason to investigate, so Andrea – a Master of Arms even if the Order chooses not to bestow the title on her – packs up her guns and crossbow and heads out.

Her anonymous caller was not exaggerating on the size of the dog, which happens to have three heads, but in fighting it off she’s even more shocked when a male hyena starts running her way. Praying it’s not Raphael, the man whose been pursuing her for six months, she’s dismayed when that exact man of her dreams/nightmares changes back into his glorious, naked human form and promptly loses consciousness. Now she’s stuck with a six foot hunk who stops women in their tracks and no answers to the question of what is going on.

She does eventually get some information when he wakes up. Raphael’s mother, the hyena Alpha, recently lost her human mate. The whole clan was horrified when the kind man’s corpse went missing from the funeral home. Tracking the scents at the scene led Raphael to the house in the boondocks and the three-headed dog with an anti-hyena complex. As much as Andrea desperately wants to deny her hyena nature, Raphael’s mother once saved her life and she offers to help him. The forced intimacy of the investigation spurs Andrea to reveal both her desire for Raphael and some of the facts surrounding her horrible childhood.

This is a great story which lays the foundation for not only the future books in the series but also the outstanding full-length Kate Daniels world novel dedicated to Andrea, Gunmetal Magic (see below). Andrea is a phenomenal, complex character and I love any story told from her perspective. The immortal apples in this story also have a cameo role in the next book in the series, so that’s a nice tie-in as well. It’s great to get in the head of a different character, particularly when it comes to seeing Kate and Curran through someone else’s eyes.

Magic Bleeds (Book #4)

Magic Bleeds (Kate Daniels #4) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2010)

Magic Bleeds is one of the most painful Kate Daniels books to date for me to read but it’s also my favorite. The activity in the book gets not only incredibly dangerous, but the novel also contains the ever present backdrop of Kate’s hurt feelings regarding Curran dismissing her right when their relationship was about to take a huge step forward.

Trying to work through the emotional pain, Kate responds to a bizarre incident at a rowdy bar, one that almost unleashes a virulent plague. Picking up a large, bizarrely colored poodle as a faithful sidekick (who provides much needed comic relief to this tension-packed story), Kate is called to her old stomping grounds of the Mercenary Guild to investigate the murder of the founder. Both Jim and Curran show up, with Kate and Curran unleashing their anger at one another about the demise of their relationship.

Needing answers to two strange murders, Kate turns to her untrustworthy acquaintance Saiman who has amazing magic and technology at his disposal, if the price is right. Not only requiring a hefty fee from the Order for his services, Saiman also exacts the fee of one elegant dinner with Kate for rendering assistance. That he times it for right when Curran comes with the other Alphas and the People for a political dinner brings that entire situation to a boiling head.

Discovering what and who is behind the latest attempt to decimate the Pack and render the city helpless is a cold wake up call for Kate, and one that could come at an unbelievably high price, possibly costing her the friends she’s made, the home she’s built, and the man she’s come to love. Ilona Andrews says in the acknowledgments that this was a hard book to write, but I feel nothing but gratitude that they managed to wade through whatever difficulties they encountered to produce this story. As always, the intersection of the series story arc and the more immediate subplots and political machinations is astonishingly tight. For me, seeing Kate and Curran work through their relationship problems to see the vision of what they might be able to have is not just heart-warming but inspiring, as these two damaged people with so much on their plate deserve some personal happiness.

Andrews has given us some phenomenal bonus scenes as well. [Ilona Andrews added the altercation that prevented Curran from making his dinner date with Kate on July 31, 2013 and, wow, talk about a rough day.] Naturally one of the key scenes is the controversial dinner scene from Curran’s POV, but the one that ties me up in happy emotional knots is when Curran wakes after the battle and realizes what Kate has gone through while he’s been unconscious. The ass-kicking throwdown of the subsequent council meeting and then Curran’s fight with his on-the-fence foster father Mahon is total icing on the Kate Daniels cake.

Magic Dreams (novella #4.5 – Kate Daniels World – Dali…with a lot of Jim)

Magic Dreams (Kate Daniels World #4.5 – Jim and Dali) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2012)

Anyone who has seen the Pack’s Head of Security and Kate’s friend Jim interact with the were-tiger Dali knows there is a significant spark between them. In Magic Dreams, told from Dali’s POV, we finally get a little forward progress with the unlikely pairing of a half-blind, vegetarian were-tiger and the badass jaguar who keeps the entire Pack safe.

Dali is surprised coming home one night to see her luscious Alpha asleep on the floor of her bedroom. While her fantasies have certainly run in that direction she knows there must be a reason and waking Jim up is harder than she expected. Discovering that he cannot remember the details he encountered when visiting one of the safe houses for their pack, Dali realizes that magic is afoot, and if there is anything this double Ph.D. understands it’s the cultural complexities and danger surrounding different forms of magic.

When the realization dawns that Jim is dying as a result of the magic inflicted on him at the safe house, Dali doesn’t hesitate to take on a mission that could very well get her tortured or killed, because this man means everything to her and she doesn’t want to live in a world without him.

OMG, Dali. Ilona Andrews writes smart, funny, brave female characters like they are going out of style and Dali is no exception. She’s quirky (a white tiger who faints at the sight of blood?) and feisty and it’s adorable seeing her have no clue how much Jim wants her while she’s working so hard to find the cure before all his magic is siphoned away. I always hope to see these two together in every Kate Daniels books and want to see little white tiger/jaguar babies some day soon!

Magic Slays (Book #5)

Magic Slays (Book #5) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, 2011)

In Magic Slays, Kate might be relieved not to be working for the Order anymore, but making her own viable go of a private business isn’t as straightforward as she wants it to be. Being the official mate of the Beast Lord makes things even that much more complicated and her former employer, the Order, is happy to spread rumors of the “loose-cannon-bad-at-her-job” variety.

Well, life is full of complications. Kate’s best friend Andrea reappears after she’s been missing for months. It turns out she was injured so badly during the battle at the end of Magic Bleeds that she changed into her beastkin form in the hospital while being treated as an unconscious Knight of the Order. Since the Order has a “no shapeshifters allowed” policy, this meant they essentially kidnapped her (along with Kate’s dog Grendel) and took her to Order headquarters to stand trial. While Andrea fought a valiant legal fight for acceptance, she’s been officially discharged and is clearly filled with rage toward an organization who she believed was her family.

Kate might have been pissed that Andrea was gone all those months with no word, but she’s grateful she’s back, immediately putting her on the payroll. And it’s none too soon. A freak accident with a vampire whose master loses control comes on the same day as Kate’s first real case. What seems like a kidnapping of an inventor and murder of his guard actually begins to have far more frightening repercussions – after all, anything that sends Saiman packing up and ready to flee the city does not bode well. When Kate’s daughter Julie is endangered by the secret society bent on waging war, Kate and Curran might ally themselves with the various magical factions of the city in order to save the lives of the people they love.

I adore this book on so many levels. The biggest reason is watching Kate and Curran grow as a couple, with Kate finally realizing that Curran loves her for herself, not for the power she can bring him and the Pack. Andrea’s character only gets more complex and interesting, undoubtedly serving as a build-up to the next full-length novel in the series which is told from her perspective. Naturally the evil Kate and crew faces seems to be an independent evil on its surface but actually is tied into the bigger story arc of the whole series, so Andrews’ usual mastery is at work here. Magic Slays is basically a slice of fantastic served up with a healthy dose of awesome sauce.

“Magic Tests” short story in An Apple for the Creature anthology (Kate Daniels World #5.3 – Julie)

An Apple for the Creature – anthology containing “Magic Tests” short story by Ilona Andrews, #5.3 in Kate Daniels series (Ace, September 2012)

The publishers who put out these anthologies always have me over a barrel – it’s my completionist tendencies at work. I have to read every story when I really love a series. *shakes fist at exorbitant anthology pricing*

In An Apple for the Creature anthology, each story focuses on some kind of first day at school with the Ilona Andrews story “Magic Tests” giving us the wonderful insight into Kate’s ward Julie. Julie hasn’t had a great track record with educational opportunities. She lived on the street after her mother died and then Kate sent her to a highbrow boarding school in Macon where she was so miserable, she ran away three times before being expelled. While she’s thrilled to finally be living at home, Julie is nevertheless disgruntled that Kate will not let her just work at the office and learn from the shapeshifters.

Having received ten names of Atlanta schools, Julie reluctantly chose one – the day/boarding school of Seven Star Academy. When Kate and Julie have their initial interview with the principal, Julie is shocked to discover that Kate has recommended her to go undercover to figure out the location of a missing student. In the course of her investigation, which uses the magic Julie must keep concealed from everyone lest she be used for personal gain, she makes several friends as well as solves the mystery.

Julie is an incredible character who is so filled with potential in terms of the story arc and for her own personal journey that I’m rather in awe of the writing of her. I did love this short story told from her POV since it’s easy to forget with all the smart ass comments and dangerous situations that Julie is incredibly smart and perceptive. A total bonus was the appearance of the eighteen year old, pleasantly megalomaniacal dragon shifter who Dali freed in Magic Dreams. I expect he is going to be a fantastic character, and between him, Derek, and Ascanio I’m keeping a tally in my head of all the hot guys Julie could chose from when she decides to fall in love.

Magic Gifts (Novella #5.4)

Magic Gifts (#5.4 Kate Daniels series) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, July 2012)

This novella was offered for a while as a freebie on Ilona Andrews website before it’s inclusion in the bonus material of Gunmetal Magic, and now you have to buy that book in order to read it. Since I always appreciate a chance to observe Kate and Curran up close, it’s a delight. Because the story has its own cover design on Goodreads (see visual on the right), I’m guessing it will eventually be released as a stand alone enovella, but for now you should read it in the back of Gunmetal Magic, which is so terrific, you should be reading it anyway.

After a hard day of killing psychotic floating jellyfish, Kate is happy to get back to the office and find Curran there. He asks her to go out to dinner with him, something this power couple doesn’t get to do…ever. What seems like a great carnivore experience at an Atlanta Korean restaurant quickly becomes a nightmare when a young woman is strangled by a gold necklace at the table near them. When that same necklace is slapped on a young boy who is slowly being choked to death, Kate and Curran engage in a race against time to save him.

I’ve read some great novellas in my day, but this one tops the chart. Not only is the world of the “Vikings” described in more detail but the subplot of the ongoing upheaval of the Mercenary Guild is fascinating, stemming directly from the murder of its leader which we witnessed in Magic Bleeds. Because the dead woman and her date were both upper-level journeymen controlling vampires, Kate and Curran’s nemesis Ghastek is involved, so the People offer a complicated layer to the story.

Gunmetal Magic (Kate Daniels World Book #5.5 – Andrea…with a lot of Raphael)

Gunmetal Magic (Kate Daniels World #5.5) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, July 31, 2012)

Since Gunmetal Magic overlaps the events of Magic Gifts, it helps to read the novella prior to this book. While Kate and Curran are off dealing with “Vikings” in Magic Gifts, Andrea is in charge of the investigation firm. When the Pack’s Head of Security calls to alert her that four shapeshifters have been killed on a Pack job site, she’s the lead investigator. Unfortunately, the job site is her ex-boyfriend Raphael’s current reclamation project.

After their fight before the major battle with Erra at the end of Magic Bleeds and Andrea’s disappearance while legally battling the Order, she hasn’t called or spoken to Raphael. She knows it’s cowardly and she’s been working on one hell of an apology in her mind, so Andrea takes this job for the opportunity it is and leaves a message for Raphael to please come to office to be interviewed and that she has some long overdue things to say to him. He shows up alright, along with his gigantic, human blond bimbo of a fiancee, and Andrea takes that as the dismissal it’s meant to be.

Sadly, the murdered shapeshifters still require justice and Andrea must turn to Raphael for assistance as she uncovers strange snake people, an Egyptian god and ceremonial knives charged with so much magic it leaves her breathless. Amidst the investigation, Andrea also deals with the reality of becoming part of the Bouda Pack (of which Raphael is the Alpha Male) and finally accepting her shapeshifter side. That a handsome Russian volhv keeps coming to her rescue throughout the investigation just adds to the intriguing mess that is Andrea’s life.

My fandom for Andrea is well known and I would say this novel is tied with Magic Bleeds as my favorite book of the entire series. Andrea experiences a boatload of internal and external conflict and I challenge anyone to not appreciate her heartfelt fear of losing Raphael permanently. Raphael is a selfish asshole, but one who is motivated by so much love for Andrea that it’s easy to empathize with him even when you’re just getting Andrea’s skewed take on the situation. The freaky god versus the snake people plot is intriguing and I like having more Roman time, since he was a great character back in Magic Slays.

“Retribution Clause” in Hex Appeal Anthology (Kate Daniels World #5.6)

“Retribution Clause” in Hex Appeal (Kate Daniels World #5.6) by Ilona Andrews (St. Martin’s Griffin, June 25, 2012)

This short story, partnered with several other urban fantasy authors in the anthology Hex Appeal, has Ilona Andrews venturing outside Atlanta to Philadelphia. Saiman’s much nicer cousin Adam works as an insurance adjuster, which to our eyes seems like a boring occupation, but in Kate Daniels’ world is anything but.

Adam and his mysterious partner Siroun are often called upon to investigate the theft of insured property and fulfill the clauses of unique life insurance policies. When the wife of a powerful lawyer is discovered strangled, the policy she took out with POM Insurance stipulated a “retribution clause” where her husband should be killed since he would be her murderer.

This short story is brilliant, teasing us with a hint of Siroun’s origins in magic, the world of the insurance business (pretty scary) and the unstated affection these two partners have for one another – feelings that neither feels they can act upon because of who they are. It’s nice to know that someone can be a polymorph like Saiman and have a conscience. This duo would be a powerful force in any future books or novellas since the premise of their jobs offers an almost limitless number of plot lines. Unless they crop up in future books, you don’t need to read this short story, but if you happen to enjoy the other authors in the anthology (like Jim Butcher and Carrie Vaughn, both great writers), this would be well worth it.

Magic Rises (Kate Daniels #6)

Magic Rises (Book #6) by Ilona Andrews (Ace, July 30, 2013)

Here’s what I stayed up until 4 am this morning in order to read the moment it landed in my Kindle app! Yes, the cover has gotten a ton of criticism from fans – I gather from Andrews’ website that the model featured in all the other Kate Daniels books was no longer available so the publisher found a delightful sixteen year old to pretend to be a woman in her mid-to-late twenties. Oh, publishers.

In Magic Rises, the Pack is given an incredible opportunity…for a price. The biggest fear of every shapeshifter is that their child, upon puberty will surrender to the animal within and go “loup” at which time the alpha will be forced to kill them. This happens all too often and the European shapeshifters have access to a medicine that greatly reduces the chance of this happening. Rather than simply sell it, however, they insist that Curran come and mediate a dispute between families.

Curran and Kate take a contingent of their most trusted pack members to fulfill the agreement – playing bodyguard to a pregnant werewolf whose child will inherit a crucial piece of land – knowing ahead of time that it’s definitely a trap. What they don’t know is why they are being exposed to a trap, but the appearance of one of Roland’s warlords brings a certain amount of clarity to a situation that can only be described as (pardon me) a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

Not only does this utterly kick butt book send chills down your spine as we see Kate inch closer to being exposed to her father, but there are the added layers of incredible sacrifice in the desperate bid to get this magical concoction for the children. With a shapeshifter princess making the moves on Curran and him letting her, the relationship pain is off the charts, making the political machinations that much more dramatic. I was gasping in horror in more than one location in this book – it’s an emotional rollercoaster but oh, so satisfying.

So that’s my whole review for all of the Kate Daniels stories to date, as of July 30, 2013. 🙂 I hope this gives you an inkling of why I think this is one of the best fantasy series on the market and why the writing team of Ilona Andrews is deserving of such respect. In an incredible alternate history, the rich world of Kate Daniels is one that I find myself rereading, fully enjoying the drama, humor and ultimately the escape to a place where the battle for good vs. evil happens all too often. If you are a fantasy reader, do yourself a favor and begin reading these books. You won’t be sorry.

Diane Alberts Adds To Her Take a Chance Series With Play Me

29 Jul

Play Me (Take a Chance #3 – Kiersten & Garrett) by Diane Alberts (Entangled, July 29, 2013)

I’ve made no bones in the past regarding my enjoyment of Diane Alberts’ Take a Chance series. The first two installments, Try Me and Love Me are heartfelt emotional rollercoasters that leave you a little teary and shaking when you finish the final page.

In Play Me, the sister of the heroine from Love Me is Kiersten Worth, who chose to take her nephew, Chris, when her other sister suddenly died.  It was a lot of responsibility at a young age, but she was happy to do it and thought she was creating a family when her boyfriend Pete asked her to marry him. That idea went up in smoke after she caught him and his skank secretary together. That incident, combined with a distant father and always dissatisfied mother has her giving up on love and happily ever after. She has decided to be content with watching her now middle school aged son play basketball, particularly when his coach is her long term friend and major eye candy, Garrett Kelly.

Garrett is a middle school math teacher and coach who works alongside his best friend, Mike Worth, Kiersten’s brother. Mike has been warning Garrett away from Kiersten since his crush on her in high school but it’s getting harder now that they’ve begun hanging out, even though it’s platonic. He’s accepted nothing will ever happen between them in his head, but his heart is saying something totally different, particularly with the waning of his string of one-night stands. When Kiersten comes onto him over drinks in her empty house, he assumes that she wants to try a relationship with him, ignoring the fact that this is the day she was originally supposed to get married to Pete.

girl-18918_640Kiersten is overjoyed that it was so easy to get Garrett to give her a hot tumble but she’s astonished when his pillow talk afterward indicates that he’s in this for something more than a friends with benefits night. It’s incredibly obvious how much she’s hurt a good friend, particularly when he lets her know that he can’t just hang out with her anymore and asks for some distance. Three months later, he’s annoyed to come home to his apartment only to find Kiersten in the kitchen making dinner. He tries to throw her out, telling her it hasn’t been long enough, but she brings his eviction to a screeching halt with the announcement that she’s three months pregnant – I wouldn’t be buying that condom brand again if I were her!

Garrett decides this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for. He wants a family and life with Kiersten and by insisting that he move in with her in order to be there for her, Chris and the baby, he has a chance to get just that. Lying to her that he’s over her and doesn’t want anything more is hard, but it’s the reassurance she needs to make it happen. It’s hard and awkward for them to be together but it’s all part of Garrett’s plan.

At 108 pages, this book in the series qualifies as a novella, and unlike the other two books which felt longer despite their length, this story felt rushed. Alberts employs three wonderful romance tropes – a relationship of convenience, the unplanned pregnancy, and best friends to lovers – but none of them work for me and that hurts because I love each one of them.

The problem was with Kiersten’s character – I completely understood how hurt she was from her fiancee’s betrayal but she was so inarticulate and cold that it was almost impossible to empathize with her decisions, even when I understood why she was making them. I honestly think that if she could have lost her temper at Garrett and showed some emotion toward him (something he could have seen as him making progress with her caring or cracking through her shell) that it would have made the astonishingly rapid progression from wariness to trust a little better. And was she actually pregnant? The real symptoms of pregnancy are a great way to establish intimacy, but there was no scene of feeling the first kick together, seeing the heart beat at the doctor’s office, Garrett desperately finding her a bathroom to pee in, or extreme horniness in the second trimester. Missed opportunities, since she seemed to have the easiest pregnancy the world ever saw.

Additional page time for small acts on Garrett’s part, actions which would have Kiersten expressing happiness and appreciation toward him, would have also bolstered his goals while showing her gently moving toward acceptance of the fact he wasn’t going anywhere. Why couldn’t he have heard her crying after another hurtful exchange so he could have gone in and comforted her, getting behind that wall of hers? Instead we got a rapid fire transition where she’s unable to tell Garrett how she feels, hurting him again, and she goes out and acts jealous but not enough for Garrett to realize what’s going on. Then we get a page-long speech from Kiersten about how she feels toward him, which he happily accepts. It’s a quick wrap up from that point with a satisfying epilogue and the set up of brother Mike as the next hero in the series.

Alberts’ writing is just as wonderful as always – it’s tight and conveys the internal struggle of her characters well. Entangled Publishing has managed yet another sexy cover which manages to showcase Garret’s balls connection to basketball, I can only imagine that Diane Alberts loves where readers have to look to check her author name!

When it comes time for Mike’s story I’ll certainly try it, but I’ve got to say that this story did not match the previous stellar installments of the series.

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Deals You Might Have Missed, Week of July 28th

28 Jul

Upcoming Books

The latest book in the steampunk series The Ether Chronicles by Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso is due out on August 6th and Skies of Gold is already getting great reviews from ARC readers. At only $1.99 for over 350 pages, steampunk readers need to be asking themselves why they haven’t pre-ordered this one already.

Jaci Burton, the author of the wonderful Play-by-Play series, now has the next book on her roster available for pre-order. Hope Flames will be the first book in her new Hope series, with a pairing between a damaged veterinarian and a K-9 cop. With a release date of September 3rd, I’ve already got this one both pre-ordered and in my calendar. Love the German Shepherd on the cover!

lethal pursuit copyKaylea Cross now has the third book in her wonderful Bagram Special Ops series available for pre-order and Lethal Pursuit looks to be another hot pairing from this military suspense maven. Coming out on September 16th, Cross is not only talented but affordable, so I’ve already ordered my copy, considering it $3.03 well spent.

 

Fun Stuff

Quirk Books has put together a pretend collection of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Flavors based on popular books, and it’s hilarious. You’ll find yourself wishing you could settle down with the latest release and a pint of “Berry Potter and the Container of Secrets.”

Amanda at Vampire Book Club has put together a short list of her favorite urban fantasy and paranormal beach reads that’s worth checking out if you’re wondering what goes with sunblock and your big towel this summer.

Fabulous writer Cynthia Eden is knuckling down to write a holiday themed novella and is polling her readers as to whether they want a romantic suspense story or a paranormal one. Vote on her Facebook fan page with your preference!

Romance novels are feminist works. Not sure? Listen to the podcast at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books where Sarah Wendell interviews two sociologists, Dr. Joanna Gregson and Dr. Jen Lois embarking on a research project focusing on the interactions of romance readers and writers.

One of the best parts about reading category romance is how totally ludicrous it often is. A good writer will help you suspend that disbelief, at least enough for you to immerse yourself in the the dirty goodness that is category, but occasionally you stumble across a “whaa???” novel. For a laugh out loud parsing of the missable Enemies at the Altar, take a gander at guest blogger and Ph.D. candidate Jodi from Book Thingo’s hilarious analysis. Make sure you pee first.

Did you know that Amazon sells refurbished Kindles of all types? I shouldn’t be surprised (I got my Macbook through Apple’s refurbished site and it’s wonderful and a great deal), but this is a great way for someone to afford that Paperwhite or Fire they’ve been eyeing for a while.

Great Deals

Writers and publishers are not giving up on these amazing bundles of books for a pittance (so you know they are helping sales). Loving the CEO is a great collection of five novels by different authors, all with the theme of breaking down the barriers of a business tycoon and finding love. Over 1000 pages for only $.99 and you get a romance trope in several flavors. Yum.

The always brilliant Tessa Bailey is offering the third book in her Line of Duty series, Officer Off Limits, for only $.99! You do not need to have read the other books to appreciate every word of this one, so trot over and buy this author who I cannot get enough of.

Harlequin is offering a motherload of great deals on a ton of their ebooks with participating retailers, with authors like Maureen Child, Cindy Spencer Pape, and Michelle Willingham having free or heavily discounted titles available. All of their various lines are represented, so go to their Facebook page to drool over the titles and see if there’s anything there that floats your boat. I made a note of the ones I wanted and then hustled over to Amazon to “buy” them at zero dollars. I love books like that!

Another great romance trope is the “bodyguard” idea (even that sounds sexy) and there’s now a bundle of five books covering this corner of romantic suspense. Once again, $.99 is a great deal even if you just end up enjoying one or two of them, so if you are like me and enjoy the idea of an oh-so-hot guy whose job is to…um…guard your body, you might want to check this out.

If you read this blog, you are more than aware of my love for sports books, so an ebook that contains the first book in three different trilogies is a terrific way for me to sample some new authors of the genre. V. K. Sykes, Juliana Stone and Jennifer Lyons offer both male and female (!) sports protagonists in their ebook bundle Play Hard to fulfill my need for a little healthy competition. And yes, it’s only $.99 for 550 pages.

Have a super week reading!

New Author Alison Packard Packs Emotion Between the Covers of Her Two New Novels

25 Jul

It’s always exciting to find a new author, particularly one who offers the promise of consistently publishing one emotion-packed book after another. When I saw all the rave reviews for The Winning Season and realized it was the second book in an unnamed series, my completionist tendencies had me purchasing both books and sitting down to see if this author lived up to her press.

Wow, did she! Alison Packard writes rich characters who change and grow throughout the books, facing down internal demons while trying to brave enough to accept love for the gift it is. The best part of her writing is that it’s damn smart – where other authors gloss over professions or details and focus on romance, the really good ones actually research in order to produce a world so rich in detail, you believe their characters truly are talented in what they do. This world-building (it’s not just for fantasy, people!) gives a veracity to the novels that makes the reader feel she could reach out and touch the characters.

Her debut novel, Love in the Afternoon, tackles the world of soap operas with such skill I was reminded of Sarah Mayberry’s trilogy, Secret Lives of Daytime Divas, my standard for romance involving this television genre. Kayla Maxwell is an up-and-coming actor on a soap opera who is getting hints that her character will soon be partnered with one of the hottest actors in the business, Sean Barrett. Even the preliminary photo shoot puts her in a twist, but she’s determined to be a professional and work through her slasher-girl past. After a particularly bad breakup with her ex-boyfriend, she’s sworn off men for a while, but Sean is quite the temptation but she’s determined to put 100% into her career. With her character beginning to rise, she’s even getting fan mail, although not all of it is positive.

hollywood-116225_640Sean Barrett is concerned about his character being partnered with an actress who might be second rate. His previous “wife” was killed off to move onto bigger and better things, but she was a consummate professional. Kayla is certainly one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen and he’s shocked to discover his body reacting during their photo shoot. More astonishing is their first rehearsal together – she’s absolutely amazing and everyone on the set appear to admire her. Sean suspects she might be a genuinely nice person, but with an incredibly famous father in the industry, he’s been used by seemingly good people before.

Both of them make a good effort to ignore the heat between them until it becomes apparent that Kayla is being threatened by a crazed fan. With one incident after another, Sean finds himself consumed with the need to protect Kayla – and just as drawn into her spell. Kayla is overwhelmed by the strong feelings she has for Sean but with her stalker pinpointing her moves on every side, Sean’s behavior reminds her too much like that of her controlling ex-boyfriend. When she realizes that, despite what they’ve shared, Sean doesn’t trust her, it’s more painful than the reality of a stranger wanting to take her life.

While the plot moves along in a fairly predictable fashion, the writing is so fantastic that there is a true freshness about this novel. Both Sean and Kayla’s characters are well-drawn and the heat between them goes from simmering to boiling quickly. Great secondary characters not only flesh out the hero and heroine, but – in the case of Sean’s tortured best friend, baseball star Matt Scanlon and Kayla’s sister, Kelly – also set up the next book extremely well. I adored this couple and their love story and fell for Packard’s writing.

The Winning Series by Alison Packard (Carina Press, July 15, 2013)

If the first book was great, the second book was amazing. Nothing was predictable about The Winning Season, which has been garnering rave reviews all over the blogosphere and it’s obvious why after reading it. Matt Scanlon has gone from all-star catcher for the Dodgers to hot mess, released from his contract and picked up by the San Francisco Blaze when their catcher broke his leg in a motorcycle accident. Matt suffered a tragedy a year ago, one that he’s kept a secret while drowning his emotions in women and brawling.

Kelly Maxwell, PR official for the Blaze, is not only horrified to get such a baseball nightmare handed to her but also has to deal with some nasty personal history with Matt. When they both went out to dinner with her sister and her boyfriend, Matt’s best friend and soap star Sean Barrett, Matt managed to make some pretty horrendous comments to Kelly, mostly about the fact that she’s tall and athletic rather than petite and gorgeous like her actor sister. Considering that Kelly had severe eating disorder when she was younger, this was even more hurtful and seeing his attitude upon arrival in San Francisco, he doesn’t seem much better.

golden-gate-bridge-59612_640Matt really is trying to pull himself together, but it’s not easy. One run in after another with Kelly Maxwell and he’s annoyed that he can’t stop thinking about her. A few encounters with her family and he begins to see the woman behind the hard ass, and even Matt has to agree that he’s been a total douche to her. He’s slow to come out of his shell but it’s time with Kelly and the heat between them that has him slowly coming back to himself, paralleling the Blaze’s rise in the standings. He and Kelly both know Matt’s only there until their regular catcher returns, and they decide to give into their desire for one another. Feeling closer to Kelly than any woman in his life, Matt reveals the depth of his loss and only to suffer the ultimate betrayal and the loss of his new relationship.

There was so much damn emotion in this novel that there is no way for a reader not to be utterly gripped by the characters and the plot. Once you discover why Matt has been such a prize-winning ass it’s impossible not to empathize with him and Kelly is a strong, wonderful character who doesn’t take any crap while never being cold. Her family is awesome and the secondary characters of her softball team, co-workers, and the charity the team runs lend further depth to both the hero and heroine. I don’t even like San Francisco as a city and yet the setting was a terrific backdrop to this love story. I can’t wait for Matt’s friend and fellow player J. T. to be the hero of the next story with Kelly’s friend from accounting.

The sole criticism I can level on these two books is – why no series name? There is no way for someone on Amazon or Goodreads to tell these two books are related to one another and considering their intertwined characters and story lines, that’s a disservice. Both books can obviously be read as stand-alones, but with writing like this, who on earth would want to? Since the books are put out by Carina Press, they have the Harlequin empire’s trademark affordability, with the price for each hovering around the three dollar mark. That is a steal considering the quality of both these books.

If you enjoy contemporary romance, do yourself a huge favor and add these books by Alison Packard into your ereader as soon as possible. You will not want to delay enjoying this new author!

Lauren Dane’s Delicious Series Combines Friendship, Food and Hot Romance

24 Jul

Cherished by Maya Banks and Lauren Dane (containing Book 1 of the Delicious series “Sway” – Daisy and Levi’s story) (Berkley, August 2012)

Lauren Dane is undoubtedly at the top of the pack when it comes to erotic romance; she’s an author who can be counted on to supply some key basics to any story. Her work is deeply psychological, filled with strong women and the men who grow to love and worship them, in an atmosphere filled with internal conflict and with characters surrounded by rich, caring friends. Yet, for all these consistencies, each one of her many books (and I’ve read a lot of them) is as unique as the characters who inhabit them – characters who you feel could step off the page and hold a conversation with you. But talking might just be overrated since Dane is renowned, and rightly so, for her romance novels burning up the erotic end of the spectrum, rife with love scenes so hot you’ll think your e-reader is developing an electrical problem.

Her Delicious series is set on the picturesque spot of Bainbridge Island, next to Seattle, where a group of friends (Gillian’s good friends from Dane’s Brown Siblings book, Never Enough) have a long-standing supper club, one that becomes a thriving business for several of them. In the dual anthology Cherished, Lauren Dane starts off this series with the novella “Sway”. Levi Warner is tired of his brother’s fiancee making demands of their family leading up to the wedding, particularly when one of them is that every member of the wedding party attend dance classes. Levi knows how to dance but is happy to take lessons when he catches sight of his partner, a tattooed, vintage-dressed, twenty-something Daisy Huerta. She’s one of the dance instructors and her beauty stimulates Levi as much as her intelligent bright eyes and the way her body submits to his on the dance floor. They are both left a little breathless, but with Levi almost twice her age in his early forties, he knows she’s not for him.

Beautiful Bainbridge Island has a bridge, but the picturesque ferry is a popular way to get there.

Convinced they inhabit different spheres, he’s surprised to see her in the foyer of his friend and lawyer Cal Whaley’s building supervising an art installation. Daisy is elated to see the sensual older man whose air of command got her blood flowing in their dance class. She wants to run her hands through that salt-and-pepper hair and see if his dominance extends to the bedroom as well, but he’s clearly shying away from her. When they finally do spend some time together, she can practically smell Levi’s affluence but they both put aside their possible incompatibility in order to explore what’s between them.

Levi cannot resist this incredibly talented young woman whose confidence and art ability puts her in an older emotional class than her age of 24. With Daisy, Levi is able to be himself in the bedroom, a dominant, and like a true Dom, he cherishes and lavishes pleasure on his sub. He knows his loving but prominent family would never accept the artsy Daisy yet he cannot stay away from her. With his disaster of a first marriage behind him, he doesn’t want forever, but Daisy is not shy about calling Levi on his avoidance of mixing her with his life and family. His reluctance might force him to lose the person who has come to mean everything to him – who lets him be exactly who he is with no pretense.

I’m going to honest that BDSM holds zero interest to me but, like lots of other sexy times in romance novels, if there is emotion and character development in the midst of that sexual practice I’m happy to read it and see how it advances the plot. Levi and Daisy in the bedroom would be a good way for someone unsure about BDSM stories to dip their toe in the water since they are both so tender and exciting with one another that the sex is less about collars and rope and more about two people revealing their innermost selves and finding they are a perfect match.

“Sway” is also a great introduction to Lauren Dane’s style of writing, which I adore. Yes, everyone has a certain amount of emotional baggage but, with the rich setting of Bainbridge Island and Seattle as a backdrop, these people work through their internal conflicts to find the love they so richly deserve.

Tart (Delicious series #2 – Jules and Cal and Gideon’s story) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, November 2012)

The second book in the series, this time the full-length, 350+ page novel Tart, focuses on one of Daisy’s good friends and business partners, baker Jules Lamprey. She owns the bakery of the same name and part of her expansion with her catering friend Mary Whaley is that they both want to start using local suppliers for more of their goods. Jules heads out to one of her favorite farmers, Patrick Carter, only to discover that his gorgeous grandson Gideon has moved back to help his grandfather. One look at Jules and Gideon zeroes right in on her, wasting no time going to her bakery and making his interest clear. They embark on a hot, sexy relationship that Jules feels is the icing on her cake until one BIG complication rears its head.

That complication comes in form of her best friend, Cal Whaley. Cal has loved Jules since he kissed her when she was fifteen and he was seventeen, but numerous relationships with men and women later and he suddenly realizes that Jules isn’t waiting for him anymore. Seeing the intensity of her relationship with Gideon goes way beyond her usual approach to dating, he corners her outside the bakery and gives a scorching kiss, one that sets her back on her heels and pisses her off.

Cal has had seventeen years to make a move on her and she came to terms with him not wanting her when he starting dating guys. When he also started dating women, however, Jules was hurt since she clearly wasn’t good enough for him to be with romantically, and now he has the nerve to kiss the stuffing out of her just when everything is amazing with Gideon. She storms back to the farm to tell Gideon what happened with Cal following in her wake, only to have Gideon shock the hell out of both of them.

Be warned, the amazing food in both Tart and Lush will make you hungry (and wish that these women were your friends).

Be warned, the amazing food in both Tart and Lush will make you hungry (and wish that these women were your friends).

Gideon knows that Jules is it for him. His failed marriage behind him, he has a clear view of what he wants and needs and this kind, blond beauty with her cadre of loyal friends and demanding family is his future. When Jules bursts into his house upset, with her best friend Cal on her heels, explaining how Cal kissed her and that she responded, Gideon applies his own brand of logic to the situation. Gideon doesn’t want to lose Jules and knows there is a serious spark with this man who has been in her life since she was small. He doesn’t want to be the reason that Jules loses someone important to her and, truth be told, Gideon has had plenty of relationships with men as well as women. Cal is gorgeous so Gideon suggests that Jules and he open the relationship to include Cal.

That was the last thing Jules expected to hear. She has seen successful triad relationships like that of her friend and famous bass guitarist Erin Brown with her two partners (whose phenomenal story is the first of the Brown siblings series, Laid Bare). Could she possibly do one and particularly a relationship with two such dominant males as Cal and Gideon? Her immediate family has abandoned her, one person after another, and the thought of Cal and Gideon maybe preferring each other in the long run and leaving Jules behind is a very real fear for her.

Without my knowing how many actual committed triad relationships there are in the United States, it’s had for me to know what’s normal, but there is something incredibly realistic about Lauren Dane’s writing when it comes to these committed situations. Gideon, Jules and Cal are wicked hot and sexy together, but their issues, fights and vulnerabilities are incredibly realistic as is the reaction of some of their family members to the announcement of their partnership. Yet where other books who’ve gone for “realistic” in menage relationships have seemed so unromantic to me, Dane makes these relationships filled with love and tenderness (and heat, yowza) where loyal friends and family just want the people involved to be happy and can see how good they are for one another. Having known so many women like Jules, who are so confident in every area except that of caring for their selfish family members, it was a joy to see her grow with the encouragement of Cal and Gideon into a person who can set boundaries and demand a healthy relationship from everyone in her life.

Lush (Delicious #3 – Mary and Damien’s story) by Lauren Dane (Berkley, April 2013)

Overlapping the events in the last third of Tart is the hot fling between Mary Whaley, Jules’ best friend and business partner, and the uber-sexy rock drummer Damien Hurley, detailed in the third book of the series, Lush. Damien is in town for all of the wedding festivities of his good friend and rock legend Adrian Brown to his English fiancee Gillian, and he is immediately taken with all of Gillian’s lovely female friends. One in particular, the curly-haired brunette siren Mary Whaley bowls him over with her sensuality and her talent. She makes it extremely clear that she would be happy to have a hot little fling with Damien. One taste of Mary and Damien realizes that she’s even more delicious than her food, and once will not be enough for him.

Mary is incredibly busy caring for her thriving business and a relationship with one of the most notorious playboys in rock doesn’t even cross her mind. But Damien keeps calling and texting her, building a real friendship with her – one that she’s happy to say includes benefits when they see one another. Spending a little more time together has her uncomfortable and astonished at the behavior of the women he encounters on tour. Damien keeps reassuring her that its her he wants but with them both so busy, Mary has her doubts that this powerful attraction between them can develop into more.

It’s impossible not to love Damien and Mary. Damien is so determined to finally have something real with this incredible woman but he has to face the reality of his past. That he comes from a down to earth family (many of whom are in the band with him) who have seen him at his best and worst helps keep him on track and making progress with Mary, but he’s aware the lifestyle sucks when it comes to relationships. Mary is a wonderful strong woman with talent flowing out of her pores. Yet she’s not afraid to stand up to her overbearing friends who think they are protecting her from the hurt Damien could potentially inflict upon her with his rock star ways. I’m hoping Damien’s scathingly hot brothers will continue the series since the Hurley family has plenty to offer Dane’s readers! *fans self*

Lauren Dane not only delivers emotionally pitch perfect romance time and again, but she’s capable of doing it in practically every genre. While she rocks contemporary erotic romance with her Brown Siblings series (I’ll have to do a post on it, it’s that good and there’s a new book coming out in October), paranormal romance like her Cascadia Wolves shifter series or her newer Bound by Magick series, and even science fiction in the form of the Federation Chronicles (which kicks total romance ass, btw). If you’re feeling a little hungry for erotic romance with amazing characters, take a taste of Lauren Dane’s Delicious series and enjoy!

The Accused by Jana DeLeon Brings Gothic Suspense to the Bayou

23 Jul

The Accused (Mystere Parish: Family Inheritance) by Jana DeLeon (Harlequin Intrigue, July 23, 2013)

It’s sad but true that so often a romantic suspense novel contains a highly contrived plot with a resolution and villain unveiling a five year old could point out if they didn’t wander away in boredom first. You can imagine my elation then when I realized about 20 pages into The Accused that Jana DeLeon is a writer who takes her mystery elements seriously, combining a rich setting and several gothic qualities to spin a taught suspense tale fraught with imminent danger to the heroine. I do have a few criticisms of the book (some of which were beyond DeLeon’s control) but the strengths of this novel were such that I’ll be reaching for the next book in the series, for sure!

Alaina LeBeau has just found out that she’s been passed over for partner in her Baton Rouge law firm for a man whose political connections seem to outweigh his incompetence as an attorney. She knows that the case that haunts her – one in which a little girl died because Alaina didn’t see the danger signs – is a big reason for the firm’s decision, but she also knows when she’s getting thrown under the bus and she quits. In a bizarre coincidence, she receives a missive from a lawyer indicating that according to her stepfather’s will, if Alaina and her two sisters can stay in the family mansion for two weeks without interruption, they can inherit his estate which is worth millions.

The reason it’s worth that much is because the money was originally Alaina’s mother and father’s. She and her two sisters were separated and sent away as children to family and boarding schools with no contact with their mother and stepfather. Their mother died, presumably of a broken heart and with no provisions for her daughters, and the man she married became a bizarre recluse. Alaina doesn’t know where her sisters are although she’s tried to find them, but the kind lawyer from her hometown of Mystere Parish says they can each tackle their two weeks separately. Although she knows it’s a long shot and will probably dredge up painful childhood memories, Alaina is so eager to get away from her shambles of a career that she packs up her car and heads to Mystere.

Carter Trahan might have left New Orleans with all it’s corruption and crime, but he can’t think of a more onerous duty than playing babysitter to some cold attorney bent on inheriting money. But his lovely mother asks him to do it and he can’t deny her. He’s more than a little shocked when he catches a glimpse of the sexy brunette attempting to tackle the decrepit mansion which has moldered at the edge of the swamp for years. When strange things begin happening to the mansion and she is attacked, Carter finds himself not only wrestling with his attraction to her but also with a multi-layered mystery that is going to take all his cop instincts to solve.

The Betrayed (Mystere Parish: Family Inheritance #2) by Jana DeLeon (Harlequin Intrigue, August 20, 2013) – the next book in the trilogy focusing on youngest daughter Danae and the contractor hired to protect her.

If you like Gothic stories (and I do) you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this tautly written suspense novel. A dark, abandoned mansion, mysterious swamp, frequent storms and brooding hero certainly fit the bill in terms of the elements that make up this genre. DeLeon pens a mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat as there were so many possibilities for the perpetrator that I could not guess who actually was trying to hurt her. I loved that Alaina was no wilting flower – she was a tough lawyer with a gun who combined brave with practical – and that Carter saw and appreciated that quality in her was attractive to me.

However, the romance plot was the weaker piece of this novel. Carter is pretty brusque and doesn’t do much actual talking, so why Alaina is interested in him beyond the chemical attraction was a little unclear to me. His job dedication, maybe? That’s he’s great with his mom? Between the two of them, however, he could have done a little more communicating.

But it was the sex scene (yes, that’s a single number I’m referring to) that would have had me drowning myself in the swamp afterward, and the point where I was just in the book for the terrific suspense plot. The couple – at an appropriate time in the book for them to step things up a notch – has a hot kiss, he touches her nipple once, and then he puts a condom on and is shoving himself inside her. And she thinks it’s awesome! I would have rather that bedroom door have been kept firmly shut (and I don’t think I’ve ever said that before) so I could have at least imagined actual foreplay between these two characters. Why the heroine wasn’t inventing a Peace Corps obligation in order to wiggle her way out of a future with Mr. “One Nipple Touch and I’m Ready to Go”, I’ll never know. Carter’s “technique” reminded me of the old Irish definition of foreplay – pulling back the covers.

It’s a shame such a dark and suspenseful book got saddled with such a cheap looking cover. Doesn’t the man look like he’s a sci fi warrior in armor? That’s supposed to be a spiral staircase from the old mansion, but it doesn’t work and the female model she looks sleepy (maybe this after the heroine hit her head?). Alaina is way more badass than this cover suggests so that’s a major disservice to her. The print version of The Accused is out on the 23rd while the Kindle version isn’t due out until August 1st.

The Reunion (Mystere Parish: Family Inheritance #3) by Jana DeLeon (Harlequin Intrigue, October 1, 2013)

The Reunion (Mystere Parish: Family Inheritance #3) by Jana DeLeon (Harlequin Intrigue, October 1, 2013)

Considering that the book is the first of a new trilogy, you have to ask the question – why is the “series” not clearly linked on Goodreads? DeLeon has a large body of work for the Intrigue line and it would take a reader with a lot of time on their hands to figure out which were the next books in the series and mark them “to-read.” Authors, this is important since Goodreads added the feature were it alerts you when books you’ve marked as to-read were just published! The Betrayed will be a future book on Danae, one of the missing sisters, due out on August 20th with final book, The Reunion, covering Joelle’s story and will be published in late September. I’ll definitely be picking those up, although I’ll be praying that their heroes are a little more skilled in the bedroom department! Nevertheless, for a truly well-written suspense novel, particularly with a strong Southern setting, DeLeon cannot be beat.

Sunday Romantic Reflections: Upcoming Books, Deals and Fun Stuff You Might Have Missed (Week of July 21st)

21 Jul

Upcoming Books and New Releases

Sigh. I don’t know if you were as disappointed and angry in the “final” Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Ever After, as I was (I’m still formulating that post in my head and it’s scathing) but just to milk even more money out of dedicated fans, the “final” book in the series that’s meant to wrap up all the characters is available for pre-order. After Dead, to be published on October 29th of this year, is not even a narrative story, but rather a listing of characters with a description of what happened to them. Yes, I’m disgusted with myself that I already pre-ordered it, but am calming myself with the promise that I’ll write a fan fiction version of the ending that series deserved. Enjoy bathing in $100 bills, Harris!

The excitement has begun building for the fabulous Laura Kaye’s next novel, Hard As It Gets, including a cover blurb endorsement by none other than J. K. Ward! Kaye’s writing is as addictive as crack for me, in particular, Her Forbidden Hero, and one of my favorite re-reads, Hearts in Darkness, so any book by her immediately goes in my Kindle and bumps my other to-reads down a notch. This new novel builds on her ability to take damaged, military heroes and pair them with the woman who will rock their world to its core and shake loose their emotions. Hard As It Gets also kicks off a new series for Kaye, Hard Ink, described on Goodreads as “A romance series about four ex-soldiers who run a renegade operation against an organized crime ring out of the back of a tattoo shop.” This first installment will be out in late November (do you smell the Thanksgiving turkey burning from neglect yet?) with the second book publishing the following year.

Fun Stuff

heartcondom_127721723While my condom in romance novels post was aimed at younger romance readers when I wrote it, a recent article by Vice.com detailing the epidemic in sexually transmitted infections among the senior crowd proves that the retired demographic needs plenty of education, too. I still remember touring the Villages in Florida (a retirement complex the size of Manhattan) with my resident grandmother and being given the hairy eyeball by a restaurant host because he thought I might be one of the many hookers that plague the community. (Be warned, if you’re 32 and in a sundress, you’ve got a “twenty dollars for a trip around the world” label attached to you.) My horrified grandmother informed me of the astronomic sexually transmitted disease rates, fueled in large part by the wicked combination of Viagra, a women to men ratio in the gent’s favor, and way too much free time. Yikes.

Wonder what kind of childhood produces a romance writer? The wonderful people at the Popular Romance project have produced a four minute video of interviews with writers like Nalini Singh, Jill Shalvis, and Caridad Pinerio, discussing their hometowns, parents, and families. 

For Writers and Interested Readers

mystery-69453_640In the wake of J. K. Rowling‘s recent outing as the well-regarded detective novelist Robert Galbraith, BookRiot posted an interesting article about the reasons extremely famous people have chosen to use pseudonyms when publishing books. The information is an interesting contrast to most romance authors, who usually chose a pen name because they are worried about censure or discomfort from their employers or are trying out a new genre and want separate branding in order to not confuse dedicated readers.

Dear Author has written a treasure of a post, taking the finalists for the RITAs “Best First Book” category and listing read-a-likes from more established authors who are similar. You might just find a new favorite in this crew and the information she includes is incredibly fun to read.

Great Deals

Lisa Renee Jones is offering an amazing deal on three full-sized books in her Tall, Dark and Deadly series – the first two books of the series and a full-size bonus book related to the characters – for only $.99! That’s almost six hundred pages for under a dollar and it’s Lisa Renee Jones. Considering that there are eight books in this series about a security firm run by a trio of brothers, it’s a clever idea to get you hooked and a great way for readers to figure out if they’d like to purchase the others with little risk.

If it’s wicked hot erotica you’re after, no deal is going to beat the Alpha Bad Boys Box Set released this week, containing over 1300 pages covering seven novels by authors like Shayla Black & Lexi Blake, Olivia Cunning, Lisa Renee Jones, Selena Blake, Eliza Gayle and Cat Johnson. For $.99 (!), you get such erotica favorites as 1) Black & Blake’s first book in their Masters of Menage series (which I love despite the names), Their Virgin Captive; 2) the first two books in Cunning’s One Night with Sole Regret series, Try Me and Tempt Me; 3) Jones’ first book in The Cinderella Chronicles, One Night Forever; 4) Ask for It by Selena Black about the NFL player who has retired and is finally going after the journalist he’s lusted after for years; 5) the first book in the Purgatory Masters series by Eliza Gayle, Tucker’s Fall;  and 6) a sexy menage story by Cat Johnson about a society girl banished to Colorado only to find herself surrounded by gorgeous brothers in Educating Ansley. Any one of these stories is a bargain at $.99 to say nothing of getting all of them for that price.

Entangled Publishing is offering an amazing deal on their Indulgence line of ebooks (a group of novels on par with category romance like Harlequin’s Presents or Desire lines – lots of alpha males!) where they are discounted from their usually reasonable price of $2.99 down to $.99 each! Take a look at the Amazon Kindle deals page dedicated to them and enjoy.

Sarah MacLean is a historical romance writer who has yet to produce a book that isn’t at the top of her genre. For a limited time, the first book in her By the Numbers series, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (the novel that began the numbers trend and list fixation in Regency romance) is available at the discounted price of $1.99 for its ebook form. If you haven’t read this series, you might be in danger of having your romance reader card revoked. Take a taste and see if you can manage not to devour all three books (and then move on to Maclean’s other series). I bet you can’t read just one!

Also in the realm of amazing historical romance ebook deals is author Tessa Dare, whose classic A Week to Be Wicked is currently being offered at $.89 – I didn’t even know Amazon sold books for less than $.99! This is the second full-length novel in her acclaimed Spindle Cove series, so you may very well like it so much that you avail yourself of the one of the other five books that make up this beloved Regency location that locals have nicknamed “Spinster’s Cove.” Be warned, you won’t find ladies who are going to stay unmarried for long here!

Love Letters: Wicked Whispers Brings Four Erotic Short Stories to Your End Table

16 Jul

Love Letters: Wicked Whispers, Volume 3 by Christina Thatcher, Maggie Wells, Ginny Glass, and Emily Gale (Carina Press, June 17, 2013)

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, anthologies are always a pleasure to read since you never know when you are going to stumble across a new author to love (see my Lucy Monroe series post from yesterday). In looking over the larger body of work from these four authors, it’s interesting to note that more and more writers are becoming specialists, particularly in the area of short fiction. While short stories are not as interesting to me as the novella, I still enjoyed a small taste of romance in each of these works and certainly appreciate the skill it takes to make the reader feel the build up and resolution of the romance in a small number of pages.

The subtitle “Wicked Whispers” is your first clue as the nature of these stories. Words and speaking are a key piece in every plot – whether it’s unexpected naughty talk, writing a sex scene, reading a sex scene or practicing phone sex. It’s a great construct for the collection and each story was of excellent quality, to the point that I would cheerfully purchase the writing of any of the authors in the future.

“I is for Indecent” by Christina Thatcher

Annie is captivated by the image of the astonishingly good looking Stefan Cox in the wedding album of her friend and boss, amazed that someone that good looking can also be a talented architect. She scoffs when she hears that he is interested in meeting her, having admired Annie’s award-winning jewelry designs, but ends up at a dinner party where Stefan asks to see her again. Knowing she’s way out of his league – the man should date supermodels or corporate CEOs – she declines.

He doesn’t take no for an answer. Showing up at her jewelry studio, Stefan charms her into giving them one dinner, largely by gently and explicitly telling her exactly what he was thinking during the dinner party. Annie can’t believe that she’s this turned on by a man who hasn’t even touched her, but she agrees to the invitation. The dinner and what comes after is just as erotic, if not more so, but Annie isn’t convinced that the man she nicknamed “Adonis” has enough in common with her for it to last more than one night.

Great, richly drawn characters and some serious sexy talk make this short story a delight. It’s easy to understand Annie’s assumptions but the reality of Stefan is even more charming and lovable than his hot appearance.

“J is for Jaded” by Maggie Wells

Vaughn Hatch is the sexy, tattooed bad boy who sits in the booth of the recording studio Julie Poplin frequents when doing her voice over work for audiobooks. When he makes an offhand remark about her child acting, she’s crushed. She thought he of all people would appreciate building a second career and working past people’s assumptions. Vaughn used to be a guitar rock star before his lead singer overdosed and the band fell apart. He’s built a recording studio with an outstanding reputation but clearly he can’t respect what Julie does for a living.

It’s actually just the opposite. Vaughn lives for his time with Julie, listening to her sexy voice relating the steamy romance novels she’s become famous for bringing to life. He senses she might be attracted to him, but when she begins reading the latest work – a hot BDSM story – and accidentally uses Vaughn’s name instead of the hero, he knows he’s got her. But Julie makes clear that it’s just sex to her and Vaughn wants something more. Can they build a second act together?

Maggie Wells is able to dig into deep emotional territory very quickly and it was downright painful to witness Vaughn willing to have angry “just sex” with Julie (thank God for the following scene!). Two wounded individuals coming together and realizing that they are each just what the other need, despite appearances, is a wonderful trope and this well-written story hit every major chord, to the point that it read like a much longer story.

“K is for Kickstart” by Ginny Glass

Sophie Maddox has a major case of writer’s block and an even worse crush on her sexy, funny editor Oliver Gibson. As luck would have it, her laptop dies minutes before her editor calls to check in on her word count. Rather than accept her excuse, he orders her over to his house to use his computer…really late at night.

Oliver fell first for Sophie’s writing and then for her. He’s giddy at having her in his home like he’s always dreamed but his reinforced restraint falls to the wayside when she confesses to having a problem writing the sex scenes with her new hero. When a typo brings both their feelings to light, they begin a night of writing – from real life inspiration – that both hope will have a happy ending.

How could anyone not love Oliver? Brainy, loves books, handsome, funny and happy to worship Sophie from afar because they are friends and he’s worried about putting pressure on his favorite author and losing her. That Sophie was secretly using him as inspiration for her new hero? Priceless, and their writing session/sex scene was so hot I was fanning myself!

“L is for Lessons” by Emily Cale

Chloe always loves spending time with her friend Bethany, especially after Chloe’s painful and expensive divorce, a divorce made tougher by the fact her ex used her reason – that she’s a lesbian – to make sure Chloe got nothing past the bare minimum of child support. With her daughter growing like a weed, Chloe is sincerely worried about making ends meet and can’t help but notice that part-time dance instructor Bethany is always sporting the latest designer purses and has plenty of cash. When she works up the courage to ask her how she manages it, she gets an astonishing answer. Bethany is a phone sex operator.

Chloe, despite her shyness, is desperate enough to consider the profession and Bethany bolsters her courage explaining the many benefits – like great pay and flexible hours. But Chloe and Bethany both realize that Chloe needs a practice call before she does her interview, so Bethany dials her up. The result sends both women reeling with a desire they’ve tried to ignore, but it might be just the wake up call they need.

It’s wonderful to see a sexy F/f romance in an erotica collection and both Chloe and Bethany were wonderful characters who clearly care for one another, first as friends and then as perfectly matched lovers. Hot and sweet, I thought this was a great addition to the anthology.

Lucy Monroe Brings Quality Shifter Romance to Medieval Scotland in her Outstanding Children of the Moon Series

15 Jul

Moon Awakening (Children of the Moon #1 – Lachlan and Emily) by Lucy Monroe (Berkley, 2007)

The other week, I kvelled in my review of the Enthralled anthology, noting that not only was Meljean Brook’s latest Iron Seas novella, Salvage, utterly amazing, but also that I was pleased to have found a few new authors to enjoy. One of them was Lucy Monroe, a versatile doyenne of the romance world who has mastered the art of category romance, pulse-pounding romantic suspense, and historical paranormals that tug on your heart strings.

I fell in love with her Children of the Moon novella, Ecstasy Under the Moon, in the anthology, promptly hunting down the rest of the series and devouring them in a couple of days. This series forms a nice counterpoint to the more modern shifter series I love (like Shifters Unbound by Jennifer Ashley or the hilarious Pride series by Shelly Laurenston).

Set in medieval Scotland, a murderous betrayal hundreds of years earlier has alienated the many shifter groups known as the Chrechte from one another. While the bird shifters, the Ean, have retreated deep into the forest, the wolf-shifting Faol have integrated with human clans, leading and defending them while keeping their nature a secret from all but their families. The cat shifting Paindeal have disappeared and are usually spoken of as myths among the remaining shifters, but rumors exist they have taken refuge in the Northern lands beyond the ocean. All know that change is coming, whether they want it or not, and that their future depends on their actions.

Note: Each one of the full-length novels exceeds 300 pages, so this is accordingly a long post! I’ve bolded each book name to section it up in case you are just looking for information on one particular book, but it’s meant to be read as one post since I attempt to demonstrate how Monroe connects the books and the larger story arc in the series.

Moon Awakening – Book 1 (Lachlan and Emily)

In Moon Awakening, the English daughter of a Baron, Emily Hamilton, is horrified to discover her stepmother’s scheme to marry Emily’s deaf younger sister Abigail to some Highland laird at the behest of a king bent on punishing her father for his penury in sending tribute. She volunteers herself in Abigail’s place and, after a long and dirty journey, finds herself in the Sinclair holding surrounded by downright hostile clansmen and a laird, Talorc, who doesn’t even look at her. The only friendly face is the Sinclair’s sister, the pregnant and widowed Caitronia, who explains that not only was her brother forced into this betrothal by the king but that the entire clan experienced the betrayal of Talorc and Caitriona’s stepmother, a grasping Englishwoman whose adultery resulted in an attack on the keep years ago and the death of clan members. Oh boy.

Talorc and Emily are oil and water – she at one point yells at him in perfect Gaelic that he’s a goat in front of the entire clan – and he naturally refuses to marry her. As Caitronia and Emily get ready to bathe in the loch while discussing her difficulty, they are surrounded by men not wearing the Sinclair plaid. These warriors are Balmorals and their laird, Lachlan, is incensed at one of his clanswomen turning up mated to the Sinclair blacksmith. The Faol follow Chrechte rules of mating and she was either kidnapped off Balmoral territory or she willingly went with her mate, who still should have sent an official request for mating to her leader.

Lachlan might worry about his duty to guarantee his race continues, but his wolf knows that he only wants Emily.

Lachlan might worry about his duty to guarantee his race continues, but his wolf knows that he only wants Emily.

Either way, it’s cause for retribution and the Sinclair’s sister and the woman who claims to be his English wife are the perfect hostages to force his hand. That the feisty Englishwoman has a delectable scent that makes Lachlan want to rub all over her in his wolf form is just something he’ll have to deal with, particularly since there is no way he would take a human as mate and risk his future children being unable to shift. One look at his angry older brother who is human and it’s obvious that this tension can tear families apart.

Monroe does a terrific job laying out the traditions and rules of the Chrechte, particularly the constant tension of humans and wolf shifters living cheek by jowl. Forbidden to discuss their nature, the Chrechte masquerade as elite warrior families, with many humans never understanding that their friends and neighbors can change form. Emily is confused by the use of the word “mate” but thinks that Caitriona’s stunned and reluctantly affectionate behavior toward Lachlan’s second-in-command incorporates strange Highland traditions. She’s a loyal friend and a brave woman who – when faced with the shifter’s secret – can only find wonder in the process and profound hurt that her being human means that Lachlan is willing to deny the tie between them.

That tie is stronger than she thinks. While unusual, the idea of “true mates” is introduced in this first novel in the series, specifically as a phenomenon which can happen to a couple strongly attracted to one another. After they engage in the physical act of mating, sometimes a lucky pair will be able to speak to one another in their thoughts and human/shifter couples who are true mates can produce offspring. Because of the constantly small numbers of the Chrechte, producing children is of paramount importance, hence the reluctance to take humans as mates since there is no guarantee of the “true mate” bond. Lachlan seems like a prize compared to Talorc’s hostility yet this laird has a wellspring of insensitive behavior, even while he knows that he has a profound connection to Emily. Caitriona’s secondary romance is brilliantly executed, highlighting prejudices between the clans as well as the men’s reluctance to acknowledge the perspective of the perceptive women and/or humans.

Moon Craving – Book 2 (Talorc and Abigail)

Moon Craving (Children of the Moon #2 – Talorc and Abigail) by Lucy Monroe (Berkley, 2010)

With Talorc Sinclair’s acceptance of both his sister’s mating to a Balmoral and that of his betrothed marrying Lachlan (which was a huge relief to Talorc, I’m sure), the stage has been set for him to finally acquire a mate, and he does in Moon Craving. 

It’s three years after Emily went north and got married to a Highland laird, but her original intended is still unmarried. The king is not happy that the Hamilton family hasn’t fulfilled his wish in producing a daughter to solidify this alliance.

Abigail lost her hearing after a fever years ago and it was only through the efforts of her older half-sister Emily that she was able to function in the household, learning to read lips and speak in a modulated voice so no one would know her affliction. The church teaches that the deaf are cursed by God and there would be many in their community who would possibly kill her as a result. Worse than that threat is that Abigail’s mother has had nothing but animosity for her lovely daughter who she now deems incapable of making a good match.

Abigail doesn’t want to marry a stranger but her father insists after her mother beats her severely for having an opinion. He convinces Abigail that Emily will not be far, and if her husband and she don’t get along, Emily and her husband will be happy to have Abigail come live with them. Comforted by that fact and desperate to get away from her mother, Abigail agrees. The family travels to a neutral Highland location and waits for the Sinclairs to arrive.

Talorc is no more thrilled to marry an Englishwoman than he was three years ago, particularly the sister of the shrew who is now the Balmoral lady. But in the Sinclair clan, a rigid code exists that wolf shifters do not have full sexual intercourse until they are ready to take a permanent mate; this morality comes with a price as most Faol wolves cannot control their shift until after they have had this intimacy. Talorc is descended from white wolves and as a result has always had control of his shift since he was young, but even he realizes he would be willing to share himself with someone who could be a true mate, he just doesn’t believe she would be English.

That opinion changes quickly when he sees and smells the lovely, gentle young woman who has so clearly been beaten. Both Talorc and his wolf want nothing but to protect her and get her back on their land as quickly as possible, and he uses the journey toward his keep to be one filled with various levels of intimacy with his new wife, who seems ready to like Talorc and his first-in-command, the scarred warrior Niall. Quickly finding a strong connection between them, Talorc takes her to the sacred caves on the Donegal land he just inherited and walks her through the Chrechte mating ceremony, wanting their union to be a spiritual one of his wolf people as well. While Abigail successfully hides her deafness, so too does Talorc hide his wolf nature from her. Mating does constitute a good enough reason to share the secret, but after his father’s disastrous mating to an English human, one who betrayed the clan and their treasure to her lover, he wants to grow to trust Abigail before taking that final step.

White wolves can control their shifting from the start, unlike grey wolves who need sexual intimacy to develop that same control

White wolves can control their shifting from the start, unlike grey wolves who need sexual intimacy to develop that same control

It becomes apparent that they are true mates and yet, fearful of letting Abigail know that he is a wolf, Talorc does not mind speak her, not until they find themselves in a dangerous situation and she doesn’t react to his yelling at her to run. Realizing her infirmity, he tests her hearing back at the keep and feels horribly betrayed, as do his warriors, at her hiding this part of herself. (Pot calling kettle – he stills hasn’t mentioned his propensity to turn into a wolf periodically, FYI.) Treating her coldly, Abigail is devastated at Talorc’s distance, yet realizes how freeing it is to not have to hide who she is. The Highlanders don’t share the opinions of the English about the deaf, and the majority of the clan actually thinks she’s damn clever for hiding it so well. When Emily comes to visit with her husband and young daughter, it’s Abigail’s turn to feel betrayed as her sister is horrified that Talorc still hasn’t told Abigail about the Chrechte nature of his people. Emily remedies the gaps in her sister’s knowledge and much of the confusing behavior of her husband and his soldiers is finally understood.

It was heart wrenching to see Talorc and Abigail – who were off to such a great start trusting and bonding with one another – fall apart with the various lies each felt they had to give about key pieces of themselves. It’s so apparent that they love one another tremendously, but I still feel that Abigail forgave Talorc way too easily. It’s one thing to forgive him for not telling her about the wolf shifter piece (although he still should have done it) but to not mind speak her AFTER you discover that she’s deaf seemed like a cruel move to me. The romantic subplot in this novel was wonderful – Talorc’s first in command Niall is actually in love with the male senschal of the keep, a human, and almost loses him to jealousy and sheer male idiocy. I loved their characters and the fact that Monroe accurately shows the fact that wolves (like humans) do develop same sex relationships. Not what you expect from a medieval Highland novel, but very welcome!

Moon Burning – Book 3 (Barr and Sabrine)

Moon Burning (Children of the Moon #3 – Barr and Sabrine) by Lucy Monroe (Berkley, 2011)

Niall’s unscarred twin, Barr, is the hero of the third book in the series, Moon Burning, which introduces the concept of other shifter types. Whereas we have clearly seen the prejudice against humans in the previous novels, the profound prejudice of some wolves toward other shifter species, particularly the Ean or bird shifters, comes to light in this one.

Talorc Sinclair has sent one of his best warriors to his newly acquired Donegal holding with the express purpose of whipping the group into shape while also training the young Circin, the hereditary leader of the clan. The previous laird has let his corrupt nature and abuse of the inhabitants run the clan into the ground and Barr has the onerous job of reestablishing order while still dealing with the deposed laird and his cronies sowing dissent at every turn. While taking a group of Chrechte Faol out for a training hunt, Barr finds himself abandoning the quarry to run after a new enticing scent. He discovers a naked, injured woman in the forest who calls to him like none other and brings her back to the Donegal keep despite his feeling that she is something more than she seems.

Sabrine is a raven shifter, bearing the glossy blue-black hair and dark eyes of her kind. After her parents death at the hands of one of the many wolf murderers who hunt her bird clan, she abandoned her royal duties and trained as a warrior. With the theft years ago of their sacred stone – necessary for the coming of age ceremony where extra abilities are endowed on the Ean to help their people – the Ean have made it a priority to acquire it back now that some of their small numbers are nearing this life transition. Suspicions are strong that it ended up in the Donegal clan and Sabrine must do whatever it takes to get it back. Her royal younger brother is next in line for the coming of age ceremony and as he would be king of their people, his abilities are of paramount importance.

Sabrine did not anticipate being shot out of the sky by one of the stupid young wolves accompanying the new Donegal laird. Pretending she hit her head and cannot remember the details of how she got in the woods, Sabrine successfully masks her raven scent (one of her abilities) and appears solely human, although it seems as if the wolf in charge is not exactly buying her memory loss. He still takes her back to his keep, and specifically his room, showing no intention of letting her go. Barr also makes clear from the get go that there is something deeper between them than mere attraction and rather easily makes the mental transition of taking this mystery woman as mate.

While there are many types of bird shifters among the Ean, ravens are actually defensive protectors and cannot bring themselves to kill for anything other than self-defense.

While there are many types of bird shifters among the Ean, ravens are actually defensive protectors and cannot bring themselves to kill for anything other than self-defense.

While Barr is wonderful in his relentless pursuit, Sabrine gets a little tiresome in her protestations that they can’t be together. While she doesn’t come out and state explicitly what she is doing there, Barr is able to put most things together and her Ean legacy is apparent after two half-wolf/raven shifters in the clan are outed. Sabrine is a great person, a protector and warrior desiring justice who helps the people around her, even wolves, but her emotional scars and the fact that she knows she must find the stone and return to her people make her feel that any relationship with Barr is doomed.

The secondary romance between Barr’s second-in-command, Earc, and Verica, the half raven/half wolf shifter and clan healer, was great (her brother is Circin, who is also a raven/wolf shifter, and will be the next Donegal laird after Barr deems him ready). This plot line did its job of highlighting the different perceptions wolves harbor of the Ean – some were trained by their families and clans to fear and hunt them as inferior shifters while others thought of them as wonderful myths deserving of great respect and an integral part of Chrechte history. Developing the reader understanding of the Ean is important as the political issues of this world and time period expand. This world-building takes place alongside the hot romance between two incredibly well-matched individuals (even if one of them is too dense to realize it for most of the book – Sabrine!). Seeing the many Donegal clan members damaged by the previous laird’s reign is particularly gut-wrenching and there is at least a happy future for a few of them.

Ecstasy Under the Moon – Novella 3.5 (Bryant and Una)

Enthralled – an anthology of novellas by Lora Leigh, Alyssa Day, Meljean Brook and Lucy Monroe (Berkley, July 2, 2013)

Since I’ve already done a review for this particular story, I thought I would focus on a few of the pieces of it which connect this tale to the larger world and which lays more foundation for the next two novels. In the Enthralled anthology novella Ecstasy Under the Moon, it’s been a few years since Sabrine and Barr returned the Ean’s sacred stone to the people. Sabrine’s brother Taran, having taken the royal name of Eirik, was gifted with a dragon form in addition to his raven one and now rules the Ean with an eye toward the future. His grandmother is the spiritual leader of the clan who has had a vision that the various Chrechte tribes must become integrated in order to survive the upcoming years.

To that end, Eirik has reached out to the various wolf tribes, asking for good wolf warriors willing to come and live among the Ean as the first of many steps toward accomplishing this unity. When timid golden eagle Una hears of this she is appalled and frightened – she has lived a sheltered existence since an attack by Donegal wolves (who were actually using her torture to induct new members into their secret Fearghall society, a shifter-style Ku Klux Klan bent on proving all other shifters inferior and killing them for sport). She hasn’t even spoken to the golden eagle shifter Lais who moved to their village three years ago when Princess Sabrine brought him from the Donegal clan.

Golden Eagles are a lovely rich brown color, just like Una’s hair.

Bryant is an extroverted wolf from the Balmoral clan who believes strongly in the reintegration of Chrechte. He was thrilled when the Ean resurfaced as his ancestor was a dragon/raven shifter and the family kept tales of the Ean alive in honor of her. One whiff of the shy Una perched in a tree along with several meetings of the two of them on the spiritual plane of their dreams and he knows they are sacred mates. Getting Una to see the light is going to take some work, however, particularly after hearing of her torture. But through Bryant’s perserverance and Una finding the bravery she possessed before her attack, they find their way to each other, forging a new link for the future of the Chrechte world.

Dragon’s Moon – Book 4 (Eirik and Ciara)

Dragon’s Moon (Children of the Moon #4 – Eirik and Ciara) by Lucy Monroe (Berkley, September 2012)

I would strongly encourage you to read the previous novella. Not only is it a beautiful love story but it offers an ideal transition to the next book in the series. Dragon’s Moon shows us a Chrechte people both changed and unchanged from previous books. Eirik is even older than in the novella and has finally come to the decision that he must give up his royal title and encourage his people to move to the safety of the Faol wolf clans to ensure their survival. While his grandmother and spiritual leader heads to his sister and her mate’s Donegal keep, Eirik decides to bring a group of bird shifters to live with the Sinclairs. Accompanied by his good friend and golden eagle healer Lais (formerly of the Donegal clan), they arrive at the keep eager to help their people integrate, while keeping Eirik’s dual nature – that of a dragon/raven shifter – secret. The dragon form is a special gift which sometimes occurs in the royal line and is meant as a protection for the Ean people.

Someone living with the Sinclairs already knows Eirik’s secret. Ciara is a wolf who grew up in the oppressive Donegal clan, where her father and brother both bought into the prejudiced spoutings of the previous laird. Denigrated by her family because she was not a boy, Ciara was nevertheless a curious child, plagued from her earliest years with prophetic dreams. One in particular – that of a large green stone which would give its power to wolf shifters – was of special interest to her brother. He took a young Ciara and a friend to look for it, telling her to hide while they scouted the territory. She ignored his order just in time to see his violent friend begin to persecute two little Ean children…right before a gigantic red and black dragon literally opened fire and reduced her brother and his companion to ash.

Having lost her mate before this, the death of Ciara’s brother is the final straw for Ciara’s mother and she commits suicide leaving Ciara alone. Her new laird Barr decides to move Ciara to the Sinclair holding where she will have fewer horrible memories and she is adopted by the Sinclair laird Talorc and his gentle, deaf wife Abigail. Ciara decides to close herself off from any attachments and emotion, but everyone can see her regard for her adoptive parents and the twin boys she treats as brothers. But the wolf stone invades her dreams, giving her little sleep and preventing her from eating, and this along with her avoidance of strong emotion worries her family.

Ciara is a sweet wolf attempting to hide her caring nature in the vain hope she won't love again and feel the incredible pain of losing the people who mean the most to her.

Ciara is a sweet wolf attempting to hide her caring nature in the vain hope she won’t love again and feel the incredible pain of losing the people who mean the most to her.

A reaction from her more than makes an appearance when Eirik arrives. Ciara is so startled by his presence walking across the keep’s drawbridge – he causes her to actually feel something – that she tumbles from her precarious perch on the West Tower right into the arms of the dragon shifter that killed her brother. She makes it clear where she knows him from and Eirik is not pleased to be reminded of the horrible day he first killed as a dragon.

Despite this troubled first meeting, he is called to the little wolf female even while denying to himself what that calling might actually entail. Eirik’s high handed manner infuriates Ciara, yet she can’t deny that he sees her in a way no one else does. He becomes an unexpected ally on the quest to find the wolf stone and it isn’t long before the two of them claim one another as true mates, awakening feelings of happiness they each thought they would never feel. The joy is important as Ciara’s visions and that of other seers portend a huge threat to the Faol and to the Chrechte as a whole, one that will take all the couple’s efforts and that of the wolf stone to help their people survive the upcoming centuries.

I adored this couple, the story line, you name it! This book represents a turning point where we finally begin seeing the bigger picture in terms of the larger story arc present (and Monroe has done an excellent job with it). Past characters are present and wonderful, yet the reader is never bludgeoned with too much of them to distract from the present story. Our secondary romance in this book is that of Lais the golden eagle healer, who still believes his disgrace when he was young and with the Donegal clan to prevent his fully claiming his lovely mate, the sweet Mairi MacLeod, a seer like Ciara. Ciara actually found the pretty MacLeod after the young woman managed to make her way to Sinclair land against all odds after being beaten and left for dead by her father, Uven, the laird of the MacLeods. He takes Chrechte prejudice to a new level, attempting to kill Mairi for being born a human (he killed her human mother, his true mate, because she was not a  wolf). The MacLeods are now primarily all Chrechte wolf shifters, with humans killed or driven away while the clansmen hunt Ean for sport. There is great world-building in Dragon’s Moon and the MacLeods are vital to understand for the next book in the series.

Warrior’s Moon – #5 (Shona and Caelis)

Warrior’s Moon (Children of the Moon #5 – Caelis and Shona) by Lucy Monroe (Berkley, July 2, 2013)

Because of my acute discomfort with reunion stories, I almost didn’t read this book. Monroe is not shy about dishing out the emotional pain in her previous novels and I wasn’t sure I could take the premise of true mates separated, particularly with a child involved. But Monroe’s outstanding writing in Dragon’s Moon had me believing that she would make this right for me, and my instincts proved correct. Warrior’s Moon was tied with Dragon’s Moon for my favorite book in the entire series, so I’m glad I knuckled down and bought it!

Shona left the MacLeod clan in what could only be painful circumstances. She had given her heart and body to Caelis, a young warrior who wooed her with tales of true love and the promise he would marry her. When she went to tell him of her suspicion she was pregnant, he informed her the baby could not be his and that he never wanted to see her again. The despotic Uven, who had always influenced Caelis since his parents’ death, actually fired Shona’s father from his seneschal position, leaving the family no choice but to move to England. Once her parents discovered Shona’s pregnancy, their disappointment hurt her even more, and her father forced her to marry an English baron.

Five years of torture later and that baron’s death has set her free. Taking her son Eadan, her young daughter Marjory and her friends, the twins Audrey and Thomas, Shona has made her way back to the Highlands in the hope of seeking refuge with distant relations in the Balmoral clan. Exhausted, she halts at the Sinclair holding and is shocked and horrified to see none other than the man who betrayed her, Caelis, standing in the courtyard.

Caelis first ignores the English group that just arrived until he realizes that the ravishing beauty in the lead is none other than his true mate, Shona. The MacLeod laird duped Caelis into denying his true mate, convincing him that the lovely human was not the sacred partner he thought she was. Since he could only impregnate her if she was his true mate, he repudiated her pregnancy, denying the truth that his wolf and heart was trying to tell him. He has lived in pain ever since, particularly after the evil Uven told him she had died, but the fact that he could never be excited by any other woman told him more than the lies he heard on a regular basis. Captured and rehabilitated by the Sinclairs, Caelis has spent the past years understanding how he has violated the most sacred Chrechte code. He rushes up to Shona only to be confronted with a little girl in her lap calling her mother. Shocked and hurt he turns and looks into the spitting image of himself as a young boy, and faints dead away.

Caelis and Shona are an incredible couple, but young wolf shifter Eagan steals the show for me.

Caelis and Shona are an incredible couple, but young wolf shifter Eadan steals the show for me.

It’s not often that the hero faints in the first few pages, but this romance defied all my expectations in the most amazing ways. Shona has been honed by fire having to accept another man into her body, and for all that she is human, her reactions to a man other than Caelis are truly that of a true mate, although she has no idea what that is. Caelis clearly wants her back and attempts to tell her of Uven’s treachery, but Shona has a backbone of steel and she is not about to cave to Caelis’ desire to be a family until she hears him accept responsibility for his choices and prove he deserves her trust. Perhaps most illustrative is the horror directed toward Caelis when the Sinclairs realize that the sweet little boy Eadan (a seer who knows of his wolf nature and who is real father is) is Caelis’ son – the warrior acutely feels the disgust and dismay by a group of people who know the sacred mate to be sacrosanct.

The love story is outstanding, made even better by the presence of the children, both of whom Caelis immediately accepts and loves as his own. Caelis (and Shona’s friends Thomas and Audrey) have to come clean about being wolf shifters, causing Shona another pang of betrayal with such a large secret being kept. The wolf stone comes into play again, since through it Caelis has received the gift of the true werewolf shape (a huge powerful wolf/man feared in battle as a protector for his people).

Dethroning Uven and taking back the MacLeod clan is Caelis’ ultimate goal but he has a journey ahead him before he understands that Shona and his children are more important and he needs to show them just what they mean to him. The secondary love interest between the English Audrey (a secret English wolf who knows little of her heritage) and one of the tough Balmoral wolves is wonderful and I cannot wait for little Eadan to grow up and claim his heritage as a seer and warrior. He already knows his fate lies with saving a Paindeal priestess and since I’m dying of curiosity about that elusive cat shifter group, I am looking forward to reading his book!

Final Thoughts on the Children of the Moon Series

I really felt that this series filled a gap for me. I love shifter books (totally buying into the “true mate” idea) but while I revel in the modern ones, I wondered about the challenges of a shifter society in an older time period. Monroe’s ability to run a strong, sometimes gut-wrenchingly emotional love story alongside a secondary love story which helps illustrate major story points is an incredible skill that I appreciate. The series’ story arc, not readily apparent in the first couple of books, was revealed in such a way that I could see the careful planning and immediately began appreciating as a reader all the places it could go.

Monroe doesn’t hesitate to bring her characters forward in time, linking them together enough to let us see past couples but always in a meaningful way that forwards the plot – you never get the thought that someone is inserted just for the sake of a cameo. Secondary characters and villains are well-developed for more than antagonistic properties and the world-building never feels heavy or forced. I did notice some complaints in reviews about Monroe’s dialogue, which is more extensive than other writers and often utilizes a peppery back-and-forth style between the hero and heroine. I think this style of bickering appropriate to several of her couples (she doesn’t do it with the others) and never felt that it was too much or detracted from the story. The sex scenes are sensual and emotional (and hawt!) and always, always illustrate the strong and developing connection between the couple.

There is a lot to love in the Children of the Moon series and I consider myself a dedicated fan of the series who will now faithfully pre-order any book associated with it. Shifter fans, be aware that Lucy Monroe is a force to be reckoned with.

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