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The Duke of Snow and Apples by Elizabeth Vail Weaves a Magical Blend of Historical Romance and Fantasy

2 Sep

The Duke of Snow and Apples by Elizabeth Vail (Entangled: Select, August 26, 2014) – The only think I didn’t like about this book was the cover – what is up with her hair?

I honestly did not know what to expect when approaching The Duke of Snow and Apples by debut author Elizabeth Vail. The reviews I had read were overwhelmingly positive on Goodreads, but some readers voiced criticisms over the heroine’s entitled behavior at the start of the novel or the intricate but unexplained fantasy elements of the magic of the noble class.

What novel were these people reading?

This is one of the best fantasy romances I’ve read in years, blending many familiar elements of historical romance (strict social class boundaries, etiquette conventions that cannot be broken without dire repercussions and delicious historical costumes) with seamless layers of magic as part and parcel of this world. Vail pulls off her world building with aplomb, doling out place names, magical social strata and even different time conventions effortlessly, never once info-dumping on the reader or having a character launch into a tedious explanation of history. Thank you!

Charlotte Erlwood is grateful for the chance to not only visit her estranged aunt but to escape the humiliation and betrayal that awaits her at home. Her beautiful older sister became engaged to the man courting Charlotte and the world is obnoxiously cheerful despite how awful Charlotte feels. When her relative sends a ridiculously handsome and serene footman, Charlotte’s wicked side can’t help but bean him with the apple that was supposed to be her snack. His mischievous reaction is the first time her heart lightens in days and the perfect start to her friendship with Freddy, who her aunt assigns to wait upon her during her stay.

Charlotte's shot of an apple to Freddy's head is like the blooming of color in a life he covered with frost. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Charlotte’s shot of an apple to Freddy’s head is like the blooming of color in a life he covered with frost. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Frederick is content in his position of footman in this noble house, having honed his serenity and aloofness after a decade of brutal practice. He fled his home and title as a teen after wreaking havoc with his magical gifts which can not only sense but leech emotion. He’s astonished that the lovely and animated Charlotte, whose sadness and bravery he can see emanating from her in a rainbow of color, becomes a stifled and boring miss in the company of others. Determined to help her fulfill her potential, he manipulates circumstances into revealing the vibrant woman he sees during the day. Yet as time goes on, his friendship with her becomes something much more, awakening all the emotions he’s suppressed, her magic bringing his own to the fore. When his past not only smacks him in the face with the arrival of his stepfather, but he witnesses friends and acquaintances beginning to become “gray” (their inner selves leached of emotion), Frederick must decide whether to face his past or leave everyone, including Charlotte, behind once more.

Charlotte melts the ice encasing Frederick's heart and mind, allowing them both to reach their potential as individuals, both emotionally and magically. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Charlotte melts the ice encasing Frederick’s heart and mind, allowing them both to reach their potential as individuals, both emotionally and magically. (Public domain image via Pixabay)

Charlotte easily could be seen as spoiled and entitled, but the fact that Frederick sees her emotions allows him to see past her mannerisms to the true person underneath, a device which fleshes her out immediately as a three-dimensional and empathetic character. Charlotte didn’t love her suitor, it’s the perceived betrayal by her older sister that has her dreadfully hurt and bent on winning a proposal from someone just as good if not better. That she still is capable of seeing Freddy as a man and a person – and indeed from the first her magic mirrors his, allowing her to see his loneliness and pain – demonstrates her good qualities, as does Frederick’s need to bring her out of her shell and gain confidence. The layers of conflict – Frederick’s very serious struggle with his magic, the evil villain (who inspired my only frustration as I yelled at the book, “Think, Frederick, THINK about the magic!”), the sister tension, and naturally how the romance would someone resolve itself – made this a masterwork I’m going to reread just to figure out how Vail managed to pull it off.

The emotional roller-coaster is on tilt-a-whirl in this story, as Frederick’s refusal to return to his title prevents any future with Charlotte, yet they can’t keep away from one another. When his secret is outed the danger increases rather decreases, culminating in a rip-snorting ending that had me turning the pages and refusing to make dinner (thank you, my Chinese takeout was delicious). Vail’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat reminded me a little of Kathryne Kennedy, but devoid of the bogged down detail Kennedy can descend into. Mary Robinette Kowal’s magical Glamourist Histories Regency novels or Patricia C. Wrede’s Cecilia & Kate books are probably close in tone although with less focus on the romance than The Duke of Snow and Apples. The best part is that this deliciously hefty volume is fantasy sized at 351 paged but priced currently at $.99 thanks to Entangled’s intro pricing.

Will there be other books set in this world? I cannot wait to read more of this author and encourage anyone who loves fantasy and romance to pick it up and enjoy the magic created by Elizabeth Vail.

Happy reading!


Cover Release of Laura Kaye’s Latest in the Hearts of the Anemoi Series – East of Ecstasy

18 Sep
Laura Kaye, an amazing writer and just look at her - she's pretty and friendly, too!

Laura Kaye, an amazing writer and just look at her – she’s pretty and friendly, too!

Have you read Laura Kaye‘s books? As someone who has read everything she has ever written, allow me to let you know that her books are like a fresh can of Pringles. You may tell yourself you are only going to eat one, but they taste soooo good going down that before you know it, you are tapping the bottom of the container over your head and crumbs are raining on your t-shirt.

I love her Vampire King’s novella series and I believe that she writes some of the best military romance heroes on the market, but Laura Kaye first won my heart when I came across a NetGalley copy of the first book in her Hearts of the Anemoi series, North of Need. I devoured it and placed it in a review with another book about a snowbound couple, but North of Need lingered with me in a way the other novel didn’t. I purchased every other one of her books and any time another book in the Anemoi series came out, I read it before the book got cold in my Kindle.

North of Need (#1 Hearts of the Anemoi – Owen and Megan) by Laura Kaye (Entangled, May 2012)

Each book in this series stars a god who can wear human form (incredibly hot human form, in case you’re interested in that detail, ahem) who controls the weather. For those of you enjoying the fruits of a classical education, the series name might tickle your brain – the Anemoi were the minor gods in the Greek lexicon who controlled the winds. Since the Greeks firmly believed that these gods could take the form of a winged man – or a stallion, which is damn appropriate for Kaye’s brand of hot romance – these novels manage to pull off being accurate along with succeeding in a creative modernization of an ancient mythology.

West of Want (#2 Hearts of the Anemoi – Zeph and Ella’s story) by Laura Kaye (Entangled, July 2012)

In addition to the circumstances by which each individual god comes to meet the woman who is finally going to heal his wounded heart (you don’t get to be a few millennia old without a decent amount of baggage), there is a story arc across the series involving some god politics. All the wind gods have the same father, who seems to have played favorites, and one of the wind brothers, Eurus, has gone rogue and is wreaking havoc around the world as a result. Each brother, who takes seriously his role in maintaining the earth’s balance and the weather under his purview, tries to mitigate Eurus’ influence, with the range of opinion ranging from “let’s try to save him” to “he needs to be exterminated.”

South of Surrender (#3 Hearts of the Anemoi – Chrys and Laney) by Laura Kaye (Entangled, May 2013)

Every book showcases a unique couple and Kaye places the immediate obstacle to the couple’s happiness right off the bat – that gods and humans are not supposed to be together (and that the women are not supposed to know about them or receive any kind of healing power). The pairings still carry the signature mark of Laura Kaye no matter what genre she happens to be writing in – the characters are so real they step off the page, the sex is blazing hot and incredibly emotional, and the plot is well drawn, not the phoned in conflict that occasionally inhabits romance that uses supernatural beings. Each brother is so different from his siblings (largely due to the way their father has treated them) and as a result each woman who wins their heart is unique as well. While all the heroines are strong and smart, they come to the relationship with different expectations and fears, and it’s a joy seeing these gods begin to care about someone on this intimate level.

East of Ecstasy (#4 Hearts of the Anemoi - Devlin and Annalise) by Laura Kaye (Entangled, April 22, 2014)

East of Ecstasy (#4 Hearts of the Anemoi – Devlin and Annalise) by Laura Kaye (Entangled, April 22, 2014)

Here’s where we get to the big reveal! Laura Kaye sent out a call for bloggers interested in helping show the cover of the fourth book in the series, East of Ecstasy, which will be published on April 22, 2014. So here it is. YOWZA! North of Need was not only my first Laura Kaye novel, it was also the first book I read from Entangled Publishing, and when I realized who had produced the book, I truly began to believe that smaller presses could give the Big Six (now the Big Five) publishers a run for their money. Looking at these covers, I think you can see what I mean, and East of Ecstasy continues the trend of *fans self* a highly appropriate representation of our wind god heroes. Here’s the cover blurb:

Annalise Fallston made peace with postponing her big-city dreams to care for her ill father, but lately she’s been filled with a restlessness not even her beloved painting dispels. Worse, the colors don’t speak to her as they always have, and all her efforts produce dark, foreboding images of a dangerous man and a terrifying future.

Devlin Eston, black-souled son of the evil Anemoi Eurus, is the only one who can thwart his father’s plan to overthrow the Supreme God of Wind and Storms. But first, Dev must master the unstable powers he’s been given. Distrusted and shunned by his own divine family, he never expected to find kindness and passion in the arms of a mortal.

But Devlin’s love puts Annalise in the path of a catastrophic storm, and in the final Armageddon showdown between the Anemoi and Eurus, sacrifices will be made, hearts broken, and lives changed forever…or lost.

Another hot god with father issues/tentative handle on his new powers, a sensitive artist who has some psychic ability, and a “final Armageddon showdown” – are you serious?!? This has me thinking that April is waaaayyyyy too far away because I want this book yesterday! Since the characters and story arc build throughout the series, I would recommend reading these novels in order. Keep in mind though that Entangled – while it produces print books – specializes in delivering affordable ebooks to readers. None of these books are expensive in ebook form, usually falling between three and six dollars each for full-length (around 400 pages) work. With Kaye’s amazing writing and Entangled’s outstanding editing and cover designs, this series is a must-read for people who love a paranormal element in their romance.

My thanks to Laura Kaye for writing such a great series and for letting me showcase the new book cover and thanks to Entangled’s killer art department for giving me yet another amazing cover (okay, yes, the chiseled abs are fantastic, but I also love the watermark of the compass and the backdrop that fully plays into the story – these are smart, beautiful covers). So to say I’m looking forward to reading East of Ecstasy is a British-like understatement, so I’ll instead encourage anyone who hasn’t yet read these books to get on it. Run like the wind, people, and go grab them. You won’t be sorry! 🙂

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.

Series Review: Marie Hall Twists Fairy Tales into Sexy and Romantic Stories in her Kingdom Series

31 May

Her Mad Hatter (#1 Kingdom Series – Hatter and Alice) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, July 2012)

I’m a sucker for romance novels based off fairy tales or classic literature but have found the quality of such books to be rather variable. Either it’s more about the romance with only a very loose reference to the original tale or the construct of the story is belabored to death and sucks all the sexy out the story.

Marie Hall‘s Kingdom series not only takes five well-known stories and sets them on their (very) sexy ear, but manages to also reinvent characters and twist plots until the reader is left with a delightful heartfelt romance not lacking in heat.

The overarching theme is that Danika is a fairy who has only a month to get each of her charges – her five bad boys – properly mated or they’ll die. She genuinely cares about each of these rogues who range from morosely unhappy to borderline insane due to the absence of the proper woman in their lives. She reveals that each man’s perfect match resides outside their world – the “Kingdom” – and that’s why they’ve not met her yet. But Danika has her mission.

Because the Mad Hatter is the most damaged and therefore the most in need of the healing power of his true mate, Danika picks him to go first, but the path of love is hardly easy. In Her Mad Hatter, Danika heads to the new cupcake parlor owned by Alice Lu, descendent of the same Alice who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland book. Alice is the spitting image of her great-grandmother, a fact that Danika realizes will hurt her more than help her as she whisks her away to Kingdom to meet Hatter.

You see, young Alice discovers that her great-grandmother was actually a colossal bitch who was taken to Kingdom – the Wonderland region – and duped Hatter into thinking that she loved him when in actuality she wanted the power he could offer her as his mate. But Wonderland never accepted her as it saw her true nature and she returned to earth. Alice is gobsmacked at the revelation – she was the perennial geeky goth kid, carrying around her Alice in Wonderland book since she had a major crush on the Mad Hatter, to the point where she believed that he came to her when she was dying in the hospital of brain cancer.

Alice is elated to finally meet the man literally of her dreams but quickly comprehends the hate in his eyes when Danika explains her great-grandmother’s deception. Hatter is unbearably sexy and clearly wants her, but blows hot and cold as he fails to believe that she is falling in love with him and with Wonderland. Alice wants his love as much as she wants to help his sanity but can’t fully leave her life behind, a decision that might come at too high a cost.

This book was sometimes a little on the psychedelic side but it made sense considering Hatter’s mental state. The characterization was excellent and I loved how fleshed out all the supporting characters were (a vital piece in a series). The Alice allusions were wonderful but the twist on so many of the established plot points made it an intellectual delight to read. Gobs of sexual tension existed between the characters and the consummation scene was pretty smokin’ hot so Marie Hall has good sexy writing chops to fall back on (a must for any romance book I read)! Finishing it put not only a smile on my face but made me want another one.

Gerard’s Beauty (#2 Kingdom series – Gerard and Betty) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, July 2012)

Gerard’s Beauty immediately found it’s way into my Kindle. For those of us who have always listed Belle from Beauty and the Beast as our favorite princess, this novella will make you think twice about your admiration. Gerard, whose legacy has been twisted into the pompous, good looking jock of the movie, is most definitely a gorgeous hunk of man and quite the man-whore. Danika has her fairy godmother hands full pulling him out of one seduction scrape after another, but he’s actually incredibly bitter.

He truly fell in love with Belle, who was a beautiful but calculating intellectual. She ditched Gerard, after mocking his illiteracy, for the Beast because of the wealth he could offer. Right now, Gerard is in big, big trouble because Prince Charming is claiming Gerard seduced his daughter by Cinderella. It was more like a hook-up, and one Gerard brought to a screeching halt when her wig tumbled off and he realized that it was a princess he was dealing with. That the chief bitch fairy Galeta still harbors a grudge from Gerard blowing off her sexual advances makes this more complicated.

Danika pleads his case, claiming that she knows that he is about to meet his true mate and won’t be the Kingdom’s playboy any longer. She transports him to the library where Betty Hart, a bespectled, superhero role-playing librarian has already fallen victim to the good-looking, “love ’em and leave ’em” type before and she’s having none of it. The crazy frenchman in the rain outside the library gets zero sympathy since he’s clearly a sexist pig with one thing on his mind, but he also seems homeless, so against her better judgement she brings him back to her place.

When a couple of fairies appear in her living room, spouting about how Gerard is in BIG trouble and dangling some necklace Betty must wear, she realizes that she’s not in Kansas anymore. Danika’s lobbying gets him a questionable reprieve – he has thirty days to make this mystery woman fall in love with him…and it’s thirty days where he is “unmanned,” completely unable to get an erection. That Betty has total control of him from that time on just makes him even more incensed.

For Gerard (any Frenchman?) this is intolerable since the core of his identity is tied to his sexuality. Until he looks past the situation and realizes that Betty is not using her power over him. She’s a fun, smart, beautiful woman, but not being able to use sex to keep his distance from her means that they are spending actual time together. He sees what a great aunt she is to her Down Syndrome-affected nephew and also sees how all the other geeks (none so hot in their costumes) cluster around her at her role-playing conventions. Most importantly, when she finds out he can’t read, she doesn’t judge him at all, just goes about teaching him after he reluctantly expresses an interest in learning.

Gerard is so physical and initially shallow that you despair for him until you see how his irritation with Betty blooms into something much more. Betty is a fantastic, quirky character who sees Gerard for who he really is and loves him expecting nothing in return. He’s sexy as hell and we are not deprived of the moment when Gerard gets his mojo back. Oo, la, la!

Red and Her Wolf (#3 Kingdom series – Ewan and Violet) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, September 2012)

The wolf has always been my favorite character (so many sexual overtones even in the sanitized version of this tale) so when it becomes clear in the story arc that the Wolf is angry and languishing because he already found his mate in little Red Riding Hood, but she’s disappeared, you’ve got to wonder about what’s really going on.

In Red and Her Wolf we find out just how dark this story can be. The Black Wolf transforms into Ewan, a phenomenally hot and usually naked Scotsman (yes, because being a wolf isn’t sexy enough, you have to be a Scottish wolf). Once working for the dark fairy desperate for power, he was sent with another wolf to kill the Heartsong, the embodiment of all the fairies’ evil, who had been hidden in the woods with one trusted fairy designated as her keeper.

One look at the stunning, blond Violet huddled in her red cape and hood – who has no idea of her origins or her fate – and Ewan realizes that she’s he’s mate. He slays the fairy she knows as her grandmother as well as the other assassin wolf since both were bent on seeing Violet dead. Other fairies arrive on the scene, one of them being Danika with her best friend Miriam, and they realize that the girl needs to be protected, despite the danger she poses. Ewan violently objects to the idea of them taking his mate from him when he has just found her, but they overpower him with magic and Miriam escapes to earth with the girl, whose memories are suspended.

Five hundred years later, and Violet knows that she and her Aunt Miriam are not mortal. They don’t age and recently Violet has noticed that she has strange powers and an attraction to dark feelings. Back in the Kingdom, it’s come to Danika’s attention that Violet’s whereabouts have been leaked to the dark forces who would use her power and she has to confess to Ewan that she has lied to him all these centuries, sending him on false errands to try and find the girl he calls Red. Enraged, he sets out to Alaska, finding Red suspended in death and the fairy Miriam waiting for him. She tells him he must take her back to the Kingdom to be revived and gives him a map with spy contacts to help smuggle Violet to the lair of the dark fairy. Only Violet has the power to destroy her and on the way she will begin to understand her powers with Ewan’s help.

What Ewan doesn’t bargain for is the notion that his Red has spent 500 years misunderstanding him. She’s gotten a sanitized version of what happened and even now, when her memories are beginning to leak back into her mind, she clings to her hatred of the wolf who slew her grandmother. But Ewan’s persistence and unfailing care of her open her heart to feelings she doesn’t want to have for this man, even though everything points to him being her perfect match and one who can save her from the darkness within her.

Ewan is probably my favorite hero of all the “bad five” Danika helps. His unfailing loyalty (500 years of looking for his mate!), his kindness, but most of all his wolfy sexiness and killer mentality makes him a fairy tale ideal. Using Red as a vehicle for understanding the fairy politics and power struggle was also an excellent device and one that sets the stage for other stories.

Jinni’s Wish (#4 Kingdom Series – Jinni and Paz) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, November 2012)

I really wondered about Jinni’s story. I mean, how much of a romance can you have when you don’t have a corporeal form? Jinni is at a point in his long life where he feels nothing but apathy. Born among the stars, he accepted his assignment as fierce guardian to a king but fell in love and was horribly betrayed by a woman. This wound has festered for a millennia resulting in Jinni’s abandonment of his body. He now just exists as an ephemeral floating body and waits for the moment where he can dissipate and fade into nothing.

In Jinni’s Wish, his fairy godmother Danika is beside herself, praying its not too late. She knows that he’s given up, content to simply exist in his cave and dwell on past mistakes, but his mate needs him. Really needs him.

Paz is a Chicago artist on the rise who wistfully wants what her brother Richard and his partner Todd have. They convince her to go a sketchy carnival because a friend has said the fortuneteller is amazing and Paz needs a reading. She’s shocked and disbelieving when the preternaturally beautiful woman behind the table tells her to purchase a ticket to Anchorage tomorrow otherwise she’ll never meet her soul mate.

Urged on by something bigger than she’s ever felt before, Paz does, and finds herself seated next to hot guy who seems kind of wooden, but she’s more nervous about flying. A justified feeling considering disaster ensues. Yet this diaster reveals Jinni to her and there is immediate recognition on both their sides. As Jinni reveals his tarnished history to his lovely artist, he finds himself making new memories and wishing he wasn’t too far gone, but his time is almost at an end.

This is easily the most spiritual and beautiful of all the love stories in the series. Jinni is a hot, sexy beast, but one from an era and culture filled with courtly love and it shows in his respectful handling of Paz. Because his magic is almost gone, he can only create a couple physical encounters for both of them and even they are of a lighter sensuality than the other books. Hall has written a heart-warming story which is creative in both its understanding of djinn (actually close to the original Arabic folklore) and of its resolution of a happily ever after for two people without bodies when they fall in love.

Hook’s Pan (#5 Kingdom Series – James and Trishelle) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, April 2013)

After a long hiatus from the series, Hall finally came out with the fifth book in the series, Hook’s Pan last month. We’ve only seen a couple glimpses of Captain James Hook, but it’s enough to know that this tale is going to be turned on its head and it is.

James Hook has already known true love. Talia, his beautiful mermaid, stole his heart but the day before their wedding the incorrigible Peter Pan, running amok as usual, killed her. It was probably by accident, but still, his loss felt bottomless.

He’s drowned himself in drinking, wenching, and looting – not necessarily in that order – but nothing seems to help. Hook is more annoyed than anything else when his self-appointed fairy godmother informs him that she’s going to deliver his true mate, which he knows is a lie since he’s already found her before she died.

Trishelle works in the same library as Betty, Gerard’s wife, and is more than a little put out that she’s not spending meaningful time with her newlywed friend anymore. She gets that Betty would want to spend time with Gerard, but to just disappear for months at a time? What’s up with that?

After a rough couple of days remembering her sister’s death, Trish is donning her usual mask and getting ready to perform the role of Peter Pan at the local playhouse – she already plays the role of a happy person every day so what’s one more role? Before her rehearsal Betty and Gerard ask her to go to lunch, springing on her some crazy bull about “the Kingdom” where fairy tales and characters from stories actually exist. Hurt at their mocking, Trish huffs off to get her performance, only to be “rescued” from a fire by Betty and Gerard and…a demon bug.

It’s not actually a demon bug, but some kind of fairy claiming Trish is Hook’s true mate reincarnated. Dropped literally at Hook’s feet onboard his ship, she’s irritated to say the least. Yes, this guy with his sexy British accent and hard man flesh would be great for a tumble, but she’s not going to pretend to be something or someone she’s not and Trish doesn’t believe in love.

Hook can’t help but admire the curvaceous blonde in front of him despite her revolting Pan costume, although he doesn’t believe for a moment she’s his Talia. Her sass and feistiness has him grinning from ear to ear, much to the astonishment of his men. The two of them can agree on some key points, however. Peter Pan is a sociopath enabled by Tinkerbell, Trish and Hook have serious chemistry and there is no way they will fall in love with each other.

James is the classic wounded hero and the richly painted world of the ocean (above and below the water line) is amazingly done by Hall. Trish is pretty damaged herself, and while I’m pretty leery of the reincarnation trope, this was well-handled with everyone acknowledging Trish’s unique personality. Tinkerbell is the psycho helicopter Mom everyone has met, not realizing how her crappy mothering is actually creating the time bomb that is Peter Pan. The resolution is wonderful, although I did wonder why nothing came of her gift of the little sea horse.

The series also has the bonus of being infinitely affordable. I read Her Mad Hatter because it was free on Amazon, but none of the other books broke the bank at a mere $2.99 each (Hook’s Pan is a little more expensive, but still under $4.00), reasonable for a hefty novella  slightly smaller than a Harlequin novel. Hall even has a bundled deal, charging only $2.99 for the first three books, and now that the final book is out with Hook’s Pan, I’m thinking she’ll do another bundle. According to Marie Hall’s website, she’s planning on releasing a short about the fairy Danika (something naughty with the huntsman, perhaps?) and her afterword in Hook’s Pan clearly indicates that, while she’s doing other projects, she feels that there are lots of other bad boys in the Kingdom waiting to meet the woman who will redeem them.

Getting to read those stories at the hands of good writer like Marie Hall is a delight I’m looking forward to, particularly if there are little glimpses of my favorite couples while I’m there. Many thanks to Hall for taking what are often shopworn retellings and making them into something fresh, sexy and undeniably romantic.

Countdown to Christmas: Did You Know Santa Had Sexy Sons? Try Penny Watson’s Terrific Klaus Brother Series

9 Dec

Sweet Inspiration (Klaus Brothers #1 – Nicholas and Lucy Anne’s story) by Penny Watson (The Wild Rose Press, 2012)

I was busy cruising the holiday books list at Goodreads and came across this little self-published gem which had rave reviews. The idea of Santa having sexy sons who had to take over the business was an interesting premise, one I was curious to see if author Penny Watson could pull off. For a mere $3.99 on Amazon, the price point was worth trying it out.

No sooner did I finish the first book, Sweet Inspiration, then I immediately ordered the second book, Sweet Magik, published by The Wild Rose Press. Yes, the first was THAT good!

Sexy, bearded Nicholas Klaus is a sober, hard-working master chef and baker who, when not running the bakery back at the North Pole, trots the globe sampling the best food around the world. In upstate New York, he hears about a local bakery with a great reputation and stops in for a judgmental bite. One taste equals the best sugar cookie he’s ever had and that was before his heart stopped, and it’s not from the butter content. He sees petite, red-haired Lucy Brewster, owner of the bakery, and he is a man obsessed, returning every day to try something new and wrestle his body and mind into submission.

You see, Nicholas isn’t allowed to bring a Sudlander, a southern-dweller, back to the North Pole without permission and even then it better be a darn good reason. And what normal woman is going to do anything but dial 911 if he told her that he was a chef, and…oh, that’s right…the oldest son of Santa Claus? And would you come back to the North Pole to live with me and the elves?

Lucy is fascinated with the hot, stranger who looks at her like she was a sugar cookie. When he helps her in a bakery crisis, she realizes the common interests they share and a hot night together in her office is further proof there’s something special between them. But a shocking accident takes Lucy to the North Pole to see how Nicholas and his family really live. The question exists if the magic between them will be enough or will Lucy have to face reality and go home to New York without the one man who makes her feel like she was in front of a hot oven?

I loved both the character of Lucy and Nicholas (how can you not adore the free-spirit who helps the uptight automaton loosen up?) and the way Watson turns the tables, making Santa and Mrs. Klaus the opposite of what you expect is a fun surprise. That elves are these working class toughs with animal spirits to spare (yet warm-hearted and so welcoming to Lucy) is another valuable story layer, and the only part I missed was my reindeer bubble bursting (sleighs are run on magic, not reindeer).

Sweet Magik (Klaus Brothers #2 – Oskar and Kiana’s story) by Penny Watson (The Wild Rose Press, November 3, 2011)

With responsible Nicholas having four sexy, younger brothers, all with disparate personalities, we have a lovely series in the making. Nevertheless, I was surprised that the next brother in line was green-haired, tattooed, snowboarder Oskar. In Sweet Magik, we see that Oskar is the head of the elven workers (not an easy HR gig with the drinking, fighting and magik), yet who pulls off his job and his eccentric Dr. Seuss hats with equal aplomb.

When Gregor, the financial wizard brother, invites his siblings to his Manhattan high rise apartment for a New Year’s Eve party complete with supermodels, Oskar happily goes along. Yet a surprise is in store when he spots a dowdy woman tucked in a corner talking to his brother Sven. Ignoring the blond supermodel jonesing for his bad boy looks, Oskar tries to engage Ms. Prickly and Covered Up in conversation. They actually read a lot of the same books and Kiana Grant, the name of his mystery gal, is clearly a gorgeous woman hiding from the world.

Kiana has a no reason to trust bad boys. Back in home in Hawaii, she fell victim to one and it hurt her badly. Joining her best friend Trish in New York allowed Kiana to get the librarian degree she always wanted and Trish’s trust fund has them living in a great apartment. Shocked at the raw attractiveness of Oskar, Kiana tries to shut down her reaction, but not before they have one hell of a New Year’s kiss. Oskar pesters her for a date and she gives in, only to have his cell ring in with a horrible work emergency. He’s frustrated to have to leave her, but events conspire to give her an unexpected ride to the North Pole where they are both in danger, physically and emotionally, of getting seriously hurt by a vicious elf bent on revenge.

Oskar is fun and a little lonely, and making him an insatiable reader (bibliophiles will drool over the description of his house) is icing on the hero cake. As a librarian it always chafes when authors insist on making us dowdy, repressed sexpots, but Kiana was an empathetic character with some serious emotional baggage. I love how Oskar never gave up on her and realized his heart’s doors were thrown wide open with this woman. Love magik is easy to believe in.

It’s interesting to note that while the first book was self-published and about 160 pages long, this book was picked up by The Wild Rose Press (which produces great romances) and is double that length. I’m glad of it as this storyline fleshes out the world a little more, adds in some excellent three-dimensional secondary characters, and has a romantic suspense subplot of the evil elf. The love scenes in both books are sweet and hot and interestingly enough (with all the erotic romance I read) I can’t remember the last time the hero and heroine orally pleasured one another at the same time – go Penny Watson for adding in this much needed element to the world of hot romance! How else are those couples supposed to stay warm up at North Pole anyway? Eh?

Penny Watson’s writing strength is her terrific world-building. She’s created a reality in which a Klaus made a bargain to protect elves and work with them for the benefit of children everywhere, moving them to the North Pole (made habitable by elven magik). It’s pure fantasy, but rather than get bogged down in rules and vocabulary, Watson feeds us exactly the right amount of information and specialized language (German, if you spreche Deutsch) to show us that these are a group of people and elves with a history, bonded through a common experience and way of viewing the world.

My sole problem with this series was the cover of Sweet Inspiration – those cookies look terrible! Nicholas wouldn’t be caught dead serving something that looked so unappetizing. Sadly the next two brothers (let one of them be Wolfie!! Please!!) won’t have their books released until the end of 2013, but I’m eagerly looking forward to getting the Klaus family, in all their sexiness, for Christmas next year. Thanks, Penny!

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

22 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathryne Kennedy’s Enchanting the Lady Not Worth the Updated Cover

1 Aug

I remember having a conversation with my mother years ago about how we hate it when publishers reissue covers. Most readers are very visual when remembering books they’ve read, picturing a distinct cover. There is nothing more crushing than picking up what you think is the latest Nora Roberts novel, only to get it home and realize after 20 pages that you read it years ago.

Updating covers are a great idea, however, when the original covers are either extremely dated (think Fabio-esque bodice ripper cover) or just plain suck (we all remember my rant about the great Midnight series from Lisa Marie Rice and how I think those covers devalue a classic romantic suspense trilogy), but publishers need to be careful the public doesn’t think you’re either a) snowing them into buying books they’ve already read or b) trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The Fire Lord’s Lover (#1 The Elven Lords series, Dominic and Cassandra’s story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, 2010)

When I saw that Sourcebooks, a company who states as part of their mission a firm commitment to promoting each author in their stable, had a “new” Kathryne Kennedy book, I was pretty psyched. After all, her fantasy/alternate history romance, The Fire Lord’s Lover, was hands down the best fantasy romance novel I read last year. I adored Dominic, the half-breed bastard son of the evil Elven Lord, who had learned to control his emotions out of necessity. His father had tortured and killed anyone who Dominic ever cared for, so when he marries Lady Cassandra, a human with no apparent Elven traits, the passion between them is a shock for them both. Particularly for Cassandra as her marriage of convenience is actually the excuse for a suicide mission for the Rebellion since she is a trained assassin bent on killing the Elven Lord. Great couple, awesome world building, lots of unexpected twists, happiness as a reader ensues.

Except that the series didn’t really keep up its momentum for me. The two subsequent books focus on other couples supporting the rebellion and possessing specialized traits that enable them to fight the evil Elven Lords. But while I was being told that Lady Cecily and her champion Giles were falling for each other in the second book, The Lady of the Storm, I never really saw it (although I liked them both). The world building still held me, so I decided to keep plugging away and bought the third book, The Lord of Illusion, direct from Sourcebooks.

The Lady of the Storm (#2 Elven Lords series – Cecily and Giles story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, August 1, 2011)

At which point I became uber-pissed and the top of my head flew off. This third book in the series takes place 50 years after The Fire Lord’s Lover, which is fine, particularly since everybody seems long-lived, but there’s a big, pink elephant in the room and it’s going rogue. You see, there are seven Elven Lords to defeat and with three books, I’ve only read about three of them. Not a huge problem, except we meet all the other couples who have stolen the magical scepters, undermining the Elven despots, and hear peripherally about their adventures, but I’m not getting the whole story here. And then Kennedy wraps the series up and solves the problems.

Um, what?! Did Sourcebooks renege on the other books so Kennedy put out the last one? I can’t imagine after reading how the whole world solves its problems we’re going to have other books in the series, and I guess since neither of the subsequent two were anywhere near as good as the first one that’s okay, but I’m not thrilled with having everything tied up with a bow for me. People, don’t introduce a zillion characters when I’m never going to get their stories. So not okay.

So I was disgruntled (to say the least) about the Elven Lords series not living up to the potential of the first book in the series (which honestly is so good that I reread it every couple of months). This made for ripe fodder when I saw Sourcebooks was reissuing Kennedy’s Relics of Merlin series and that the first book, originally published in 2008, Enchanting the Lady, was coming out in August.

The Lord of Illusion (#3 Elven Lords series – Camille and Drystan’s story) by Kathryne Kennedy (Sourcebooks, February 7, 2012)

But I’ve stopped hoping that any of Kennedy’s books will live up to my favorite. Enchanting the Lady has a very cool premise. Fulfilling a gaslight craze (maybe the reason Sourcebooks reissued it?), the book is set in an England in which magic is an accepted fact of the aristocracy, to the point that you can’t inherit an estate without it. The only nobles looked down upon are the class of baronet since they are shapeshifters who can see through magic and are self-appointed protectors of the crown.

Felicity Seymour is used to being invisible. Her looks aren’t anything worthy of notice, she’s an orphan set to inherit a big estate, but the only problem is she can’t. She didn’t inherit any magic from her parents so she has no dowry to attract a husband. After the public humiliation of her magical failure in front of the court to so much as light a candle, she knows she’ll have to rely on the largesse of her aunt and uncle and obnoxious cousin.

Terence Blackwell, baronet and werelion is astonished that no one seems to notice the stunningly beautiful Lady Felicity when she comes for her magic test in front of the Prince of Wales. The only problem is that she smells like the dangerous relic magic that took his brother’s life and that Terence is committed to hunting down. The relics place the crown in danger and he’s sworn to give his life to finding them. When the opportunity presents itself to court Felicity and discover if she’s a traitor, he’s all too willing to do it. What starts off as a lie rapidly becomes the truth as he falls for her, but will her fragile emotions and new self-confidence withstand the knowledge of his betrayal?

Enchanting the Lady (the original 2008 cover)

This book should have been amazing – alternate history/gaslight with a vibrant England populated with magic users and shapeshifters combined with the mores and clothes we love about historical romance. The plot device of dangerous relics left over from the time of Merlin ties in a very English story idea, but the book sadly suffers from the same complaint as the second and third book in the Elven Lords series. Two great characters but there is a lot of declaring feelings without a greater demonstration of why those two people are falling for each other. I loved Terence and Felicity both (particularly Terence when he was giving into his lion instincts of crowding and marking Felicity) but why are they into each other again? It seems like mostly chemistry – maybe if she showed a little more chutzpah with her obviously evil and magic sucking relatives, I might have seen what Terence clearly saw in her.

So here’s the thing. How I can I recommend a full price reissue of this book with the snazzy new cover from Sourcebooks, when you can buy the exact same book with a decent cover on it for a pittance used on Amazon? It’s a fun read, but not one good enough to exhort you to buy full price. This is a library check out or used book purchase for sure. Now The Fire Lord’s Lover, on the other hand, is totally worth a full price purchase and it’s got used paperbacks aplenty available! This book is a reasonable paranormal romance but failed at enchanting this lady.

From Gorgeous Scotsmen in Kilts to Rippled Muscles in T-shirts: Transitioning Donna Grant’s Dark Sword Series to Her New Dark Warrior Series

9 Jun

Dangerous Highlander (Dark Sword #1 – Lucan and Cara’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, April 2010)

I was reading an article about book cover design and one of the experts interviewed mentioned that, in romance, anything with a kilt on it is bound to sell. Duh. What red-blooded woman doesn’t have a visceral response to a hunky guy in a kilt? But it got me thinking, what is my favorite kilted book cover of all time? The answer to that got me pondering my favorite Scottish series, the Dark Sword/Dark Warrior series by Donna Grant.

In full disclosure, you need to understand that, while set in roughly the 1600s, this is not historical romance, but rather fantasy. Using a history stretching back to the time of the ancient Celts to explain its world, this series takes a paranormal approach to explaining the warrior ethos of the highlanders it features.

In an effort to rid their shores of the Roman invaders, druids practicing dark magic (known as droughs), asked a group of gods previously relegated to hell to inhabit the bodies of the best warriors from each clan in order to make them invincible fighters. The druids who had kept to the ways of life-giving magic (known as the mies) objected, but in their desperation the Celts agreed to call forth the gods.

You can imagine how this could potentially backfire. The gods were ecstatic to be freed and more than happy to unleash their violence on the Romans until they fled the shores of Scotland. But, the thirst for blood far from slaked, they turned on each other. With the wide scale slaughter occurring in their country, both groups of druids determined to band together to find a solution.

Druids – it’s not all mistletoe and stone circles.

In the end, the gods could not be sent back, so the ancient priests and priestesses found the spell which would bind the god within the man, returning each warrior to his human state with no memory of the atrocities he had committed. The god was still within him, but now the warrior could live a normal mortal life, with the god passing to the next best warrior of the clan upon the demise of his human host.

All was safe for centuries until one power hungry drough, Deirdre, came upon an ancient scroll which listed the name of only one of the clans which possessed warriors who hosted the bound gods – the MacLeods. Murdering their entire clan in an attempt to draw out the warrior, Deirdre manages to lure the three brothers, Fallon, Lucan and Quinn, to her mountain lair, torturing them and releasing their god, which it turns out is actually shared between them since they are warriors of equal cunning and strength.

But the brothers escape and take decades to learn to control the god inside them. As long as their god is able to emerge (in their case, at their will) the MacLeods are immortal. This is the backstory we discover in the first book of the Dark Sword series, Dangerous Highlander (a more in depth and better written account can be found at Donna Grant’s website).

How I picture the cliffs and landscape surrounding MacLeod castle.

They hide from Deirdre where she would never look for them, at the ruin of their old castle which the local people think is haunted because of the massacre which occurred there years ago, and this is where our story begins. Middle brother Lucan sees a beautiful girl lose her footing on the cliffs by the sea and on instinct shifts into his god form to save her. It is obvious to him and his brothers that Cara has some kind of druid magic, but her parents were murdered years ago and she has grown up sheltered in the local convent.

It turns out that Lucan saving her isn’t just fortunate because he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but because she didn’t know that she was a target of Deirdre’s as well. The entire village is slaughtered while Cara takes refuge at the MacLeod castle and, together, Cara and Lucan must figure out why Deirdre wants her so badly. Lucan knows that there is no way he’s letting Cara out of his life now that he’s found love after years of loneliness. Not everyone handles Lucan’s new happiness the same way; while Fallon begins to drag himself away from the alcohol he’s used to numb his god and resume leadership once again, Quinn is painfully reminded of the loss of his wife and son, so much so that he walks right into a trap and is captured by Deirdre at the end of the book.

All the main characters are thoroughly drawn and well-established in this first book, but Lucan is such a sexy sweetheart that it’s no wonder Cara falls so hard for him. Seeing Cara learn about her druid inheritance and wrestle with her burgeoning power helps the reader discover much more about the druid side of this world, and we begin to see the pull between druids and warriors as romantic partners.

Forbidden Highlander (Dark Sword #2 – Fallon and Larena’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, May 2010)

The fight against Deirdre is the ongoing story arc of both series and Donna Grant picks the story right up in the second book, Forbidden Highlander. After Quinn is captured, Fallon decides to go to Edinburgh to gain help. While at court, he spies the stunning Larena Monroe, who is looking for some help of her own. The sexual pull between them is undeniable, but Larena harbors a secret, a couple of them actually, and she doesn’t know if she can trust this gorgeous warrior.

Fallon quickly realizes that Larena is the perfect match for him but will she join forces to help him save his brother is the question. The discovery of other warriors who have tamed their god gives the MacLeods much better odds in the fight against Deirdre, but no one knows if it will be enough.

Larena is a fiesty, loyal heroine and you know from the first that this is a match made in heaven. Fallon carries a lot of guilt over his previous use of alcohol to escape the pressures of his god, but with the emotion shuttling between them, he is able to let go of his past and embrace a future with the woman who he wants as his wife.

There is a little overlap between Forbidden Highlander and the third book in the series, Wicked Highlander. Quinn’s story picks up in the dungeons of Deirdre’s mountain cave where he has to deal with the fact that he’s been duped into being her prisoner. When the evil druid throws a beautiful young mie druid to her supposed rape and death in the dungeon, Quinn simply reacts, taking her under his protection.

Wicked Highlander (Dark Sword #3 – Quinn and Marcail’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, November 2010)

When Marcail wakes up from her injuries she is with a warrior who possesses a voice like warm honey. She wouldn’t think she could feel safe in such a location, but with Quinn by her side she does. The attraction between them is instantaneous and only amplifies as she discovers why he carries such guilt over the death of his wife and son.

Quinn cannot imagine that he would find such peace and happiness in the arms of this turquoise-eyed beauty in Deirdre’s dungeon, but he realizes that if Deirdre discovers his feelings for Marcail, it can be used to hurt them both. Knowing his brothers will come for him, his first thought is Marcail’s safety, particularly after he discovers her power and why Deirdre can’t hurt her (but desperately wants to kill her).

I love several of the books in this series (and enjoy them all) but I usually have to reread Wicked Highlander once every couple of months. Quinn is so tortured in the other books that seeing him find redemption in the middle of a dank prison with Marcail (she’s my favorite heroine) renews your faith in love.

Worried we just ran out of MacLeods? Don’t be. The fact that they are joined by other equally as hunky warriors means Donna Grant has given us an unending supply of troubled men fighting the good fight against evil.

Untamed Highlander (Dark Sword #4 – Hayden and Isla’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, April 2011)

No one knows evil like Hayden Campbell, who hates the evil droughs with every fiber of his being. In the fourth book of the series, Untamed Highlander, Hayden scouts the area around Deirdre’s mountain after freeing Quinn and Marcail, finding a woman almost frozen to death in the snow. One touch and he knows that she is his, but when he discovers she is a drough, and worse, someone who helped Deirdre all these years, he fights the attraction for all he’s worth.

Isla did work for Deirdre, accepting the black magic under duress as the evil woman held Isla’s family members hostage. The final stand Isla took against her almost ended Isla’s life, but she finds herself in MacLeod castle surrounded by mies and warriors. Most of them seem willing to give her a chance, but Hayden reminds Isla that she is a woman first and a drough second. He spends as much time pushing her away as kissing her breathless and when she discovers why he hates droughs so much, it only accentuates the guilt she feels over her years of being Deirdre’s pawn.

Once Hayden realizes that Isla is more than her history with Deirdre, he begins to break out of his prejudice, finally recognizing that she is just as tortured and damaged as he. He almost loses her, but finally makes her his own, not only helping him by finding his soul mate but helping their cause by bringing in such a powerful ally.

Shadow Highlander (Dark Sword #5 – Galen and Reaghan’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, August 2011)

Since the moment we met Galen in the forest in the first book of the series, he is a binding force of reason with a good sense of humor and a seemingly bottomless stomach. But he avoids touch in any form since one of his powers is being able to read the minds of whoever he comes in contact with. In Shadow Highlander, Galen gets a book of his own and a mission that will bring him face to face with his destiny.

The warriors at MacLeod Castle have caught wind of the fact that there is a powerful druid relic that Deirdre wants. With careful scouting, Galen and some other warriors head out to scout the likely locations it could be housed, including a cloaked area of Druid power near a lake. Discovering an aging and rather helpless band of druids, Galen endeavors to move them back to the castle for protection, but not before being powerfully drawn to the beautiful young druid in their midst, Reaghan.

Reaghan loves her peaceful existence but can’t help thinking that there is something more to life, a thought only amplified when she meets the irresistible warrior bent on helping her community. She burns at his touch and Galen is baffled that he cannot read Reaghan’s mind; she is immune to his power. But strange flashes of memory added to the growing knowledge that she can’t remember all her existence lead them the realization that Reaghan has a power that puts her in danger, and its solution could mean the end of the love that has sprung between them.

Darkest Highlander (Dark Sword #6 – Broc and Sonya’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, January 2012)

The final book of the Dark Sword series has a tough job to do. Not only must it tell the story of the romance of its two main characters but it also needs to set up the premise for the next series, Dark Warrior, which will pick up right where it lets off.

Broc has been a presence from the very first book, but as Deirdre’s winged henchmen he has committed as many atrocities as Isla did before openly joining forces with the MacLeods. Broc has been working as a spy all this time, one bent on undermining Deirdre as well as protecting something very precious to him – the powerful mie healer, Sonya and her sister, Anice.

When Anice dies in a chaotic battle at the end of Shadow Highlander, Broc lashes out at Sonya for not being able to save her sister. In Darkest Highlander, Sonya leaves the castle bereft at the loss of her sister and her own healing magic, which appears to have deserted her. She suspects that Broc loved her sister and that she will never win his affection now that she couldn’t even save the person she has cared for all her life. Stumbling in the wild, Sonya is set upon by a wolf.

Naturally, Broc is filled with remorse for the way he accused her. He has watched over Anice and Sonya since they were children, protecting them even while working for Deirdre, who would have loved to have killed these two druids for their mie powers. But it has always been brave Sonya who has held his heart since she became a woman and the thought of something happening to her chills his blood. Rescuing her from the wolf in the nick of time, he takes her to a local inn to treat her and is astonished when she tells him that her healing power is gone.

Sonya is thinking about more than her lack of healing power in the room she and Broc share at the inn, since his handsome form fills her mind and heart. As the two of them are drawn together, Deirdre steps up her game with a final push to beat the MacLeod allies to the final relics that will give her the power she needs to defeat them and dominate the world.

There were a few parts of this book that hit a weird note to me. Namely, we get the impression that Broc “knew” Sonya’s sister in a biblical sense. Anice was a little mentally off, which is why for years Sonya thought that the handsome warrior Anice spoke of seeing was a figment of her imagination, and Broc pushes the carnal knowledge of Anice aside with a “I’m but a man, after all” kind of comment while affirming it was always Sonya he had a thing for. Hmm. I’m not sure that works for me. Even if it was just a kiss, it feels yucky and wrong. And Sonya just lets it go – I thought she was spunkier than that. Let’s hope I’m misreading this scene.

Time travel – because sometimes you can’t manage to kill your evil villain in your time, you have to go forward to ours!

What does work for me is that Deirdre is chilling in this book. She’s desperate enough to be even more dangerous than usual (which is saying something) but when she finds herself at the mercy of a villain even more powerful than she, well, that just throws ice in my veins. I was really surprised at the death of one of the warriors (it was so sad, I thought he was terrific and loved him from the third book) and even more surprised at the time travel aspect that is setting up the next series. Is it Karen Marie Moning who deserves this trend of whisking hunky highlanders into the modern era? I’ll thank her anyway.

So our fearless crew is scrambling to not only get revenge for the death of one of their own, but to recover his brother who has gone missing enraged with grief, and to figure out where the hell Deirdre has ended up. They can’t defeat her if they can’t find her and Broc uses his amazing location ability to figure out that Deirdre is 400 years forward in time.

Midnight’s Master (Dark Warriors #1 – Logan and Gwynn’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, May 22, 2012)

Luckily, they have some powerful druids in the castle who are able to whip up two spells, the first one throwing some of the warriors forward in time to attempt to find Deirdre and the other spell putting a bubble of protection from time over the castle, protecting it’s non-immortal inhabitants (the druids) from aging. The castle dwellers agree essentially to wait the 400 years at the MacLeod home and meet up with the warriors for whom this day will feel like yesterday when they arrive in the future. Do druids just really have spells like this in their arsenal? That seems like pretty quick thinking. Only for Donna Grant am I willing to suspend the disbelief.

And so Midnight’s Master, the first in the Dark Warriors series, begins. Logan Hamilton, the jesting hottie who hides his own dark secrets arrives in modern day Scotland. He’s understandably surprised at some of the details of his country in the future, but with the god inside him, his ability to process information is practically a superpower and he rapidly adjusts. Drawn to the area around the Isle of Eigg, where the last showdown with Deirdre occurred and where the last artifact she sought is probably housed, he makes inquiries and stumbles upon the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

Midnight’s Lover (Dark Warrior #2 – Ian and Dani’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, June 26, 2012)

Gwynn Austin is a Texan searching for her father, a professor who specializes in ancient Celtic history. While the two of them don’t have the best relationship by a long shot, after her mother’s recent death, he is her only living relative. Hearing he quit his job at the university and hared off to Scotland, she follows determined to track him down. One look at the Scotsman wearing a tattered kilt that doesn’t quite look like the others she’s seen and Gwynn knows she is not in Texas anymore. But what Logan tells her changes her whole sense of identity.

Logan can feel Gwynn’s power – she has inherited a druid legacy (and aren’t we all relieved considering these warriors need druids to fall in love with!) which directly relates to the relic Deirdre and our new uber-villain want. Logan helps her understand the situation and what’s she’s up against and Gwynn throws in her lot with the MacLeods and anti-Deirdre brigade.

Gwynn is plucky, can-do heroine who is instantly likable and who takes genuine pleasure in Logan (luckily she’s okay with muchmuch older men since he’s around 500 years old by now). Once she wraps her head around the Deirdre/time travel concept (and it’s easy for her to do as being in the vicinity of Eigg and Logan ramp up her previously latent mie powers) she is all in and ready to fight evil. The scene where she leaves a special Christmas present for Logan is so sweet that I got all sniffly. Donna Grant awesomeness, for sure.

I did have more than a few questions related to the time magic piece. The MacLeod brothers et. al. who stayed in the castle had the bubble of protection which sheltered them from aging. Clearly this was for the non-warriors, since their god keeps them immortal, but the druid women have managed to not age a bit. However, they have to stay at the castle. Granted, they’ve got the internet now, but that feels like they are trapped to me. This might have been okay back in ye olden days when travel was a slow-moving pony cart, but this seems a little more like a prison once you start thinking about 19th/20th/21st century modes of travel. Do they have legal documentation? How did their castle get modernized? Did Fallon get an electrician license? Did anyone get online degrees? How would you keep yourself from going crazy for 400 years waiting for the other warriors to find you? You can’t have awesome sex all the time with your warrior husband, particularly when there are others around (or maybe you can – suddenly 400 years seems more manageable).

Midnight’s Seduction (Dark Warrior #3 – Camdyn and Saffron’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, October 30, 2012)

You can see in the book cover progression for the new Dark Warrior series that, while we can all mourn the loss of the kilts, there are compensations. The cover model representing Logan for the Midnight’s Master book cover is not ungifted in the posterior department, and you can see above that the next book in the series, Midnight’s Lover (due out at the end of June) has got a pretty sweet bicep shot, complete with cool tattoo.

Midnight’s Lover is Ian’s story, the warrior who lost his brother in Darkest Highlander and got shot forward in time against his will. Since he was temporarily insane from the doubling of his god power, it will be interesting to see how he gets himself off the proverbial ledge and what woman helps him come to terms with his grief.

We are back to bare chests, rippled abs, and (ahem) a lengthy dagger by the time the third book rolls out (due at the end of October). Toward the end of Midnight’s Master, the first book, the warrior crew raided the mansion of our new villain who is attempting to manipulate Deirdre and gain total power. In his dungeon, Camdyn MacKenna discovered a beautiful blind druid chained to the walls and it is her story and his that will be showcased in this third book, Midnight’s Seduction, seen above. Considering the fact that she was held because she is a powerful seer, I think our warrior group could have a powerful new ally in Saffron.

Midnight’s Warrior (Dark Warrior #2 – Ramsay and Tara’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, November 27, 2012)

The fourth book, Midnight’s Warrior, seems to be set farther along in time than the first few, since its description clearly states that the heroine, Tara, has been on the run, avoiding both the warriors and the villains for ten years.

But Ramsay MacDonald (love Ramsay!) finds her, and once he holds her he knows that his secret is going to come out. Ramsay not only has the power of his god, but also holds a significant amount of druidic power, a force he might not be able to tamp down when he is around Tara.

Donna Grant indicates that there will be four more Dark Warriors books coming out in 2013, but she’s going to run out of warriors at some point, I’d imagine. There is potential in other areas that I would guess she’d exploit. We saw that there were plenty of other warriors in Deirdre’s dungeon with Quinn in the third book, and since they are immortal, that would mean they could have also lived those 400 years and be in the present time (and have one hell of a history, I imagine). The idea that one of these warriors could have been killed at some point in the last 400 years by another warrior would also create the potential storyline that the god would go to another member of that warrior’s clan, yet this person could be a modern human having to suddenly deal with wrestling a god. These would be fascinating stories to read, especially in Donna’s capable hands.

Dark Craving (Dark Kings #1) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, July 31, 2012)

I don’t know when she finds time to sleep and shower considering that not only does she have these Dark Warrior books coming out, but she also writes on her blog that St. Martin’s asked her to come up with some related enovellas that would complement the books, leading her to come up with the Dark Kings spin-off series.

Each of the Dark Kings enovellas will come at the end of July, August and September and feature characters that will be introduced in the Dark Warriors books. By the, um, look of the book cover for the first in the series, Dark Craving, I think this premise seems very promising! With a publication date of end of July, I am not happy about the fact that these still aren’t up for me to pre-order, but I’ll be keeping a close eye for when Amazon finally puts them up for purchase.

Donna Grant is a talented writer whose affinity for Scotland makes her a natural fit for readers who love their kilts and highlanders. It’s a testimony to her abilities that we still want to keep buying her books, even when the kilts are taken out of the equation. I guess as long as it’s still a hunky highlander as the hero, she’s got a following.

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