There are some books written to be savored and pondered, thought about and argued over long after the final words have been read. There are others that do not aspire to such lofty heights. Instead they seek to momentarily entertain, asking only that the reader step into their pages and go along for the ride. Most of romance is the momentary variety; disposable even. Read it once, enjoy it or not, and then there isn’t a need to think on it again. Cheryl Holt’s newest historical romance, Too Wicked to Wed, should be of the fleeting sort. The romance is engineered to be light reading, the plot is not complicated enough to inspire deep thought. The result is strongly crafted diversionary entertainment. On that front, Too Wicked to Wed succeeds at what it sets out to do. On the whole, however, it is not as ephemeral as it should be. Holt makes story choices that feel uncomfortably like moral judgments and the discomfort generated lingers beyond the fiction and ultimately overshadow the romance.
You go to the bookstore in search of a contemporary romance read. A solid, straightforward romance read. Not erotica or erotic romance. No suspense or mystery. No vampires, werewolves or other evidence of paranormal. Sounds easy in theory. Reality is the problem.
Oh, books of this type are on the shelves. You just have to dig through all of the book with photos of vampires, witches and mostly naked people on the bindings first. And when you find that non-historical, non-erotica, non-paranormal romance you face an even bigger issue – will it hold your attention. The question is, without the worldbuilding necessary for paranormal romance, without a dead body or missing something, will this newly purchased contemporary romance keep you turning all 400 pages. Authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie, Lani Diane Rich and Meg Cabot craft novels where the pacing, plot and character development all work together with success. Others don’t.
This is a don’t.
Once upon a time, a young woman stood at the edge of the library stacks, wondering where, oh where, she’d find her perfect story. Years went by, and she continued to seek the perfect story. One was too hot, one was too cold, very few were just right.
Still she kept reading, deciding that no one tome would fit her every mood. She settled on a mix of stories, figuring variety was the spice of fantasy. After all, there is a great difference between story and reality. One always ends just right, the other, well, you know how it is when you wake up to cat vomit. Or morning breath. They sometimes smell the same.
The greatest strength of paranormal romance is the opportunity it provides for diversity in the genre. The boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-girl-back formula can be told with infinite variations when things such as five-hundred-year-life-spans are thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, paranormal has largely proved more homogeneous than hetero: he’s a vampire too noble to drink blood; she’s a good witch; he/she is a werewolf willing to chew off his/her own paw rather than bite a human. Limiting paranormal to a few constructs, a few worn out mythologies, constricts the subgenre to the strangling point and robs it of its most interesting aspect. One niche of paranormal romance that has yet to be winnowed down is science fiction. The opportunities for worlds with alternate histories, futures and presents that are populated with humans – or human like characters – are infinite and authors like Nalini Singh make a fantastic argument for more sci-fi romances.
So, in the course of my work on the RomanceWiki (yes, that was a shameless plug!), I noticed a pattern. One book was consistently a reader favorite, repeatedly noted as an influence, and considered a classic of romantic suspense. It did not escape my notice that, typically, I’d somehow neglected to devour Linda Howard’s Dream Man, and I resolved to fix that problem, well, you know how it goes when you have more books than time.
One of the worst-kept secrets at Paperback Reader is that we love to force our personal favorites on each other. I won’t bore you with the behind-the-scenes process, but somehow this is one of HelenKay’s favorites…so it makes sense that L.J. and I are reviewing the book.
I have just read the recently posted review by my fellow Heyer worshipper, Kassia, where she ponders the question of when a lengthy series reaches its “use by” date. This problem is not limited just to romances. In all the genres, storylines can span anywhere from two to an infinite number of books. The most common is the infamous trilogy with a single story stretched out over three books, à la Lord of the Rings. While there are longer single-story series (like Robert Jordan’s massive Wheel of Time, which at last count is up to book eleven, not including the prequel), usually those that go beyond three are “stand alone” where each book is complete in itself, such as JD Robb’s In Death or Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series.
HelenKay: Trouble in High Heels highlights the fine difference between an imaginary scenario and a truly unbelievable one. The former may qualify as solid fiction if accompanied by strong writing, fully developed characters and a unique voice. But combine that questionable plot with flat characters and the only thing the reader gets is a long, dull read.
A mere six months ago, I reviewed the ostensible second-to-last novel in Jo Beverley’s “Rogues” series. At that time, I pondered the idea of series that have run their course. Specifically, I wondered if thirty years was too long for one series. Especially if said thirty years was punctuated by periods of unavailability for some of the titles in the series.
I am the ultimate series sucker. You write them, I will come. And will keep reading and reading forever. In fact, I will keep reading long after I have sworn I will stop. There are possibly twelve-step programs for people like me, I simply haven’t found them. But still, there’s a point where even I wonder why I keep coming back…and then suddenly I remember who’s in charge of me, and I take the initiative and stop myself cold turkey.
Wendy: It isn’t often that an author or book emerges from the vast ocean of yearly romance releases and stands outs as a talent or story that must be given attention. In any genre, talent is at a premium, and the argument that more books are released than there are capable writers to pen them is an easy one. That is an especially easy criticism of romance where there are so many books and so few authors offering originality. When J.R. Ward hit romance shelves a year ago with Dark Lover the impact was immediate. There she was, that fabled romance author with the skill to build an epic world of her own and the writing chops to lure readers into it. Then, six months later with the release of Lover Eternal it became clear that not only could Ward lure readers in, she could keep them in the palm of her hand as well. Perhaps then, it shouldn’t be surprising that a mere year after the first of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series came out, the third, Lover Awakened has Ward bound for New York Times bestseller list glory and a place among the upper echelon of genre writers.
The success of the series is balanced between Ward’s ability to write a story that envelopes and an imagination fertile enough to give birth to the six warrior vampires who make up the Brotherhood: Phury; Vishous; Zsadist; Rhage; Wrath; and Tohrment. They are over-the-top males who make standard issue alphas look like cotton candy. Their world, where the Brotherhood is pledged to protect the civilian population (non-warrior vampires) from lessers (slayers), like their names, seems ripe for the preposterous to come into play. And yet, it never does. Ward balances the deadly serious business of eliminating lessers with the levity of the Brothers’ love of hip-hop, rap, shitkickers, and designer clothes.
As a connected series, with each new book focusing on a different Brother and the female destined to become his shellan (like a wife, but more intense), it wasn’t much of a surprise that the series’ second book, Lover Eternal, set up the newest release, Lover Awakened. What was a surprise was which of Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood vampires emerged as the hero: Zsadist. As the mangled and broken twin to Phury, Zsadist has been a dark, fearsome element in the Brotherhood, the sort of character scary enough to menace a band of killers. Even still his tormented past as a sexually abused blood slave brought a humanity, however tortured, to Zsadist and a hope for his redemption.
Fate and the ruptured mechanisms of his own mind dealt Zsadist heavy blows and perhaps that’s why Ward didn’t wait to tell Zsadist’s tale and give him a path out of hell. Or, perhaps Zsadist’s story couldn’t wait because there is so much to tell, so much twisted past to unravel, so much wrapped in the Yin Yang relationship he shares with his twin. And then there’s Bella. Bella who is beautiful, and a member of the vampire aristocracy. Bella who is unblemished, unmarred, a female of worth, perfect to Zsadist’s way of thinking; so perfect, in fact, that only his antithesis, Phury, could be good enough for her. Bella who, inexplicably, doesn’t want the Yang, she wants the Yin.
It’s when Bella is kidnapped by a lesser that Zsadist begins to thaw emotionally. As Lover Awakened opens, Bella has been missing for six weeks and Zsadist has spent that time in a frenzy bordering on mania looking for Bella, vowing vengeance and bringing death to all the lessers he comes across. Oddly, Bella’s rescue doesn’t happen forthwith. The lesser who captured Bella, O, has come to “love” her, and takes great pains to assure the captive he calls “wife” stays with him and information about her stays out of the Brotherhood’s hands. Bella’s time in captivity is horrible to say the least and when Zsadist does rescue her, Bella has been beaten, the lesser has carved his human name, David, into her stomach, and stitched her eyelids shut. She’s endured the sort of physical and emotional trauma that it would likely take years to recover from. What is odd about Bella’s extended time with the lesser is that Ward doesn’t employ its aftermath to the fullest extent.
Like the two previous Black Dagger Brotherhood books, Lover Awakened is the hero’s story often at the expense of the heroine. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Zsadist’s salvation comes at the exclusion of Bella’s recovery. Her physical scars heal, she conveniently cannot remember the emotional trauma, and other than Zsadist’s repeated vows to avenge her, Bella’s ordeal seems of no impact. The downside to any series is a lot like the down side of a poorly ordered short story collection: it becomes too easy to see the author’s tricks, crutches, and weaknesses. Ward has a tendency to short change her heroines – it’s understandable when the larger-than-life heroes are hogging all the attention – and this third installment of the series shines a bright light on Ward’s discount on her female characters.
Nonetheless, Zsadist and Bella’s romance plays out in emotional starts and fits, continually running into the ghosts of brutality Zsadist endured as a blood slave. Bella’s love for Zsadist, her dependence on him are immediate, but his journey out of the misery that left him both mentally and sexually crippled is a long, slow one. At times Zsadist progress is imperceptible, the greatest thrust of changing coming in the last pages of the book.
A book of some four hundred and thirty pages should provide enough space to tell a story. Lover Awakened doesn’t quite accomplish that, perhaps because Ward gives her characters story in abundance. Or, maybe the book’s focus isn’t quite tight enough. Lover Awakened is heavy with both characters and their points of view. Much time is spent with Phury as he deals with his own feelings for Bella and how those feeling create yet another avenue for him to scarifice his wants and needs to those of this stricken brother. O, the lesser who kidnapped Bella, has always had his own story arcs, but here, his continued obsession over Bella, even after her rescue, seems a misstep. O, and all lessers, raison d’etra in this series is to be an opponent of the Brotherhood, and here O doesn’t fulfill that role. The orphan boy John, a vampire who has yet to go through the change, gets a lot of page time as he negotiates his way through training for Brotherhood and finds his place in a vampire family. Then there is Rehvenge, Bella’s brother, who turns out to have a few secrets, the least of which isn’t well kept at all.
What makes this world – and by extension, the series – so fantastic is the breadth and depth of what Ward puts on the page. It’s those same qualities, however, that detract from the romance, too much time and attention are spent elsewhere. And yet, Lover Awakened is an enveloping, captivating read. The third installment doesn’t misstep so much as it creates a slight catch in the series’ stride. Ward’s ability to draw the reader in and keep them with there with every turn of the page is undiminished. Lover Awakened might be lesser to its processors, but it’s still better than everything else on the new release table.
HelenKay: The wounded hero. His presence looms in romance novels, sometimes as the actual hero and sometimes as a secondary player who shouts “future hero” every time he walks on the page. Rough and aloof on the outside, broken by a devastating event in his past that stifles his future, he wanders through life just existing. Under the hard exterior and attitude decency and honor remain, but the idea of love and true emotion is all but dead. In fiction, the idea of redeeming this lost soul is the ultimate romantic fantasy. If only the hero could find the right woman, he could then break through his shell, enjoy true love and live the life he truly deserves.
Enter Zsadist. Zsadist or Z, the most haunted and raw of the vampire warriors in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, lives a spare and dark existence. He kills without remorse, refuses affection and physical contact, shuns intimacy in every form, deprives himself of all comforts and walks the thin line between sanity and insanity. In sum, he appears irredeemable, his humanity lost forever. Kidnapped from his family when very young and separated from his twin, fellow warrior vampire Phury, Zsadist was sold first into slavery. Then his life took an even more horrific turn. His mistress, the woman who owned him, made him a blood slave – sexual slave – keeping him bound and forcing him to serve her and the various men she brought down to the dungeon to meet Zsadist. As a result, Zsadist isn’t just wounded, he’s an empty shell.
Somehow Zsadist retains a tenuous bond with the Brotherhood, the group of vampires charged with protecting other vampires. He is loyal but detached. The only person for whom he feels a spark of real feeling outside of the Brotherhood is Bella, a member of the vampire aristocracy. At the end of Ward’s previous novel, Lover Eternal, Bella is kidnapped by a Lesser. The Lessers are a society of soulless vampire hunters. Bella’s kidnapper imprisons her, worships her, beats her and calls her wife. Zsadist rescues her.
The attraction between Bella and Zsadist is not a secret. Tension radiates off the page when they appear together. There is a pulse that underlies all of their interaction. They share a bond he refuses to recognize and she refuses to ignore. Despite Zsadist’s many attempts to push Bella’s affection toward Phury, Bella remains steadfast in her devotion to Zsadist despite his scars, both physical and emotional.
Many times the tortured hero can only connect with a woman through sex. He lacks emotion and functions only on physical need. Part of the brilliance of Zsadist’s relationship with Bella is that the level of disconnect stems from Zsadist’s warped view of sexuality. He doesn’t jump into bed with her and then insist that’s all they can ever have together – a standard romance novel claim. Instead, Zsadist wants Bella but fears sexual excitement to the point of being repelled by it. He fights his natural urges and even refers to his sexual organ as “it” as a way of separating himself from the twisted sexual violations of his past. This layering of fears and dysfunction adds depth to the relationship and an honesty that is often missing in the fix-the-tortured-hero scenario.
Lover Awakened continues the fight between the Lessers and the Brotherhood started in earlier series books. The ongoing battle serves as the background for everything else that takes place. This aspect of the plot remains just that – ongoing. The battle does not end or find its completion here. Instead, the focus is on Zsadist’s re-connection with life and the unfolding romance between Zsadist and Bella. Other members of the Brotherhood play major roles here as their motivations and personalities become clearer and, in some cases, less clear. The reader is dragged deeper into the world of the Brotherhood, with a peek into the workings of the Lessers and glimpses of future heroes and books in the series.
By the end of Lover Awakened, one romance blossoms just as the world of the Brotherhood is blown apart by a shocking death. The move is a risky one by Ward, but one that fits well with the other choices she makes and with the overall mood of the series. Also, the young warrior trainee John plays a larger role here, with his murky background hinting at a significant future. This wordlbuilding is handled with an expertise and subtle hand that makes the idea of warrior vampires, drug-dealing vampires and all vampires easy to believe.
In a book that’s part buddy movie in the same vein as Band Of Brothers with vampires in the lead roles, part romance and part paranormal, Ward shapes distinct, damaged and compelling characters. The fast pace and true character growth combine with the dark overlay of the existing world to create a novel that works on all levels . The relationships unfold with the difficulties and pain felt in real-life relationships. Zsadist’s bonds with his brother, with the Brotherhood and with Bella are explored with a richness and intimacy that takes Ward’s storytelling to an inspiring level.
Wendy’s Question: What is the orphan boy John’s role in these books? Is he another avenue for Ward to world and story build? Or, is Ward employing a very long set-up for John to be the series’ hero of heroes?
HK’s Answer: At first Ward seemed to use the existence of John to show not only the humanity of the Brotherhood but also the promise of its future. Now, as his past unfolds, it is clear John will play a major role in the Brotherhood series. My guess is he is both a future hero – probably the last hero in the series in light of his current age – and either an answer to, or source of, a huge future unveiling in terms of worldbuilding. But, that’s just a guess. The good news is that while in some books the younger side characters tend to annoy because their presence appears superfluous, John is different. His role hints at a much grander scheme. Just one more reason to keep reading this series…
Lorna Freeman and I both worship happily at the altar of Georgette Heyer. We discovered this the usual way. You know how it goes…you enter into casual conversation with a new friend, “Hey, wow, so you like Regencies?” She says, “I’ve been known to read a few in my day.” You look at the ground and say shyly, “So, read any Heyer?” She’s far cooler than you, but not quite sure where the conversation is going. “Some.”
You grow bold. This is a rare moment. Probably not to repeated in this century You say, “So, wanna co-review Black Sheep with me?”
Much to your surprise and happiness, she agrees. Eagerly. You have found a soul mate. Which is good, because Black Sheep is all about soul mates. The good kind, the you-honestly-believe-these-people-are-meant-for-each-other kind, the you want this romance to go on forever kind. Black Sheep is romance at its best. Trust us. We’ve hardly every lied to you.