Wendy: Gena Showalter’s Awaken Me Darkly is a brooding and murky futuristic that weaves suspense and romance throughout a sci-fi plot. When dark haired and dark eyed men begin to disappear in Chicago, Alien Investigation and Removal agent, Mia Snow, suspects the involvement of earth’s not-so-welcome visitors. When one of the missing men turns up dead, her suspicions are confirmed as all evidence points to the deadliest of the other-worlders, Arcadians. Mia and her partner, Dallas Gutierrez, set off to track down the murdering Arcadian before the clock runs out on the remaining missing men. But, just when their chief suspect, Lilla en Arr, is brought into custody, Dallas is wounded by gunplay and given zero chance to survive. As Dallas hangs on death’s precipice, Lilla’s brother, Kyrin en Arr, materializes with an offer for Mia: release Lilla and Kyrin will save Dallas’ life. It’s an offer Mia can neither accept nor decline, but one that propels her headlong into the case and into a deeper involvement with Kyrin. Each step toward uncovering the truth leads Mia into a labyrinth of fertility abuse and high-jacked human DNA. Human deaths litter the landscape both past and present in a quest to create a human Arcadian hybrid being. The clues point back to Kyrin, but Mia is plagued by the mysterious and oddly familiar Atlanna en Arr.
Showalter’s imaginative vision of the future and risk taking are both exciting and compelling to read. While many specifics are glossed over—as for example, when exactly the story takes place—what is highlighted is an intelligent supposition that doesn’t require a tremendous suspension of disbelief. It is easy to picture a future where water is too precious to waste on bathing and cars continue to be land-bound machines capable of following programmed coordinates.
Mia is a kick ass heroine; she’s tough, she’s angry, and she’s more than capable of keeping up with her male colleagues. In fact, she’s likely to outrun them, out think them and out fight them. Her past is rough and tragic; her present darker still. Kyrin dubs her Angel of Death for the hundreds of criminal aliens she’s played judge, jury, and executioner to. Mia is a sanctioned killer; happy to eliminate the invaders who prey on humans. Or as she says: I’m proud of my work. I am privileged to do what I do. Other-worlders who survive on human carnage deserve the sting of my pyre-gun. Her thoughts on aliens often sound like racist rhetoric and her first instinct is to hit, always, no matter who is on the other end of her fist. She is not cute and she is not charming, but compelling for the rareness of a truly tough heroine.
However, Mia’s draw and Showalter’s world building do not overcome the book’s poor plotting and pacing. The first hundred and fifteen pages of the book are used as an overly long setup for the murder investigation, Dallas’ injury, and Kyrin’s proposal. This pacing and story point emphasis sets up an expectation in the reader that these events are paramount, when, in fact, they quickly become mere back story for next two hundred pages that focus on Mia’s personal drama.
Too much time is spent developing characters whose significance is questionable and negligible to the story. Showalter spends a wealth of time showcasing Mia and her partner Dallas’ relationship only to shelve it as Dallas spends two-thirds of the story in a coma. By sharp and disappointing contrast, Kyrin is mysterious enough to pique interest: he is one of a race of human-like alien invaders, his presence is powerful enough to swamp Mia’s senses and draw her to him. But, he is painted in broad brush strokes that do not lend to detail or fineness as the story wears on. He has feelings for Mia that exist prior to his introduction on the page yet those feelings remain without preamble or explanation.
In the end, the story’s climax is too easily reached for the gravity of preceding events. The portion of the story that is resolved (and not everything is concluded as Mia is destined to return in another book) is done so with too little description or significance and much too quickly.
Awaken Me Darkly delights with the possibility of what it could be, but disappoints with what it actually is. Perhaps with the ground work laid, the following Mia Snow books will take the opportunity to sparkle.
HelenKay: Awaken Me Darkly is exactly what the title and cover suggest – dark and strangely sensual. The book follows the story of Mia Snow, an agent with Alien Investigation and Removal (AIR). When well-connected men with similar physical characteristics vanish from the Chicago streets, Mia and her partner, Dallas, take the assignment. They determine almost immediately the perpetrator is an Arcadian, the most dangerous of the other-worlders they hunt. A shoot-out leads to Dallas’ critical injury and the appearance of a mysterious Arcadian stranger, Kyrin. Even before Kyrin emerged on the scene, his presence haunted Mia. His physical form is even more threatening to her sense of control and stability.
Kyrin’s sister, Lilla, has been arrested for the kidnapping and murders of the missing men. In order to save Lilla from execution, Kyrin makes an untenable suggestion – if Mia releases his sister from prison, Kyrin will save Dallas’ life. Without Kyrin’s help, Dallas will die. Kyrin and Mia discover they have more in common than Dallas and Lilla. They are both tracking the real killer. They form an uncomfortable alliance to solve the mystery of the disappearing men and then capture or kill Atlanna en Arr, the mysterious female alien who leads Mia and Kyrin into a baby manufacturing and society building scheme.
Romance readers often complain that the heroines portrayed in even their favorite reads lack depth and strength. The popular acronym TSTL – too stupid to live – is bandied about as a leading criticism of these ladies of romance as they find true love and often do so without demonstrating an ounce of appeal or common sense. Mia does not suffer from this malady. While the story falters at points and straddles the line of romance and science fiction, Mia plows forward, consistent and determined. She is the heroine who puts the "kick ass" in the term kick-ass heroine. She carries a gun but can fight just as well with a knife or her hands. She has killed without remorse and does not flinch at the thought of killing again. She is blessed (or maybe cursed) with the power of telepathy and stunning good looks that leave her opponents dazed and naive to her power.
Showalter creates a female lead who could easily move from genre to genre. She is not a romance composite or a stereotype. Her frailties derive from a realistic source and appear at appropriate times but she is not crippled by them. If anything, those deficits add to her strength.
While Mia’s character is clear, Kyrin’s is draped in shadows, which may be done on purpose but is only effective at the beginning of the book and causes some character issues as the book progresses. Kyrin begins as a sense and materializes as a man, seemingly alien and immortal. Kyrin’s motivation in hunting Atlanna is understandable and unfolds over the course of the book in such a way as to keep the reader’s interest. He is strong and sexual but the mystery that surrounds him prevents the reader from knowing him. Even simple things like his physical characteristics and residence, though described, remain elusive.
The love story plays as a cat-and-mouse game for the first half of the book. The suspense and science fiction portions, at times, overpower the romance. When the romance moves to the front, the basic explanation for the attraction between Mia and Kyrin relies on romantic "soulmate" notion. The romance lacks growth and then exploded so that the "they were meant to be" premise is not smooth and may have benefited from an earlier introduction and clearer unfolding.
The pacing suffers from a long set-up of the suspense portion of the book. The action does eventually take off and pulls the reader in. But, by this point, so much time has been spent building up, that the end comes too fast and feels anti-climatic. At least one plot point feels too tied-up-with-a-bow to be satisfying.
Despite its faults, Awaken Me Darkly is commendable for the job it does in pushing the genre and taking risks that other books are unwilling to take. The heroine here is strong and interesting in a way many romance heroines are not. Showalter’s imagination and ability to build sexual tension without actual sexual activity for a significant amount of the book are testaments to her talent.
HelenKay’s response to Wendy: A futuristic depends on worldbuilding – the ability of the author to create a world that is connected enough to this world to be believable yet creative enough to show a setting different from what we know. Was the worldbuilding here effective and did it serve the romance or falter in favor of science fiction?
Wendy’s response to HelenKay: Showalter’s world building is more subtle than overwhelming. Awaken Me Darkly exists, save for the presence of aliens, in a future not so unlike our present. Mia lives in a nondescript apartment, it just so happens her refrigerator prints out a grocery list whenever she’s low on essentials. Showalter treats the technology with a light hand: it’s there in the story, but copious explanations are not offered. Keeping the science out of the read, allows the story’s focus to remain on the erotic and suspense plot points.
Wendy’s final thoughts: Awaken Me Darkly is an unbalanced and uneven read, though not completely without charm. Recommended with reservations.
HelenKay’s final thoughts: Awaken Me Darkly is an imperfect read with many strengths and some drawbacks. Futuristic romance may not be for everyone and while I have some reservations, I recommend this book for a new and interesting take on the heroine and for the world Showalter creates.