For a romance novel to be rich and full, one of the usual requirements is that the heroine possess believable faults and, in some cases, many faults. Idiosyncrasies, difficult backstories, fears, dysfunctional families all help to fill-in the person the heroine is at the beginning of a story. Faults, yes, but rarely does a heroine seduce then suck the souls of the men she meets. That’s just not something a “normal” heroine does. Then again, a succubus is not a “normal” heroine and Succubus Blues is not the usual romance.
There’s little room for surprise in the clockwork art that is genre fiction. What is expected of the formula is, after all, the expected. But fiction, good fiction, needs the element of surprise, some bit of plot or character or device that isn’t as expected. It is in the unanticipated, the unforeseen, the unpredicted that talent shines brightest and readers are given something memorable. Debut author Colleen Gleason has neatly sidestepped the issue of triteness with The Rest Falls Away, by stretching and straddling genre boundaries. The result is a story that isn’t strictly a romance or strictly a paranormal or strictly a Regency. It’s a romance without a central love story, a paranormal that never looses sight of the fact that vampires are monsters, and a Regency whose heroine has something besides the ton on her mind. All that makes for a read that surprises.
Jackie Kessler’s debut, Hell’s Belles purports to be a paranormal romance. The cover, a red-saturated shot of the city with a shapely leg taking center stage, looks like so many other paranormals on the shelves that the images could be taken as shorthand for the presumed story within: striking and strong young heroine overcomes evil with sass and luck when not tumbling the strapping young stud who turns out to be The One. Even the jacket copy points to romance, something light and frothy, something easy to read, quick to be consumed and then forgotten. But that’s not what Hell’s Belles is. Paranormal romance doesn’t fit this book nearly as well as fantasy does and readers eager for a by-the-numbers romance won’t find that here.
Erin McCarthy has stumbled onto a bit of obvious brilliance: If there is a perfect place for vampires in the twenty-first century, that place is Las Vegas. It’s logical that the hot, sexy, and just a-little-bit dangerous undead, would make a town that caters to the night and doesn’t blush over indulgences in avarice, lust, and gluttony their home. In the hands of the right author, Las Vegas is a backdrop rife with conflict and rich with potential for the living and not-so-alive alike. In the hands of the wrong author – an author who doesn’t seem to know the city beyond tourism commercials – well, then, you have the second installment in the Vegas Vampires series Bit the Jackpot.
Highlander in Her Bed is the sort of romance novel that, by intention, strains credibility at every turn. The principles are an American woman, Mara McDougall – who, despite having no Scottish relations, inherits a Scottish castle – and a seven-hundred-year-old Scottish ghost, Alex Douglas. The conflict is obvious and immediate, as is the catch: A ghost, unlike his undead brethren, lacks a corporeal body, and something, most likely something implausible, needs to happen to ensure the hero and heroine jaunt off to their happily ever after. A bit of poof or smoke and mirrors needs to be employed so that the ghost is alive again or, at least, just solid flesh. One of the most exciting aspects of romance is the willingness of the authors who work within the genre to take on a premise that doesn’t even hope to be believable. Every once in a while there is a rather spectacular payoff for the risk. Usually such success is the result of grounding an otherwise unbelievable premise –The Black Dagger Brotherhood comes to mind – but here, with Highlander in Her Bed, Allie MacKay didn’t take that route, instead she went for the might-as-well-hemorrhage-believability-at-every-turn path and the result is only spectacular in the train wreck sense of the word.
The time has come to throw back the curtain and provide a sneak peek into the inner workings of PBR. If you believe all of the book discussions resemble refined Oprah Book Club teas, prepare to be disappointed. The behind-the-scenes action here at PBR is not all that sophisticated at times. In fact, the words “rugby match” come to mind.
The process starts simply enough. Books arrive from authors, from publishers, from PR professionals and, every now and then, from actual bookstores following the exchange of money or credit between PBR reviewers and said bookstores. We pass around titles and upcoming releases. But sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – a book just sits there and manages to create controversy.
Enter the anthology Hell With The Ladies by Julie Kenner, Kathleen O’Reilly and Dee Davis.
Some books defy easy definition. These books may best be described by what they aren’t. A promise of a suspense not met. A romance focused only on the chase and not on the catch. A vampire tale less about vampires than about societal pressures. If a book isn’t as suspenseful as advertised, or isn’t really a romantic as hoped, disgruntled readers tend to rise up and complain of missed expectations. But, other times a book has just enough of everything to be enticing. Kimberly Raye’s Dead End Dating falls into the latter category.
Some books, like JR Ward’s Lover Awakened, are eagerly anticipated with pre-orders numbers that one would expect from a New York Times best seller veteran. Other books, the sort in a superstar stratosphere unto themselves, like the Harry Potter books, are obsessively waited for: countdown clocks are made, lines form, the devoted sleep on sidewalks for the chance to be the first with the book in their hands. And then, there are books like Teresa Medeiros’ The Vampire Who Loved Me, a book, like the others, awaited, but with sanity and patience. A book fans of After Midnight (Merdeiros’ first look at the Cabot sisters) are certainly interested in, but one unlikely to inspire camping out for. As it turns out, The Vampire Who Loved Me isn’t a book to sit nicely on the to-be-read pile, but demands to be read immediately and without interruption.
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.
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.