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.
The disagreement over this title – disagreement being a genteel description of what actually happened – did not center on plot execution, craft concerns or author choices since the PBR reviewers actually had not read the book prior to chatting about it. No, with the anthology Hell With The Ladies, the title and cover blurb sent the reviewers scurrying to their respective corners with gloves up and fighting words ready. The reason is quite simple. The heroes in these novellas are the illegitimate sons of the Devil. The “baddest of the bad boys” who never pretend to be anything else. Dearest daddy is ready to name his successor. To determine if any of his sons are worthy of his title, Satan challenges each to perform a task where the prize is the right to rule Hell. The only thing standing in the way of Satan and his retirement plans is a woman. Three women to be precise. Women equally determined to find the good in Satan’s sons Jack, Nick and Marcus.
The issue: Making a hero out of Satan’s spawn. After all, there is a difference between a bad boy and an evil one. An immortal in the form of a vampire may be the new “in” thing, but an immortal in the form of a demon is always troublesome. And, the need for definite and identifiable character growth within the confines of an approximate 100-page novella, well, that’s the challenge.
The breakdown at PBR: The Skeptic (we’ll call her Wendy) who doubted the authors would be able to pull off redemption for the sons of Satan; The Pessimist (Lorna) who had a problem with the notion of any heroine agreeing to be the daughter-in-law of the Devil; The Rational One (LJ) who merely pointed out that the sons of the Devil would, by definition, be illegitimate so that references to the illegitimacy on the cover seemed repetitive; The Reviewer Playing The Role Of Switzerland (you guessed it, that’s Kassia) who piped in with feigned disinterest but clearly was chuckling while reading the email discussion; The Newbie (our yet unrevealed reviewer – she’s busy, so be patient) who added the tidbit that a sequel to Hell With The Ladies was in the works; and, The Excited One (me) who was intrigued from the second the book hit the front porch.
Picking up a book based on the pure excitement of a cover blurb, on the interest in a kernel of an idea, is a dangerous thing. The potential for disappointment is great. The Excited One being brave (or a complete idiot) stepped up…
Kathleen O’Reilly’s tackles the evolution of Jack, the oldest of Satan’s son and the presumed next-in-line to the throne of Hell. Jack Vassago spends his days (and nights) running a casino, bedding women, fixing the stock market for his gain, bedding more women and generally feeding off and enhancing the depravity of Las Vegas and the world around him. Jack assumes the reward for his hard work will be nothing less than his father’s empire. Satan being Satan, the little devil he is, has other plans. Jack must first pass a test before he qualifies to receive what he believes to be his birthright. His task appears simple enough – find the Book of Souls and return it to dad. A simple task except for the location of the book and the sexy guard unknowingly holding it. Bored bookseller Gabriella D’Angelis (notice the last name) toils away each day in her family’s business, longing for the opportunity to break free to a more glamorous and glitzy life and away from her grandmother’s bible preaching ways. Jack offers her the fun he knows she craves but nothing deeper. Gabriella wants more and Jack must choose between the power that comes from pleasing his father and the pleasure that comes with Gabriella.
Being a romance novel, the ending to Jack’s story should not be a mystery. To the extent it is, know that Satan then moves on to his second son, Nick, and offers a different test. In Julie Kenner’s Nick, Satan challenges his son, the renowned artist and international playboy Nick Velnias, to do what he does best – paint a portrait that captures a piece of the subject. Specifically, to paint a portrait of Delilah Burnett, the daughter of one of his enemies, a well-known Reverend who attempts to turn lost souls away from sin, and steal her soul. Between Nick’s charm and Delilah’s yearning to become a model, the set-up for soul-sucking seems easy. Then Nick begins to paint, Delilah begins to change and Nick is forced to make a decision between his father’s offer and the woman he can’t forget.
Satan finally turns to his last son in Dee Davis’ Marcus. A pirate in earlier years – those years being measured in terms of centuries – and present-day collector (otherwise known as thief), Marcus Diablo is accustomed to taking what he desires. Being a bit of an expert at his craft., Marcus prefers to catch his prey without the use of any special powers. Satan offers Marcus the keys to the kingdom (so to speak) if Marcus obtains a prized jewel, the Devil’s Delight, a 24 carat ruby said to be formed from a drop of Christ’s blood and to give the owner’s soul to the Devil. In general, the perfect gift for the demonic evildoer who has everything. To grab Devil’s Delight, Marcus must join forces with Celeste Abbot, a former conquest, collector and a woman who has bested him in the past. With Celeste is her father, a scholar who can decipher a journal said to lead to the jewel and who has a secret or two of his own. As with the earlier novellas, true love must triumph over the soulless and Satan.
The binding force here, not surprisingly, is Satan. As the patriarch of this clan he holds the power. Jack, Nick and Marcus do not have a relationship with each other or much of a relationship, other than a begrudging and dutiful one, to dear old dad. Satan, while evil and responsible for the plague, the stock market dip, soul stealing and other very bad things, floats in and out of the novellas. Despite this malignant presence, the stories stay focused on the romance between the sons and their women. In part this is a set-up straight from the Prologue where Lucifer takes on a bit of a guy-in-black-socks-with-shorts persona as he worries about his fading looks and toys with the idea of sitting back on the beach and enjoying his spoils in retirement. All three novellas point to the evil deeds of Satan with passing reference, but Satan only appears at the beginning to issue his challenge and at the end to show his displeasure. That displeasure never extends to ruining his sons when they betray his wishes likely because killing off the hero, while fine in Romeo and Juliet, isn’t all that satisfying in a genre prefaced on a happy ending. In all three stories, Satan rides off leaving his sons mortal and poor, but fully intact.
This strangely paternal non-interference combined with a nodding recognition of the sons’ non-evil (and dead) mothers makes the idea of Satan’s sons finding and deserving happiness easier to accept. As does the odd underlying premise handed to the reader that the all-powerful Lucifer could not obtain his desired items on his own despite his power. In many ways, Satan plays like the nasty family matriarch or patriarch often seen in novels where greed and money rule the day and family ties turn into vice grips. The difference here, of course, is Satan’s ability to appear and disappear, freeze time, unleash Hell on earth and a few other not so nice tendencies.
With the general but-they-are-pure-evil concern tucked away, the heroes in these novellas boil down to edgy, rough, naughty, bold, attractive and, yes, sinful, men felled by a force greater than evil. For Jack, the attraction to Gabriella is quick and not all that clear since, frankly, she comes off as shallow and not all that likeable at the beginning of the story. Putting aside that flaw, the strength here is in the subtle interplay of Gabriella’s changing priorities with Jack’s inability to separate the “things” he provides to Gabriella from the man he could be with her absent those material items. Since the attraction lacks depth at the start, the powerful ending suffers. However, the overall effect is one of love conquering all, wrapped up in a basic but fast-moving plot that remains eminently readable.
The romance in terms of punch heightens in Nick’s story. Nick, a man more interested in his paintings than the throne of Hell, grows and matures as the reality of Delilah’s destruction at his hands becomes apparent. Delilah’s increasing soullessness corresponds with her budding interest in mindless sex with strangers – a fact that seems to suggest committed sex is good and sex without boundaries or commitments is bad, but that may be an overstatement of the message here. What is clear is Kenner’s expertise at creating compelling and moving relationships. The contrast of Delilah’s disintegration with Nick’s awakening contains a complexity and reality that transcends the idea of evil and good. The true triumph of this story is Nick’s believable evolution in the context of an enjoyable tale that manages not to take itself too seriously.
Marcus’ story unfolds more in keeping with a sense of chase-catch-release. Marcus and Celeste have a history which ratchets up the tension from one of initial attraction to one of simmering heat. They share similar interests (except for the whole descendant to the throne of Hell thing), challenge each other and fight off their more intense feelings for each other. Celeste’s tendency to melt into a giant puddle of goo every time Marcus is around does seem a bit too much, especially in light of her otherwise sturdy disposition. What helps to save what could be her over-the-top reaction to Marcus is the glimpse of human frailty Marcus shows separate from Celeste. Marcus, unlike his brothers, has been in love with a woman in the past and on the verge of forsaking the nature handed down from his father. His failure in that instance plagues him but adds a dimension to him that is missing from Nick and Jack.
The anthology, like most romance novels, requires a suspension of belief and a naive hope that people can change, at bas, who they are. The manner in which the love of a good woman beats back evil in these stories is both charming and believable. Yes, the realities of having Satan as a father-in-law and a husband with true skeletons in the closet are not explored, but what would be the point? Hell With The Ladies doesn’t pretend to be a study in religion. It purports to be an engaging romantic tale, and on that score, it succeeds.
You can visit Julie Kenner here, Kathleen O’Reilly here and Dee Davis here. You can buy this book here or here.