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.
What readers will find is a story and protagonist reminiscent of – without at all resembling – Kim Harrison’s Hollow’s series. Kessler builds a two planed world (one realm earth, the other Hell) in which succubae, incubi, and various demons of greed, vanity, and wrath are unleashed upon human beings, tempting them with their greatest weaknesses and leading them to gates that are not pearly. The telling lacks the clichéd trappings and conventions of romance, presents a world unto its own, and stars a likable protagonist who is untroubled by all those things heroines are supposed to be. Jezebel, the succubus at the center of Hell’s Belles, is on the run from Hell. After a few thousand years of seducing men, taking their souls and then escorting them into the fiery ever after – and being quite thrilled with the job – a shift in managerial philosophy sends Jesse into mortalsville seeking to hide as a “flesh puppet” (aka human being).
Kessler structures her tale in an inventive and creative – if not entirely successful – manner. Jesse’s story comes in two parallel tellings. The A story is Jesse’s present, takes place on earth, begins the moment after Jesse decides to runaway from home, and proceeds for two days as Jesse parades as a mortal and hides from Hellish creatures determined to return her to The Pit. The B story is Jesse’s past, set in Hell, the days (moments?) leading up to Jesse’s decision to flee. It’s an interesting manipulation of the story that gives, what would otherwise be back story, plenty of forward momentum of its own, but it also raises the question of just where the story is. Is Jesse’s story about being human, applying her skills as an eons old creature of lust in a modern day strip club, and falling in love with a mortal? Or is Jesse’s story her decision to ascend from Hell? Jesse’s story is, of course, both those things, but the back and forth, present then past telling detracts. The transitions, for example, are always disorienting. The chapters are labeled with the locations for action, but even this doesn’t go as far as orienting within the narrative could.
As for the striking young heroine, yes, Jesse is that and sass and luck do extricate her from a sticky situation or two. But, if there is such a thing, Jesse is an antiheroine. Far from the thoughtless, virginal young thing depicted-to-death in romance, Jesse is imbued with a dark undercurrent (perhaps being a demon does that) that propels her and, in turn, her story. She is clear eyed in a way women are seldom depicted in this genre of fiction. Since she was a succubus and seduced countless men, Jesse naturally turns to stripping (and not a sanitized version either) as a means of support; she even contemplates prostitution. Jesse is so comfortable in her own skin (she is a girl who can shrug off being called a slut), the narrative so lacking in condescension on the matter, that the bold choices Kessler makes never chafe.
Within hours of taking mortal form, Jesse finds a strapping stud to tumble, Paul Hamilton. Whether or not Paul is The One in the strictest romance definition of happily ever after remains to be seen. There is another man, well, incubi really, Daunuan, that Jesse has a long relationship (if one counts a sex buddy as a relationship) with and that relationship continues even as Jesse falls for Paul. So the tenderness and love and springs between Jesse and Paul is balanced (or marred depending on one’s view point) by Daunuan’s presence. As Jesse’s story is to continue into future books (there’s no end book cliffhanger here, the conflicts of Hell’s Belles do find conclusions), Daunuan’s will likely turn up again. And he’ll likely continue to complicate the romance with Paul.
Hell’s Belles is smart and well done, an arresting debut by all accounts. Kessler’s tale of a succubus escaped from hell is far richer, daring and dark than the weightless back cover plot summary reveals. The choices made are incredibly bold and unique lending excitement to the read. Jezebel is a character intriguing enough to follow into future books and Kessler is a star on the rise.
You can visit Jackie here and purchase this book here and here.