Wendy: Romance’s greatest strength lies in its numbers: the number of readers it claims, the number of sales it racks up, the number of authors who forge a career in it, and the number—the sheer volume—of romance titles released each year. While many of those titles are familiar retreads of what has come before, there is always a gem awaiting discovery. Just when it seems every angle and possibility has been played out, a new voice, a new perspective comes along to breathe new life into the old constructs and to play hard and fast with the old rules. These discoveries don’t come along often enough, but when they do, they are something more than simply a good read: they are a reminder of all the reasons why romances are passionately consumed and lovingly cherished. J.R. Ward’s The Black Dagger Brotherhood series of paranormal romances are those rare gems, full of heroes that are a higher order of Alpha Male, heroines that bring those heroes to heel, and stories that are obstacle and conflict rich.
Like most paranormal romance authors, Ward takes the vampire mythology and uses parts and discards other bits in turns. In the Brothers’ world, vampires are a race unto themselves—there are no conversions, no vamping humans with an exchange of blood—and the race is nearing extinction from two kinds of population killers: enemies and high mortality rate. The vampires don’t feed on humans, but are nonetheless hunted by soulless slayers known as lessers. The Black Dagger Brotherhood is a group of, now, five of the most elite warrior vampires. The Brotherhood’s mission is to eliminate the Lessening Society and protect the civilian class of vampires.
Lover Eternal, the second of the Brotherhood series, is Brother Rhage’s tale. Rhage is a deliciously complex hero. Beautiful but tortured. The most ferocious of the brothers, he is a walking metaphor for the beast within. Cursed by the Scribe Virgin—creator and keeper of the vampire race—with a literal beast that lives inside and pushes him to control his emotions, his actions, and forces built up energy to be expended. Rhage keeps himself on an even plane—and keeps the dragon-like monster from making an appearance—by fighting and having sex. That strategy works well enough until he and the beast hear the lilting, musical voice of Mary Luce. Rhage’s instant and unwavering attraction to Mary is typical of the genre, however that Rhage is compelled by Mary’s voice is a clever turn (as in, her voice is music to sooth the savage beast inside Rhage).
Mary is also dealing with a curse and a beast within, but for Mary, a human, it’s leukemia. To pair a heroine with a blood disease with a vampire hero is an inspired choice and one that is abundant with conflict given the precepts of Ward’s vampire world. Each curse, the cancer and the dragon, work to keep Rhage and Mary apart. For Rhage’s part, he doesn’t feel he can stay in control of the beast and ensure Mary’s safety; for Mary, she has limited time and that time will be spent in the most uncomfortable way possible: the treatment of her cancer. But, after being set upon by lessers, Rhage seeks to protect Mary from the slayers, even if it puts her at risk from his beast.
Ward is a nimble writer who earns the reader’s respect by avoiding the feel of pandering to the lowest common denominator (eventually, even the names Ward employs for the brothers—Wrath, Rhage, Zsadist, Phury, and Vishous—stop sounding ridiculous and come to be the only possible names for these men). The romance clichés that Ward uses somehow manage to work in her hands. For example, upon Rhage and Mary’s first meeting, Rhage presses Mary into a wall, their encounter is as sexual as a fully clothed, non-penetrating encounter could be and yet the disbelief of a hero introducing himself by way of rubbing his erection on the heroine never comes. The scene works and the need to watch these characters come together overwhelms. Ward takes risks, shatters taboos—some to heartbreaking effect—yet manages atonement for her characters. Rhage and Mary are all the more compelling because they lack perfection, they are both flawed, both tortured; they are characters that must fight for happiness.
Lover Eternal, as the second installment of the series, has large shoes to fill. By repeating some of Dark Lover’s plot elements throughout the novel—such as the hero showing up nightly at the heroine’s home until she moves into the Brotherhood’s mansion for protection, or the vampire hero introducing the heroine to a world she was previously ignorant of—Ward is able to fill much of those shoes. These are, however, small considerations. Lover Eternal exceeds Dark Lover on a craft level because Ward’s writing is tighter. The multiple view points are well handled and this time around scenes are closely cropped so that the main story never feels too far away. Ward’s familiarity with her characters has grown between books and the sense of these characters becoming real to their author is palpable. Unlike Dark Lover, which took time to establish the world the story takes place in, Lover Eternal begins smoothly without ever feeling like a party already in progress; pages devoted to back story aren’t necessary and therefore not included. This installment is all forward motion, a book that both compliments and furthers the series while standing alone. There are, however, threads left untied at story’s end, threads that point to a story about Zsadist’s redemption and the vampire that could love him.
In the end, Lover Eternal—the whole Black Dagger Brotherhood series, in fact—may well be the type of story that some readers will allow themselves to be swept into while others will not. For those that do, the ride a is breathtaking, pitch-perfect page-turner that will leave readers feeling as though the next installment, Zsadist’s story, can’t hit bookshelves fast enough.
HelenKay: Most romance heroes possess the universal and predictable characteristics – tall, handsome, strong. Words that promise protection and attraction. When the romance novel works, unseen wounds and harsh pasts tend to linger just beneath the surface of these physically appealing men. This added ingredient – the realism and potential for vulnerabiity and weakness – provides nuance and conflict, showing the hero to be intelligent and tough but limited in some way. All of these pieces work in the context of building a hero readers can connect to and a worthy heroine can love. And sometimes there’s more. Every now and then, authors treat readers to a different kind of hero, one who is all those things described – strong, handsome and haunted in some way – or, possibly, none of them. This hero is so commanding that he owns every page, rises above a host of strong and interesting secondary chacracters and pulses with life. Ward has created such a hero in Lover Eternal with Rhage. An extraordinary feat since the hero pulsing with lilfe here also happens to be dead.
In Lover Eternal, Ward sets out a world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood a small and elite group of fierce vampire warriors who protect other vampires from danger and a group known as the Lessers. Lessers are humans without souls who hunt and kill vampires. The groups are at odds and in constant battle. Into the middle walks Mary Luce. She is a leukemia survivor on the verge of another round of illness. As part of her work at a suicide hotline she has befriended John Matthews, a desperate young man who, unknown to him, also happens to be a vampire and future warrior. Mary’s neighbor, Bella, recognizes a fellow vampire when she sees one. Bella knows John is about the experience “the change” and needs the guidance of other vampires to survive the experience. She calls on the secretive Brotherhood society for assistance.
Rhage arrives and upon meeting Mary, feels a connection. This is not a I-found-my-lifemate issue. Mary’s voice calms Rhage. Ward manages to make the connection between Rhage and Mary real and confused and unsure just as actual first meetings can be. Rhage feels something for Mary, but he doesn’t know what. She soothes him. As a result, he wants to spend more time with her. Part of the connection comes from the fact that Rhage is a man in desperate need of soothing. Cursed by the Scribe Virgin, he is approximately halfway through a 200-year curse. A beast lives inside him. If Rhage (note the name) doesn’t vent his rage and keep his body steady through mindless sex or fights of fury, the desperation and anger build and the beast appears. With Mary, his attraction awakens the beast.
Rhage’s obligations are to stay away from Mary and to wipe her memory clean afte vtheir meetings. He can’t do either. She speaks to something in him. Something he doesn’t understand he even needs. He knows he should protect her and leave, but he resists doing just that. When Lessers attack one evening, the beast makes an appearance and in the fracas Mary loses her purse. With her indentification in the hands of the Lessers, Rhage moves her into the Brotherhood’s mansion for her own safety, incurring the wrath of his Brothers and the Scribe Virgin. Once ensconced in the mansion, Rhage and Mary must deal with threats from the Lessers, Mary’s illness, the varying needs of the Brothers, Bella’s kidnapping, John’s awakening and the demands of Rhage’s body and the Scribe Virgin.
Eternal Lover packs a punch. It is sensual and moving. The plot zips from issue to issue but never feels disconnected. The romance stays in the foreground, even when Mary and Rhage are off the page. Backstory and the compelling lives of the other Brothers and the attacks by the Lessers weave in and out of Rhage’s story with an expert hand. This book clearly sets up the next book and leads from the one before it, but it manages to rise above the just-one-in-a-series feel. Ward does not spend a great deal of time spoonfeeding information. She dools it out in a believable way that keeps the pace humming. The only negative may be in the difficulty for a new reader to play catch up. This is most true, possibly only true, in the role of the Lessers. The information about them is limited, keeping the group and their plans mysterious. This works in the overall context of the book, but does cause some confusion early on.
The real strength here is in Ward’s ability to draw multi-faceted male characters who never feel like just characters. Rhage is larger-than-life. Ward does not give him an easy road to redemption. He carries the burdens of his past and, in many ways, acts contrary to what readers expect from a hero. But, his behavior is consistent and well-formed, making him a deep, interesting and complex hero. He is stengthened both by his bond to his Brothers and by the manenr in which the other Brothers react to him. All of the men are full and rich and different. Their backgrounds blend, but Ward keeps dialog, speech patterns and backgrounds separate, so that each stands alone as a well-drawn character.
Rhage is so instense that it would be easy for him to overwhelm Mary. He doesn’t. Mary is vulnerable but never weak. She actually stengthens the tough warrior. He needs her. It would have been easy for Ward to fall back on the sick-woman-needs-big-guy plan that is so prevalent in romance novels. She doesn’t. Mary may be physically weaker, but it is her strength that feeds Rhage and eventually saves him. The rescue here is mutual and satisfying.
While the ends do not tie up neatly, the romance does reach climax and move forward. Some issues will carry on to the next Brotherhood book. This unresolved feeling often torments and angers readers. Here, it shouldn’t. Ward provides enough hints and stokes enough interest that it is hard not to count down the days to September 2006 when the next book in the series will be released – a book based on the most wounded of the Brothers and a male so full of conflict and pain, one can’t help but want to see what Ward has in store for him.
Wendy’s Question: Outside of poly-amorous relationships, it is ever okay for a hero or heroine to have sex with someone else? Is the action ever redeemable?
HelenKay’s Response: My presumption and automatic response on this is that it’s not redeemable. Without giving everything away, I would say Lover Eternal , in Ward’s expert hands, provides a believable exception. The key here is in having the act make sense in the overall context of the plot, not be gratitutious and not be just because the hero wants to find a quick sexual release. My guess that the real key to having something like this work – and 9.5 times out of 10 it won’t – depends on the abilities and talent of the author. Ward makes it work…somehow. I’m still not sure how she did it without alienating me of making me dislike Rhage. If anything, the scenes that came after made me love Rhage all the more.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Block off time for Lover Eternal, it’s impossible to put down.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: A bold and unique addition to vampire lore with a commanding hero, strong world-building and compelling secondary characters.
You can visit J.R. here and purchase this book here and here.