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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kerrelyn Sparks: LOVE AT STAKE SERIES


Author:  Kerrelyn Sparks
Series:  LOVE AT STAKE 
Publisher and Titles:  Avon
      Vamps and the City (2006)  
     “A Very Vampy Christmas” in Sugarplums and Scandal anthology (2006; also available as an e-book) 
      Be Still My Vampire Heart (2007)
      The Undead Next Door (2008)
      Secret Life of a Vampire (2009)
      Eat Prey Love (2010)
      Vampire Mine (2011)
      Sexiest Vampire Alive (2011) 
      Wanted: Undead Or Alive (2012) 
      Wild About You (11/2012)
      "V Is for Vampwoman" in Vampires Gone Wild (e-anthology, 2/2013)
      The Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo (9/2013) 
      How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying)(4/2014)
      Crouching Tiger, Hidden Vampire (12/2014)(might be final book)

     This post was revised and updated on 5/23/14 to include a review of How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying), the 15th novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of novels 9-14:   

          NOVEL 15:  How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying)            

     Back in the 13th century, Zoltan Czakvar watched the local villagers burn his mother at the stake, while his father allowed it to happen. Although Zoltan was present at the burning, he blacked out and woke up far from the scene, healing from severe burns from his mother's death fire. Soon afterward, his father was murdered by unknown assailants. When Zoltan reached the age of 29, he asked his mentor, a vampire, to Turn him so that he could continue his quest to identify his father's killers. 

     Zoltan leads a lonely life, immersing himself in his huge business empire and in the running of his Transylvanian estate, which (of course) includes a gigantic castle. The locals all know that he is a vampire, but he protects them and supports their vampire-related businesses, so they are quite loyal to him. He even allows bi-weekly tours of his vampire castle that attract scores of tourists. As the novel opens, Howard Barr, the were-bear, and his wife, Elsa Bjornberg, (from Wild About You), are living in the castle. Elsa is redecorating one of the wings, and Howard has been appointed as Zoltan's chief of security. Unfortunately for Howard, Zoltan has never bothered with security and doesn't believe he needs it. Howard's frustrating attempts to clamp down on Zoltan's free-wheeling life style provide some of the humor in this story.


     One of the clues that Zoltan has to his father's death is a strangely carved arrow that was found in his father's chest. Zoltan has been searching the world for centuries trying to find out who carved the mysterious arrow. Finally, he gets a new clue when Russell, the vampire who has gone AWOL from Angus's security force, happens to find an identical one in Tibet. Russell is hot on the trail of the current villains of the series: Master Han and Lord Liao (a story arc that began in Sexiest Vampire Alive). Master Han has been using demonic powers to genetically strengthen an army of soldiers that he plans to use to take over the world. Lord Liao is his vampire second-in-command. When Zoltan sees the arrow, he immediately teleports to Tibet, where he meets Neona, one of six fierce female warriors who guard Beyul-La, a mysterious Himalayan valley. The women are strongly anti-male and allow no men anywhere near their valley. Even though Neona tries to kill Zoltan during their first meeting, they are attracted to one another, and thus, the romance part of the story begins. That romance takes up most of the book, with just a few brief battle scenes involving Han and Liao. 


      As you can imagine, Zoltan and Neona's romantic path is extremely rocky, particularly because Neona's mother (the Queen) despises and distrusts all men and wants Zoltan killed as soon as he impregnates Neona. The only reason any man is allowed to be anywhere near one of the warrior women is to provide a child. If the child is a girl, she stays; if the child is a boy, he is dropped off at a near-by monastery. Some of the younger women are beginning to rebel against this anti-male policy, but the Queen is firm in denying their requests for more freedom. The warrior women are protecting two important secrets, one of which Zoltan discovers early on. That secret will soon have a profound effect on Zoltan’s life. The other secret doesn't surface until near the end of the book, and it is the one that sets off the events leading to the requisite showdown scene between Han's army and the familiar crew of good vamps.


     This story drags a bit, primarily because there is very little action. Most of the scenes feature Zoltan teleporting back and forth from Beyul-La to Transylvania to Budapest and back again to Beyul-La. No matter how brutally Zoltan is treated by the women, he is unfailingly polite, charming, suave, and generous. He never loses his temper or his patience, even when the women beat him, tie him up, and threaten to kill him. Neona is  an O.K. character until she begins speaking in 21st century colloquialisms. Remember, she is very old (even though she looks like she's in her twenties) and she has lived in this isolated, primitive environment (no electricity, no technology) all her life. Yet, her vocabulary is that of a modern-day woman. This novel was better than the previous one, but not by much. I continue to believe that it's time for these characters to solve  all of their major problems and go off into the series-ending land of HEA. That won't happen just yet, though, because this novel ends with a cliff-hanger in which a key character is in the hands of Master Han. Click HERE to read an excerpt from How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying).


           WORLD-BUILDING           
     Throughout the series, plots revolve around Roman Draganesti and his supernatural friends, mostly vampires and shape shifters. Roman, a vampire, is a former medieval monk who became a twenty-first-century millionaire when he invented synthetic blood. The good guys are the vampires and the two bad-guy groups are the Malcontents (vamps who reject synthetic blood and keep draining humans) and the Stake-It Squad (a CIA-sponsored group dedicated to killing all vamps—both good and bad). In the early books, the head of the Stake-It Squad, Sean Whelan (who despises all supernaturals), is the father of two of the female soul mates (Shanna in How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire and Caitlyn in Eat Prey Love).

     These vampires are relatively traditional in that they sleep during the day (their death sleep), have super strength and hearing, and subsist on blood. In addition, they can instantly teleport to places that they have previously visited or places that have a telephone that they can call to establish a target for the teleportation.

     Each book follows one couple from the time they meet until they overcome all obstacles and become soul mates. Most of the early stories take place in Manhattan.

    Humorous touches include the beverages that Roman invents to increase vampiric food choices (e.g., Blissky [synthetic blood + whiskey], Bubbly Blood [synthetic blood + champagne], Bleer [synthetic blood + beer—for the less sophisticated set]). Another bizarre touch of humor comes in book 2, when a vampire harem rocks the vampire world by asserting their feminine independence. In addition to the vamps, shape shifters of various types (e.g., bears, panthers, wolves) are part of Roman’s entourage, and they, too, eventually find their soul mates.

     Click HERE to read excerpts from the books. Click HERE to go to a cast of characters with a time line for each of their lives. Click HERE to go to Sparks' "Vampire World" page, which includes games, videos, wallpapers, and other extras.


     Here is a book-by-book list of the happy couples. (Note: the species listed here is the person's original species at the beginning of the book, not what he or she might eventually become):
>  How to Marry A Millionaire Vampire:  Roman Draganesti (vampire) & Shanna  Whelan (human)
>  Vamps and the City:  Austin Erickson (human vampire slayer) & Darcy Newhart (vampire)
>  “A Very Vampy Christmas”:  Don Orlando de Corazon (vampire) & Maggie O'Brian (vampire)
>  Be Still My Vampire Heart Angus MacKay (vampire) & Emma Wallace (human vampire slayer)
>  The Undead Next Door:  Jean-Luc Echarpe (vampire) & Heather Westfield (human)
>  All I Want for Christmas Is a Vampire:  Ian MacPhie (vampire) & Toni Davis (human)
>  Secret Life of a Vampire:  Giacomo ("Jack") di Venezia (vampire) & Lara Boucher (human)
>  Forbidden Nights with a Vampire:  Phil Jones (werewolf) & Vanda Barkowski (vampire)
>  The Vampire and the Virgin:  Robby MacKay (vampire) & Olivia Sotiris (human)
>  Eat Prey Love:  Carlos Panterra (werepanther) & Caitlin Whelan (human)
>  Vampire Mine:  Connor Buchanan (vampire) & Marielle Quadtriduum (angel)
>  Sexiest Vampire Alive:  Gregori Holstein (vampire) & Abigail (Abby) Tucker (human biochemist)
>  Wanted: Undead or Alive:  Phineas McKinney (vampire) & Brynley (Bryn) McKinney (werewolf)
>  Wild About You:  Howard Barr (werebear) & Elsa Bjornberg (Guardian of the Forest)
>  "V Is for Vampwoman": Mikhail Kirillov (vampire) & Lady Pamela Smythe-Worthing (vampire)
>  The Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo:  Dougal Kincaid (vampire) & Dr. Leah Chin (human geneticist)
>  How to Seduce a Vampire (Without Really Trying): Zoltan Czakvar (vampire) & Neona (warrior princess)
>  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Vampire: Russell Ryan Hankelburg (vampire) & Jia (were-tigress)  

           NOVEL 9:  Eat Prey Love           
     This book tells the story of Carlos (werepanther) and Caitlin (human). Caitlin is the sister of Shanna, heroine of book 1 and wife of Roman Draganesti. The two women are the daughters of Sean Whelan, the villainous vampire slayer. Carlos and Caitlin meet and fall in lust at a birthday party for Shanna's son, where Caitlin meets Shanna's extended supernatural family for the first time. Carlos is attracted to Caitlin, but he is on a mission to find a were-cat mate who will help him raise some orphaned were-panther children and to extend his family line in the wake of a slaughter that cost him most of his family.

     The plot, naturally, focuses primarily on the couple's romantic relationship, but there is also an adventure that takes the two to Thailand, where they are endangered by a vampiric cult. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Eat Prey Love.


           NOVEL 10: Vampire Mine           
     In book 10, Marielle is a Deliverer, an angel who takes the souls of the dead. When she refuses to take the souls of two dying children who were killed by Casimir (the evil Malcontent leader), Marielle’s angelic supervisor cuts off her wings and banishes her from heaven. Connor, a gruff and grumpy vampire who works in security for Roman’s corporation, is in the vicinity on Casimir’s trail and he rescues Marielle. You know what happens next, right? Although they are mutually attracted, there are (of course) some obstacles blocking the road to love. Connor is wracked with guilt about the death of his wife and child centuries ago, and Marielle is torn between her love for Connor and her desire to go back to heaven ASAP. As the action advances, Marielle becomes an asset to the vampire team, and the lust between Connor and Marielle grows too strong for them to ignore. In another plot thread, the vampire-hating Sean Whelan FINALLY gets his comeuppance. When you read that scene, you'll say to yourself, "I always knew that would happen to him."

     Unfortunately, this is probably one of my least favorite books in a series that I have really liked in the past, and here are some reasons why:

     Since Marielle has never had a human body, we have to go through all sorts of cutesy “bodily function” scenes. Here’s an excerpt from the inevitable introduction-to-the-bathroom scene:
     She shifted her weight back and forth. "I have a strange, urgent feeling like I might…leak"....
     '"Well." He felt his cheeks grow warm. "Ye sit there." He motioned to the toilet. "And...let it go".... 
     She lightly touched the lever, and the toilet flushed. She jumped back, then laughed. "Look at that! Humans are so clever." (p. 104)
     Marielle also has to learn to eat, to wear clothing (including underwear), to refrain from saying everything that comes into her mind, etc., etc. I suppose this is all meant to be LOL funny, but it gets old pretty quickly.  

     Another problem (for me, anyway), was the consistent off/on religious tone. Marielle is always saying things like “Glory to God in the highest,” but then in the next scene she is jumping Connor’s bones. The whole business of skipping around from spiritual love to physical lust was a bit disconcerting, to say the least. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Vampire Mine.

           NOVEL 11: Sexiest Vampire Alive           
    The eleventh book tells Gregori’s story. The title tells you everything you need to know about Gregori, the narcissistic playboy of the group, but as we soon learn, Gregori also has a serious side. The story opens as catastrophic news sweeps the supernatural world. A videotape has surfaced on the Internet showing scenes from the vampires' big battle with the Malcontents that climaxed the previous book. The vamps are desperate to have the U.S. government officially declare that the tape is a fake, so Roman sends Gregori to meet with the President to work out an agreement. When the President realizes that vampires, in fact, do exist, he strikes a bargain with Gregori. The government will disavow and squelch the tape if Gregori and the vamps help his daughter, Abigail, find three exotic plants (grown only in the wilds of China) that may save the life of his terminally ill wife. 

     Of course, as soon as Gregori and Abigail lay eyes on one another, they fall immediately in lust, with love following soon after. But before the relationship can get underway, Abby must first deal with her innate shyness and her fear and distrust of vampires, and Gregori must keep in mind that his actions will affect the future of all of the vampires in the world. No pressure. 


     The plot first focuses on the early, awkward stage of the romantic relationship, and then shifts to the secondary plot, which includes a group of Chinese vampires, an army of superhumans, and a demon who owns their souls. The humor comes from the boys-will-be-boys verbal sparring among the vamps and Gregori's wisecracking dialogues with Abby. This book does have some sex scenes, but they are not nearly as frequent or as graphic as in some of the earlier books. Sean Whelan makes an appearance in this book—still as obnoxious and bullheaded as ever—but we are treated to a nice scene in which he gets his just desserts for having mind-controlled his wife for years and years. It's always a good time when Sean gets what's coming to him.


     In general, this is a light, humorous series, but some books contain very violent scenes. If you're looking for an SMR series with well-developed characters and action-filled plots, you'll probably enjoy this one. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Sexiest Vampire Alive.  


           NOVEL 12:  Wanted: Undead or Alive           

     Phineas (Phin) McKinney was a street-wise drug dealer five years ago when he was turned into a vampire by the Malcontents and forced to serve them. In an earlier book, Phin escaped from the Malcontents and joined Roman's vampires. Now, he works for Angus as head of security for Romatech. Phin is known to the vampire community as "Dr. Phang" or the "Love Doctor." He developed this womanizing persona as a joke to help him fit in when he first joined the vampires. Now, he's making TV commercials for Romatech's latest concoction, Blardonnay (blood + wine), and hordes of vampire women are swooning over him. Unfortunately for Phin, he hasn't been able to find his true love. The woman he yearns for is Brynley (Bryn) Jones, a werewolf princess who hates all vampires with a passion. 

     As the story opens, the vampires are still trying to track down Corky, the female traitor who aligned herself with Casimir and now calls herself the queen of the Malcontents. Most of the vampire warriors are in Europe searching for Corky while Phin is left in charge of Romatech security. When Phin receives a report that Corky may have been sighted in a remote area of Montana, Angus sends him there to track her down, accompanied by Bryn as his daytime security guard. Bryn has mixed feelings about going to Montana. That's where her father lives, and she ran away from him and his repressive ways several years ago. Bryn's father treated her abominably, always trying to force her into submitting to his will. The last straw for Bryn was when he attempted to coerce her into marrying Rhett Bleddyn, a power-mad werewolf from Alaska. That's when she ran away to her brother in Manhattan. Needless to say, all of the story threads converge as the couple teleports to Montana and begins their search for Corky, who has allied with Bleddyn in a plan for world domination.

     This is one of the weakest books in the series. The narration is full of choppy sentences, and the dialogue between Phin and Bryn is just plain awkward, with frequent attempts at wisecracks that are not funny. To make things worse, Phin and his brother, Freemont, are portrayed as stereotypical urban African-Americans as they constantly banter about "booty-licious" women and always address other men as "dude" or "bro." At one point, Freemont says, "If I was a vampire, I'd miss fried chicken." (p. 10) You can't get much more stereotypical than that. One of the worst examples occurs when Phin upgrades his wardrobe for his trip to Montana. Freemont sends him to Leroy's House of Class where he purchases a red-sequin-banded cowboy hat and a white silk, black-fringed shirt. Phin and Freemont even come from a stereotypical ghetto family with a wife-beating convict father. Apparently, the author thinks that most African Americans grow up in the ghetto and spend their time dressed like pimps as they talk to each other in 1980s street slang while chowing down on soul food. This warped characterization definitely spoiled the book for me.

     One of the biggest problems with the ending is the final treatment of Bryn's father, Caddoc Jones. During the story, he is described as a cruel and heartless man who is complicit in the assault and rape of his daughter and who banishes young boys  from the pack (and their families) forever if they show the slightest tendency towards having alpha traits. Caddoc never does a single redeeming deed throughout the entire book. Yet, everyone, including his victimized daughter, forgives him in the end. This was a huge letdown. When a character is as awful as Caddoc, the reader wants to see him subjected to some type of satisfactory punishment, but that just doesn't happen here.

     There are a few illogical scenes in the story. For example, near the end, Bryn and her brother, Phil, have a big emotional scene in which he learns for the first time why she didn't join him when he was the first to escape from their father's pack. The problem is that Bryn and Phil have been reconciled for several years. So why didn't they have this conversation way back then? (The answer: because the author needed a heart-rending scene as part of the plot of this book). All in all, the plot advances the series story arc, but it does so in a much less effective manner than earlier books. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Wanted: Undead or Alive.  

          NOVEL 13: Wild About You          

     In this book, we finally get Howard the werebear's story. Howard is a huge and mostly gentle man/bear who has been assigned as a personal bodyguard for Roman's children during the daytime while their parents are in their death sleep. Howard's soulmate-to-be is Elsa Bjornberg, one of the hosts of a TV home renovation show. Howard has been lusting after Elsa from afar—collecting all of the tapes of her show, searching for Internet photographs, and tracking down Internet interviews, but he has never made a move towards actually meeting her. When Roman's mate, Shanna, discovers Howard's crush, she decides to play matchmaker and invites the TV team to renovate the carriage house near the gate of the Dragon Nest Academy (the school for all of the special children who are being born to the soul-mate couples of the series).

     In the meantime, we learn Howard's back-story: He was banished from his Alaskan village 20 years ago because the evil Rhett Bleddyn (the villain from book 12) killed his girlfriend and then framed him for the murder. As the story opens, Howard is visiting his Alaskan island village for the first time since his banishment, and he is determined to get revenge against Rhett. At this point, Howard sets circumstances in motion that will have some dangerous and heart-breaking consequences later in the story. While Howard is in Alaska, his grandfather reminds him of the family curse, which involves three female Guardians who created the were-bears as berserkers centuries ago and then betrayed them.


     Elsa's family also has a curse legend, but in this one it's the Guardians who are the good guys and the berserkers who are the villains. Elsa has a paw-shaped birthmark on her shoulder, and when Howard shakes her hand for the first time, the mark burns painfully and heats up. Elsa calls her superstitious, battle-axe aunts to find out what's going on, and they immediately drop everything and travel to upstate New York to protect her, packing rifles in their car trunk that they plan to use to kill the berserker—kind-hearted, huggable Howard.


     For the most part, this story is all about the romance, which seesaws up and down from page to page and sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. Elsa is drawn to Howard, but her aunts keep reinforcing the image of the crazed, killer berserker from their family legend, so every time she makes up her mind to ignore the curse and go with her heart, they scare her enough to make her turn away from her obviously meant-to-be mate.


     The dangerous part of the plot comes at the very end when Rhett and his thugs enter the story line. The climactic scene is quick and violent, but with few details and not much blood. It's really a fairly tame climactic scene. There's also not much sex—just a scene or two near the end. All in all, these stories are beginning to stretch very thin. In the earlier books, there was more non-romantic action, but in the later books the love stories have expanded with so much angst and agitation that the real action is cut down to a few lackluster pages. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Wild About You.


          NOVEL 14:  The Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo           

     This book tells the love story of Dougal Kincaid, that sexy Scottish, kilt-wearing vampire who has been a supporting character throughout the series. Four years ago (back in Vampire Mine, book 10), Dougal lost his right hand in a huge battle between the vampires and the Malcontents. Since then, he has been sidelined from active duty and is a bodyguard to the family of Jean-Luc and Heather Echarpe (starring couple of The Undead Next Door, book 4). As the story opens, Dougal is feeling sorry for himself as he is forced to attend a birthday party for some of the young children of some of his friends (all of whose love stories were told in earlier books). Dougal lost his true love 300 years ago, and although he has promised himself that he will find her again some day, he's pretty sure that day will never come. To add to his depression, his friends keep asking how his hand is doinghis prosthetic handand that's something he tries not to think about because it is a constant reminder of how weak he must seem to his colleagues. When Angus unexpectedly promotes Dougal to head of security at Romatech, he is thrilled because he will finally be able to prove to his friendsand to himselfthat he is still a warrior. 

     At that moment, a new woman enters the Romatech building, and when Dougal sees her on his security camera, his dragon tattoo begins to itch and burn, and he feels instant lust. The woman is Dr. Galileah (Leah) Chin, a geneticist who is being hired to develop a vaccine that will reverse the genetic mutations placed on Master Han's soldiers. We met Master Han and his demon sidekick, Darafar, back in book 11 (Sexiest Vampire Alive) when they threatened Gregori and Abby. 

     The plot of this book mostly follows the development of the romance between Dougal and Leah as both try to overcome past difficulties as they fall deeply in love over the course of just a few days (yet another insta-matic love story). The plot complication comes in the form of the demon Darafar, who teleports into Romatech, forcing the research team to move to a remote Japanese Island. From there, they hope to capture Master Han's soldiers and inject them with their new vaccine, which will restore their humanity and remove Darafar's demonic influence. Naturally, all kinds of things go wrong, and Dougal must make a huge sacrifice in order to save Leah's sanity.


     This isn't one of my favorites in the series, mostly because it tends too much towards melodramatic speechifying and the aforementioned insta-matic love. The first time the Romatech vamps tried to tell Leah exactly who and what they were, she freaked out so badly that they had to wipe her memory. When they decide to try again (as this story begins), she, once again, goes straight into panic mode. Yet, a day or so later, she is already having hot thoughts about Dougal. And just a few days after that, she is on the verge of declaring undying love for him. 
Although Leah is a highly respected geneticist, her reaction to EVERY new, startling, and/or passionate event is to whisper/breathe/groan/blurt out "Holy crapoly" I suppose this is meant to be cute, but (for me, anyhow) it was a constant reminder of Leah's immaturity. Meanwhile, Dougal spends most of his time blaming himself for the death of his first love, who drowned in a storm at sea three centuries ago. Why do these paranormal heroes (and heroines) always blame themselves for events that they could not possibly have prevented? 

     At this point, after 14 books I'm beginning to wonder if this series isn't simply suffering from longevity. The earlier books certainly had a smoother flow, sharper humor, better defined characters, and a stronger series story arc. (Maybe I'm just missing Sean Whelan—he was such a great villain!) Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Vampire with the Dragon Tattoo. 

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