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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Stephanie Rowe: SOULFIRE

Plot Type: CH, SMR
Ratings: V-4; S-4; H-4
Publisher and Titles: Sourcebooks Casablanca
      Kiss at Your Own Risk (2011)
      Touch if You Dare (2011)
      Hold Me if You Can (2012)

     This blog entry was revised and updated on 12/24/11 to include a review of the third book in this series: Hold Me if You Can. That review is located at the end of this entry, following a summary of the series so far:

     The premise for this series is a bit bizarre as it humorously, but violently, turns the tables on the usual alpha-male heroes and adds a big dose of toxic feminism. The series tells the SMR stories of four immortal warriors: Blaine, Jarvis, Nigel, and Christian. More than a century ago, a psychotic, feminist witch captured and imprisoned them in her horrific Den of Womanly Pursuits and has been torturing them on a daily basis ever since. Nigel describes the Den as "the bastion of estrogen, torture, doilies, and black magic hell." (Hold Me if You Can, p. 15)

     While the warriors were in the witch's custody, they were forced to take classes in subjects the witches believed that all men should knowlike flower arranging, embroidery, the arts of seduction, and hair styling. As a result the men understand exactly how to please a woman, but they have such an aversion to women that they never want to try out those skills. In addition, each man has adopted one of the skills to channel his stress and aggression. For example, Blaine does cross stitching, Nigel sketches and paints pictures, and Jarvis finds peace in hair styling. I told you this series was weird! 

    The tone of the series is one of frenetic humor combined with constant, twisting and turning action sequences that include lots of violence—some of it of the stomach-turning variety. The bad guys in the series are led by a menagerie of supporting characters, including Angelica, the evil witch who captured the warriors; her ex-husband, Napoleon, who is a powerful sorcerer; and their grandson, Prentiss, who is Death himself. This is a truly dysfunctional familyin every way. Here's a quotation from Napoleon to give you an idea of the level of their craziness: "It wasn't until almost three hundred years after I'd killed our daughter, abandoned my wife and grandson, and fornicated my way through thousands of assassinations that I realized I'd done it all out of love for my wife." (Touch if You Dare, p. 336) Most of the characters have been constructed in a parody of cultural stereotypes and cliches (e.g., the macho warriors, the feminist witches), but I must say that Rowe has created a most original villain in the demonic Augustus, a lethal and lonely assassin who smells like rotten banana and turns his enemies into pink dust.

     At the beginning of Kiss at Your Own Risk, three of the warriors escape, but Christian remains imprisoned. The three freed warriors decide to rescue Christian by using the talents of a Black Widow, a cursed person who can identify the means by which to kill any human or supernatural being. The curse also causes her to kill nice guys, which greatly complicates the SMR process.

     The Black Widow who comes to their aid is Trinity Harpswell, who is nearing the end of her Black Widow curse. If she can just keep herself from killing anyone during the next week, her curse will expire and she will be a normal human woman.  Trinity's path to a curse-free future is fraught with danger, especially after she meets up with the handsome, sexy Blaine, who turns out to be her soul mate.

    Although the story line is fresh and the plot lines resolve themselves neatly, the lead characters are a grab-bag of stereotypes: ├╝ber-alpha, chauvinistic, immortal males and perky, air-headed, faux-feminist females. I know that this is meant to be a parody, but it didn't quite work for me. Events frequently tip into the ridiculous (e.g., Angelica attacks the good guys with a herd of demonic puppies called Snoodledemgons—a mix of schnauzer, poodle, dragon, and demon). Another silly episode involves a woman who is turned off by her werewolf boyfriend because he comes to bed after a lamb dinner with "bone fragments and wool in his incisors, you know?" (p. 142). The theme seems to be that males need to tune in to their feminist sides, but females (deep down) really want male domination, no matter how much they protest to the contrary. Sorry, I just couldn't get into it. 

     Here's the funniest line in the book, spoken by Angelica when she is questioned about her ultimate male-hating project: "If I had a testicle for every time someone said that to me, I'd have to buy stock in the Nutcracker" (p. 362). 

***   ***   *****   ***   ***

     In Touch if You Dare, Jarvis Swain, the Guardian of Hate, gets it on with Reina Fleming, Trinity's BFF and an up-and-coming Death Guide, whose job it is to sever the soul from each dying person to whom she is assigned. Reina works for Prentiss (Death), and she has had the requisite tragic childhood common to every paranormal heroine. Reina has lost most of her family to the poisonous bite of a deedub. (I am guessing that "deedub" is an abbreviation for DW, which probably refers to "death wish," but I am taking that solely from context because the story doesn't explain explicitly explain what "deedub" means.) Reina's family members are called Sweets. Their blood smells like chocolate to the deedub demons, and those demons are addicted to chocolate. Historically, for the Sweets, there is no way to avoid an eventual deedub bite. That bite triggers a growing feeling of euphoria and a huge increase in physical strength, causing the bitten person to engage in strenuous activities that lead directly to his or her death. For example, here is Reina's description of her mother's death: "She died trying to leap across Lover's Canyon...Apparently [her biker werewolf lover] was on the other side, naked, and she was trying to get some action." (p. 159) Only one family member has survived to this pointReina's sister, Nataliebut Natalie has been manifesting the symptoms that forecast her impending death. 

    Death (aka Prentiss), who is always scheming for more power, wants to increase the number of the dying. He has the brilliant idea of adding love to the death experience so that people will actually look forward to dying. Death's plan involves turning Jarvis's brother, Cameron, who is the Guardian of Love, into one of his reapers. Jarvis has not seen his brother for 150 yearsever since he sacrificed himself to Angelica to save Cameron's life. Unfortunately, Cameron has grown up to be a self-centered, depressed, egotist who sits around whining that love is terrible because it causes so much pain. Cameron has convinced himself that he must die, so he delivers himself right into Death's hands. At this point in his life, Jarvis is teeming with hate, and if he can't get Cameron to ease his hate level, he will explode and die—literally. In the meantime, Reina needs to help Death with his love-death scheme in order to get the extra powers she needs to save Natalie's life. Early in the story, Jarvis and Reina team up to assist one other in their tasks. We follow their adventures from beginning to end as they battle various evil entities, forge unlikely alliances, and fall in love along the way.

***   ***   *****   ***   *** 

     As Hold Me if You Can opens, Natalie (from the previous book) is still trying to get her life together after her recent back-from-the-dead experience when her deedub curse was activated by an orgasm orchestrated by an incubus nicknamed the Godfather. Maggie owns a chocolate shop, where she sells Chocolate Virility Balls to men who need a Viagra effect. (Sounds a lot like that hilarious old Alec Baldwin sketch on Saturday Night Live!) Here's how Maggie sees her role in life: "Bringing order to the world of sex. This wasn't sexual chaos and uncontrolled, deadly passion. This was precision and order, a systematic alignment of sexual balance in the universe. This was what her soul lived for." (p. 28)

     Unfortunately, the deedubs are still after Natalie, so Nigel becomes her protector. Nigel is having his own problems because his artwork has turned against him. The warriors discover that Mara, Angelica's witchy assistant, has taken over the Den now that Angelica is out of commission, and Mara has decided to make amends by wiping out the warriors' bad memories and thoughts of revenge against the witches so that all that is left is the ability to fall in love—with a woman chosen by Mara. To carry out her grand plan, Mara takes control of Nigel's drawings, so every time he completes a sketch of one of his fellow escapees, that warrior is dragged back into the Den for his brainwashing, leaving him a mindless husk. To complicate matters, Mara is loading Natalie's soul with demon smut, so she is gradually becoming a demon, with all of those nasty demonic urges—not to mention the claws and fangs. 

     The plot follows the development of the romance between Nigel and Natalie as Nigel learns how to control his inner rage and hostility, and Natalie learns how to tap into her inner sensuality and love of life. Once again, the story goes for the preposterous over the logical every time. When Nigel loses control, huge clouds of sharp blades of all kinds burst from all parts of his body and go flying into anything or anybody that gets in the way. Natalie's demonic self is a deedub who goes nuts for poor Maggie, a Sweet who has come to work in Natalie's chocolate shop. 

     This book is on a par with the other two with its juxtaposition of overwrought humor and gut-wrenching violenceoften emotional in nature, but also physical. One plus for this book: not as many copy proofing errors as in the first two books.

    I wish that I could like this series more, but, alas, it's just not my cup of paranormal tea. If you like the frenetic humor of MaryJanice Davidson and Michele Bardsley, you might like this series, although the writing is not quite up to their standards, and the books have an annoying number of copy-proofing errors. 

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