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Monday, March 28, 2011

Jennifer Ashley: SHIFTERS UNBOUND

Author:  Jennifer Ashley (aka Allyson James) 
Series:  SHIFTERS UNBOUND 
Publisher  Berkley
Titles of Novels and Novellas in Reading Order:    
     "Shifter Made" (e-novella prequel, 4/2011)   
     Pride Mates (re-release, 4/2011)   
     Primal Bonds (3/2011)     
     Body Guard  (12/2011)   
     Wild Cat (1/2012)     
     Hard Mated (8/2012)   
     Mate Claimed (10/2012)  
     "Perfect Mate" in Unbound anthology (3/2013)
     "Lone Wolf" (e-novella, 5/2013)
     Tiger Magic (6/2013)   
     "Feral Heat" (e-novella, 11/2013)
     Wild Wolf (1/2014)
     
    This post was revised and updated on 7/4/13 to include reviews of the novella "Lone Wolf" and the novel Tiger Magic. Those reviews appear first, followed by an overview of the world-building and summaries and/or reviews of the preceding books in the series:



          E-Novella 4.5: "Lone Wolf"                        
     In a previous book, the Austin shifters rescued Maria Ortega, a human woman, from a pack of feral wolves in Mexico. Maria has been living in Shiftertown ever since her brother kicked her out, sneering at her "ruined" state and refusing to allow his children near her. Currently, she works in Liam's bar, but dreams of studying medicine at the University of Austin. Even though Maria is human, the unmated males of the Austin Shiftertown view her as a possible mate, and as the story begins, a wolf named Broderick makes an unwelcome move on her. Just as Broderick speaks the mate-claiming words, the lone wolf, Ellison Rowe, rescues Maria from his clutches, and their romance begins.

     The two have been attracted to one another ever since Maria was rescued. At that time, Ellison was the only shifter that Maria didn't fear, and Maria was the first female Ellison felt such a high level of attraction. The primary focus of the story is on their developing romance as Ellison works hard to overcome Maria's fears of shifters and make her realize that he will will always protect her from harm.

     The action part of the story focuses on yet another bad guy who wants to capture shifter cubs and sell them to the highest bidder. When one of their own is taken, the Austin shifters must rescue him and take down the villain once and for all. This story line is overdone in paranormal shifter romance series, and Ashley adds nothing new to the stereotype. Basically what we have is a wealthy sociopath with his high-security mansion and well-armed mercenaries versus a group of angry shifters fighting to get back their pack mate. Nothing really new here.

     Although this novella puts together another shifter couple, it also serves as an introduction to Tiger, the hero of the next novel, Tiger Magic. We get a lot of information about Tiger and watch him as he gets big and bloodthirsty in the climactic rescue scene. We also get the back story on Ellison's emotionally damaged sister, Deni, who will be the heroine of the novella, "Feral Heat" (11/2013).

          NOVEL 5: Tiger Magic                   
     In Mate Claimed, the shifters rescued a tiger shifter from a cage at an abandoned research facility. They gave him the name Rory, but he didn't like it so now they just call him Tiger. Tiger was created in the lab and was subjected to decades of torture and abuse by the so-called scientists who ran the facility. They forced him to mate and then allowed his mate and cub to die. Having lived his entire life alone in a cage, Tiger has absolutely no socialization skills and no understanding of shifter culture and traditions, and as a result, he is having a difficult time coping with his new life. He is wearing a fake collar because he went crazy when Liam tried to put a real collar on him. Nobody knows exactly what species Tiger is because of his laboratory origins, but everyone knows that he can go berserk in an instant, with disastrous results. He is now living in Liam's home in the Austin Shiftertown.

     In the opening scene, Tiger helps Carly Randal get her car started on a deserted highway. He immediately recognizes Carly as his mate, but she is a human who knows nothing about shifters. Before long, Tiger is shot multiple times by Carly's shifter-hating ex-fiance and goes into a rage in the hospital, demanding that Carly be brought to the scene. His bestial behavior is reported to the government's Shifter Bureau, and Tiger's life gets very complicated when they decide to take a look at his DNA.

Tarzan and Jane

     In the meantime, Tiger and Carly do one of those instamatic 
lust/love/mate-for-all-time things that are so annoying in paranormal romances. The instant love is especially hard to believe with this its such a "Beauty and the Beast" situation. Tiger is a monosyllabic, uncommunicative loner who has lived in the real world for such a short time that it's difficult to understand how he could even get to the not-very-high level of communication that he has managed to reach. To believe that Cady—a well-educated, stylish human with absolutely no knowledge about shifters—would turn her back on her beloved family (which she does at one point) and go off with Tiger is a bit mind boggling and definitely hard to swallow. It's like Tarzan and Jane all over again, but in Texas with shape shifters. 

     Still, Ashley always tells a good story, and it's always fun to see what's up with the rest of the pack, many of whom turn up in supporting roles.


          WORLD-BUILDING                   
     In this world, shifters are technically Fae-beasts, bred by the Fae into three species: Feline (aka Wildcats), Lupine (wolves), and Bear. Within each species, individuals are born with varying characteristics. For example, a wildcat might be a panther, a tiger, a lion, a jaguar, or any other type of large cat. A bear might be a Kodiak, grizzly, black bear, or polar bear. The wolves vary in size and color. 

     Centuries ago, all shifters were slaves to the Fae, but after a series of wars, the Shifters drove the Fae back into the misty Faerie realms. Since then, shifters have lived within, but apart from, the human world mostly on their own termsright up until recent times, when their lives changed in a drastic and demeaning manner. For the past 20 years, humans have required all shifters to wear silver collars that meld permanently with their bodies (through Fae magic) and to live in restricted areas called Shiftertowns. Shifters have no civil rights and are not allowed access to most electronics (e.g., no cable Internet or TV, no iPods, no smart phones, no voice mail). They can't own a business or any other property outside their own Shiftertown. Each Shiftertown serves as the residence for all types of shifters in the area, from prides of wildcats to packs of werewolves to clans of bears. Each pack, pride, or clan chooses its own leader, and then one of those leaders is chosen to lead each Shiftertown.

     Most humans in this series are portrayed as cruel and bigoted haters of all Shifters. Here, a shifter sums things up: "...humans...didn't know what to think when they discovered that shapeshifters were real. What do humans always do when they find a new species of animal? Capture it, study it, tag it. Or kill it and hang its head on a wall." (Mate Claimed, p. 311)


     This is a middle-of-the-road romance series with each book following a couple from first lust to HEA. At some points, I get a whiff of Lora Leigh's BREEDS, but without the sexy alpha excitement of that series. James tells good stories (except for book 3), and her characters are mostly well developed. The idea that the shifters are totally at the mercy of the humans is a fresh touch, and it's kind of heartbreaking to see these proud, strong shifters treated so badly by the human world. Ironically, that is also the weakness of the series because it makes them seem kind of pathetic. Although we keep getting hints that there is some serious behind-the-scenes strategizing going on to help the shifters escape from their awful situation, so far we haven't seen any real changes in their lives.


     Most of the books are set in the Austin Shiftertown, but Wild Cat and Mate Claimed take place in the Las Vegas Shiftertown. Here is a book-by-book list of the happy couples (using the author's own numbering system—from her web site):

Prequel: "Shifter Made": Niall & Alana
     1     Pride Mates: Liam & Kim
     2     Primal Bonds: Sean & Andrea
     2.5  Bodyguard: Ronan & Elizabeth
     3     Wild Cat: Cassidy & Diego
     3.5   Hard Mated: Spike & Myka
     4      Mate Claimed: Eric & Iona
     4.25 "Perfect Mate": Nell & Cormac
     4.5   "Lone Wolf": Ellison & Maria
     5      Tiger Magic: Tiger & Carly
     5.5   "Feral Heat": Jace & Deni
     6      Wild Wolf: Graham & Misty     

     Click HERE to read "The Human's Guide to Shifters," which provides definitions for series-specific terms. Click HERE to go to a page on Ashley's web site with links to excerpts from most of the books in the series.  

     Ashley also writes the STORMWALKER urban fantasy (UF) series under the name Allyson James. Click HERE to read my review of that series, which contains a reading-order list of the titles.  

     Also, as Allyson James for Berkley, she has written the erotic DRAGON SERIES, with these titles: Dragon Heat (2007), The Black Dragon (2007), and The Dragon Master (2008).       

            PREQUEL NOVELLA:  "Shifter Made"            

     This very short novella (49 pages or 597 Kindle segments) tells the story of the origin of the Guardians' swords. In this world, when a Shifter dies, a Guardian pierces his or her heart with a special sword to send the soul peacefully to the Summerland (afterlife). Each Shiftertown has a Guardian: Sean in Austin and Neal in Las Vegas.  

     In this story, which is set in a village on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula in 1400, Niall O'Connell is a Lupine Shifter who works as a blacksmith. One day, he is approached by Alanna, a beautiful Fae woman who orders him to make a silver and bronze sword. Alanna is the sister of the evil Fae prince, Kieran, who wants to enslave the Shifters once again. The plot follows the couple as they immediately fall deeply in love/lust, even though she is implicit in the kidnapping of his children.    

     The obvious value of this novella is in its contribution to the series mythology. Other than that, it's a very short and highly unlikely love story with one-dimensional characters and a predictable plot.


             NOVEL 1:  Pride Mates             
     In the first book, Kim Fraser is an attorney defending a young shifter client accused of murdering his human girlfriend. Liam Morrissey—a lion Shifter—is the second in command of the feline shifters living on Austin’s East Side. When Kim seeks help from Liam to build her case, the two are drawn into a nefarious plot by Fergus, the greater Austin pack leader, to get rid of the hated collars and turn the shifters loose on the human population. 

             NOVEL 2:  Primal Bonds              
     In book 2, Liam's brother, Sean, is the Guardian for the Austin shifters. When a shifter dies, Sean must pierce the body with the Guardian Sword to send the soul into the Summerland (afterlife). The sword is infused with Fae magic that turns the body into dust. Andrea Gray is a half Fae/half werewolf refugee from a Colorado pack. She left that pack when the pack leader tried to force her to mate with his spoiled and arrogant son. In order for Andrea to receive permission from the government to move to Austin, she had to be mate-claimed by an Austin pack member, so Sean volunteers. He believes that he has no other chance for a mate because no one wants to marry a risk-taking , death-defying Guardian. Of course, it's love at first sight for both of them, and, naturally, the road to the final mate-bond is not smooth. What would be the fun in that?

     The secondary plot involves a major split among the shifters that threatens the peace and security of everyone in Shiftertown. This story brings in the Fae, one of whom has a personal stake in seeing that Andrea is safe and happy. The get-rid-of-the-collar plans are still in the making, but are on the back burner in this story.

              SHORT NOVEL 2.5:  Bodyguard              
     This book, which the author lists as 2.5 in reading order, is set in the Austin Shiftertown, and its romantic hero is Ronan, a Kodiak bear shifter. In the opening scene, Ronan is shopping in a novelty store when a Latino gang-banger with a gun tries to rob the owner, a beautiful human woman named Elizabeth Chapman. The robber doesn't see Ronan, who sneaks up on him and knocks him out. When the police drag Ronan off to jail because he assaulted a human, Elizabeth is outraged at the injustice and goes along to speak up for Ronan during his hearing. This sets the stage for Elizabeth's involvement with the Austin shifters. When the robber's buddies and his drug lord brother threaten Elizabeth and try to drive her out of town, the shifters move her and her sister into Shiftertown and place her under their protection. 

     The plot follows the two familiar tracks found in all paranormal romances: the romance and the action. The romance proceeds along a surprisingly smooth path, with minimum angst. The action story line is actually more prominent than the romance as Elizabeth is forced to reveal that she is living under a false identity because of some terrible mistakes she made in her previous life. As the gangs and her former lover hunt her down, Elizabeth finds safety in Shiftertownspecifically in Ronan's arms. Everything comes together in the requisite showdown and the HEA that follows.

     This novella isn't necessary to the understanding of the series' primary story arc (i.e., the development of fake collars), except for an offhand question from Elizabeth when she watches Dylan fight and wonders why his collar isn't sparking. The story emphasizes the stereotypes of the good-hearted shifters and the bad humans (e.g., the police and the judge), who view all shifters as violent and soulless animals. In this series, it seems as if the only good humans are the ones who mate with shifters.

              NOVEL 3:  Wild Cat              

      In this book, the story moves to the Shiftertown of Las Vegas as it tells the love story of feline shifter Cassidy Warden and human police detective Diego Escobar. Diego has just recovered from a serious bullet wound suffered when he and his partner were attacked by a drug gang. Diego survived, but his partner died, and Diego is determined to track down the killers, no matter how far they run. Cassidy, too, has suffered a loss. Her mate, Donovan, was killed by hunters a year ago, and she is still grieving. One night, Cassidy goes back to the scene of Donovan's murder only to be pursued by his killer, who goes after her with a tranquilizer gun. When Cassidy seeks refuge in the skeletal remains of a partially built, abandoned building, someone hears the commotion and calls the police. Diego happens on the scene, and Cassidy saves his life when the killer knocks him off a beam fifty stories in the air. Unfortunately for Cassidy, Diego is a by-the-books kind of cop, so he arrests her for trespassing and being out of Shiftertown without identification, and he hauls her in for questioning—all the while being deeply attracted to her (and she to him). The story follows the development of their romance, which proceeds relatively smoothly compared to all of the other violence that occurs around them. The killer is still after Cassie, so one story thread deals with that conflict. Diego is still after his partner's killers, so another story thread follows that adventure, which leads the couple into dangers they never suspected were there.     

      In the background, Cassidy's brother, Eric (the pack leader), discovers a young, attractive, unmated and uncollared feline shifter (actually, she's half shifter/half human), and their mutual attraction will be the basis for the next novel, Mate Claimed. Also in the background are two other romances, one involving Diego's brother (Xavier) and a shifter, and one involving a fae and a shifter.  

       For me, this was the most unsatisfying book of the series so far. On one page, Cassidy is deep in grief over the loss of her mate, and on the next page she is hot-hot-hot for Diego. Too much, too soon. Unfortunately, throughout the book, one never senses that there is anything deeper to this relationship than the unbridled sexual attraction. The story moves around all over the place, from Shiftertown to rural Mexico to Colorado River cliffs to fairyland and back. Instead of spending time delving too deeply into the romance, the author goes for the action scenes, so the couple bounces from one dangerous situation to another. Their time together is spent either in bed or in brief conversations in a car or an airplane on their way to their next adventure. Logic falls by the wayside a few times in this book. For example, as a rescue team is attempting to scale rocky cliff walls, they have the foresight to bring along specialists to build a steel bridge that is actually anchored into the rock—all of this in a matter of an hour or so. I don't think so. 

              SHORT NOVEL 3.5:  Hard Mated              
    This book stars Spike (aka Eron), a heavily tattooed jaguar shifter who lives with his grandmother (Ella) in the Austin Shiftertown, where he is Liam's head Tracker (i.e., bodyguard, watcher, fighter, troubleshooter). One night when Spike is defeating yet another opponent at Shifter Fight Night, a young human woman named Myka Thompson brings him a message from her friend Jillian, one of Spike's long-ago one-night stands. Myka drags Spike off to a hospital where his former lover is dying, and Jillian has some shocking news for Spike: He is the father of her four-year-old son, Jordan, who obligingly changes into his animal form to demonstrate to Spike that his mom is telling the truth. Jillian wants Spike to raise Jordan, and—in deep shock—he returns to Shiftertown with his brand new cub.  

     It turns out that young Jordan is almost impossible to control—jumping out of the car window, trashing the kitchen, and climbing trees with wild abandon. When Myka stops in to check on Jordan, Spike—in desperation—begs her to stay with Jordan and his grandmother while he takes care of a job for Liam. Myka agrees, partly because she loves Jordan and partly because she's attracted to Spike.

     Spike's task for Liam is to check out the activities of Gavan, one of the three former lieutenants of Fergus, the bad-guy Austin Shiftertown leader whom Liam deposed and killed about a year ago. We met the three back in book 1 when they were serving on the villain's side. Gavan has since moved to San Antonio, where he now assists the new pack leader there. Gavan is dissatisfied with his position and is fomenting rebellion among the shifters. He tries to recruit Spike to help in in his efforts, offering Spike the position as his right-hand man.

     Spike believes that most Shifters—including Liam and Gavan—view him as all muscle and no brain. One of the qualities he loves about Myka is that she sees beyond his tough exterior and recognizes that he has a very good brain. The plot plays out as the situation with Gavan escalates and both Jordan and Myka are put in jeopardy. In the meantime, of course, the romance between Myka and Spike bursts quickly (way too quickly!) into flame, with little or no angst. After knowing Spike for only a few days, Myka agrees to the mating bond and settles down in Shiftertown. One of the problems with this series is the speed at which the romantic relationships move from first meeting to lifetime commitment, and this story follows that unrealistic and improbable model. Still, it's a compelling story, so if you enjoy the series, you'll probably want to read it.

              NOVEL 4:  Mate Claimed              

    The setting for the fourth novel returns to the Las Vegas Shiftertown, which is under the leadership of the Feline Eric Warden (snow leopard). In Wild CatEric discovered Iona, a half-human/half-panther shifter who has been passing for human. Eric is sure that Iona is his mate, but she just wants to be left alone to live her life as a human. Iona's inner panther, though, wants Eric and will not be denied. The plot follows their not-too-bumpy trip to their HEA

    The action part of the plot has two story lines. In one, the humans are closing down a Shiftertown of Lupines (werewolves) and are forcibly moving them into Eric's Shiftertown, which is mostly Felines, with a few Bears. That means that the Lupine alphaGraham McNeilwill lose his top-dog position, and he plans to correct that by taking Eric down. In the second story line, something suspicious is going on out in the desert where someone appears to have taken possession of some abandoned government laboratories and is using them for nefarious purposes. When a bus-load of Graham's wolves go missing and are traced to one of those facilities, Eric and Graham are forced to work together to find out what's going on. We have the beginnings of a new romance when Graham meets a sexy human woman who helps them out.  

     This is a typical novel for this series, with the lust-heavy, too-fast mating process interrupted occasionally by action scenes in which the heroine is sometimes in jeopardy. The hero of the next book is introduced near the end of this novel when Iona rescues him from his long-term imprisonment by misguided human scientists.

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