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This post was revised and updated on 2/2/12 to include a review of Shadow Heir, the fourth and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears at the end of this post, following summaries of the first three novels.
NOVEL 1: Storm Born
Eugenie Markham (aka “Odile Dark Swan”) is a shaman living near Phoenix, Arizona. She runs her own business as a hunter of evil Fae creatures and other demonic beings from the Otherworld and the Underworld. She either destroys them or sends them back to the Underworld. During the course of Storm Born, Eugenie learns of a startling prophecy—one that uncovers dark secrets about both her past (particularly her powerful Fae father) and her future. She also attracts two handsome, sexy love interests: Dorian, a Fae king, and Kiyo, a shape-shifting fox (kitsune). When word of the prophecy gets out, every creature in the Otherworld is out to capture, kill, or copulate with Eugenie, and she must learn how to bring her powers to their fullest heights to save herself and keep the prophecy from coming true.
NOVEL 2: Thorn Queen In the opener, Eugenie has become the Thorn Queen (ruler of the Thorn Land in the Underworld) and must decide whether to focus her talents on her human life or her Fae life. In the meantime, she still is in danger from the various evildoers who want a piece of the prophecy. Eugenie's sister, Jamie, is also affected by the prophecy, but she has a more dangerous and selfish way of dealing with it.
NOVEL 3: Iron Crowned
As book 2 begins, Eugenie and Dorian have settled into a close, and very sexual, relationship. Their passionate dom-sub bedroom antics are the reason for the high sensuality rating for the series, because all of the kinky details are included in the story.
Eugenie and Dorian are presently allied in a war with Queen Katrice of the Rowan Land, and there have been many casualties on both sides. At this point, Eugenie has turned her back on Kiyo because of his actions—or rather, lack of actions—at the climax of Thorn Queen. Kiyo is a pacifist through and through, and he refused to stand up for Eugenie at a critical moment, while Dorian is a warrior who protected Eugenie and took the ultimate retaliation on the man who harmed her. Dorian is also a Fae with an innate need for power, and in Iron Crowned he manipulates Eugenie past the point of forgiveness. Both Kiyo and Dorian show their true colors at the climax of the story.
As Eugenie and Kiyo go on a quest for the magical iron crown that could end the war and prevent further deaths, Eugenie does not know whom she can trust or who really loves her. The ending leaves all of the characters in the middle of a situation that involves the fulfillment of the fateful prophecy.
NOVEL 4: Shadow Heir
One warning about Shadow Heir: Don’t peek at the ending before you read the rest of the book or you will really spoil it for yourself.
As Shadow Heir opens, Eugenie is totally absorbed in her pregnancy, coping with her hormones and trying to remain hidden from Maiwenn and Kiyo, who are determined that she and her babies will die. Eventually, she cuts off all communication with everyone and hides out in Huntsville, Alabama, in the home of Roland’s shaman friend, Candace. The pregnancy plot takes up the first third of the book. Shortly after the twins are born, Eugenie learns that a spell has been cast over much of Otherworld, covering her lands and Dorian’s land with deep snow and causing freezing temperatures that are killing the plants and animals. Her people are starving, and many are dying. She leaves her babies behind and heads back to Otherworld where she and Dorian assemble a team to head for Yew Land, home of the probable creator of the spell. The plot follows the small group as they travel a long, snowy distance to Yew Land, meeting all kinds of lethal barriers along the way, from snow monsters to Dryads to deceitful travelers.
The final quarter could have been titled, “Revelations,” because it contains one stunning disclosure after another. Get ready to face the fact that some of the basic truths in the previous books are now revealed as falsehoods or deceptions. Familiar characters turn out to be totally different than you thought. And—worst of all—Eugenie herself makes decisions that portray her as an untrustworthy and self-absorbed egoist, particular when she betrays the man she supposedly loves by positioning herself as the one and only decision maker, even though he definitely has a huge stake in the outcome.
So…Shadow Heir is the final book in the DARK SWAN series, and the reviews are all over the place—from violent hatred to extreme praise. I’m afraid that I have to come down on the negative side for several reasons, most of them related to the shallowness of Eugenie’s behavior. First, the babies don’t seem to have much of a place in Eugenie’s life. She gives lip service to some distress at having to leave them to go back to Otherworld, but then we don’t hear much of anything about them until the big Yewland plot thread is resolved. Eugenie certainly doesn’t spend any time pining for her kids. And about the twins: If they have so much Fey blood, why don’t they have a serious reaction to all of the iron and steel in the hospital intensive care ward? And finally—and most important—is Eugenie’s shocking final decision about her babies’ future. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were another book to follow up on that decision, but this is the final book, so we’re left with a very bad taste in our mouths. In general, I trust an author to know his or her characters better than I do, but in this case Eugenie’s behavior comes across as the author’s betrayal of that character. Although Eugenie has shown more than a touch of narcissism throughout the series, her portrayal in this book is, for me, inexcusable, particularly as an end to the series.
Here is Richelle Mead’s response to criticism of Shadow Heir (from her blog, 1/5/12): "…if you've read SH, you probably know that the ending resolves some things...but not others. Obviously, this troubles some people since there's a big, big question left open there. I had a couple of reasons for ending it in that OMG way. One is that I kind of like leaving a little mystery at the end, kind of like in the 1980s Flash Gordon movie when Ming's ring starts glowing. (IS HE REALLY DEAD? IS HE COMING BACK?). I don't always want to have every single detail neat and tidy at the end of a series. It can feel a little too perfect. I like to think about things afterward and leave a few open doors. Many have asked if I have plans, on some far off day, to wrap up some of the remaining mysteries. My answer? You never know. :)"
I suspect that in a year or two Mead will write a YA series about the trials and tribulations of the adolescent twins, their absentee mother, and their in-the-dark father.
Mead is one of the best of the UF writers on the market today. She captures the angst of her leading characters perfectly without going overboard, and she makes sure that they all have flaws—no one is either all good or all bad—which makes for compelling reading. Although you can read Iron Crowned as a standalone, why would you? You'll have a much richer experience if you read the series from the beginning to get the benefit of Mead's skills at character development and story building. And when you finish this series, go on to read the excellent GEORGINA KINCAID series, which is one of my all-time favorites. Georgina is a succubus with a love life that will bring you to tears.