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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sharon Ashwood: THE DARK FORGOTTEN

Author: Sharon Ashwood  (Pseudonym of Naomi Bellis)
Series: THE DARK FORGOTTEN
Plot Type: SMR
Ratings: V4; S4: H2
Publisher and Titles: Signet Eclipse
     Ravenous (2009)
     Scorched (2009)
     Unchained (2010)
     Frostbound (2011)
     Hidden (TBA)

          WORLD-BUILDING          
     In this series, which is set in the Pacific Northwest coastal town of Fairview, the human population lives among and knows about vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural species, most of whom “came out” at the turn of the 21st century. An important part of the mythology is the Castle, a prison built centuries ago in an alternate dimension to imprison supernaturals. Here is a paragraph from Scorched that explains the mythology of the Castle: “Once upon a time, nine sorcerer kings decided they should be the only ones to have magical powers. So with a mighty spell they made a prison for all the other supernatural beings and called it the Castle. Then the common people began to distrust the sorcerers and no longer wanted them to rule their lands. After a long battle, the sorcerers retreated into the Castle. But now, because it was their new home, they created the Avatar to make sun and wind and forests, and she turned the Castle into a beautiful haven.” (p. 254)

     Then one of the sorcerers turned the Avatar into a living woman, and when she became human, her power over the Castle faded. Gradually the Castle became a dark dungeon, and when the Avatar finally died, the Castle began to disintegrate.

          BOOK 1:  Ravenous          
     As the first book begins, the heroine, Holly Carver (a powerful witch), has a demonic experience with a sentient witch house. In this world, a house in which witches live or have lived is alive, and it can be either good or evil. This particular house was abandoned by its witch family and it has been stricken with a demonic infestation. Holly is assisted by her partner, the centuries-old vampire Alessandro Caravelli, with whom she has been fighting a mutual attraction. Two other men are involved in this scene, and they also become important supporting characters in the story: Ben, Holly’s human boyfriend, and Conall (Mac) Macmillan, the handsome police detective who investigates the aftermath of the house incident. The transparency and predictability of the plot allows the reader to figure out very quickly which of these men are the good ones and which are the bad. Although this is a soul-mate romance (in this world the soul mate is called the Chosen), Holly is an extremely fickle heroine, exchanging passionate kisses with all three men in the first 150 pages, and she even has a flash of lustful feelings for her werewolf professor, Perry. The plot focuses on a demon that has been summoned to Fairview after having been banished a century ago by Holly’s ancestor in a life-or-death battle. 

     If a well-written novel can be compared to a garment knitted together with strong yarn and fine stitches, then this novel would be a shapeless piece of cloth patched together with unraveled thread and little skill. Major holes in the plot appear again and again, and the characters are shallow and stiff as cardboard. For example, Alessandro has been around since the Medici, but he has absolutely no clue—hasn’t even heard a rumor—that the Castle contains not just demons, but all species of supernaturals. It's hard to believe that an ancient vampire would know nothing about this important piece of supernatural history. In another scene, Holly, Perry, and Alessandro are trying to see the vampire queen Omara. Alessandro has always has free access to the queen, because he is the queen’s infamous right-hand man and chief warrior. But this time, the human guard acts like he has never seen Alessandro before and refuses to let them in until Alessandro uses his vamp powers on the guard. This little (illogical) scene is used to give Holly a chance for a brief interior monologue in which she wonders whether she should be afraid of Alessandro because he is so powerful. The whole scene is manipulated artificially into the plot with off-putting results. The love affair between Holly and Alessandro eventually blossoms as they try to stop the demon from defeating the good-guy supernaturals, but because the character development is so unfinished, it was hard for me to care which man Holly ended up with.

          BOOK 2:  Scorched          
     The second book begins one year after the end of Ravenous. In Scorched, the romantic hero is Mac, the cop from book 1, who is now part demon. When Mac is imprisoned in the Castle by Alessandro (because of Mac’s dastardly demonic deeds in book 1), he meets Constance, a centuries-old vampire who has no vampire powers because she was confined to the Castle immediately after rising as a vampire for the first time and has never taken blood. The plot focuses on the fact that the Castle is rapidly disintegrating, which puts all of its occupants in danger. The Guardsmen have found a spell that will bring back the Avatar, but that spell requires the sacrifice the life of an incubus—Constance’s foster son, Sylvius. Mac must come to terms with his inner demon, introduce Connie to the 21st century, save Sylvius, and convince his former friends that he is not a bad guy. In the meantime, there is a leftover bit of the Alessandro-Holly romance to clear up when Holly’s obnoxious vampire-hunting estranged sister, Ashe, comes to town and tries to stake Alessandro.

     I think that the main problem with the romances in both of these books is that there is no sexual tension. The characters swear love to one another, but I just don’t feel the passion. In book 2, the characters are slightly better developed than in book 1, especially Mac. Once again, though, there are a few holes in the plot, particularly the scene with the supernatural Council, in which Mac is given full recognition even though he has been condemned as a demonic criminal for attacking and/or killing both humans and supernaturals (in the previous book). The scene is totally illogical—the Council members would never listen to Mac’s advice. Instead, they would probably just kill him.

          BOOK 3:  Unchained          
     Book three picks up six months later and follows the romance between Ashe Carver and Julian Reynard, the captain of the Guardsmen. As Scorched ended, Ashe eased up on her vampire hating and began to accept the fact that all supernaturals are not evil. During the climactic battle that ended that book, Ashe helped to save Reynard's life, and their attraction began at that point. Reynard is the last of the old-time Guardsmen, all of whom were members of old Warlock families and all of whom were forced to pledge their immortal lives to guarding the inmates of the Castle. Reynard has been in the Castle since the 1700s, living a grim and joyless life and doomed to continue there for centuries more. 

     When each Guardsmen first began his Castle duties, his soul was removed and placed into an urn, which was secured in a fortified room deep inside the Castle. The Guardsmen must stay close to their urns or they will die within weeks. As the story begins, Reynard's urn has been stolen, and he asks Ash to help him get it back before he fades away. In the meantime, Ashe has worries of her own. She is fighting with her dead husband's Spanish family for custody of her daughter (Eden) and must try to make a success of her new job at the library to prove that she lives a safe and normal life. Then Holly asks Ashe to help out with a ghost-busting job, which turns out to be a demon possession that goes horribly bad. On top of that, she discovers that two sets of vampires are out to get her—each for a different creepy reason. The romance between Ashe and Reynard builds as they work together to find his soul and solve the demon problem. 

     This book is way better than the previous two books. The author gives us two well-developed lead characters, each with a tragic back story, and a compelling plot that holds together all the way throughhard to believe that the same author wrote the first two books. Unchained won the 2011 RITA award in the paranormal category.

          BOOK 4:  Frostbound          
     The fourth book takes place several months after Unchained. As the story begins, Talia Rostova comes home to discover the decapitated body of her cousin, Michelle, in their condo. When Lore, the part-demon alpha of the hellhounds, finds Talia with the body, he takes her prisoner because he thinks that she may be the murderer. Soon, Lore is convinced of Talia’s innocence, but he keeps her hidden from the police, who are anxious to pin the murder on Talia because she is a vampire. Talia is a relatively new vampire, turned just three years ago against her will by the evil (and now crazy) vampire king we met in the previous book: Belenos. Talia managed to escape from Belenos, but she has been hiding and living in fear ever since. As Fairview is inundated by a blizzard, Lore and Talia work together to solve Michelle’s murder, assisted by a clan of rogue vampires led by Darak. (I'm sure that we'll be seeing more of Darak in future books.) The romance between Lore and Talia is star crossed because his pack expects him to mate with a hellhound, not a vampire, and Talia must overcome her fear that Lore will turn against her once he finds out that she comes from a family of Hunters. Once again, an apocalyptic battle ends the book, this time down in the tunnels and sewers beneath Fairview. Supporting characters include Errata, the radio talk show host (werecougar); Dr. Perry Baker, the computer science professor (werewolf sorcerer); and Joe, owner of the Empire Hotel (a mostly vampire hellbeast). The supernaturals in this story are much more interesting and diverse than in the previous books.

     Frostbound is just as well plotted as Scorched. If you can just make it through Ravenous and Unchained, the payoff is there in the next two books. I wish that Ashwood could go back and revise books 1 and 2. Then she’d have a great series. As it is, her writing gets better with each book, so I’ll keep reading. 

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