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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Author:  Sandy Williams
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          The Shadow Reader (10/2011)
          The Shattered Dark (10/2012)
          The Sharpest Blade (12/2013) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 1/22/14 to include a review of The Sharpest Blade, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1 and 2.

            NOVEL 3:  The Sharpest Blade            
     In this final book of the trilogy, McKenzie and Kyol are trying to get used to their life-bond, but they're having a rough time of it. Each can feel the other's emotions, so Kyol is constantly aware of McKenzie's deep love for Aren, and McKenzie can always feel Kyol's emotions, both when he is in danger and when he grieves that she no longer loves him. A side effect of the bond is that the two are sharing some powers: McKenzie has acquired some of Kyol's fighting skills and strength, and Kyol has developed McKenzie's ability to see through fae illusions.

     As the story begins, Lena and her supporters have enemies on three fronts:
     1. the human vigilantes, who are selling the sight serum online and who are still trying to kill all fae; 

     2. Caelor and the remnants (former Court Fae), who want to take the crown away from Lena because she won't execute Aren (Caelor believes that Aren is the king-killerthe warrior who killed King Atroth, and Aren is also responsible for destroying the magic of Caelor's lover)

     3. the False Blood pretender to the throne and his minions (the elari), who have gathered a powerful army and are beginning to sway the general public in their favor. 

     The False Blood is particularly anxious to kill both Lena and McKenzie, and his warriors pursue them throughout the story. At the same time, McKenzie finds herself caught between Kyol and Aren in a no-win situation. Aren has distanced himself from McKenzie, telling her that the bond is sacred in fae culture and is impossible to overcome or break. He believes that he should leave her in order to save her from further emotional pain. Meanwhile, Kyol is wracked by guilt because he is the one who put the bond in place. He feels intensely guilty for interfering with McKenzie's romance with Aren, but believes that the bond was the only way he could have saved her life (plus, he still loves her). This sad romantic situation continues until the very end of the book when it is finally resolved in a satisfactory manner.

     Meanwhile, McKenzie comes to the realization that even though she wants a normal human life, she doesn't really want to turn her back on the fae. She must make a decision: Will she stay on Earth full time, or will she join Lena's forces full time. It's pretty easy to figure out which choice she will make.

     The plot moves along with compelling action and increasing suspense as  the bad guys make some power plays, and McKenzie makes some difficult decisions involving Lena, Aren, and Kyol. At one point, she is forced to make a choice about which one's life she will save. When McKenzie finally discovers the true identity of the Falseblood, she has a horrific flashback when she realizes that he has a connection to a painful incident in her past. As the climactic showdown scenes play out (and there are several), the fates of a number of supporting characters are decidedand not always in a pleasant manner. In other words, you shouldn't expect all of the good guys to make it through to the end.

     This book has much more of a plot than book 2 did. Although some of the battle scenes involve fissuring, those scenes do not dominate the story as they did in book 2. By the end of the book, all of the loose threads are woven together and/or tied off and the major questions are answered: Will Lena give up the identity of the king-killer? Will the remnants allow Lena to take the throne? Who is the False Blood? What will happen to the vigilantes? Who lives and who dies? With whom will McKenzie's achieve her HEA (and will she ever lose her virginity?). Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Sharpest Blade.

     This is a series with incredibly intricate world building and a well-devised story arc. The primary supernaturals in this world are the fae, who move between their Realm and mortal earth, but are unknown to most mortals. The few mortals who are aware of them are vigilantes, who are dedicated to the destruction of all fae as well as the humans who work with them. As the story opens, the fae king, Atroth, is attempting to put down a rebellion. One of his best weapons against the rebels is his human shadow reader (aka nalkin-shom), McKenzie Lewis, the 26-year-old virginal heroine of the series. McKenzie was born with the ability to track a fae's movements by reading the shadows as he or she fissuresthat is, teleports, or moves between dimensions. Here is McKenzie describing the shadow reading experience:
    "My shadow-readings always look like they're drawn by a schizophrenic....To a normal human, the final sketch probably looks like a kindergartner's drawing, but to a fae who hears me name a city or a region, it's as good as having an imprinted anchor-stone. Without an anchor-stone or a shadow-reader naming the location on his or her map, fae can only fissure to places they've memorized. It's sort of like humans and phone numbers: they can remember dozens upon dozens of locations, but if they don't think about them often or dial in on occasion, they tend to forget them completely." (pp. 47-48)

     McKenzie can also see through fae illusions. For example, even if a fae enemy soldier makes himself invisible to other fae, McKenzie can see him and can alert the good guys as to his location. McKenzie's main problem in book 1 is determining just who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  

     Click HERE to go to a the author's "Fae to English Dictionary," a brief glossary of fae terms used in the series.

     If you love to read about love triangles among the fae, I highly recommend Seanan McGuire's excellent OCTOBER DAYE series. Toby Daye is a true urban fantasy heroine, with top-notch fighting skills and plenty of street cred. Click HERE to read my review of that series.

            NOVEL 1:  The Shadow  Reader            
     As the first book opens, McKenzie is kidnapped by the rebels because they want to weaken Atroth's forces and because they hope to persuade her to turn against Atroth. For the past ten years, McKenzie has had a romantic (but not consummated) relationship with Kyol Taltrayn, Atroth's sword-master. They love one another, but the king has forbidden affairs between fae and mortals, and Kyol is such a man of honor that he refuses to be go against his king. The rebel leader is the sexy Aren Jorreb, and soon enough, sparks (literally) fly between Aren and McKenzie. In this world, when a fae and a human have skin-on-skin contact, the result is chaos lusters (aka edarratae), which are extremely pleasurable miniature lightning bolts that zigzag across the skin. So...very early on, we have a love trianglean Edward vs. Jacob situationthat isn't resolved until the very end of the book, although you can pretty much see which way things are going much sooner than that. Kyol and Aren are the typical flip-side boyfriends: with Kyol being the dark, brooding, serious one and Aren being the fierce, sardonic, blond one.

     Aren knows that McKenzie's biased beliefs about the rebels are the result of her brainwashing by Atroth and his court fae, and he is determined to make her understand his side of the story by teaching her the forbidden fae language and telling her the truth about events of the past and present. The story follows McKenzie as she is jerked back and forth from one side (and one man) to the other, never knowing quite what, or who, to believe. At times, McKenzie comes across as a strong and independent UF heroine, but at other times, she turns into a fragile female who must be rescued by one of her big, strong boyfriends. She definitely gets beat up, strangled, shot, and stabbed more than any other character in the story. The overall theme of the book deals with the fact that the truth is frequently hidden in gray areas that are difficult to see through. As Kyol and Aren each try to convince McKenzie that his side is the most righteous, truthful, and virtuous, McKenzie learns an agonizing lessonthat the "truths" she has always believed about the court and the rebels aren't as straightforward as she thought they were.

Here are the most important of the minor characters:
Lena Zarrack: fae; sister of Sethan, the man who hopes to take the throne away from Atroth 
Kelia: fae; daughter of a nobleman who falls in love with a former vigilante and joins the rebels
Naito: human: son of the leader of the vigilantes, now a rebel and the lover of Kelia
Lorn: fae; bondmate of Kelia, but only for her magic; a mercenary who deals with both sides and looks out for his own welfare, but has a good heart
Lord General Radath: fae; the villainous leader of the king's army who hates all humans and talks the king into allowing atrocities that kill humans and innocent fae as well as rebels
     I enjoyed this book tremendously, especially the well-constructed world building. Although McKenzie's character veered from strong to frail and back again, I still like her as a heroine. She doesn't have any fighting skills, but manages to defend herself in a pinch. The author tells the story in the first person from McKenzie's point of view, and she handles the first-person POV quite well. The characters of Kyol and Aren are well developed, and I could sympathize with both of them in their fight to win McKenzie's love. Both are good, if flawed, men, either of whom could make McKenzie happy. My favorite among the minor characters is Lorn, who comes across as a maverick (kind of like Bret Maverick), as he tries to cover up his heart of gold with a thick layer of con-artistry. This is definitely a series I'll keep following. Click HERE to read Chapter 1 of The Shadow Reader

            NOVEL 2:  The Shattered Dark            
     At this point in the series, Lena and her people have taken control of the Silver Palace, but they have not yet achieved total victory in the rebellion because the remnants of the former King's fae (the bad guys) are gathering in strength and numbers. McKenzie and Aren Jorreb are still together (although she's still a virgin), but they have seen each other only four times in the two weeks since the big battle in which Kyol Taltrayn killed the villainous King Atroth. The story line basically follows McKenzie as she puts her shadow reading skills to use by drawing the shadows when various remnant warriors fissure away. In this way, the rebels (the good guys) hope to figure out the location of the remnant leaders and their warriors. 

     As the remnants keep attacking, McKenzie learns that they have kidnapped her best friend, Paige. Eventually, McKenzie and Paige are reunited, but with disastrous results for both of them. As the book comes to a close, McKenzie is seriously injured (in yet another attack by the remnants), and Kyol makes a decision that saves her life but changes his life and the lives of McKenzie and Aren forever.

     I found this book to be much less of a page turner than book 1. For one thing, without a glossary of fae words and phrases, I sometimes had trouble remembering what the various made-up words meant in the context of the story. The author includes a brief glossary on her web page, but it would be nice if it were also included in the book. 

     Another problem: there isn't much of a summary of the key events of book 1, so I didn't always remember the details or the importance of various past events when characters made passing references to them. Another problem is the never-ending sequence of attack scenes, with the fae fissuring in and out while McKenzie huddles on the sidelines describing each of her friends' success (or lack of success) as they battle one after another of the remnants. 

     The first-person present point of view (e.g., "I open the blinds…," "I walk to my desk…," "I grab a suitcase…," "I look at Trev…") actually felt somewhat awkward in this book. The first person voice isn't easy to write, and this time around it doesn't flow quite as easily as it did in book one. I plan to read the next book mostly for the resolution of the love triangle, but I'm hoping that the conflict between the remnants and the rebels will prove to be more interesting and more complex than the repetitive fissuring battle scenes that overstuff this book. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Shattered Dark.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Urban Fantasy Anthology"

Plot Type: Supposedly Urban Fantasy (UF), but not really
Ratings: low-to-mid levels of violence, no sensuality, and little humor
Publisher: Tachyon Publications (2011)

     Just for the record, the single best description of modern urban fantasy that I have ever read was written by George R. R. Martin in "The Bastard Stepchild," a brief introductory essay to the anthology Down These Strange Streets (Ace, 2011). I recommend it to any reader who wants to know exactly what modern UF is, where its roots lie, and what drives its heroes and heroines.

     Here's the opening sentence: "There's a new kid on the shelves in bookstores these days. Most often he can be found back in the science fiction and fantasy section, walking with a certain swagger among the epic fantasies, the space operas, the sword-and-sorcery yarns and cyberpunk dystopias. Sometimes he wanders up front, to hang out with the bestsellers. They call him 'urban fantasy,' and these past few years he's been the hottest subgenre in publishing." (p. ix)

     And just one more quotation: "The new urban fantasy may be some kin to that 1980s variety, but if so, the kinship is a distant one, for the new kid is a bastard through and through. He makes his home on streets altogether meaner and dirtier than those his cousin walked, in New York and Chicago and L.A. and nameless cities where blood runs in the gutters and the screams in the night drown out the music." (p. ix)

     And now, on to my analysis of The Urban Fantasy Anthology, which is a major disappointment, primarily because most of the stories aren't really urban fantasy, but a mixture of ghost stories, traditional fantasy, horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction. I was turned off right from the beginning when I read the Introduction to the book and found the following totally inaccurate statement made by Peter S. Beagle in his discussion of the modern urban fantasy heroine: " have cheerful werewolf heroines running radio call-in showsas in Laurell K. Hamilton's ANITA BLAKE series..." (p. 10) As we all know, Carrie Vaughn, not Laurell K. Hamilton, is the author of the series with the werewolf radio star (her KITTY NORVILLE series). The heroine of Hamilton's ANITA BLAKE series makes her living as a necromancer and a vampire hunter. This gaffe is particularly egregious because Carrie Vaughn is one of the featured authors in this anthology, and her entry is a KITTY story! It's difficult to put much faith in an essay that includes such a glaring error. Fact checker, please!

     Beagle does make a few statements about urban fantasy that are worth repeating. Here, he discusses the difference between traditional fantasy and urban fantasy: "I still think that urban fantasy's most important distinction is that it isn't The Lord of the Rings: that is, it doesn't happen in a comfortable rural, pre-industrial setting, where people still ride horses, swing swords, quaff ale in variously sinister pubs, and head off apocalypses and Armageddons that would make a Buffy episode look like a tussle in a schoolyard." (p. 9) 

     The book is divided into three sections, which Beagle believes are the "three distinct subgenres of urban fantasy." Each section begins with an essay defining that sub-genre:

Mythic Fiction (5 stories): 
     According to Beagle, this sub-genre interweaves myths and fairy tales into tales of contemporary life. Charles de Lint writes the introductory essay for this section, in which he quotes Terri Windling's definition of mythic fiction as follows: ..."a way to describe novels and stories...that make conscious use of myth, medieval Romance, folklore, and/or fairy tales, but that are set in the real world, rather than in invented fantasy landscapes." (p. 18) The authors included in this section are Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, and Peter S. Beagle. The stories in this section come closest to meeting the definition for the sub-genre (in this case, mythic fiction) given in the introductory essay.

Paranormal Romance (8 stories): 
     The sub-genre descriptions for this section come the closest to the real definition of urban fantasy. Too bad the stories don't match up with the descriptions. Beagle describes this type of fiction as having "dark, tawdry, and dysfunctional" characters living in urban settings. Beagle goes on to say that "our heroine, walking through the empty subway station, is no longer the meek shrinking-violet of previous generations. She is precocious, athletic, sexually aware, and regards kicking demonic ass, in Buffy's words, as 'comfort food.'" (p. 10) Paula Guran writes the introductory essay for this section, where she describes urban fantasy as follows: "More recently, readers wanted a type of fantasy novel that was set in an alternate version of our contemporary/near-contemporary (but not always urban) world with a female (sometimes male) protagonist who usually (but not always) has (or develops) a certain amount of 'kicassitude.' She possesses supernatural powers or a connection to those with such powers (or gains them for herself). The books often had a detective-style plot—or at least something that had to be revealed/discovered—with (usually but not always) a romantic relationship as to at least one subplot. Action-oriented, they often included horrific elements balanced with humor. The comedy might be snarky, twinged with morbidity, or downright funny, but the universe was still, overall, dark. When romance (and/or sex) was involved it was written either from the female perspective or a balance of female and male. The protagonist was also usually involved in a journey of self-discovery. This evolving character development, complex universe, and complicated storylines usually required more than one book to resolve." (p. 137) Guran summarizes by saying that UF is "An intersection of 'the other'—the magical, the strange, the weird, the wondrous, the dark that illumines, the revelation of the hidden—with the mundane, the world we know." (p. 145) The authors included in this section are Charles de Lint, Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Francesca Lia Block.

Noir Fantasy (7 stories): 
     Joe R. Lansdale writes the introductory essay for this section, and he explores the connection between UF and horror: "The fiction has the stink of the urban about it...either because they take place in the city, or display the weaknesses of humanity in large numbers and close quarters. The terror is often due to the actions of people: pollution, street crime, over population, dehumanization, and so on. What supernatural elements there are, are dragged out of the haunted house and into the tract house and walk-up apartment, or they take place in the wasteland of some horrid aftermath brought on by the mistakes of civilization." (p. 276) The authors included in this section are Thomas M. Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven R. Boyett, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Powers, and Al Sarrantonio.

     Of all the definitions of "urban fantasy" that are included in the four essays, I believe that Guran is the most accurate. But why, then, is her section entitled "Paranormal Romance" when paranormal romance is NOT urban fantasy. Paranormal romance is a fiction in which the romantic relationship of the hero and the heroine is the center of the plot, and they ALWAYS have happy endings (aka HEAs). Only one of the stories in the "paranormal romance" section features a relationship with a happy ending (Patricia Briggs's "Seeing Eye"), and it is really more UF than romance. 

     Using Guran's excellent UF definition as a guide, you definitely won't find much UF in this book. As far as the "paranormal" aspect goes, there are some sidthe (fae), werewolves, zombies, elves, and ghosts, but only one story features vampires (although another does include imaginary vampires), and there are no demons or evil spirits anywhere. There is also a shortage of kick-ass UF heroines (or heroes)—a vital element in modern UF.

Here are the stories come closest to actually fitting Guran's description of urban fantasy:
Holly Black's "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" (recycled from The Eternal Kiss: 13 Vampire Tales of Blood and Desire, 2009) (vampires in the city) This is the truest example of UF in the entire book, and one of the best stories.
Steven R. Boyett: "Talking Back to the Moon" (previously unpublished) (female protagonist, zombies, post-apocalyptic California) One of my favorite stories in this book. This would make a great UF series.
Carrie Vaughn: "Kitty's Zombie New Year" (an older KITTY NORVILLE story recycled from Weird Tales, 2007, and included in Kitty's Greatest Hits, 2011) Click HERE to read my review of the KITTY NORVILLE series. Click HERE to read my review of Kitty's Greatest Hits.
Patricia Briggs: "Seeing Eye" (recycled from Strange Brew, 2009) (female witch and male werewolf in Seattle's MERCY THOMPSON world) Click HERE to read my review of the MERCY THOMPSON series.
Norman Partridge: "She's My Witch" (an older story, recycled from 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories, 1995) (male zombie and his mortal girlfriend)
Tim Powers: "The Bible Repairman" (recycled from The Bible Repairman and Other Stories) (male protagonist, voodoo-ish story concerning the restless spirits of the dead)
Joe R. Lansdale: "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks" (an old story, recycled from Book of the Dead, 1989) (male protagonist, post-apocalyptic, zombies in the Southwest)
     All in all, I can't recommend this anthology. You'd be better off reading the better UF stories listed above in their original anthologies, since almost all of them are recycled.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Author:  Keri Arthur
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4-5; Humor2
Publishers and Titles: To read free excerpts, click on any pink-link title below, which will take you to that book’s page. Then, click on the cover art at the top left of that page.
         Darkness Unbound (Dell, 9/2011)
         Darkness Rising (Dell, 11/2011)
         Darkness Devours (Signet, 7/2012) 
         Darkness Hunts (Signet, 11/2012)
         Darkness Unmasked (Signet, 6/2013 
         Darkness Splintered (Signet, 11/2013)  
         Darkness Falls (Signet, 12/2014) (FINAL)  

    This post was revised and updated on 1/1/15 to include a review of Darkness Falls, the seventh and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of all of the previous novels in the series.

WARNING! The following review contains spoilers for earlier books. 
               NOVEL 7:  Darkness Falls                
     In the final book, the reader knows from the beginning exactly what elements will be included in the plot. Risa and Azriel have four major tasks: to find the third key, to defeat the dark sorceress, to destroy the evil Madeline Hunter, and to keep themselves and their friends alive. So…here's how it all goes down. The intrepid couple sticks together throughout most of the story, mostly for protection from the sorceress, who is doing everything in her power to snatch Risa. They fall into a general routine: search for clues as to the location of the key; fight off various attacks by the sorcerer and her minions; and keep Hunter at bay as long as possible. Along the way, they indulge in lots of sarcastic, but sappy, banter (yawn) and send as many of their allies as possible into hiding (because Hunter has threatened to kill Risa's remaining friends and family if Risa doesn't give her the key within 24 hours.).

     Final books in long-running series are always dicey because the reader knows that the over-riding series story arc (i.e., the retrieval of the keys) will be resolved along with any other sub-plots that are still hanging around (i.e., Tao's fiery possession and Ilianna's relationship with her fellow witches). Unfortunately, that makes this book extremely predictable and repetitious. I kept feeling as if I had already read all of these battle scenes beforeswords blazing and screaming, lots of leaping around and gut-kicking, constant switching back and forth from human to Aedh form and back, and too many bloody injuries to count. How Risa's pregnancy survived this book, I'll never understand.

     All in all, this was a humdrum finale to a mediocre series that never quite got off the ground. Although the search for the keys was supposed to be the central theme, some of the books barely mentioned that huge task. Then, there are the bland characters. Until the sixth novel, Risa was too immature, stubborn, whiny, and annoying to be either interesting or likable. She didn't begin to develop into a multi-layered character until she became pregnant and decided once and for all which of her love interests would be her long-term mate (although that was pretty obvious from the very beginning). At that point, she stopped dithering around and finally began to evolve into a responsible adult. Risa's friends and family are all one-dimensionally portrayed as brave, supportive, good-hearted embodiments of virtue so they're not very interesting either. 

     Only two characters provide a welcome breath of drama or humor. First, there is Tao, whose possession by a fire elemental has certainly brightened up his character (sorry for the pun) and has made his scenes compelling and frequently heartbreaking as he has been forced to come to terms with his life-changing condition. Then there is Amaya, Risa's sentient sword, who speaks telepathically to her using the word-choice and cadence that one would find in a Native American character in an old John Wayne movie. For example, when Azriel informs Risa of the gentility and sophistication of his sword (Valdis), the ferocious Amaya responds, "Refined…Me not." No, it's not earth-shatteringly hilarious humor, but, in general, Amaya's sarcastic comments do liven up many scenes that might otherwise fall flat.

     If you have been a faithful reader of the series, you willof coursewant to read this one just to see the final resolution (even if you know in your heart how it will end). If you haven't read the previous books, don't start with this one because every scene reaches back to previous books for motives, characterization issues, and consequences of previous events. 

     I was happy to learn that Keri Arthur has written a new series with a RILEY JENSON connection, because I enjoyed RILEY so much. The heroine of this new series is Risa Jones, who is the daughter of Riley's best friend, Dia. Risa is half werewolf and half Aedh. The Aedh are a magical, non-human race of energy beings who can take human form but do not have any human emotions. They have wings, and they can desolidify into transparent beings that can travel long distances in a short period of time. They can also read mortal minds and walk the gray fields—the realm between the mortal world and the afterlife. As a halfbreed, Risa inherited a few werewolf traits (i.e., strength, speed, and sexual appetite, but not shape-shifting, except for her face) and a few Aedh traits (i.e., walking the gray fields and desolidifying, but not wings or mind reading). Here is Risa as she describes how her Aedh self takes over as she becomes transparent: "My Aedh half surged to life and flared through my bodya blaze of heat and energy that numbed pain and dulled sensation as it invaded every muscle, every cell, breaking them down and tearing them apart, until my flesh no longer existed and I became one with the shadows, one with the air. Until I held no substance, no form, and could not be seen or heard or felt by anyone or anything." (Darkness Rising, pp. 120-121)

     Like RILEY JENSON, this series is set in an alternate, mildly futuristic Melbourne, Australia. In this world, the supernatural community is kept under control by the Directorate, which operates like an amped-up police force with its staff of psychics, witches, and lethal hunters. In addition to the Directorate, Melbourne has a Vampire Council that governs its own species, sometimes in accordance with the Directorate, but sometimes not.

Here is the cast of the regular characters in the first two books. In each book, at least one of these characters is involved in a tragic, sometimes fatal, experience:
Dia: Risa's mother, a powerful psychic and a werewolf who was cloned in a laboratory
Hieu: Risa's father, a pureblood Aedh priest who met Dia just once—the night of Risa's conceptionand who has never (until now) met Risa
Ilianna: Risa's female BFF roommate; a were-mare (horse) and a powerful witch
Tao: Risa's male BFF roommate and former sexual partner (platonic); a werewolf fire-starter; he is the son of Kellen, one of Riley Jenson's former lovers
Stane Neale: a werewolf computer genius who is also one of Kellen's sons, but with a different mother than Tao
Azriel: a sexy, but non-emotional, former reaper (an energy being who collects souls and who can take human form) who is now a Mijai—a warrior who hunts down creatures that break through the portals between mortal earth and hell; he can read the minds of mortals and can teleport 
Lucian Dupont: a sex-obsessed fallen Aedh who has lost his wings and now must exist in human form; he wants revenge against the Aedh priests who took his wings 
Jak Talbott: Risa’s on-and-off boyfriend who works as an investigative newspaper reporter and will do anything to get a story, even betray his friends and lovers 
The Riley Jenson Connection: I reviewed the excellent RILEY JENSON series in my book, Fang-tastic Fiction: 21st Century Paranormal Reads. A number of RILEY characters play peripheral roles in the DARK ANGELS series: Riley, Quinn (Riley's lover), Rhoan (Riley's brother), and Liander (Rhoan's mate). By the time DARK ANGELS begins, Rhoan and Liander have five children (two sets of twins and one single birth, all with Riley as their surrogate mother). For more background on Dia and Risa, here are some RILEY JENSON references that provide insight into their genetics and personal histories:
Tempting Evil (book 3) (pp. 112+) Here, Dia explains her genetic background to Riley. In part, she explains that she and her brother "were born of a Helki werewolf mother and silver pack father, and were fraternal twins, born of the same mother and father." Risa is kidnapped at one point in this book.
Embraced by Darkness (book 5) pp. 136+) In this scene, Risa announces that she can see Death—and he happens to be standing right next to Riley.
The Darkest Kiss (book 6) (pp. 172+) In part, Riley says, "Dia wasn't only a psychic, but a clone with Helki shape-shifting genes who was able to subtly alter her appearance as easily as I could become a wolf."
Bound to Shadows (book 8) (pp. 221+) In this scene, Riley and Quinn discuss Risa's genetic history. Quinn, like Risa, is half Aedh. 
               NOVEL 1:  Darkness Unbound                
     As the series opens, Dia asks Risa to go into the gray fields to search for the soul of an unconscious, dying young girl so that Risa can determine whether the girl's spirit has decided to stay or to move on. When Risa discovers that the girl's soul has been torn from her, she vows to track down the soul-sucking monster responsible. Meanwhile, Risa becomes aware that a reaper is following her. The presence of a reaper usually means death, but not this time. This reaper, who calls himself Azriel, believes that Risa's long-absent father, Hieu, will soon contact her, and Azriel wants to capture him. According to Azriel, Hieu was an Aedh priest who created three magical keys to the gates between the mortal world and the afterlife. Here is Risa's explanation of the gates: "Or the portals, as the reapers preferred to call them. Apparently there was only one gate into heaven or hell, with each gate consisting of three interlocked portals. Each portal had to be locked behind a soul before the next one opened. It was a system that prevented those in hell from escaping—although it wasn't infallible. Things still escaped when enough magic was used either in this world or the other." (p. 10) 

     Hieu is a member of a group of priests who want to lock up the gates permanently, but this is problematic for a number of reasons. Here, Azriel explains why locking the gates would be a bad thing: "The problem with shutting the gates permanently is the fact that it would not only stop things from breaking through, but also prevent things from leaving....Which means no soul could move on. and that would be a disaster that could destroy us all....If souls cannot move on, they cannot be reborn into new flesh. Where would that leave the humanand nonhumanraces?" (pp. 38-41) 

     Soon thereafter, Risa is attacked by men who are determined to question her about her father, and those attacks continue throughout the story. During one attack, Lucian rescues Risa, and their relationship develops quickly to a sexual level with scenes that give the series a rating of 5 in sensuality for their erotic threesome at a sex club. (Remember those wolfy sex clubs from the RILEY books?) As the plot plays out, Risa and Lucian enjoy each other's bodies; Risa is attacked/captured/threatened by various villains; and Risa and Azriel attempt to track down Hieu so that they can discover the location of the keys to the gates. The book ends on a tragic note for one of the characters. 

             NOVEL 2: Darkness Rising             
     As the second book begins, Hieu drops in to visit Risa and shows her his mean side. Hieu wants the keys, and Risa is the only person who can retrieve them because she is the only person who shares his bloodline. Hieu himself can't get the keys because he is stuck in his disembodied Aedh state. When Risa refuses, Hieu threatens the lives of her friends. Immediately following this scene, Madeline Hunter shows up with additional threats. Hunter is one of the most powerful vampires in existence. She is the head of the Directorate as well as being a member of the Vampire Council. Hunter tells Risa that some members of the Council want to kill Risa so that the keys can never be discovered, but she proposes that if Risa makes herself valuable enough to the Council, they will spare her life. Hunter gives Risa the job of locating whatever creature or force is taking the lives of Council members by sucking their youth—turning them into aged, crazed beings overnight. The plot follows Risa and Azriel as they take on both tasks—tracking down the keys and getting rid of the youth-sucking monster. By this time, the attraction between Risa and Azriel is growing, but neither has acknowledged it. In the meantime, the relationship between Risa and Lucian is still going hot and heavy. Risa is enjoying the sex, but she is beginning to have second thoughts about Lucian's motives.

     Just a small popular culture note here: Early on in Darkness Rising, Azriel discovers that the creature attacking the vampire council members is a Maniae, which is what Maryann Forester's character was in Season 2 of True Blood. Azriel explains: "The Maniae are the spirits of madness and death. They are related to the Erinyes, the deities of vengeance." (pp. 52-53). Also, the Maniae are featured villains in the second book of Kevin Hearne's IRON DRUID Series, Hexed. Click HERE to read my review of the IRON DRUID series.

     I'm enjoying the DARK ANGELS series almost as much as RILEY JENSON. Risa is a UF heroine in Riley's mold: strong, courageous, stubborn, and sometimes foolhardy—but never stupid. Azriel and Lucian share the common trait of being without human emotions, which is extremely frustrating for Risa, who envies Riley's close and loving relationship with Quinn. The characters of both Azriel and Lucian are sketched in with impressionistic strokes, so we're not yet sure if one will emerge as Riley's true soul mate. Risa's friendship with Ilianna and Tao is a strong point in the series. The three are co-owners of an upscale restaurant, which provides a nice change of pace from the action scenes. All in all, this is developing into a good, strong UF series.

             NOVEL 3:  Darkness Devours             

     The third book continues the series story arc with a plot that focuses on the search for the third man in the consortium that has been trying to gain control of the major ley-line intersection in Melbourne. Two members of the consortium were captured in the previous book, but the thirdNadleris still at large and dangerous. As Risa and Azriel work on tracking down Nadler, they must also take care of another problemthis time for Madeline Hunter, the powerful Vampire Council member who is blackmailing Risa by threatening the lives of her closest friends. Hunter and the vampire council want Risa to find out who, or what, is killing vampires who frequent the Dark Earth, a sordid vampire club that provides blood whores for addicted vampires. The culprit turns out to be a Rakshasa, a venomous monster that can exist either in spirit or corporeal form and who is being attracted by the howling ghosts of murdered blood-lust victims at Dark Earth. The council gives Risa just three days to kill the Rakshasa, or they will kill Risa (which doesn't really make much sense, since Risa is worth more to them alive than dead). 

     Throughout all of this, Risa is balancing three love interests: Lucien, Azriel, and Jak, a former flame who betrayed Risa two years ago when he used her to get information about her mother and then published it in the newspaper for which he works as a reporter. The problem that I have with Risa and her love life is that the sexual attraction she claims to feel toward these men is so passion-free and so low-key that it doesn't seem real. 

     If you have read any of the RILEY JENSON books, you will immediately see the difference between the heroines of the two series. Snakeskin-stiletto-wearing Riley is a women whose sexuality and passion are at her very heart. Her scenes of moon-struck sexual need almost set the pages on fire. Riley is fire, while Risa is a dying ember who barely has any heat at all. In fact, that's the biggest weakness in this series. After Riley's passion and intensity, Risa just seems flat and uninteresting, particularly in this book. The same is true of the male characters. Riley's men are complex and flamboyant—from Quinn to Kellon to Kade to Jin to Kye, all of them are full of passion and danger. Now, look at Azriel and Lucian. Although Azriel does a lot of sexy simmering, he is mostly passive and remote (except for one scene of amorous intensity), and Lucien is totally one dimensional with his one-note, sex-addict personality. The sex scenes with Lucian are certainly graphic and hot, but they're heavier on vigorous mechanics than on impassioned fervor. I really want to love this series, but I'm having trouble getting past these flavorless characters. Also, after what Jak Talbott did to Risa and her mother, she shouldn't be having any kind of positive feelings about him, and certainly not twinges of sexual attraction—just one more indication of her shallowness. 

     The other problem lies in the plotting. I realize that the series story arc—the search for the keys to the portals of heaven and hell—requires that each book be devoted to some aspect of that search, but in this book, the three-keys story threads are just sprinkled around with absolutely no trace of resolution at all. Risa doesn't win even a small battle within this larger war. The only conflict resolved in this book is in the Rakshasa story line with its requisite showdown between Risa and the lead Rakshasa, which is predictable from the beginning. I have three wishes for future books: that Risa's character will become more dynamic and charismatic, that the men in her life will develop some depth, and that each story will have at least a partial element of resolution in regard to the three-keys story line. So far, this is my least favorite book in the series. 

            NOVEL 4:  Darkness Hunts             
     As the story opens, Risa is feeling pressure from all sides to find the keys to the portals. The Raziq, the reapers, the high Vampire Council, and her lover, Lucian—each wants the keys for personal, dangerous reasons, and Risa isn't sure who should receive custody if and when she ever finds them. Risa has a single lead: Logan, a man who died before Risa could get his memories unlocked, may have a clue about the whereabouts of the keys. Risa asks the Brindle (a coven of powerful witches) to assist her in transporting herself to the astral plane so that she can confront Logan's spirit. 

     When Risa gets to the astral plane and confronts Logan, he gives her the names of three people who may have the information she is seeking. Unfortunately, that's about all the information we get about the keys in this book because, once again, Risa is sidetracked by other dangerous problems that must be solved immediately. As she is talking to Logan, Risa is distracted by the screams of a woman who is being attacked by a faceless man. When Risa confronts the attacker, he tells her that the woman is still alive on the mortal plane and that if Risa can get to her within one hour, the woman will live. This interaction with an apparent psychopath sets up the plot for the book. The faceless man taunts both Risa and the Directorate with clues as he kills again and again. His victims are vampiresall harmless women who are leading sedate lives. The primary story line follows Risa as she works with Rhoan to unmask the killer and catch him before more women die. 

     Beyond the murder story, the plot mostly follows Risa's sorry love life. She flirts with Jak Talbott, has a passionate hook-up with her Aedh lover Lucian, and tries unsuccessfully to seduce Azriel back into her bed. Why Risa is even maintaining relationships with Jak and Lucian is unclear since Jak has ruthlessly betrayed her in the past, and Lucian is obviously lying to her about many things. Azriel keeps trying to warn her about Lucian, and Risa's roommates keep trying to warn her about Jak, but, time and time again, Risa opts for pig-headed stubbornness over common sense. Risa keeps telling Azriel that her werewolf genetics mean that she needs sex frequently, and that if he won't help her out then she has no option but to go to Lucian or Jak, but she talks about her passion in such a dispassionate manner that it's difficult to believe that there's any sort of fire within her. I hate to keep bringing up Riley Jenson, but pleaseRiley was passionate all the timenot just sexually, but about everything she did. Book by book, Risa has developed into a pale shadow of Riley because she approaches every aspect of her life in such a whiny, immature, headstrong manner. Risa is just not an interesting character any more. 

     In this book, Risa's primary goal is to get Azriel in bed for a second chance at sex with him, but he warns her that they are becoming so close that that they are in danger of assimilation. Here's how Azriel explains assimilation to Risa: "It happens when a reaper becomes so attuned to a particular human that their life forces merge, and they become as one....If that happens, my reaper powers will become muted, and I will never again be able to function as a soul bearer." (which is Azriel's major, all-encompassing goal). Throughout the rest of the book, the two argue back and forth in their dialogues, grumbling and bickering about whether to fight or give in to their mutual attraction, to accept or avoid the consequences of togetherness, to cave in to or ignore their lustful feelings, etc., etc.,'s a never-ending, repetitious dialogue, and that particular conflict is never really resolved.  

     This book is more of a romance (without the HEA) than an urban fantasy. The "keys" plot gets very little story space, and at this rate the keys will probably never be found. By the end of the book, two of the three love interests appear to have been eliminated from the picture, but that leaves the whole "assimilation" problem for Risa and Azriel to deal with in the next book. In the excerpt from the fifth book (included at the end of Darkness Hunts), Madeleine Hunter, the cold-hearted Vampire Council member who is blackmailing Risa, commands her to find the person who has killed her lover, which means that Risa's search for the keys will apparently be derailed yet again. 

             NOVEL 5:  Darkness Unmasked             

     Let's deal with Risa's love situation first. In the past four books, she was sexually attracted to three very different men (not all human, but all with great bodies and handsome faces): Lucian, the fallen Aedh who used Risa to find the keysand worse; Jak Talbott, an ex-boyfriend who betrayed her; and Azriel, a former reaper whose true form is pure energy and who also wants the keys, but also seems to care genuinely for Risa. As this book opens, Risa has decided that Azriel is her true love, and they spend much of their time (too much of their time) being amused by one another as they engage in ongoing low-key snarky dialogue. 

    "Amused" is the problematic word here, because the author overuses it to such an extent that I was making bets with myself as to how many times she would use it in each chapter. The problem is this: An author shouldn't have to constantly use words like "amused" to describe a character's feelings. Instead, those feelings should be made obvious by the context, by the words those characters speak, and by their own physical actions. In this book, the author tells us that "amusement lurked around the corners of his mouth," that "amusement briefly touched his lips," that there was "amusement in his voice," that "amusement lit his brown eyes," that "I'd glimpsed [amusement] in his eyes," that "amusement touched her lips," that his expression is "amused" or "somewhat amused," that he glances with "amusement briefly touching his eyes," and that "amusement touched his lips." All of these are direct quotations, and they are just a handful that I noted before I quit keeping track. The relationship scenes were just one "amusement" after another, with lots of "telling" about the characters' feelings, but no "showing." 

     The couple does have several bedroom scenes, but none of those details are included in the story. They just kid around about having hot sex, and then Risa tells us matter-of-factly that they followed through. That's as passionate (or actually passionless) as it gets, except (inexplicably) for one horrendous rape scene, which includes some details. I'm not advocating X-rated love scenes, but I am asking for something other than adjectives like "amused" to demonstrate what the couple's feelings are for each other. The after-effects of the rape scene, by the way, are treated in an offhanded manner that seems to imply that the victims are emotionally unaffected by their horrific experience.

     And one more point about characterization: Risa continues to be an annoyingly whiny, not-so-smart heroine who has failed to grow or change in any positive manner since book 1. For example, she continues to defend and harbor lustful longings for the loathsome Lucian, even when it is obvious to everyone else (including the reader) that Lucian is a grade-A villain who cares nothing for Risa. Then, when Azriel takes an action that saves her life, she turns on him like a Harpy. Except for her computer-hacker buddy, Stane, Risa never relies on any of her friends or associates for assistance. Instead, she goes it alone, with poor Azriel trailing along and being forced to rescue her time and time again as she makes one bad decision after another, always whining that she didn't have a choice. It's time for Risa to grow up and make some changes in the way she approaches the problems in her life. At this point, she's one of the most unlikable heroines I've run across in recent years.

     The series theme involves Risa's search for the keys to the gates between the mortal world and the afterlife, and (once again) no real progress is made in that search. It would be much more interesting if the book-centric plots had some relationship to the series story arc. At the very end of this book, one key does turn up, but the key search is definitely not the primary plot. 

     That honor goes to a dark spider spirit called a Jorõgumo, who is beguiling psychic males and sucking them dry—literally. 
Madeleine Hunter's boyfriend is the first victim, and Madeleine immediately sends Risa and Azriel off to track down the killer. They spend most of their time teleporting around the city from one crime scene to the next, gathering clues and eventually figuring out exactly what type of enemy they are facing. These scenes are interspersed with a plethora of "amusing" dialogue scenes in which Risa and Azriel flirt with one another and occasionally discuss the fact that they're not making much progress in locating the keys.

     The book ends in a cliff-hanger as Risa's love life gets really rocky, and her future is irrevocably changed by events that occur during and after the climactic ending. 

     When this series began, I had high hopes that it would match RILEY JENSON in quality and style, but I have to say that each book has been more of a disappointment than the last. I wish that the author would create more complex plots that center around the search for the keys—which is supposedly the series' central theme—and less time on the repartee and the side adventures. If the police-procedural-type side plots continue, they should at least be linked in some way to the search for the keys, perhaps providing another clue or a new suspect.

     This book is definitely not a stand-alone read because of the many context-free references to past events and the failure to define various terms (e.g., Razan and Raziq). 

WARNING! The following review contains spoilers for book 5, Darkness Unmasked

             NOVEL 6:  Darkness Splintered             
     Finally! Risa and her baby-daddy, Azriel, get back on the trail of the Keys full time. That’s mostly because all of their enemies are coming down hard on them one right after the other: Madeleine Hunter (the vicious vampire), Hieu (Risa’s deadly Dad), and the Raziq (supernatural rebel priests). In the early chapters, Risa and Azriel are estranged because when Risa died in the previous book, Azriel forced her back to life by turning her into a Mijai—a dark angel like himself—which means that she will never be reborn into another life here on Earth. “And that meant I would never see my late mother again. Not in any future lifetime that might have been mine, because he’d stolen all that away from me.” (p. 2) Risa believes that Azriel saved her not out of love, but because she is the only one who can retrieve the Keys to the Gates of Heaven and Hell. After banishing Azriel, Risa immediately went out on a three-day drinking spree (even though she knows that she is pregnant with Azriel’s child) and is just now waking up with a huge hangover and wondering if she was too hasty in pushing Azriel out of her life. Once again, Risa has acted impulsively without knowing all the facts. Going on a drinking binge while knowing that she is pregnant is testament to her continuing immaturity and lack of emotional depth.

     The plot centers solely on Risa’s search for the second Key, which was stolen from her by Lauren Macintyre, a dark sorceress who may be a full-body face shifter who can take any identity. All three of Risa’s powerful enemies are demanding that she find the second and third Keys RIGHT NOW, and they all threaten to harm Risa and kill her closest friends if she doesn’t get the job done. The story line goes something like this: Risa and Azriel (Oh, yes, they soon get back together) search for clues and don’t find many. Then an enemy that wants the Keys appears, threatens them, and goes away. Risa and Azriel search unsuccessfully for more clues and are attacked by various monsters in the process. Another threatening entity appears with more demands and threats. Risa and Azriel go back to searching for clues, mostly without much luck. And so forth, and so forth, and so forth.

     At one point in the story, Risa tells herself that “It was time…I not only started acting like a rational adult, but thinking like one.” (p. 78) That is something that I’ve been waiting for Risa to do for a long, long time. As a result of Risa’s new attempt at maturity, she and Azriel spend slightly more time strategizing and planning than they have done in previous books, and that finally results in some rare success when they find the sorceress—leading up to the requisite showdown scene that ends the book. During the course of the events in this book, the deaths of two key characters cause diverse emotional reactions for Risa: sadness (for one death) and relief (for the other).

     This book is marginally better than the rest, mostly because it focuses on the search for the Keys, which is supposed to be the thematic arc for the series, but also because Risa seems to be trying to act with more maturity and forethought. We learn some new information about Madeleine Hunter in this book, important details about her background and the source and breadth of her powers. Obviously this knowledge will be helpful when Risa and Madeleine have their inevitable confrontation in the final book. For all of you looking for erotic love scenes, there is just one brief hot and heavy interlude late in the book.

     If you’re keeping up with this series, you’ll want to read this book in preparation for the big finale in Darkness Falls (due 12/2014). If you haven’t read the previous books, please don’t start with this one because the author assumes full knowledge of the mythology and previous events and doesn’t provide much of a recap, so you’ll be absolutely lost. Click HERE to go to this novel’s page to read an excerpt.