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 will—of course—want 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.
Dia: Risa's mother, a powerful psychic and a werewolf who was cloned in a laboratory
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
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.
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 vampires—all 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 please—Riley was passionate all the time—not 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., etc.—it'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
"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.