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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Amanda Bonilla: SHAEDE ASSASSIN SERIES

Author: Amanda Bonilla
Series: SHAEDE ASSASSIN
Plot Type: UF
Ratings: V4; S4; H2
Publisher and Titles: Signet Eclipse
          "When Shadows Call" (prequel, e-novella, 6/2012)
          Shaedes of Gray (9/2011)
          Blood Before Sunrise (7/2012)
          "Lost to the Gray" (e-novella, 2/2013)
          Crave the Darkness (3/2013)

     This post was revised and updated on 4/22/13 to include a review of the third book in the series, Crave the Darkness. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1 and 2: 

          BOOK 3:  Crave the Darkness            
     As the previous book ended, Darian's lover, Tyler, packed up and left her behind after she disappeared for four months without ever contacting him. Now, it's three months later, and Darian has spent all that time wallowing in misery alone in her apartment, which has by now become a filthy, trash-filled hovel. As the story opens, Raif convinces Darian to begin working again and to move into the home of King Alexander (Xander) to take her mind off of Tyler.

     Darian's assignment is to protect her old nemesis Anya, the Russian woman who guarded Xander before Darian came on the scene back in book 1. Darian and Anya have always been in a perpetual state of hostility toward one another, so neither is thrilled with the situation, but Anya is pregnant—a rarity among the shaedes, and she is being threatened. In a strange and unbelievable twist, Anya withholds information about Kade, the mysterious man who is threatening her, even though she knows exactly who Kade is and what he wants from her. Even after Kade shoots at her car with a high-powered weapon, sends an armed gang against her, and even attacks her at her obstetrician's office, Anya stubbornly refuses to cooperate with Darian and her team of guards. This, for me, is completely unbelievable—that a pregnant woman would undermine the safety of herself and her unborn child when she has the knowledge to improve the situation. The reader is led to believe that Anya is keeping all knowledge of the attacks from her husband, Dmitri, who is also one of Xander's guards, but that is preposterous since the couple lives in Xander's house and are privy to everything that goes on there. There is no possible way that Dmitri would not know about the attacks. Eventually, Kade confronts Darian at the scene of one of his attacks, and Darian has to figure out just what kind of supernatural creature he is.

     To add to Darian's troubles, Tyler comes back to town, but he's not alone. He is now living with Adira, the beautiful Jinn woman who spent a few centuries  with Tyler after she rescued him from the desert long ago. At this point, the romantic triangle story line takes center stage, turning the book into a paranormal romance instead of an urban fantasy. Darian suffers through page after page of angst, first mourning Tyler's absence and then suffering through his seeming betrayal with Adira. Although Darian sometimes blames herself for what has happened to her relationship with Tyler, she also blames Tyler. Eventually, Darian learns that Adira has a connection with Kade, which makes him even more dangerous.

     Xander, who has always had the hots for Darian, takes advantage of her fragile emotional state and makes his own moves on her. Unbelievably, Darian goes along with Xander's advances—up to a certain point. This woman definitely needs deep psychological counseling because she has never in her life made a good decision about her personal life—not once.

     As the plot plays out, Kade becomes a danger not only to Anya but to Darian as well, and we have the requisite showdown scene that resolves the situation. As the story ends, Darian is off on a vacation of sorts to get her head together after the disturbing events that take place during the story's climax. 

     The plot has its share of bumps, particularly the ones that rely on chance actions that are repeatedly emphasized to let readers know that they should pay attention. For example, Tyler sends a manila envelope to Darian, but she never opens the envelope (not for weeks). She stuffs it in the pocket of her coat, and then explains time and time again why she has decided not to wear the coat on various occasions—all so that the author can stretch out and complicate the plot by having Darian make assumptions and search for information that she wouldn't need if she knew what was in the envelope. I don't know about you, but if the main man in my life disappeared for three months and then sent me a mysterious envelope, I wouldn't tuck it away and forget about it, I'd open it—immediately. Staged occurrences like this appear to be an authorial tic, as they appear regularly throughout the series.

     Once again, our heroine proves to be an emotional wreck and a non-team player. Even after what happened to her in the last book when she went off on her own, she does the same thing again, with even worse results. Will she ever learn a lesson from her own mistakes? It's doubtful. This book would have been an O.K. read if it weren't for its woebegone heroine. She drags down the plot of every book and is so unlikable that it's impossible to understand why so many men are madly in love with her. She slouches sullenly, refuses to speak a civil word to anyone (even her friends), constantly jumps to (always wrong) conclusions, and whines incessantly (both to herself and to others) about the terrible circumstances of her life—most of which are her own fault. Ironically, in this book Darian constantly derides one of her team members for doing exactly what she does all the time: going off alone without letting anyone know.

          WORLD-BUILDING          
    In this world, the supernatural community includes a number of nontraditional creatures, with two particular types being the main characters in the series:
> Shaedes: beings that take human form during the day and can fade invisibly into the nighttime shadows.
Jinn (aka genie): ancient beings who protect and grant the wishes of the persons to whom they are bound. 
Lyhtans: beings that take insect form (think praying mantis) and can fade into the light during the day; can be killed at twilight and early dawn.
     A few other supernaturals also appear (e.g., seers, fae, gargoyles). In this world, the supernaturals live among the humans, but most humans aren't aware of their existence. The world-building here isn't very complexat least at firstand it is parceled out as the story moves along, with bits and pieces here and there, all the way up to the end.

          BOOK 1:  Shaedes of Gray          
     As the series opens, the heroineDarianis an assassin who receives  a new target, assigned to her by her middleman, Tyler, whom she believes to be human. Darian views Tyler as being "like a temp agency for the underbelly of society,(p. 7), but he's also her love interest.  Darian is a shaede who was created back in the late 1800s, but she appears to be a 20-something woman. She has been on her own for the past 80 years, ever since her maker, Azriel, disappeared and (she believes) died. Azriel told Darian that they were the only two shaedes in the world, so she believes that she is the one and only shade left in existence. When she sneaks up on her new target, however, she discovers that—Surprise!—he is a shaedeactually the king of the shaedes. From thereon in, it's a new discovery for Darian every page or so, as she learns that there is a large contingent of shaedes in Seattle (whom she has somehow never managed to run into) and that they are threatened with a war seemingly being orchestrated by the creepy lyhtans. The plot gets murkier and murkier as Darian discovers new information about herself and deep secrets about Tyler. 

     Here, late in the book, a character explains to Darian what being a shaede means: “You…are…nothing,” he said. “A creature that lives between the realms. You are made of twilight and shadow and move as the wind through the trees. You are Shaede….You won’t wither and die the way humans do…and even if your physical form is damaged beyond repair, you will only fade into shadow for eternity.” (p. 57)

     The author tells the story in the first person, and Darian's voice is about the most awkward first person attempt I've read in a long time. Bonilla's method seems to be this: Have Darian start out as a total ignoramus about everything supernatural, including her own genetic history. Then, have her ask people questions about various aspects of the series mythology. Then, have those people either ignore her questions or answer them either partially or with such ambiguous and inane responses that Darian still doesn't have a clue. Repeat the process until all of the mythology is finally cranked out. Poor Darian...no one gives her a straight answer about anything, so she stumbles along making one wrong decision after another. That, by the way, is how she spends most of her time throughout the bookjust stumbling along. But, Darian stumbles with arrogant, overblown confidencealways cocksure that she is the toughest thing on the block. Her opinions about her own strength and beauty are so egotistically ludicrous that it is hard to keep reading. Here are a few examples: 
> “I could have traveled unseen, but…I wanted the attention.” (as she struts down the street on her way to a supposedly secret assassination job) 
> “I flashed a wicked smile.” (to scare an innocent man on the street) 
> “Muscles rippled beneath flawless, creamy skin.” (speaking of herself) 
> “...my flawless porcelain skin”     
> “I’m sure I looked like a Goth kid’s wet dream, sitting in my black sex-kitten outfit…”     
> “He saw only the woman: soft, sleep-tousled, with luminous eyes and a pouty mouth.” (how she imagines that Tyler views her) 
> “I was winsome and lovely…” (fondly remembering her teen-aged self)
     Oddly, Darian has just as many negative things to say about herself and her lack of civility:
> “Cordiality wasn’t one of my long suits.” 
> “...my less than gracious personality” 
> “I’m not what you’d call a conversationalist.”
     The relationship between Darian and Tyler is awful. He acts like a sweet, loving puppy dog, constantly granting her every wish, while she treats him like dirt most of the time. Why he bothers with her is not clear. They never really have a civil conversation before their one big love scene close to the end of the book. And that scene comes out of nowhere. There is absolutely no evidence of an emotional connection on which to base a romance. Here are a few examples of Darian's treatment of Tyler:     
> She threatens to “slice him open like a Thanksgiving turkey.” 
> She uses her superhuman speed to pick up a cup in an effort to scare him off: “I expected to see fear, but only admiration crossed his gorgeous face.” 
> She shows off her shadow skills hoping to shake him up and “slap him with a dose of reality.” 
> She pulls a knife on him while he’s trying to make love to her.
    And then we have Xander's pursuit of Darian, which is just plain sick. He's supposed to be Azriel's father, so that would, I guess, make him Darian's father-in-law, but as soon as he meets her he starts making his moves in a kind of shuddery perverted-bad-uncle kind of way. 

    The plot has so many inconsistencies and illogical moments that I can't begin to describe them, mostly related to the fact that everyone seems to know what's going on except for Darian and the reader. We don't learn the facts about the mythology of this world until Darian does, and even then, the dribs and drabs of information come very slowly.

    Here's a prime example of the implausibilities in the plot: Soon after the first lyhtan attacks Darian, one of Xander's top soldiers gives her a special weapon that can be used against them, but Darian either doesn’t carry it with her or forgets where she put it—until the big final scene when she absolutely has to have it. Then, magically, it's in her pocket, even though she has been kidnapped by the villains and thoroughly searched. This is purely and obviously a manipulation by the author, but it’s done in such a clumsy manner that it weakens the story and heightens the bone-headed aspects of Darian’s character.

     Here's another example of the awkward plot manipulations: Darian is assigned to be the king’s personal bodyguard during a big meeting of all of the supernaturals. At the end of the tumultuous first day of the meeting, she goes home, accidentally falls asleep, and then goes about her personal business for 24 hours, having somehow forgotten that she’s supposed to be on the job with the king. Here are Darian's thoughts: “In all the excitement, I’d overlooked the fact that I’d been AWOL for the past 24 hours. I’d have to work on not being so easily sidetracked.” (p. 241) This whole episode is obviously a heavy-handed plot manipulation that the author uses to slip in the book's single sex scene, which is what "sidetracked" Darian. Totally unbelievable! Based on this book, I can't recommend the series. The best thing about it is the cover art.

          BOOK 2:  Blood Before Sunrise          
     As the second book opens, Darian is still getting used to the new powers she attained as a result of the climactic scene that closed book 1. One of the biggest perks is that she can now become incorporeal in the daytime as well as at night. One of the less pleasant new powers is that she can feel the passage of time. She is now something more than a Shaede, and soon people begin calling her a Guardian. As the story moves along, Darian keeps getting more and more hints that she has powers (and responsibilities) that she isn't aware of, but instead of doing some investigative work, she shrugs it off and goes on her rude and foul-mouthed way. 

     Soon, Darian begins having mysterious dreams in which a woman and a child give her seemingly meaningless messages and say things like this: "You are the Guardian. Please help me." (p 7) Then, a falcon delivers a magical emerald necklace to her. Does Darian mention the dreams or the necklace to any of her knowledgeable allies? Does she ask for help in determining their meaning? Nopenot a word to anyone! 

     Eventually, Darian faces a three-fold problem: She needs to get help from Delilah, the Oracle, (her enemy in book 1) so that she can locate Raif's long-lost daughter. She must steal an ancient artifact so that Fallon, a scary Fae warrior, will help her gain access to Delilah. She must find out who is getting into Tyler's head and causing him to go all jealous and over-protective every time she is with another man, especially when she's with Raif. Again, I ask: Does Darian ask anyone for help with any of these problems? Not really. She does work out a primitive back-up plan with Raif at one point, but that's it. All poor Tyler gets is a series of notes telling him not to worry about her.

     About midway through the book, Darian is attacked by five lyhtans in a multi-page battle, but that scene plays absolutely no part in the primary story line. It seems to have been dropped in just to fill space. The problem with that scene is that Darian has been bragging about the fact that she can become incorporeal at willday or nightbut instead of fading away from the overwhelming 5-to-1 odds, she stays to fight andimplausiblykills every one of the monstrous lyhtans.

     As Darian gets deeper and deeper into trouble, she mindlessly makes one wrong decision after another. Throughout most of the final chapters, she doesn't even have control over her own body. But then, magically (just as in book 1), at the very last minute, she summons up her strength and overcomes all obstacleswell, all but one, but that would be a spoiler, so you'll have to read the book to get the lowdown on her final emotional smash-up. All I can say is "Go, Tyler!"

     The requisite climactic showdown with the story's villain is well written, with each character showing more depth than at any other point in the story. It is by far the best scene in the book. 

     Once again, the big problem with this series is the witless, abrasive heroine, who has no sense of humor, a total lack of people skills, and an absence of common sense. In regard to the people skills, here's how Darian describes her relationship with Tyler on page 4 of this book: "More than simply my lover, and definitely more than a friend, he had captured more than just my heart over the five years I'd known him. Tyler had claimed my soul." So...Darian sees Tyler as her soul mate. Then why in the world doesn't she ever confide in him or trust him to fight by her side? Why does she constantly lie to him, betray him, and leave him behind with just a be-back-later note on his pillow? And beyond her relationshipif you can call it thatwith Tyler, she doesn't really get along with anybody. She is the only character in the series who curses and throws the f-bomb around every single time she thinks or speaks. (Just to be clear: I have no objection to profanity among characters, but the profanity in this series is very striking because 90% of it is coming from the heroine.) Darian's immediate reaction to almost any situation is ALWAYS to hit out, either physically or verbally. She is supposed to be more than a century old, but she acts like a spoiled adolescent brat. At one point, her mentor, Raif (who is supposed to be fond of her in a fatherly way), disparagingly remarks, "My, but you're a special combination of stupid and stubborn, aren't  you?" (p. 60) I couldn't agree more.

     Now let's examine Darian's common sense (or lack of it), which you'd think she'd have plenty of since she's been living on her own as an assassin for decades. In this book, Darian does no investigating at all before she partners up with Fallon, even though she knows that he is very powerful. She ruminates, "When I'd first laid eyes on him, he'd set me on edge. Now I could say that seeing him for a second time was no less unsettling." (p. 79) When he asks her to steal the artifact, she says what she always says—"I had no choice." But the reason she never has a choice is because she always leaps in without checking out the situation first. I really don't know how Darian has survived all these years in her chosen profession—or why anyone would ever hire her in the first place. I was hoping that this series would improve, but with this heroine at the center of the story, I have my doubts. 

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