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Friday, April 6, 2012

Delilah S. Dawson: BLUD SERIES

Author:  Delilah S. Dawson
Series:  BLUD
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR), Steampunk
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor3
Publisher and Titles:  Pocket
     "The Three Lives of Lydia" in Carniepunk (prequel story, 7/2013)
     Wicked As They Come (3/2012)
     "The Mysterious Madam Morpho" (e-novella, 10/2012)
     "The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance" (e-novella, 4/2013)
      Wicked As She Wants (4/2013)
      "The Damsal and the Daggerman" (e-novella, 1/2014)
      Wicked After Midnight (1/2014) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 3/10/14 to include reviews of the FINAL two book in the series: "The Damsal and the Daggerman", the third novella, and Wicked After Midnightthe third novel. These new reviews appear first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of all of preceding two novels and two novellas:   

          NOVELLA 3:  "The Damsal and the Daggerman"          
     Jacinda Harville is a human (aka a Pinky) journalist who is determined to write a book about Criminy (Crim) Stain's Clockwork Caravan. Jacinda is an attractive widow who travelled the world with her husband until he was killed while defending her honor. She has even travelled to Almanica (America), where a shaman gave her a quill tattoo in a very personal area of her body.

     When Crim gives Jacinda permission to interview any of his carnivalleros who consent, she centers her attention on the mysteriously handsome Marco Taresque, the Deadly Daggerman (knife thrower). Caravan gossip and old newspaper articles tell Jacinda that Marco is a wanted man, suspected of murdering his beautiful partner, Petra. As lustful sparks fly between Jacinda and Marco, she becomes certain of his innocence and grows more and more determined not only to share his story, but also his bed.

     Jacinda is an aggressive, no-holds-barred woman who has habitually been shameless in using her womanly arts to seduce information from men and her charming guilelessness to captivate womenalways getting her story. But with Marco, Jacinda finds herself overwhelmed with desire while he manages to distance himself from her and keep his secrets hidden. That all changes, though, as their mutual attraction soon explodes into flaming passion. Eventually, a dangerous person from Marco's past puts both their lives in jeopardy, but that doesn't happen until the very end of the story.

     The strength of this novella is that it provides more back story on some of the caravan characters we've met in previous books. It also serves as an introduction to Demi Ward, the heroine of novel 3. The love story is interesting enough (although it's another case of insta-matic love/lust), with a non-traditional hero and heroine whose story includes some graphic love scenes (one in particular) and just enough danger to add some needed suspense. Click HERE to read an excerpt.

          NOVEL 3:  Wicked After Midnight          
     In a blog interview, Dawson explains that "on one level, Wicked After Midnight is about facing fears and breaking past them Fear of stasis, fear of moving forward, fear of loving, fear of being caged again, fear of losing what you love most, fearing of opening up to the vulnerability of loving someone with all your heart." For the past six years, Demi Ward has been a carnivallero in Criminy (Crim) Stain's Clockwork Caravan, and she's bored to tears with her life. All she can think about is escaping from the constraints of her monotonous existence. Demi keeps remembering the advice Jacinda Harville gave her (in the previous novella): "I very much advise determining the boundaries of your comfort zone and getting the hell out of it."

     Six years ago, when Demi lay in a near-death coma from alcohol poisoning back on 21st-century Earth, her naked, dying body suddenly popped up in a meadow in the Land of Sang, where she was promptly attacked by ever-hungry blud bunnies. To save her life, Crim offered her his blud (blood), changing her immediately from a human (aka Pinky) to a Bludwoman. During the next few years, Demi partnered with her best friend, Cherie, in a sensational contortionist act. Demi has been a headstrong, rebellious, stubborn, self-centered person all her lifeboth on Earth and in Sang, and those aspects of her personality are the ones that have always gotten her into trouble, and which were the cause of her human death. Has she matured? Has she learned any life lessons? Well…no, she hasn't, as proved by the frequent poor decisions she makes in this story. From the very beginning, Demi proves to be a master at putting her (and sometimes her friends) in the middle of a wide variety of TSTL predicamentsall in the name of personal freedom.    

     One revealing point that you should keep in mind is the prophecy that Tish (Crim's "glancer" wife) made when she first touched Demi: "I see feathers, fairies, mortal danger, a handsome stranger, and a trip to hell." (p. 10) As the plot unwinds, all of these predictions come true as Demi forces her way along her self-made, but dangerous, pathway to stardom.  

     As the story opens, Demi is determined to get away from the Caravan. She has no real plansjust wants to run away and make a glamorous, exciting new life for herself. When Crim reluctantly agrees to fund a trip to Franchia (France), she is ecstatic. She bullies Cherie into going along, although Cherie has grave misgivings. Unfortunately for Demi, Crim sends along a chaperone to supervise their trip: the daimon dancing mistress, Mademoiselle Caprice. As soon as they reach Franchia, however, Demi drugs the chaperone, steals most of her money, and sets out for Paris. Almost as soon as their carriage reaches the open countryside, they are set upon by a masked gang of slavers, who capture Cherie but not Demi. At first, Demi is filled with guilt, realizing that she has put Cherie in dire danger by bullying her into going along on this disastrous journey. Almost immediately, though, she hooks up with Vale Hildebrand, a handsome, half-Abyssinian brigand who promises to take her to a cabaret in Paris so that she can begin her career on the stage and search for Cherie.

     From this point, the story follows Demi as she bluffs her way into a job at the Paradis Cabaret, soon becoming the top star. Unfortunately, with stardom comes responsibility for "entertaining" the lust-filled "gentlemen" patrons who flock to Demi's shows. Although Demi is 26 years old and has been performing for the public for six years, she is incredibly naive about what goes on behind the scenes, particularly anything related to sexual favors and male power.

     Meanwhile, Vale sticks around, searching for clues that might lead to Cherie's location and hitting on Demi whenever he can. Demi and Vale are mightily attracted to one another, but both have past experiences and current financial difficulties that keep them from totally committing to one another. The reader knows from the moment they meet that they are soul mates, but they don't figure that out for themselves until well into the story.

     The action part of the plot involves a nefarious group of men that is kidnapping women, mostly daimon dancing girls, from the cabarets of Paris. Most of the cabarets are owned and staffed by daimons, but the patrons are almost all humans. Demi is sure that if she can infiltrate this mysterious group she will find Cherie. Vale, determined to protect Demi, continues to search for clues.  

     Interestingly, a new part of the mythology develops in this novel because the primary supernaturals in Franchia are daimons in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Mademoiselle Caprice explains to Demi and Cherie that "daimons draw energy from emotions. There are different classes of daimons but you can't tell by looking what a daimon requires for health. I feed on passion. Some depend on comfort, happiness, awe. The dark daimons hunger for sadness, hopelessness, rage, pain. They cannot help craving such things,….Most daimons feast on forms of happiness and lust." (p. 24) The population of Franchia is split equally between humans and daimons, with just 1% Bludmen. Daimons don't drain human blood like Bludmen do, so the humans and daimons live together in relative peace. Because Demi is a Bludwomana rarity in Parisher rise to cabaret stardom is quite shocking and titillating to the male population, and some of them will pay any price for a few hours of private time with her. She becomes so famous that the renowned, but mysterious, artist, Lenoir, wants to paint her portrait. 

     Much of the humor in this story comes from Demi's frequent anachronistic references to 21st century culture. Having been just 20 years old when she died her human death, she has a vast knowledge of the movies, books, and products of her youth. For example, at one point, she advises the Paradis choreographer to dress the daimon dancing girls "as forks, napkins, salt cellars, sugar bowls, teacups. Like a giant table, putting on a show for just the diners. Inviting the audience to be our guests." (p. 156)a direct reference to Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Demi achieves some of her fame by being the very first to perform the can cana dance that she realizes has not yet been invented in Sang Paris. Demi also has a strong background in art history, so she recognizes immediately that the sinister painter, Lenoir, is an amalgam of Toulouse-Lautrec and several famous turn-of-the-century Impressionistic painters (e.g., Monet, Renoir, Pissaro).

     Although the plot is well constructed and the level of suspense remains high throughout, it is the lead character who is the weak link in this story line. Demi gives new meaning to the word "diva," with her high-handed antics, her arrogant superiority, and her abrasive verbal attacks on just about everyone with whom she comes in contact, both friend and foe. Throughout the novel, she constantly wallows in egotistical interior monologues, for example: "The show was flawless, of course. I'd long ago ceased to doubt myself or my abilities." (p. 181) She holds herself above the other hard-working dancers, skipping rehearsals regularly because, as she brags to the choreographer, "I'm always perfect."  She is so self-absorbed that she never even notices that a few daimon dancing girls from the Paradis have disappeared. She also seems to have forgotten that her best friend, Cherie, is being held by the slavers. Even though Demi is responsible for Cherie's current captivity, Valenot Demidoes most of the investigative work. Demi is so annoyingly smug and vain that I found myself actually enjoying her discomfiture when several people took her down a notch or two. Click HERE to read an excerpt.

     This fresh and inventive new series is set in two realms: the present-day, 21st century U.S.A. and the land of Sang, circa 1904. Sang is geographically identical to the real earth, but its political subdivisions have different borders and slightly different names. Sang (derived from the Latin word for blood) is a realm with two distinctly different groups of inhabitants: the Pinkies, who are normal humans, and the Bludmen, who have vampire-like characteristics, including sharp teeth, clawed black fingers, pale skin, super strength, and a need for blood as nourishment. 

     Years ago, Sang was balanced between Pinkies and Bludmen, but for some reason that balance changed. Blud-animals began to wreak havoc in the countryside, and the Pinkies retreated to walled cities where they now zealously guard their non-Blud domesticated animals. The Pinkies hate and fear the Bludmen, viewing them as blood-sucking terrorists, while the Bludmen seek only to earn enough money to buy a vial or two of blood every week or so and go about their business in peace. The Pinkies dress in clothing that completely covers their skin to prevent Bludmen from being attracted to their blood.

     Added into the mix is an element of steampunk, or clockwork, with a variety of steam-driven and spring-loaded oddities and an abundance of clockwork animals, who are frequently used as security. 

     There is little contact between our modern-day mortal earth and the land of Sang, but in novel 1, we learn that some people from the modern mortal world can travel to Sang while their bodies are either asleep or in a coma state. The people of Sang call these time travelers "strangers" and they are immediately imprisoned if they are caught

     In a blog interview, Dawson talks about the underlying themes of her series: "The steampunk fantasy world in which my BLUD series takes place was built to be the perfect backdrop for magic, adventure, and sexy romance, and yet the books have deeper, darker themes that explore my own fears and past wounds. One heroine is escaping from rape and parental abandonment, another is nursing her dying grandmother and has just left an abusive relationship to find herself. Demi, the heroine of Wicked After Midnight, was a depressed art history major in our world who went into a coma from alcohol poisoning, woke up in a parallel universe, and was nearly killed by a warren of vampire rabbits."

     Click HERE to go to a page on Dawson's web site with links to free series-related stories. Click HERE to read my review of the anthology Carniepunk, which contains a prequel short story for the BLUD series.

        NOVEL 1: Wicked As They Come          
     As the story opens, Letitia (Tish) Paisley Everett is making her rounds as a home-visiting nurse. Tish has just removed herself from a bad relationship with a man who tried to control her life, and she's not anxious to get involved with anyone new. One day, she makes a stop at an estate sale held in the home of one of her former patients and finds a gold and ruby locket hidden away in an old book up in the attic. When she examines the locket later, she finds a picture of a sexy man inside and strange writing on the back. After falling asleep, she wakes up, naked, in the strange land of Sang, and standing near her is the guy from the locket, whose name is Criminy (Crim) Stain. (Great name!!) Crim tells Tish that he sent for her through the locket because she has all the qualities he yearns for in his mate. Crim is a magician and a gypsy king who runs a magical circus caravan that travels across the "England" part of Sang.

     At first, Tish tells Crim that she is sure that she is in the middle of one of frequent lucid dreams, but she soon changes her mind, based on this little incident: 
          "I looked down to see a small brown rabbit tenderly nosing out from the wood. It hopped and halted...almost to us."
     "Did you dream that?" he said.
     "The rabbit? Sure, I suppose I did." I said. "He's a cutie. Probably represents my kindness. Or innocence. Something like that."
      The rabbit sniffed my foot, nose twitching, eyes bright. I smiled.
      And then it bit me, sinking fangs into my bare ankle. (p. 17)

     Crim takes Tish back to his Clockwork Caravan, which includes a freaky menagerie of Pinkies, Bludmen, and lots of clockwork animals—lifelike creatures powered by metal gears and springs. Caravan customers pay an admission price of either a copper (coin) or a vial (of blood). Everyone wears gloves to keep from setting off a blood lust episode by touching skin to skin, but Tish accidentally brushes against one of Crim's employees and gets a quick psychic look into the woman's life. This identifies Tish as a "glancer"—a fortune teller, or seer—and so Crim decides to include her as part of his show, calling her Lady Letitia Paisley. Eventually, Tish discovers that when she falls asleep in Sang, she wakes up back home in America and when she falls asleep in America, she wakes up in Sang—but only when she is wearing her locket. 

     One of Crim's Pinkies is Jason Casper Sterling, a concert pianist who has also been transported from modern America and who goes by the name of Casper Sterling in Sang. In fact, he is one of Tish's patients back home in America. Back on mortal earth, Sterling is in a deep coma state, but here in Sang, he is a sexy, Byronesque charmer who makes it clear that he is Crim's rival for Tish's affections. Tish takes to life with the caravan surprisingly well, but the first night of her fortune-telling career ends badly when she faints dead away after telling the fortune of a mysterious man. When she awakens, she discovers that her locket has disappeared, and with it, her ability to transport herself back home. 

      The plot follows Tish and Crim as they search for the locket thief—the villainous Jonah Goodwill, who has established himself as the Magistrate of Manchester. The couple is pursued by the Coppers (vicious, Blud-hating policemen), sea monsters, a vengeful ghost, and scary Blud-animals as they travel through the countryside and the city, and even cross the sea in a clockwork submarine. By the end of the story, Tish has to make some difficult choices: Should she return home to her terminally ill grandmother or stay in Sang? Choose Criminy or Jason? What's a girl to do

     Although there are a few weaknesses in the plot, overall, this is a great start to what looks to be a strong series. I love the world of Sang, with its furry, carnivorous bunnies and its quirky characters. The three strongest characters are Tish, Crim, and Jonah, all of whom are presented with well-developed back stories and nicely drawn personalities. Criminy is a terrific hero—sympathetic, but naughty; playful, but protective. He's a cross between Mr. Darcy and Captain Jack Sparrow. As Criminy tells Tish, "I'm fiendish and unscrupulous, a vicious killer and a thief and a bloodthirsty monster. And maybe a little romantic. But don't tell anyone, or my reputation's shot." (p. 97)

     As Tish searches for the locket, she finds that she has more strength and stamina than she thought possible, and she learns to take responsibility for her own life. Tish tells her story in the first person, and that POV is handled well by the author. Trish does have one TSTL moment, but I'll give her a pass on that because otherwise she makes some good decisions. One aspect of the narration that you need to understand is that Tish is sometimes an unreliable narrator, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. When she "glances" at Criminy early on in the story, she sees both their futures, but she doesn't reveal her vision either to him or to us until very late in the story

     The main weakness I see in the overall plot is the inclusion of Jason, the third point in the love triangle. There is no chance that Tish will choose him, and he's there just to reinforce Tish's resolution that she will never again put herself in a relationship with a man who wants to control her. Jason's character is never explored in any depth, probably because novel 2 tells his full story. Click HERE to read an excerpt.

        NOVELLA 1:  "The Mysterious Madam Morpho"          
     This novella takes place two years after Wicked As They Come, and it is set in Criminy (Crim) Stain's gypsy caravan (i.e., traveling circus) with its eccentric crew of carnivalleros. As the story opens, a mysterious human woman appears at Crim's door asking for a job. She calls herself Imogene Morpho, but Crim and Tish suspect that that's not her real name (and they are correct). Imogene has a trunk full of seemingly dormant butterflies and claims that she has trained them to come to life and perform tricks. If someone will just build her some miniature props and equipment, she and the butterflies will be ready to perform. After Tish "glances" into Imogene's future (which she does not share with the reader), Crim hires the butterfly lady and sends her to Mr. Murdoch, one of his carnivalleros, for assistance with her equipment needs.

     The Mysterious Mr. Murdoch is Crim's artificer and metallurgical zoologist, which means that he constructs and programs the many clockwork animals that provide security for the caravan and participate in some of the acts. Murdoch is even more mysterious than Imogene. Most of the carnivalleros have never seen him, and they spin all kinds of stories and rumors about him in the absence of any concrete facts about his life. Surprisingly (or not), Murdoch allows Imogene to see him, talk with him, and even share a romantic moment.

     Both Madam Morpho and Mr. Murdoch are on the run, each for a different reason. The story line follows the development of their romance and the eventual resolution of their problems with the law. 

     This is a nice little story that is enhanced by the presence of the quirky caravan folk. The lead couple falls in love way too quickly, but this is a novella,  after all, so there isn't much time for the usual cutesy foreplay (although at one point, Murdoch tells Imogene, "You are the most fascinating creature I've ever met that wasn't made of metal.")
. Click HERE to read an excerpt. 

        NOVELLA 2:  "The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance"          
     Although Casper Sterling (Crim's romantic rival in novel 1) appears as one of the main characters in this novella, he is not one of the romantic leads. The soul mates who hook up in this story are both Pinkies: Frannie Pleasance, owner of a pet shop, and Thom Maccallan, a Scottish fireman. Frannie lives alone above her shop, spending her days collecting, caring for, and selling pets to some of the wealthiest people in London. Live pets are somewhat rare in this world, having mostly been eaten by the hordes of savagely carnivorous bludrats and other blud-animals who thrive in both the cities and the countryside.

     As the story opens, Frannie rescues Casper from being chewed up by bludrats as he lies drunk in an alley after being hit over the head. Because Casper looks exactly like Frannie's dead brother, she drags him home and allows him to stay in her spare room as a lodger until he gets himself together. Casper isn't a very nice person in this story as he constantly gets drunk, breaks his promise to help Frannie around the shop, and tries to hit on her even though she tells him, "No thanks." At this point in his life, Casper is a famous (and obnoxious) London harpsichordist—kind of a rock star—and his ego is bigger than ever.

     When someone firebombs Frannie's house, the firemen save the building, and Thom, the fire chief, falls for Frannie (and vice versa). The story follows the development of their romance as they try to figure out who is trying to harm Frannie and why. The answer to that question doesn't really make much sense, but if you don't think about it too hard, the story, in general, is nicely told, with a a pair of lead lovers who have quirky back stories and interesting personalities. All the way through, the reader learns that Casper is something more (or less) than human, but no concrete information is given about his "condition." That must wait for novel 2
. Click HERE to read an excerpt. 

        NOVEL 2:  Wicked As She Wants          
     After Casper's sad misadventures in Wicked As They Come and "The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance," it's finally time for him to find his true love and his HEA. As the novel begins, Casper is truly down and out, playing the harpsichord in a dingy Blud bar and spending most of his time in a state of deep drunkenness. One day while Casper is practicing, a half-starved Bludwoman attacks him for his blood. This is Ahnastasia (Ahna) Feodor, princess of the Great Snow Court of Muscovy, crown capitol of the Blud Empire of Freesia. Ahna was kidnapped four years ago, drained, stuffed into a suitcase, and shipped back and forth to various points around the world. Somehow that suitcase found its way to Casper's building, where it was hidden under the staircase. We never learn why the suitcase never reached its destination, which happened to be the shop of a daimon sorcerer who planned to decapitate her and sell her head.

     For the first half of the story, Ahna is an insufferable, arrogant shrew, treating Casper as if he were her slave and generally making herself as obnoxious as possible. When Casper kisses her fairly early in the story, it's a bit of a shock to the reader, because she has been so completely unpleasant and there has been no hint of romantic feelings on his part. The plot follows Casper and Ahna as they make their way to Freesia so that Ahna can defeat (and kill) Ravenna, the witch who killed her parents and took over the throne. Also along for the ride is Lorelei Keen, a young girl whom Casper rescued after she entered Sang as a Stranger.

     Although this novel has a few compelling moments, it's just not up to the high standard set by Wicked As They Get. Ahna is such an unpleasant character for much of the story that it's hard to have much sympathy for her. Casper fares much better in this novel as he comes to terms with his addiction to bludwine and begins to control his drunkenness. He's a much kinder person in this novel than in any of the previous stories. Several characters from previous parts of the series either appear or are discussed (e.g., Reve, the daimon costumer; Mr. Sweeting, the evil daimon sorcerer) As the story line plays out, Casper is reading Walt Whitman's Song of Myself and he keeps inserting lines from that poem into his conversations with Ahnakind of interesting but also a bit odd because some of the lines are relatively obscure. 

     For me, the weakest element (other than Ahna's annoying character) is the ending, both the part dealing with Casper's fate and the requisite showdown between Ahna and Ravenna. Without going into any Spoilers, I'll just say that they both felt anticlimactic and, in the case of Casper, relatively predictable. Maybe my problem is that I was so blown away by the first novel in the series that I find it hard to accept the fact that the author has been unable to match the intensity, plot development, and characterization of that booknot in this novel and not in the two novellas. This isn't a terrible novel by any definition; it's just not as good as I expected it to be. Click HERE to read an excerpt. 

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