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Friday, November 2, 2012

Maggie Shayne: THE PORTAL TRILOGY

Author:  Maggie Shayne  
Series:  THE PORTAL TRILOGY  
Plot Type:  SMR  
Ratings:  V3; S3; H1
Publisher and Titles:  Harlequin Mira
        "Legacy of the Witch" (free e-novella prequel, 9/2012)
        Mark of the Witch (9/2012)
        Daughter of the Spellcaster (11/2012)
        Blood of the Sorceress (1/2013) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 3/8/13 to include a review of the third novel in the series, Blood of the Sorceress. That review appears first, followed by reviews of the prequel e-novella and novels 1 and 2:

          NOVEL 3:  Blood of the Sorceress          
     The third novel brings the series story arc to its climactic ending as Demetrius and Lilia finally reunite after 3,500 years and achieve their HEAbut not without a great deal of danger and difficulty. Here's the multi-layered problem: Demetrius mustof his own free willask Lilia for the third piece of his soul before Beltane (May 1). If he does this, he will become human once again, losing his immortality and his magical talents, but gaining her love and devotion for as long as they live. If he does not ask for his soul-piece before Beltane, both he and Lilia (and her sisters) will die on Beltane. If Lilia dies either before Beltane or before Demetrius takes his soul-piece back, he will "expire into a death from which there is no return. He will simply cease to exist." (p. 57)

     As the story opens (on February 2), Demetrius awakens as a human man in the icy cave near Milbury, New York, that has been featured in the previous two novels. He manages to steal clothing, money, and a bus ticket to New York and winds up penniless on the streets of Manhattan hanging out with Gus, another homeless man. When Demetrius appears in his corporeal body in the cave, Lilia (Demetrius' long-lost lover who exists only in spirit form) is watching from between the worlds, just as she has kept watch over him for all these centuries. When he gets to New York, she makes him remember how to make the physical connection between his magical dagger and chalice thus bringing her back to corporeal life, but her appearance frightens him so much that he runs into the path of a car and is severely injured. As it turns out, the man who ran over Demetrius is very wealthy and very drunk and doesn't want anyone to know about his transgression, so he gifts Demetrius and Gus with a fabulous estate in Arizona and plenty of money to maintain it. (This last bit of plot is the most outlandish absurdity of the series.) By the time Lilia finds Demetrius in Arizona, there are just a few days left before Beltane, so the pressure is on.

     To complicate matters (and to provide an action plot to offset the romance plot), the villainous Father Dom comes out of his coma the moment Lilia re-enters the world as a mortal. He sets out for Arizona to convince Demetrius to turn down Lilia's offer of the soul-piece, telling Demetrius that Lilia is responsible for his horrific punishment during the past centuries and that she is a wicked witch who just wants to take his powers for herself. As part of the rules of this whole mythology, Lilia can't explain the live-die-Beltane situation to Demitrius. She can only tell him that she loves him and that he will have a better, more enjoyable life as a human. Demitrius, however, likes his magical powers and his immortality and doesn't want to give them up, and besides, Father Dom has brainwashed Demitrius into believing that Lilia is lying to him.

     As Beltane rapidly approaches, the plot plays out as Lilia desperately tries to convince Demetrius to take the final piece of his soul, and Father Dom (who turns out to be much more than a simple priest) tries even harder to turn Demetrius against Lilia. Eventually, the action moves back to New York where the other two sisters get involved in the final showdown. 

     You'll probably be able to predict the manner in which the conflict is resolved about half-way through the bookat least I could, just by thinking about the original story of the witches' death and the people involved. This has been a fairly standard paranormal romance series, but with a more interesting and complex series story arc than most. Lilia and Demetrius are certainly the most tortured and anguished of the three couples, and given their history, that's entirely understandable. Please don't read this book before you've read the other two novels and the novella. Otherwise, you'll lose the build-up of the back story.

          WORLD-BUILDING          
     The premise of the series is that three Daughters of Ishtar (all witches) in Ancient Babylonia were executed (thrown from a cliff) for practicing their Craft.  Their names were Indira, Magdalena, and LiliaAlong with them, Lilia's lover, Demetrius, was tortured and killed because he killed the king in an unsuccessful attempt to save Lilia's life. The villainous priest who orchestrated the executions planned to tear out Demetrius' soul so that he would be condemned forever to Hell, but the witches cast a spell to take Demetrius' soul before the priest could get his hands on it, and then they divided it into three parts. Each witch hid her piece of the soul until some future time when she can safely return it to Demetrius, who must remain in Hell until he gets back all three parts. 

     Each book tells the angst-filled love story of one of the witches as she goes through all sorts of agonizing experiences in order to return her piece to Demetrius. After all these centuries in Hell, Demetrius has become a dark and dangerous spiritual force, so even though he's gradually getting his soul back, he is a danger to the witches and their loved ones. The series theme is succinctly summarized in the classic Beatles' song, "All You Need Is Love."  Here, Lilia explains that theme further: "Love. It's all about love. Love destroyed, love denied, love betrayed, love that outlives death and defies all the rules of the Universe to fulfill itself." (Blood of the Sorceress, p. 44)

     Click HERE to go to Shayne's PORTAL SERIES web site, which includes information about various aspects of the series, including the "Online Book of Shadows," a guide to spell casting.

          E-NOVELLA PREQUEL:  Legacy of the Witch          
     This short novella sets up the back story for the series. In the opening scene, Amarrah is a young girl living in Iraq in 1981. All her life, she has had memories of another life, one in which she was a slave girl in a harem in ancient Babylonia (1500 B. C.) where she witnessed the execution of three witches who had been kind to her. As Amarrah's grandmother is dying she entrusts Amarrah with a "miniature treasure chest, an ancient one. It was a couple of feet long, maybe half that deep, with a top that curved and was banded in black iron. It was locked with a hasp and antique padlock." The box contains information related to the three witches, and Amarrah's grandmother assures her that only she will know exactly what to do with it. Unfortunately, a customs inspector takes the box away from Amarrah as she is leaving Iraq for America.

    The story then jumps to New York in 1992. Amarrah is now 24 and is finishing up her final semester of college when she sees her box on a TV antiques show. The woman who has possession of the box says that her fiance brought it back from Iraq. Amarrah tracks the owner in his home in Ohio, where she finds him to be a tall, dark, and handsome replica of the soldier who was the lover of the original Amarrah back in Babylonia. The plot plays out as they retrieve the box and fall in love.

     Even though this story has a romance and a plot, it is strictly a bridge to the PORTAL series. Its only value is that it gives the reader the back story for the mythology of the series. To date, this novella is free for the Kindle and the Nook. Click HERE to download the Kindle version. Click HERE to download the Nook version. The Apple Store sells it for $1.99. Click HERE for that download.

          NOVEL 1:  Mark of the Witch          
     The first novel tells the story of the witch Indira, who has changed from a dark-skinned brunette in Ancient Babylonia to a short blond in 21st-century Brooklyn. Modern-day Indira, whose nickname now is Indie, is having strange nightmares about being thrown off a cliff by a man she loves. As her dreams continue, we recognize that she is one of the witches in Amarrah's story. When one of the nightmares leaves Indie with rope-burn scars on her wrists, she goes to her friend Rayne for help. Rayne is the leader of the witches' coven that Indie used to belong to, until she lost her faith. Rayne enlists the aid of her brother, Tomas, who is a priest in an obscure Gnostic sect. In the meantime, Indie swings back and forth from being feisty to being terrified as the nightmares and their physical manifestations become more and more intense. As the story progresses, she begins to remember more and more about her past life as Indira, the executed witch, and she recognizes Tomas as the one who pushed her to her death.

     The plot follows Indie, Tomas, and Rayne, along with the villainous Father Dominick (Dom), as they make their way through a convoluted plot that involves a mysterious amulet, a portal to Hell, and a demon. The point of view alternates between Indie's first-person voice and Tomas' third-person narrative.

     There are a couple of silly scenes, most notably the one in which Indie shows up wearing bunny pajamas and carrying milk and cookies when she decides to share the contents of some sacred scrolls with Tomas. Really? Bunny PJs and Oreos in the middle of a demonic crisis? In another absurd scene, Indie flashes back to the reason she petulantly turned her back on witchcraft: She tried to use her Craft to learn the identity of her soul mate and it didn't work. Based solely on that experience, she decided that there's no such thing as magic.

     I had a hard time getting through this book. Although the mythology is inventive, the characters are thinly drawn, including the villain, who is a one-note, evil nut-job. Tomas' character is strange, in that he is a well-educated man, but so extremely naive that he never fact-checks anything that Dom tells him about the big demon threat that is the center of the plotat least not until he meets Indie and his lustful thoughts overcome his priestliness. Tomas is like a cult victim, brainwashed and seemingly incapable of independent thought regarding the demon, although he is having his doubts about the priesthood. We never really get to know any of the characters because we only see them in the context of their present circumstances. We do see the execution scene, but again, it doesn't really give us any real insight into the characters. The heroine in the prequel novella is actually a much better developed character than anyone in this book. The second book is coming out shortly, so I'll give that one a try in the hopes that things will get better.


          NOVEL 2:  Daughter of the Spellcaster          
     This novel starts out like one of those Harlequin romances that could be entitled The Billionaire's Secret Baby, but it soon becomes creepily reminiscent of the classic horror film, Rosemary's Baby

     The second book of the series tells the story of the second sister, Magdalena. In her 21st-century incarnation, Magdalena is Lena Dunkirk, who has been brought up in a world of witchcraft, having done her first scrying when she was only a child. During that initial scrying experience, Lena visualized herself as one of three Arabian sisters and saw a handsome prince who was leaving her temporarily but promised to come back and marry her. Decades later, Lena met Ryan McNally, an extremely wealthy and handsome playboy who looked exactly like that prince, and the two had an affair that resulted in her pregnancy. Lena was sure that Ryan would see her as a gold-digger if she told him about the baby, so she left him behind and went with her mother to live in a small town in upstate New York. If you read book 1, you'll recognize that this is the same area in which Indira and Tomas had their adventures.

     The story begins when Lena is eight months pregnant and receives news that Ryan's father, Ernst, has died. Lena loved Ernst very much, so she goes to the funeral, where she confronts Ryan with his impending fatherhood. When Ernst's will is read, Lena is shocked to learn she and her baby receive a generous bequest. Ernst's will also leaves bequests to two others: his son, Ryan, and his guru, Bahru. When Ryan was eleven, his mother died, and Ernst fell apart, spending the rest of his life grieving and searching for solace in various spiritual beliefs. Bahru became his personal guru and accompanied him all over the world during this search. Needless to say, Ryan dislikes and distrusts Bahru, the man who led his father away from him, farming him out to nannies and boarding schools. Ryan is determined never to give his heart to anyone because he never wants to experience the mind-numbing grief that ruined his father'sand his ownlife.

    Once again, decorative wooden boxes play an important part of the magical story line. Lena gets her box from Ernst by way of Bahru, and it contains the same bejeweled, silver chalice that she saw during her childhood scrying. Ryan gets his box from his father's attorney, and it contains a gold athame (a ceremonial dagger) that shoots fire. (The first time he handles it, he burns a hole in the curtains.)

     The plot focuses on Ryan and Lena as they first try to coexist for the sake of their forthcoming child, but then find themselves falling deeply in love. In the meantime, it turns out that Bahru isn't what he seems, and neither are some of the seemingly kindly townsfolk. Lena soon finds herself and her baby in grave danger, and she's not sure that she can trust Ryanor maybe she can. Remember that Demetrius is still out there, and he'll do anything to get back all of the pieces of his soul.

     This is a better story with more fully developed characters than the previous one. The angst is a bit overdone, particularly for Lena, as she jolts back and forth from deep distrust of Ryan to lustful love and back again on almost an hourly basis. Both of the lead characters are well drawn with mostly believable fears and emotions (except for all that angst)especially Ryan, who is the character who changes the most during the course of the story. In the beginning, he dismisses Lena's Craft as being "cute," but by the end, he is a true believer in magic. The plot plays out in a manner that gradually builds suspense and horror, although the bad guys are fairly easy to spot early in the story. The next book is due out shortly, and that story will involve the delivery of the final piece of Demetrius' soul.

     Just a word about the cover art: The woman fits Lena's description perfectly, but the man looks nothing like Ryan, who is supposed to be a blue-eyed, brown-haired man of Irish-American heritage.

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