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Carlos Fuentes, who died in May 2012, is one of Mexico's most celebrated writers. He has written more than a dozen novels and story collections and has won many prestigious prizes and awards.
In this short (122 pages) novel. Fuentes takes the classic Bram Stoker tale of Count Dracula, sets it in modern-day urban Mexico, and gives it a major twist. In this story, Fuentes answers the question, "Where and how would an ancient vampire live in today's world?" Vlad's homeland of Eastern Europe is in a state of war and civil disruption, and he's desperate to find a place where he can just disappear. Mexico City, with its vast population and its corrupt police force seems just the place. This vampire is not one of the modern boy-friend vampires that we see on True Blood. This one is based on the tales of Vlad the Impaler: "Vlad liked to cut off noses, ears, genitals, arms, and legs. Burn, boil, roast, crucify, bury alive...He sopped up the blood of his victims with his bread." (p. 89)
Unlike the Victorian-age vampire in Stoker's tale, this modern-day vampire—Count Vladimir Radu ("My friends call me Vlad.")—needs more than just his creepy valet to smooth his way through his undead life. He needs a lawyer and a real estate agent as well, both of whom he finds in a single, prosperous, middle-class family. Yves Navarro and his charming wife, Ascunción, are seemingly content in their comfortable suburban life. Navarro is a smug, self-satisfied lawyer who works for the eccentric Eloy Zurinaga, and Ascunción is a successful real estate agent. When Zurinaga asks for Navarro's help in finding appropriate housing for his friend, Vlad, Navarro is happy to assist. During their conversation, Zurinaga warns Navarro, "As you know, it's preferable to be the master of your own downfall rather than to find yourself the victim of forces beyond your control," (p. 20) but what Navarro doesn't realize until too late is that as soon as he agrees to help Vlad, he is no longer the master of any aspect of his own life.
Although Navarro thinks that Vlad's housing requests are a bit strange—no windows, floor drains in every room, an escape tunnel out the back to a ravine—he goes along with the client's wishes, wanting to please his employer. The tension in the novel comes from the fact that the narrator (Navarro) is totally ignorant of what's really going on, but the reader—and most of the other characters—know everything. Fuentes builds on this knowledge gap as he gives Navarro a number of interior monologues about his lovely daughter (Magdalena), his satisfying sexual relationship with Ascunción, and their long, rhapsodic daily breakfasts. The only sad part of their life is their continuing grief over the drowning death of their young son. Navarro muses, "The sea never returned him....I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean." (p. 27)
As soon as Vlad arrives on the scene, everything changes in the Navarro household. First, Navarro suspects that Vlad has been spying on them in their bedroom. Then, he finds a photograph of Ascunción and Magdalena hidden away in Vlad's closet. Navarro is just beginning to piece together Vlad's true identity when Ascunción disappears, and Navarro has strange after-effects from a dinner with Vlad that comes close to being a cliché of vampire legends. When Zurinaga gives Navarro a written history (with a twist) of Vlad the Impaler, all of the pieces finally fall into place, and as the inevitable events play out, they destroy the mirage of Navarro's happy life.
The story contains some scenes that are truly scary and some that are disgustingly nauseating, particularly the sickening one that features the wanton use of squirrels by little girls. Those scenes, contrasted with the everyday episodes of Navarro's daily life, are extremely jarring. The tone veers sharply back and forth from dark humor to outrageous gore to quirky characterizations to sweaty fear. Descriptions of creepy Vlad and hunch-backed Borgo are darkly humorous. Borgo, with his obsequiously ghoulish behavior, could be a character created by Mel Brooks channeling Charles Dickens. Vlad first appears as a wannabe urban fantasy hero, wearing the requisite all-black ensemble right down to his black moccasins, but with a comically ill-fitting hairpiece and a droopy fake mustache. Fuentes uses any number of traditional vampiric images and expressions, all to great effect. The reader groans when Vlad murmurs, "I never drink...wine," (p. 37), but poor, naive Navarro initially accepts the comment without further thought.
This novel is definitely not for everyone, but if you enjoy offbeat vampire fiction produced by a master writer, you'll get a chill from this one. Click HERE to read Jeff Vandermeer's excellent review of this book in the NY Times.
This is the same world in which Jane Jameson and her motley crew hang out in the NICE GIRLS series. The setting is Half-Moon Hollow, Kentucky, a small town that is crawling with supernaturals. Click HERE to go to my review of the NICE GIRLS series to read a full description of the Half-Moon Hollow world.
E-NOVELLA: Driving Mr. Dead
Miranda Puckett is a plucky—but extremely klutzy—young woman who views life as "the search for the next great adventure." Miranda likes "waking up each morning not knowing what I would be doing by the end of the day."Unfortunately, everything that Miranda gets involved in goes bad—horribly bad. Every single career that she has tried has failed miserably—photographer, yacht mechanic, waitress in a vampire bar, taxi driver, magician's assistant. You name it, she's tried it—and failed. As this story begins, Miranda is on her first assignment for Iris Scanlon's vampire concierge service (Beeline). She is supposed to pick up a reclusive vampire in Washington State and drive him back to Half-Moon Hollow in a SUV that has been specially converted for 24-hour-a-day use by vampires. Collin Sutherland, Miranda's haughty client, is a sexy (of course) 260-year-old vampire who has lived alone in an isolated rural area since 1948. Collin has psychic abilities, and his senses get overwhelmed when there are lots of people around. As it turns out, accident-prone Miranda is just what he needs to kick-start his lonely life. As they head out on their road trip, they have one catastrophe after another until they wind up as penniless hitchhikers. Along the way, they fall head over heels in love (as we knew they would from page 1). This is a typical Harper story, with its feisty heroine and arrogant hero (who just needs a modern woman to bring him down a notch or two). There's no evil villain, just their bizarre on-the-road misadventures. A minor subplot has Miranda worrying about what to do about her ex-fiancé, who has cheated on her but claims that he wants her back, and that story line ends quite satisfactorily (if predictably). The humor comes from the sarcasm-filled conversations between Miranda and Collin and from their various farcical calamities. The story is light and fluffy and fun. Just don't think too hard about the sprinkling of inconsistencies in the plot.
BOOK 1: The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires
The heroine of this book is Iris Scanlon, whom we met in Nice Girls Don't Bite Their Neighbors when she planned Jane's wedding. Iris has a college degree in botany, but she had to return in Half-Moon Hollow after her parents died to serve as a surrogate mom to her teen-age sister, Gigi. Iris has created a career for herself as a day walker—a person who handles the day-to-day needs of the town's vampire population (e.g., delivering synthetic blood, planning weddings, tracking down various weird products that the computer-illiterate vamps don't know how to find on Google). With Gigi almost ready to head off to college, Iris foresees a lonely life for herself as a young single woman in small-town Kentucky. Then, one day everything changes when Iris stops in to leave some papers for a new client to sign and finds that client lying unconscious on his kitchen floor—poisoned by unknown substances that were injected into his synthetic blood bag.
That client is Cletus (Cal) Calix, an undercover investigator for the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead. Cal is investigating a series of cases in which vampires have gone berserk and killed humans. Cal suspects that someone spiked those vampires' blood supply, and he has traced the source to Half-Moon Hollow. The story follows the usual two paths: the romance and the action. Cal is an imperious, but sexy, ancient vampire who looks down on humans as inferior beings, fit only to serve their betters—the vampires. Iris is the stereotypical spunky, independent, smart human woman who is highly offended by Cal's pretentious attitude. Naturally enough, physical passion soon overcomes their mutual disdain, and the romance heats up quickly, especially when Iris allows Cal to hide out at her house as he heals from the poison that has spread throughout his system.
The action plot involves the couple's investigation of the poisoned blood. Both Iris and Cal get into dangerous situations—both separately and together—and both suffer through a multitude of serious injuries. This is a typical Harper story, with its startling leaps between alternating scenes of snarky dialogue, hot sex, and dark and brutal violence. Harper's stories are always light and fluffy on the surface, but her villains are generally cruel and monstrous, and this book is no exception.
Iris and Cal have more dimension than some of Harper's romantic couples, each having a fully developed back story that is divulged in a believable manner. The identity of the villain is fairly easy to guess, although Harper provides the requisite number of red herrings to throw the protagonists—and the reader—off the track.
The story takes place in the contemporary human world with a heroine who is a psychiatrist specializing in the study of serial killers. Dr. Charlotte (Charlie) Stone has a very compelling reason for her life work: She herself was nearly a victim of a serial killer when she was seventeen. Now, fifteen years later, Charlie spends her time deep in research as she interviews serial killers and catalogues her work. At this point, she is one of the world’s leading experts in her field.
Charlie tries very hard to lead a normal, if isolated, life. The Boardwalk Killer—the one from whom she had her narrow escape—has never been caught, and deep down she worries that he will somehow find her. Charlie has another, weirder, problem as well. Since she was four years old, she has been able to see the ghosts of the recently deceased—particularly those who die violently. She can't speak with them, but they sometimes hang around her for several days after their deaths.
At the end of this book, Robards indicates that more books about Charlie will follow, but so far, no future titles are available. Click HERE to read an excerpt of The Last Victim.
BOOK 1:The Last Victim
As the story opens, Charlie is working at a prison in Virginia when the FBI asks for her assistance in solving a serial killer case in which the murderer is using the same M.O. as the Boardwalk Killer used fifteen years ago. Just as Charlie is refusing the agents’ request, Michael Garland, the prisoner Charlotte just finished interviewing, is stabbed and dies horribly as Charlie attempts to staunch his fatal chest wound. Charlotte knows that Garland’s ghost will be hanging around the prison for awhile, so she agrees to go along with the FBI agents just to get away until the coast is clear. Unfortunately for Charlie, Garland’s ghost has attached itself to her, and he intends to make her life miserable—murmuring salacious comments in her ear, making veiled threats, and stalking her everywhere. The problem is, Charlie is attracted to Garland, and he obviously has some feelings for her as well.
In the meantime, Charlie works with handsome FBI agent Tony Bartoli and his team to solve a grisly murder and try to save the life of a kidnapped teenage girl. When Charlie visits the crime scene, the ghosts of the victims give her clues and Tony soon realizes that she has psychic abilities. Garland keeps popping up with his sarcastic and suggestive remarks, keeping Charlie constantly off balance. The plot is divided between the ghostly relationship and the search for the killer. There is also a mild budding friendship/romance between Charlie and Tony, but that one doesn't go beyond a few kisses in this book, mainly because Garland keeps butting in. The Charlie-Garland relationship, on the other hand, gets fiery as the couple learns just how much pleasure they can enjoy during some dreamy scenes of astral projection. This is basically a police procedural thriller plot with a definite horror edge. The murder victims are graphically described, and the ghosts that Charlie sees are covered with bloody, gaping wounds. Charlie spends most of the story in a state of perpetual nausea (accompanied by vomiting), and Garland's surprise pop-in appearances turn her into a nervous wreck.The identity of the killer is tough to predict because we aren't given all the facts until the after-capture wrap-up scene in which Tony lays out all the evidence. The ending feels contrived because so many details and events are forced into an implausible resolution. The entire premise of this book—that a psychiatrist who has spent her entire career studying psychopaths and who has herself been a victim of one—would ever fall head over heels for a serial killer is absurd. Of course, Garland swears that he is innocent, but doesn't every psychopath make that claim? And shouldn't Charlie know better? This is, after all, what she does for a living. Charlie has only Garland's word that he is innocent. She has read all of Garland's trial transcripts, and she knows that solid DNA evidence was used to get the conviction that put him on Death Row. That transcript details how he tortured and killed seven women. With all of this evidence and with all of her years of training, though, all Charlie can think about is how hot Garland is. Give me a break! I couldn't really enjoy the story because I was so appalled at Charlie's behavior. She may be a professional, but she comes across as unstable, naive, and weak. And Garland may be hot, but he is just plain creepy throughout most of the book. I'm sure that Robards will clean up Garland's past in the next book, but that doesn't save this one. The thriller part of the plot is fine, and the idea of the victim studying those who victimized her is great. I just can't get past the concept of having a convicted serial killer as the primary love interest.
This post was revised and updated on 5/6/13 to include a review of the second book in the series,The Lost.That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1:
BOOK 2: The Lost
As the story opens, Grif and Kit are living together in a relatively happy romantic relationship—except for the fact that Grif is still obsessed with finding out who killed him and his wife, Evie, 50 years ago. Grif has been given Heavenly permission to stay on Earth and solve the mystery of his death, but there are some angels who aren't completely on board with this decision, particularly when they see that he has fallen in love with Kit. Each time Grif calls out Evie's name during his frequent nightmares about the night of his murder, Kit can't help but wonder if Grif will ever love her as much as he loves/loved Evie. Their complicated relationship is front and center throughout the entire story, all the way to the bittersweet ending. At the end of the previous book, Grif regained some, but not all, of his angelic characteristics. As he explains, "I'm both ageless and clothed in mortal flesh....I have free will like all humans, but am still bound to the Everlast. In short, Purity lives in me, even though it shouldn't." (p. 46) Grif is still getting assignments from his angelic supervisor, Sarge, to approach dying victims of violent deaths and Take their souls to the Everlast. Whenever Grif gets a Take assignment, Kit is furious that he won't try to save the victim. Sometimes she tries to get to the victim before Grif does, believing that her intervention might save that person's life. Unfortunately, Kit's "savior" missions always end badly, usually with Kit having to be rescued from severe injury or death. Kit has always been a character who automatically jumps into action without a plan and without a single thought about the consequences of her actions—hence the high number of her TSTL moments. Kit wants things both ways: She wants to be an independent woman who can take care of herself, even in the dangerous situations she puts herself into, but she also wants Grif always tobe there to protect her, even though she sometimes sneaks away to do things that he has warned her stay away from. The action part of the story involves three villains: one supernatural and two human. The supernatural bad guy is Scratch, a fallen angel who feeds on negative emotions and steals souls. Scratch hones in on Kit's bright and shining soul and informs her that he plans to corrupt and destroy her purity and take her soul into the Eternal Forest (i.e., Hell). The two human villains each head up rival drug-dealing crime syndicates. When young drug addicts begin to die horrible deaths from the effects of a new and fatal drug, Kit is determined to investigate the cases and write some scathing stories for her aunt's newspaper. Grif is terrified that Scratch will make good on his threat to destroy Kit, so he does his best to protect her in between Sarge's soul-Taking assignments. As their investigation moves along, an old friend of Kit's is back on the scene. That would be Detective Dennis Carlisle, who would be very happy to take over Grif's position as Kit's boyfriend.
Although the heavy emphasis on Kit's extreme rockabilly lifestyle can become annoying, it becomes more understandable after she explains the reasons for her retro choice:"Her entree into the rockabilly lifestyle had not only come at a time when her life had lacked style...it'd lacked life....Kit vowed to let nothing into her life that didn't make at least one of her senses explode. Every bit of furniture adorning her home was carefully considered....Even the food she put in her body had to be wanted more than needed. Kit didn't want merely to be sustained. She didn't want only to exist...Those who didn't know her thought only that she wanted to live in the past. What they couldn't know was that the rockabilly lifestyle actually simplified things for her in a way that someone driven by the latest fashions and fads couldn't enjoy. Having set lifestyle parameters took the angst out of deciding what car to drive or how to dress. Wouldn't the masses be amazed to learn that, in living an extreme lifestyle, Kit was actually playing it safe?" (p. 136) All in all, I'd say that this book is a step up from the first one. Even with the predictability of the drug plot outcome (the true villain's identity is telegraphed early on), this story has compelling action and a gut-wrenching ending that will have you counting the days until book 3. Click HERE to read chapter one of The Lost.
The supernaturals in this world are angels, but they share many of the same emotions and frustrations as human beings. According to this mythology, when a person dies, he or she goes through an incubation period during which all memories of earthly life are wiped away. After the memory wipe, the now-angel goes on to the Everlast (i.e., heaven, paradise, kingdom come, cloud 9—take your pick).
Problematically, the incubation doesn't always work, and angels who maintain their memories are pressed into service as celestial Centurions—angels who assist the recently deceased at the beginning of their journey into the Everlast. The Centurions are "the losers. The few murdered souls that incubation couldn't cure. Still tethered to the Surface by memory and regret, they were pressed into assisting others to cross into the Everlast. The idea was that helping others would relieve their mental anguish. Then they, too, would be able to enter Paradise proper." (p. 48) People who die young and/or violently have the most trouble getting into Everlast because they find it so difficult to give up their emotional ties to their mortal lives.
The series hero is Griffin (Grif) Shaw, who was a private investigator (PI) back in the 1950s until he was murdered along with his beautiful wife, Evie. Grif's memories of Evie are still very clear and extremely painful, and no amount of incubation has been able to wipe them away. As a result, Griffin has been a Centurion for the past 60 years, and not a very successful one. Grif crudely describes his Centurion duties as "Secure the Take. Clean 'em up. Bring 'em home." (p 48) (The "Take" is the deceased.)
This is an inventive mythology, with its grumpy angels and hard-luck hero who is forced to deal with his mortality sixty years after he thought that he was through with it for good. CELESTIAL BLUES tries hard to be classic noir fiction, in which "the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics...are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has...lean, direct writing style and...gritty realism."(George Tuttle, Mystery Scene magazine, 1994) It comes close (even has many characters smoking their lungs out, which seems improbable in today's cancer-conscious world), but it doesn't quite make the cut, mostly due to plot holes and characterization problems.
BOOK 1: The Taken
In the opening scene, Grif is sent to a sleazy Las Vegas motel to pick up his latest Take, investigative reporter Nicole Rockwell, who was murdered when she went undercover as a hooker to investigate a prostitution ring involving some of Sin City's most influential movers and shakers. According to this mythology, the clothes that you die in are the clothes that you you wear for eternity, so Nicole begs Griffin to let her change out of her skimpy hooker outfit and into her regular clothes. Griffin agrees, and—against all the rules—brings her back to life for a few moments so that she can accomplish that task. Unfortunately, Nicole tricks Griffin by scribbling something in her notebook before Grif makes her dead again, and that tiny note changes everything for Grif and for Katherine (Kit) Craig, Nicole's best friend, who is waiting for Nicole in the motel parking lot. As Nicole finally heads off to the Everlast, a powerful Pure angel named Anas intervenes. She harshly reprimands Grif for allowing Nicole to come back to life and rips off Grif's wings, making him mortal again and blocking him from returning to the Everlast. Then, Grif's supervising angel (whom he calls Sarge) shows up to give Grif the rest of the bad news. Grif's misstep with Nicole has altered fate, ensuring that Kit will die violently and that Grif will feel her death as if it were his own. Grif has to face the fact that if he hadn't broken the rules for Nicole, Kit would not be facing imminent death.
As Grif tries to accustom himself to being human again, he decides to make the best of a bad situation by investigating his and Evie's deaths. Even more important, he is determined to defy Sarge and Anas and save Kit's life. These are the two main plot lines. After Grif saves Kit from the first round of attacks on her life, the two team up to track down Nicole's killer, uncover the identities of the men behind the prostitution ring, and solve the mystery of Evie's death. At first, Kit believes that Evie must be Grif's grandmother because she died so long ago, but eventually Grif tells Kit all about his angel situation. Predictably, Kit thinks that Grif is having some kind of hallucinatory breakdown, but by this time she's already started to fall for him, so they keep up their investigation. As their mutual attraction grows stronger, the attacks on both their lives grow more intense, and clues begin to accumulate. Now all they need is some solid evidence. The plot spirals down into a sickening series of violent acts against women by a series of men who are portrayed as heartlessly cruel, misogynistic bullies.
Handsome but hapless Grif is the typical dark, angst-filled noir hero of 1950s detective stories, and dauntless, quirky Kit is the prototypical girl reporter whose characterization traces back to the 1940s comic strip, Brenda Starr. Unfortunately, their lack of depth makes them both come off as cardboard stereotypes. They do make a likely match, though, because Kit revels in the rockabilly world of retro clothing and entertainment from the 1950s, while Grif is the genuine article. In fact, he's still wearing the suit and fedora that he was wearing the night he died all those many years ago. The whole rockabilly concept doesn't quite work as an ongoing characterization device, probably because it seems more like an applied artificiality than a real lifestyle that would be adopted so completely by a supposedly mature woman. Kit smokes 50-year-old Gauloises, always wears retro clothes, drives a Duetto, lives amongst her 1950s decor, etc. On the other hand, Kit's police detective friend is also a rockabilly, but he saves it for his leisure time, which is much more believable.
The anti-Mormon, anti-male action plot is very disturbing and extremely violent. Ninety percent of the men in this book are total scumbags, and many of the women are perpetual victims. It's an uncomfortable story to read, even though you always know deep down that the bad guys will eventually get their just punishment. The plot has a number of holes, which I can't discuss here because I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I will tell you that they definitely weaken the resolution of both the primary and the secondary conflicts. In the end, the final outcome of Grif's problematic situation with Sarge and Anas seems implausible and rushed and comes very close to being a rainbows-and-kittens kind of ending. The supporting characters are, for the most part, interesting and quirky. The one ringer is an ex-hooker cosmetologist who pontificates like a doctoral candidate in philosophy. So far, this is a series with a promising premise but a disappointing delivery. Click HERE to read chapter one of The Taken.
This post was revised and updated on 4/13/13 to include a review of the second book in the series,Beauty Awakened.That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1:
BOOK 2: Beauty Awakened
The second book tells the love story of Zacharel's warrior, Koldo, and a 22-year-old human woman who lives in Wichita, Kansas: Nicola (Co Co) Lane. Koldo first sees Nicola in a demon-infested hospital room where she is visiting her terminally ill twin sister, Laila (La La). Although both girls were born with defective hearts, Koldo immediately recognizes that the demons are killing both girls by filling them with fear and foreboding. If they can overcome their fears, their hearts will heal and they will live normal lives. Koldo is instantly attracted to Nicola, so he vows to teach her to fight off her fears, and in the process, she can teach her sister. Of course, the demons do everything they can to stop Koldo from succeeding, and that's what makes up much of the action. This central idea—that good thoughts have the power to physically heal you when medicine can't—is a major weakness in the story line because it is so contrary to reality. Yes, optimism and hope can help a person overcome some of life's problems, but a congenital heart defect is what it is, and the best that can be said is that positive emotions will help a person deal with such a condition—but will not make it go away. In that sense, I'd have to say that this part of the story is really and truly a fantasy. Koldo has his own problems. He was born to a vicious pair: Cornelia, his mother, is a Sent One who beat him, starved him, emotionally abused him, and cut off his wings in punishment after he disobeyed her by daring to go outside their home to gather a bouquet of flowers for her. Koldo's father, Nox, is a Nefas—a psychotic, soul-sucking death dealer who beat Koldo constantly and once threw him into a pit filled with snakes to toughen him up. Dad also forced Koldo to kill humans, a shameful sin for which he will never forgive himself. Eventually, Koldo was rescued by the Sent Ones and became one of Zacharel's warriors, but he is always close to the breaking point. Koldo believes that "He was never what the people he most wanted to love him needed, and couldn't ever be." (p. 114) In book 1, Koldo rescued his mother from Hell and imprisoned her in a cage in one of his homes. He wants to kill her—or at least punish her gravely—but he's not sure that he can live with himself if he does so, and his hatred for both parents constantly eats away at him. At first glance, this might seem to be a terrific, angst-filled plot, and it could have been if it weren't for the lead characters. In the first place, we learn that Koldo is a virgin (carrying on a theme from book 1), which is just silly. And then, we discover that Nicola is also a virgin. What's with the virginity theme? Koldo has been around for a long, long time, so why even bother setting him up as a totally inexperienced lover? The couple spends most of the book blushing furiously as they murmur adoring compliments to one another, sneak passionate kisses, and then quickly back away from each other, not seeming to know what to do next. Even with all their adolescent groping, however, they have absolutely no chemistry together. Unfortunately, Nicola's heart is so weak that, at first, she passes out during the kisses, so they never take the action any further until almost the end of the book—after they speak words of marriage. (This relationship reminded me of the couples in most of Amanda Ashley's paranormal romances.) The couple's scenes together are actually painful to read. At one point, Laila walks in on them and says, "If you guys get any more love-dovey, I'm going to puke." (p. 298) I have to confess that I completely agree with her on that. I can only hope that Showalter drops this virginity theme ASAP. When she tells the stories of Thane, Bjorn, and Xerxes, she won't have any choice because those bad boys are having as many as three sexual liaisons per day. (It's either sexual feast or sexual famine in this series.) Nicola and Laila act more like adolescents than twenty-somethings as they engage in giggly slap fights and watch TV marathons of How I Met Your Mother. Another problem with this book is the sudden changes in the mythology, with all kinds of rules and regulations that have never appeared before in this world—not in book one of this series and definitely not in LOTU. There is an overload of preachy, inspirational messaging, followed by the good guys doling out horrific punishments to Koldo when he tries to do something good for Nicola's sister. All in all, Beauty Awakened is not an enjoyable read. The book includes the beginnings of story lines for more of Zacharel's warriors, particularly Thane and Bjorn, and a nod to the next LOTU novel, which will tell Kane's story.
This series is a spin-off of Showalter's iconic LORDS OF THE UNDERWORLD SERIES(LOTU), which features sexy demon-possessed men who constantly defy their dark demonic urges and fight on the side of the good. For a look at the mythology of both series, click on the pink-link LOTU series title above to read my overview of the world-building.
In the later books of LOTU, we meet the dour angel Zacharel, who has lived for thousands of years and has never allowed himself to feel any emotions (except the negative ones). This cold emotional detachment has gotten Zacharel into serious trouble with his Deity because it has caused him to ignore human collateral damage during his battles with demons. At first Zacharel just receives verbal reprimands. Next, the Deity punishes Zacharel by causing a constant storm of snowflakes to fall from the feathers of his wings. Finally, when Zacharel doesn't pay attention to any of those indications of displeasure, the Deity settles on a more severe punishment; "For one year, Zacharel would lead an army of angels just like him. The ones no one else wanted under their command. The rebellious ones. The tortured ones. His assignment: to teach them the respect that he himself had yet to demonstrate—for the Deity, for the sanctity of human life. And to ensure that he took his responsibility seriously, he alone would bear the consequences of his warriors' actions. If any of his angels killed a human, he would suffer a whipping....At the end of the year, if Zacharel's good deeds outweighed the bad, he and all of his angels would be allowed to stay in the heavens. If the bad outweighed the good, he and all of his angels would lose their wings and their place in the sky." (Wicked Nights, p. 30) No pressure!
In book 2, we learn more information about Zacharel's army, which is known as the Army of Disgrace. Zacharel's warriors are Sent Ones, men and women who look just like angels, but are not angels. "Yes, Sent Ones were winged. Yes, they waged war against evil and helped humans, but in actuality, they were the adopted children of the Most High, their lives tethered to His. He was the source of their power, the essence of their very existence. Like humans, Sent Ones battled the desires of the flesh. They experienced lust, greed, envy, rage, pride, hate, despair. Angels...were servants and messengers of the Most High. They experienced none of these things." (Beauty Awakened, p. 20)
The series tells the love stories of Zacharel and members of his bad-boy angel army as they try to fight off increasing numbers of demons without killing any humans in the process. Each angel is, of course, ultimately saved by the love of his soul mate.
BOOK 1: Wicked Nights
As the story opens, Zacharel is dealing with his recalcitrant angel warriors, who spend their time arguing with him, failing to follow his orders, and "accidentally" killing humans. Zacharel has already suffered through eight whippings as punishment for those "accidents." When Zacharel is ordered to wipe out a pack of demons who are trying to enter a hospital for the criminally insane, he becomes curious about what is attracting those demons. He learns that they are all after one person: Annabelle Miller, who has spent the past four years locked up there because she has been found guilty of brutally murdering her parents. Unfortunately for Annabelle, the real murderer was a demon high lord, but when she described a ten-foot tall red-skinned monster with horns and a tail as the perpetrator, the justice system responded by sending her off to the mental hospital for the rest of her life.
During all of the time that Annabelle has been imprisoned, demons have continually attacked her and she has beaten them off time and time again, suffering serious injuries in the process. Zacharel immediately recognizes that Annabelle is a demon consort—marked and claimed by a demon. He assumes that she willingly submitted to the demon because he believes that all demon-possessed humans are responsible for their own demonic predicaments. When a perverted doctor tries to attack Annabelle, Zacharel rescues her and takes her away to his cloud home, even though he believes her demon marking is her own fault. As the two spend time together, though, Zacharel soon realizes that Annabelle must have been tricked somehow into her demonic relationship, and he is determined to discover which demon is responsible. The story follows Zacharel and Annabelle through a series of life-or-death adventures as they undertake their investigation while constantly under the attack of the numerous minions of the very demon they are pursuing. As Zacharel and Annabelle get to know one another, they (of course) fall in love. Both are strongly defined characters, with enough flaws to make them interesting and enough strengths to make them appealing. We also get to know a few of the other angels in Zacharel's army, specifically Thane, Bjorn, and Xerxes, all of whom have been tortured horribly in the past by demons. A fourth angel, Koldo, has a different problem. He is trying to track down and punish (i.e., kill) the angel who cut off his wings, and it's a huge shock when we learn the culprit's identity. (Koldo's full story will be told in book 2.) As Zacharel softens up emotionally, his warriors also begin to change for the better. Showalter always tells a good romantic story, and with a few of the LOTU dropping in from time to time to lend their support, I'm sure that this series will be a strong one. The main problems are the usual ones that turn up in paranormal romance series: the huge age gap between the ancient hero and the immature heroine, the couple's too-quick slide into all-consuming love, and—most of all—the fact that Zacharel is still a virgin after all these millennia. (Impossible to believe.) Also, if you remember Zacharel from the LOTU series, you'll probably have a hard time believing how rapidly he changes from an icy cold automaton to a warm puddle of love. So...the plot has a few minor bumps and scratches, but, on the whole, it's a compelling, action-filled romantic caper with a promise of more to come.