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Saturday, April 27, 2013


Author:  Crista McHugh   
Plot Type:  Romantic Fantasy  
Ratings:  Violence--4; Sensuality--2-3; Humor--2-3   
Publisher and Titles:  CreateSpace
        A Soul for Trouble (2/2012)
        A Soul for Chaos (10/2012)
        A Soul for Vengeance (4/2013)

     This series is set in a fantasy world that mimics Medieval Europe, with castles, peasants, horses, swords, and a general fear of the supernatural, particularly witches. In the kingdom of Ranello, the citizens are mostly humans. A few witches live alongside their human neighbors, but they keep their talents hidden because in Ranello, the practice of witchcraft is punishable by death. The neighboring kingdom, Gravaria, is populated by mages and elves, and the two realms have had a hostile relationship for centuries. 

     The series heroine is Arden Lesstymine, who is known to everyone as Trouble. She is a young, blond witch who was born in Ranello to a mother who died when she was young and a father she never knew. As happens in many paranormal fiction novels, her absent father accounts for many of Arden/Trouble's magical talents and his identity will eventually have a direct effect on her life.

     Early in book 1, Arden is possessed by the soul of Loku, the God of Chaos, whose body was destroyed by the Gravarians after he did a lot of horrible things. (Loku is modeled after the Norse trickster god, Loki.) Loku has spent the last few centuries moving from one human body to the next, eventually driving each one mad. The Gravarians assign him a Protector, who must follow him around, making sure that his soul moves from one body to the next and, in general, keeping tabs on his activities. Each of these possessed humans is known as a Soulbearer. When the latest Soulbearer walks into the tavern where Arden is a barmaid, he is attacked and killed and Loku's soul moves into Arden. She is the first female Soulbearer and the first witch to be possessed, so Devarius Tel'brien (Dev), the Soulbearer's Protector, knows that he'll have his hands full keeping her safe.

     In the first two books, Arden has two love interests: Dev and Kell Sanguazur, a Ranellian prince. She spends much of her time in these books trying to figure out which one she truly loves.  

     The series is self-published through CreateSpace. I don't read many self-published books, but I read this one because I was judging some paranormal and fantasy novels for the 2013 Booksellers Best Awards. Most of the self-published books I have read have not been up to the quality of professionally published books in terms of editing, copy-proofing, characterization, and plot development, but this one is quite well done. The three lead characters each have well-developed back stories and a nice balance of strengths and flaws. Although the love triangle is an all-too-common trope, the author handles it well, and the characters' depth makes their tense and tangled relationships all the more interesting.

             BOOK 1:  A Soul for Trouble             
     Just as Arden is being possessed by Loku's soul, a necromancer sends an army of undead to attack the tavern and capture the new Soulbearer. The necromancer plans to kill Arden and absorb Loku's soul, thus making himself extremely powerful. The primary action plot involves the necromancer's continuing attempts to capture Arden and Dev's continuous efforts to keep her safe. With Loku's soul/spirit within her, Arden's magical talents have grown to be quite powerful. Loku has the ability to take her over completely, and he does so when she needs great power to overcome her enemies.

     The romantic part of the story (which is extremely extensive), follows the naive Arden as she is first attracted to Dev and then to Kell. Dev and Arden meet Kell and his men when the necromancer attacks them and Arden insists, against Dev's better judgment, that they go to the rescue. At first, the womanizing Kell sees Arden as just another female conquest and as a tool to defeat the necromancer, but then he falls head over heels in love with her. Dev, in the meantime, tries to keep his feelings for Arden under control because he is her Protector, and he believes that he has no business falling for her. As you can imagine, Dev's will power fails him, and all his good intentions go out the window. 

     By the end of the book the relationship among the three is unresolved, but we have the feeling that Dev is going to win out in the end. While the two men are jealously fighting with each other, Arden tries to sort out her own feelings, with the help (or hindrance) of Loku, who speaks to her nonstop in her mind, giving her questionable advice about her love life and generally trying to control her actions. Click HERE to read an excerpt from A Soul for Trouble.

             BOOK 2:  A Soul for Chaos             
     The romantic triangle involving Arden, Dev, and Kell plays out to its heartbreaking end as the three travel from Ranello to Gravaria, where Arden will continue her training under the direction of the Gravarian mages. Before their journey even begins, Arden is the focus of a magical attack that nearly crushes her and Kell in an earthquake just as Kell tries to hit a sexual home run during a clandestine picnic. The attacks continue as they cross the ocean to Gravaria, when a watery hand reaches up and grabs Arden from the deck of their ship. Even at the Gravarian palace and the mage stronghold, the attacker is able to get through the magical wards and continue the attacks.

     In the meantime, Kell almost manages to seduce Arden into believing that she loves him as much as he loves her, but in the back of her mind, she still has her doubts. Loku keeps encouraging Arden to have a sexual fling with Kell while she has such a willing partner. He keeps daring her to deepen her relationship with Kell while, at the same time, reminding her that she really loves Dev. In this book, Arden makes a few TSTL decisions, some involving Kell and some involving her personal safety, but Dev is always there to save her—both from herself and from her enemies.

     In this part of the trilogy, we meet the bigwigs of Gravaria, particularly the Empress Marist and her hostile uncle, the Lord Chamberlain. Back in book 1, Dev suspected that Arden has a connection with the powerful Milorian family, so this part of the story fills in some of her background that she has either suppressed or never knew about.

     All though the story we get short sections told from the villain's point of view. He is a devout follower of Nelos, the God of Law and Justice, who is determined to kill both Arden and Loku in order to bring an end to chaos. (Nelos appears to have been inspired by Nomos, the Greek God of Law.) The ultimate theme of this plot line is that both order and chaos are necessary to life on Earth.

     By the end, both the romance story line and the Nelos story line are resolved, but that doesn't mean that the characters get their HEAs. Kell is headed back to Ranello where the Thallian troops have been threatening to cross the border and attack; Dev has made a momentous decision about his job as Protector of the Soulbearer; and Arden is trying to learn enough magic to keep Loku from taking control and driving her mad.

     This story has plenty of angst from all three of the lead characters—almost too much sometimes as Arden follows her heart and her hormones on a rough romantic journey, leaving plenty of heartbreak in her wake. We learn much more information about both Dev and Arden, including the reason why Dev was given the position of Protector and the secret of Arden's genetic heritage. Kell is portrayed more sympathetically in this book, but he still comes off as a shallow and over-indulged princeling. The ever-changing relationship between Dev and Kell is interesting to watch, as both force themselves to make more mature decisions regarding Arden. Arden has quite a few spoiled-brat moments in this book, but those can be excused to some extent by the fact that Dev conceals vital information from her, including his suspicions about the identity of her father and of her attacker. This continues to be a strong series, and I'm looking forward to the final book just to see how the author resolves the angst-filled lives of her three young adventurers. Click HERE to read an excerpt from A Soul for Chaos.

             BOOK 3:  A Soul for Vengeance             
     The final book in the trilogy resolves most of the conflict for the three lead characters. Arden, Dev, and Kell are isolated from one another for most of the story, with the bulk of the action divided between Arden and Kell.

     As the story opens, Kell boards a ship to head back to Ranello alone, leaving Arden and Kell behind in Gravaria. When his ship is attacked by the Thallions, Kell is captured, tortured, and held prisoner for three months. At that point, he is rescued by Lady Zara, sister of his best friend, Bynn (whom we met back in book 1). Zara and Bynn are leading the Ranellian survivors in an insurrection against the Thallions. 

     Zara has a suicidal plan to take down the three Thallion mages who form the Triumvirate that now controls Ranello, but Bynn is reluctant to let her follow through because he fears that she will die in the attempt. Bynn views Zara as "just a woman," even though she has taken the lead in attacking Thallian supply lines and keeping the Ranellian refugees fed and clothed. In this world, women must follow the commands of their "blood"the male relative who maintains control of their livesor they run the risk of being cast off by their families into a life of prostitution or slavery.

     Meanwhile, back in Gravaria, Dev asks the Mage's Council to free him from his position as Protector of the Soulbearer so that he can freely declare his love for Arden. Unfortunately, he doesn't explains his motives to Arden, so when she learns what he has done, she jumps to the wrongful conclusion that he doesn't love her and wants to be free of her. Loku encourages her to run away and helps her break the wards as she heads out into the wintry mountains in search of her long-lost father, Varrik, who has her mother's necklace. Most of the book alternates between Kell's adventures in Ranello and Arden's reunion with her father at his isolated estate. Near the end of the book, the romantic situation between Arden and Dev gets resolved (just as you knew it would), as does Kell's struggle with the Thallions. 

     It's always a bummer to have the final book in a trilogy be the weakest, but unfortunately that is the case here, mostly because of a characterization issue and the mishandling of part of the ending. First, we have the further degeneration of Kell's character as he demonstrates even more shallowness and fickleness than usual by falling head over heels in love with Zara almost from the moment she rescues him. Keep in mind that Kell was deeply, endlessly, sometimes sullenly heartbroken all through book 2 when Arden didn't return his love. This sudden reversalfrom anguished, misery-filled mourning for Arden to instant, overwhelming love for Zaradoesn't say much for his character. Ultimately, the HEA resolutions of both of the series' romances are dealt with in a feel-good, "rainbows and unicorns" manner, particularly in the case of Kell and Zara. 

     Now to the ending: The overthrow of the Thallions is mostly handled quite well, right up until the point where everything depends on Kell, Dev, and Arden with little or no help from their soldiers or from the mages who are supposed to be accompanying them. It's an unconvincing, overly dramatic climax that feels like it has been manufactured solely for maximum drama, to shine one last super-hero spotlight on the three main characters, and it just doesn't ring true. 

     For me, the strongest element in this series, and particularly in this book, is the power struggle between Arden and Loku. Loku constantly lives up to his trickster image by lulling Arden into believing that he will look out for her and then manipulating her to his own ends, but Arden gradually learns to take control, trying to turn the tables on Loku by using him when she needs him and then suppressing him the rest of the time. Even though Arden has some terrible TSTL moments, she is a strong character who struggles with her new Soulbearer identity, her new knowledge about her parents' true relationship, and her feelings for the two men in her life (three, if you count her father). She is definitely the strongest character in the book.

     Even though the final book doesn't quite meet the standards of the first two books, I still recommend the series if you like traditional, angst-filled romances with nicely developed characters and mostly well-constructed plot lines. Click HERE to read the first chapter of A Soul for Vengeance.

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