Series: CALL OF CROWS
Plot Type: Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—4; Humor—3
Publisher and Titles: Kensington
The Unleashing (3/2015)
No one would ever accuse Jace Berisha of having an easy life—considering her husband…you know…killed her. But that was then! Now she fights for mighty Viking gods with the spectacular and vicious Crows.
As the story begins, the Crows and the Protectors meet up at the headquarters of a Russian mobster, each on a different mission. Jace's team is recovering a stolen bracelet that belongs to Freyja, while Ski's team is recovering stolen crates of ancient texts. When the Protectors discover that all of the texts are written in Russian and other Slavic languages, they search for a translator and eventually ask Jace to take the job. At first, she refuses because she keeps herself mostly isolated from other people, preferring a nice thick history of the Punic Wars over small-talk with her sister Crows or anyone else, for that matter. When Chloe, the Crows leader, decides that Jace needs to get a job that will socialize her and get her out in the world, Jace decides that the translating job with the Protectors is the lesser of two evils.
Meanwhile, Betty Leiberman, one of the Crows, still is in a coma as a result of events that took place in book 1. Although the Crows have tried and tried to awaken her, they have had no luck. Then, the Clans are faced with a series of violent crimes involving human sacrifices and dark, magical runes, and the Crows begin to get a bad feeling that the goddess they thought they had gotten rid of in book one might not be gone after all.
The two primary plot lines—the romance and the sacrificial murders—revolve around Ski and Jace's love story and the Clans' attempts to take care of a problem they thought they had solved. Both plot lines move along at a moderate pace, building in suspense and anticipation as Laurenston drops clues and provides lots of sardonic dialogue from beginning to end. A secondary story line involves a threat from Jace's ex-husband, who will apparently figure in the resolution of the series story arc—the imminent threat of Ragnarok (aka the End of Days, the Apocalypse, Armageddon).
The action plot centers around the goddess Gullveig and her minions: Hel's Carrion and the Mardröm (aka the Mara). The Carrion are huge fanged men from Hell: "big, strapping Vikings of old who hadn't been taken by Odin or Freyja, but Hel herself." Their touch causes instant rot and decay. If they hold onto you long enough, all of your skin, organs, and bones will rot completely away. The Mara appear out of black smoke and have rows of black fangs. They are "female demons who made their victims physically experience the nightmares they gave them." This Ragnarok-related story line is unresolved and will continue in the next book. Although this is a serious challenge to the Nine Clans, it does provide an opportunity for Kera to find her true purpose in her new life with the Crows. Jace's grandmother shows up in the nick of time to provide Jace and the Crows with some needed assistance, and I'm sure we've not seen the last of this eccentric, magically powerful lady.
In a single scene midway though the book, Laurenston adds some additional characters to the mythology:
The Sisters of St. Mary Magdalene Convent of All Saints (aka the Chosen Warriors of God). For centuries, the Sisters have worked in the background to protect the world from itself and to prevent the End of Days. The Sisters and the Crows currently have a tenuous peace treaty, but they have a bloody, antagonistic history.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death): In this book, all they do is sit in the Sisters' waiting room reading magazines and talking on their cell phones. (Death enjoys leafing through House & Garden.)
Three archangels: Michael, Raphael, and Khamael, all of whom appear to be long-time friends of Jace. We don't learn the specifics of that relationship until late in the book.In another scene, Laurenston introduces Ratatosk, the never-to-be-trusted messenger of the gods who takes the form of a squirrel, which is a dangerous way to approach the Crows' house because of the two dogs in residence: Kera's gigantic, winged pit bull (Brodie Hawaii) and Jace's huge puppy mutt (Lev).
The romance ambles along slowly as Ski slowly discovers that Jace is not as shy as she appears. Actually, she had a terrible human life (forced into a religious cult as a child, married off to the cult's "Prophet," and murdered by that Prophet when she rebelled). She hates small-talk and chitchat and prefers reading books to interacting with people (especially her boisterous, noisy, never-silent Crow sisters—with the exception of Kera). Soon, though, she begins to prefer Ski—especially when he's naked in her (or his) bed.
Naturally, Laurenston provides plenty of her patented sardonic, wise-cracking dialogue and over-the-top bedroom scenes. Much of the fun comes from an ongoing scheme by the trickster, Erin, to "mess with" Kera about arrangements for the big celebration that will introduce her to members of all of the U.S. Crow clans. Erin's shenanigans can get to be annoying after awhile, but still are pretty funny. She never misses a chance to agitate. The Protectors call her the "vicious little redhead" and describe her as having a "devil's tongue."
Even though the mythology is complex and the cast is HUGE, I am enjoying this series because of Laurenston's skillful story telling—just the right amount of sarcastic humor blended into a relatively straightforward—but not simplistic—story. As we get to know these characters, Laurenston adds more and more nuance to each one, making them interesting and sympathetic. Here's what RT Book Reviews has to say in its 4½ star, Top Pick review of The Undoing: “As fans know, no one beats Laurenston when it comes to combining the weirdly wacky with humorous and over-the-top violence. So settle in and enjoy one very strange—not to mention hazardous—courtship!”
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Undoing on its Amazon.com page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon on that page.
Odin is the top deity in this mythology, with Freyja, Thor, and other familiar Norse gods just below him in the hierarchy of power. Nine Viking Clans serve as representatives of the gods in the mortal world. As one Clan member explains, they are the hammers of the gods. Each Clan member is marked by a magical rune tattoo specific to his or her Clan's god or goddess.
Eight of the nine Clans come from pure Viking (Scandinavian) blood lines. The ninth Clan—the Crows, Daughters of Skuld (one of the Norns)—is very different: "Unlike the other Nordic Clans representing different gods, the Crows weren't born into this life. They weren't raised in the Old Way or the New Way. They didn't worship the well-known gods like Odin or Thor or Freyja. None of them had last names like Magnusson or Bergström. Most Crows came to this life knowing so little about Vikings that they thought what they saw in movies was accurate...And yet, here these mostly non-Nordic women were part of one of the most feared Viking Clans. Feared because they didn't rescue, they didn't work to prevent Ragnarok, they didn't actively care about anything that the other Clans cared about. Instead, the Crows were known for their rage, for their hatred, and for their loyalty to each other." (from The Unleashing, p. 17)
The Crow Clan is the only racially diverse, multi-ethnic group among the nine Clans so the other Clans call them "Crow Mutts" and look down on them because they don't have pure Viking blood. Each Crow was saved by Skuld at the point of her death by her promise to become one of Skuld's warriors. The Crows' motto is "Let rage be your guide," and they follow that motto as they spend their nights slicing and dicing various enemies identified by Skuld, always living up to their reputation of being the harbingers of death. They also stand up for one another, always having each other's backs both on and off the battlefield. Each Crow has a particular special talent that is connected with her emotional state at her time of death. All to them can fly, and they all have the ability to communicate with real crows, who are their allies. The Crows use their wings during battle, so they do all of their fighting at night to keep their identities hidden from human view. During the day, they have normal human careers (e.g., lawyers, bankers, actresses).
The cast of characters is HUGE, with most of them being Crows, Ravens, and Protectors (at least in the early books). Here is an annotated character list that I am including for my own benefit so that I can look back on it for review before I read the next book in the series.
Chloe Wong: She is the excitable head of the Crow Clan and the bitter ex-wife of the head of the Raven Clan.
Tessa Kelly: She is Chloe's calm second-in-command and the leader of Kera's Strike Team.
Kera Watson: She is the heroine of book 1, a former U.S. Marine with a penchant for organization and efficiency. Her special skill is massive strength.
Jacinda (Jace) Berisha): She is the heroine of book 2, a book-loving, introverted loner who is member of Kera's Strike Team. Her special skill is that she is a berserker. She also can read and speak multiple foreign languages.
Erin Amsel: She is Kera's mentor, as well as being a tattoo artist and shop owner who loves to antagonize people, including her fellow Crows. Her skill is shooting fire out of her hands. The red-head is a member of Kera's Strike Team.
Maeve Godhavi: She is a hypochondriac who makes a fortune off her medical blog, which tracks deadly diseases across the world. She hoards medications and medical equipment in a huge medical fortress.
Leigh: She was a bank robber before she became a Crow. She is now a well-known painter and is a member of Kera's Strike Team.
Annalisa Dinnapoli: She was a sociopath before she became a Crow and is now a forensic psychologist. She is a member of Kera's Strike Team.
Alessandra Esporza: She owns a Spanish-language TV station and is a member of Kera's Strike Team.
Betty Lieberman: She is an abrasive, cut-throat Hollywood agent who is a Seer. She is Erin's mentor.
Paula: She is the Crows' no-nonsense business manager and financial expert.
Rachel: She is an ambitious, narrow-minded former bodybuilder who died from steroid overuse. In book 2, she decides to change Jace's personality, with tense—sometimes violent—results.
Josef Alexandersen: He is the head of the Raven Clan and the bitter ex-husband of Chloe Wong.
Ludvig (Vig) Lundström: He is the hero of book 1, a skilled blacksmith and weapons maker, known for his "thousand-yard stare," which tends to scare everyone away (but not Kera). He has a sister (Katja—"Kat") who is a Valkyrie.
Rolf Landvik: He can read runes and seems to be attracted to Erin.
Stieg Engstrom: He is a cranky, chronic complainer who spends a lot of time gaming and watching TV at Vig's house and giving him cynical advice.
Siggy Kaspersen: He is the Clan's accountant—great with numbers and hand-to-hand combat, but otherwise kind of a good-natured slacker. He spends a lot of time gaming and watching TV at Vig's house with Steig.
Ormi: He is the leader of the Southern California Protectors, and his job is primarily to maintain good relations with the Protectors' patron god, Tyr. Ormi relies on Ski to keep the Clan running smoothly. Ormi's wife is Inka, leader of Holde's Maids.
Danski "Ski" Eriksen: He is second in command to Ormi and hero of book two. Ski manages the Protectors, making sure that they get their heads out of their books long enough to pay their bills, do their chores, and eat regular meals.
Marbjörn "Bear" Ingolfsson: He is highly protective of the Protector's library and of books in general.
Gundo and Borgsten: Two Protectors who work, fight, and read alongside Ski, Bear, and the other Protectors.
> Giant Killers: They are led by Freida and are loyal to the god Thor. Their weapons are hammers (just like Thor's). The Killers are terrific in battle, but, like their patron god, they are definitely not the sharpest arrows in the quiver, if you know what I mean. At one point, Tyr succinctly sums up Thor's level of intelligence: "It is so tragic when your hammer is smarter than you are."
> Valkyries: The Valkyries are nicknamed Choosers of the Slain. They are all females, and their job is to take heroic warriors who die in battle either to Odin or Freyja to await the final battle of Ragnarok.
> Isa: They are led by Inka (wife of Ormi) and are loyal to the goddess Skadi. They live in the mountains and national parks among nature and wild animals and are good skiers.
> Claws of Ran: They are led by Rada and are loyal to Ran, the goddess of sea and storms. This Clan includes both males and females, most of whom are surfers and/or fishermen. When members of other clans attempt to swim in or travel across the ocean, the Claws send vicious gulls to attack them—just for the fun of it.
> Holde's Maids: They are the best healers. They also like to cause pain, and they call themselves hags. Click HERE for more information about their patron goddess, Holda.
> The Silent: They are led by Brandt Lindgren and are loyal to the god Vidar. Outside of All-Clan meetings, they never speak to the other Clans. They are peacemakers who work for the UN and other world peace organizations. They loathe the Crows (“useless whores”), Ravens (“dangerous thugs”), and Protectors (“intelligent bullies”).
Laurenston also writes the PRIDE series featuring sexy shape shifters. Click HERE to read my reviews of books in that series.
Kera is used to a military life with its organization, rules and regulations, instruction manuals, training sessions, and hierarchy of command. She expects to be trained for her new position, but that's not how the Crows operate. They like to throw the new girls into the action without preparation or explanation, forcing them to sink or swim. This, of course, drives Kera crazy, and she and her mentor (Erin) get into some major fights (both verbal and physical) before Vig steps in to teach Kera the ropes. Much of the snarky humor comes from Kera's failed attempts to get the Crows organized into a sleek, well-organized military unit. Kara is used to working with serious warriors, but now her battle buddies are a bunch of cackling, gossiping, squabbling, party-hearty women. Kera also has some Brodie-related problems when some of the Crow girls fall in love with the dog and take her out on walks, buy her a pink tutu, and spoil her so much that Brodie spends more time with them than with Kera.
Another problem facing Kera is her resistance to killing. In the Marines, Kera was taught to try to defuse situations and not to kill unless absolutely necessary. Now, she is being ordered to slay a series of enemies without understanding what crimes those people have committed. Soon, her Crow sisters begin to think that she is a wuss who can't be counted on to follow through during a battle. To help her work through this difficult moral problem, Vig takes her on a trip to another realm for a talk with the ancestral Crows.
This book is STUFFED with expositional material, mostly world-building details and introductions to the huge cast of characters. In the background, the plot simmers along at low heat until it inevitably boils up at the end. That plot begins when someone begins stealing jewelry and precious metals from various Clans, all of whom believe that the Crows are the thieves. (That's what Freida's raid was all about.) Then the Protectors begin to find an increasing number of human sacrifices surrounded by mysterious runes. Meanwhile, Chloe has to deal with a rich and venomous neighbor who keeps suing the Crows because she wants them out of her neighborhood. Who is behind the sacrifices? What is their end game? What do the runes mean? Will the Crows and the Ravens solve the mystery? Why are the Clan leaders having debilitating nightmares? Will the neighbor succeed in ejecting the Crows from their mansion? All of these questions are answered by the end of the book.
As Kera learns the ins and outs of her new life, she and Vig find their friendship turning into lust and then love. Although Vig is a scary guy to most people, he is a gentle giant with Kera. The scene in which he teaches her to fly is especially touching. The lead characters are well developed and multi-faceted. Kera, especially is a fully formed character with whom we can empathize. Vig leans, perhaps, too much toward being a tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, but he is such a great match for Kera that I didn't mind that very much. The other characters are mostly just sketched in at this point, but I'm assuming that we'll learn much more about each one as they take their turns in the romance spotlight.
I always enjoy reading Laurenston's books, with their snarky humor, quirky characters, and straightforward plots. This time around, though, I have to admit that the extremely large set of characters bogged down the pace, particularly when some characters (like Erin, for example) are sometimes called by their first names and sometimes by their last names. I think that Laurenston gives the Crows last names because she wants to emphasize their cultural diversity, but really, it just adds to the confusion. Now that I have all of the people and personalities sorted out, I'm hoping that I can sail right through the next book with minimal references to the lists in this review.
Note to the author: Readers would benefit from an annotated character page and a mythology page on your web site. Better still...include this information as an appendix to the next book.
Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Unleashing on its Amazon.com page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon on that page.