Series: GAME OF SHADOWS
Plot Type: Soul Mate Romance (SMR), Fantasy
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—4; Humor—1
Publisher and Titles: Berkley
Rising Darkness (4/2013)
The story is told in the third person voice, primarily from the perspectives of Mary, Michael, Astra, and the Deceiver. As the Deceiver realizes that he is on the verge of finding all three of his prey, he pulls out the stops and releases all of his minions and power, with devastating results to the local flora, fauna, and human population.
In addition to the conflict between the good guys and the Deceiver, Michael and Mary have their own personal conflict: the warrior vs. the healer. Michael has spent his long, long life in constant battle, honing his skills and hardening his mind to the point that he has built a high, impenetrable wall around his emotions. Mary, on the other hand, is a healer at heart, rejecting the idea that the only way to defeat the Deceiver and his drones is always through violence. On the very first page, this conflict is laid out for the reader as Mary examines the bodies of the Deceivers' drones—all killed by Michael: "Michael had watched her gaze turn dull when she realized the men were beyond her help. She cared about everyone. That fact lay at the essence of her healing. Michael didn't care for total strangers the way Mary did. All he felt was tiredness and a grim sense of relief as he straightened to watch the bodies bleed out." Later, Michael muses about his life and recognizes that his "reason for being, his entire ageless passion, had forged into a singular purpose, and that was to bring [the] destroyer down. So he fought to save innocent worlds from dying, just as Mary did in her own way but his skill was in violence, which bore its own cost…he would either win this battle by violence or die by violence. He wouldn't stop. Not ever. Not even for the horror in her eyes as she looked at what he was..." (p. 154) This dissonance comes to a head when Michael gives Mary a gun during one of the more dangerous parts of their flight, and Mary must actually pull the trigger to defend herself—something that she has vowed never to do.
As the story moves along, Mary remembers more and more details about her past lives and, as a consequence, remembers more and more of her powers. "Somehow, nine hundred years ago, the Deceiver had injured Mary so severely, she hadn't reincarnated for generations….Astra and Michael had….searched for her forbears but they only managed to get the occasional glimpse of her in the psychic realm. A few days ago [in book 1], events had finally come to a head. Mary had torn that old spiritual injury wide open, and Astra had leaped into an astral projection in order to try to reach her." (p. 11) Gradually, Mary's new powers develop to the degree that she is able to use them to great effect, and the couple finally locates Astra, with the help of the ghostly Nicholas. Inevitably, the book ends with a final, ultra-violent showdown between the forces of good and evil, and because this is the final book in the duology, we all know that it results in disaster for the villain and an HEA for the soul mates.
In this book, we learn much more about the four main characters' previous incarnations. For example, in the sixth century B.C. Michael was the renowned Chinese general and philosopher, Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War. Through the ages, Mary's former names included Muire, Miryam, and Myrrh. The Deceiver has been known as Lucifer (aka Morning Star). Astra was called White Buffalo Calf Woman (aka PtesanWi) by the Lakota people (and three Native American men play key roles in this story).
I'm still having a hard time getting interested in this mythology, with its evil, one-note villain and its all-too-familiar battle between good and evil that must be fought by a tiny group of people in order to save the world. Although the world-building is inventive, it is also convoluted and cumbersome. This is a darkly serious world without a spark of humor or romantic passion. Even though the original couples that were sent to earth were soul-mated pairs, in this world soul-mates don't necessarily wind up in loving, romantic relationships. As Astra explains, "Soul mates did not always equate with romantic love. Balanced energies did not always equate with compatibility. Opposites not only attracted. They also repelled. Completion did not guarantee hearts and flowers or even friendship. Yin did not necessarily see eye to eye with yang. Sometimes the twinned pairs struggled through terrible conflicts." (p. 145) Even though Mary and Michael are among the soul mates who do fall in love, there isn't much fire—or even a small spark—between them. In fact, their characters are rather flat and predictable. The most interesting person in the series so far has been Nicholas, who has a fantastic story line in this novel. If Harrison ever decides to continue this series, I'm hoping that Nicholas will have a starring role.
Here is the summary of the world-building that appears at the beginning of book 2 as the hero explains why he and his soul mate must find Astra, their childhood mentor: "Astra was also the leader of the original group of seven that had left their world six thousand years ago to pursue the Deceiver when he had escaped their prison and fled to Earth. In order to follow him, the group had needed to die as the Deceiver had died, in an arcane ritual filled with alchemy and power. The ritual transmuted their souls. As they died, they left their world and joined the Earth's natural cycle of death and rebirth, where they lived and died as humans did, over and over again." (p. 4)
NOVEL 1: Rising Darkness
Much of the early narrative comes from Mary, the heroine, a small-town Michigan doctor who has been having weird and disturbing dreams since she was a child. In those dreams, she is a healer—one of seven exotic people who take poison and go off on a mysterious journey in search of a villainous traitor. These dreams are becoming more frequent and more powerful. When Mary begins hearing voices speaking to her in her head, she is afraid that she is losing her mind and drives back to her old alma mater (Notre Dame Univ.) to pray at the famous Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes for divine assistance. There, she has a vision of "Grandmother" (aka Astra, the elder—one of the original seven travelers), who tells her that she is in danger and must quickly travel North so that she can get help.
This kicks off both the romance plot and the action plot as the hero immediately realizes that Mary is in danger (and heads off to rescue her) and the villain immediately realizes that Mary is vulnerable (and heads off to capture her). The hero is Michael (who—based on an obscure clue deep in the story—may actually have been Achilles in one of his reincarnations). He is a warrior with magical powers who was mentored by Astra and who has been searching for his soul mate for 800 years. The Deceiver wants to rule the modern world as he once ruled the ancient world, and he needs a healer to keep him alive. For both Michael and the Deceiver, Mary is the key to their wants and needs.
The rest of the story follows the development of the romance between Mary and Michael as they try to reach Astra before the Deceiver and his forces catch up with them. All along the way, Mary's memories of her various incarnations keep coming back, and she remembers just what her relationship with Michael was those many centuries ago.
The author has salted the book with direct and indirect literary and historical allusions, including the Bible (quotations from Isaiah); Greek and Roman mythology (Castor and Pollux); French history (Joan of Arc); mass market Scottish literature (Dorothy Dunnett); and Christian theology (Uriel, Ariel, Michael) but these are mostly extraneous and don't contribute at all to the depth of the characters or the complexity of the plot.
I'm still not sure how this series is going to develop quality-wise. In this first book, the lead couple doesn't have much charisma. Mary spends most of the book in utter bewilderment, unsure of the meaning of her dreams and confused by her feelings for Michael. Until nearly the end of the book, Michael's words and actions are mostly unemotional and robotic. In the end, though, it's the classic story line of the two mutually attracted/connected strangers on a road trip facing life-threatening dangers. In a paranormal romance, that's always a formula for a good old HEA. I'll withhold judgment on this series until I read the next book.
Just one personal note: Michael and Mary spend their few happy hours in a cabin on Wolf Lake in the Manistee National Forest—the very same lake where my family spent many summer vacations back in the day. Who would have thought that my childhood summer destination would turn up in a paranormal novel!