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Saturday, November 30, 2013


Author:  S. J. Harper (pseudonym for the writing team of Jeanne C. Stein and Samantha Sommersby)
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF), heavy on the romance 
Ratings:  Violence3-4; Sensuality4; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Roc
          "Captured" (novella .56/2014)
          Cursed (novel 110/2013)
          Reckoning (novel 210/2014)   
          "Forsaken" (novella 2.56/2015)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 7/14/15 to include a review of "Forsaken," the 2.5 novella. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the prequel novella and the first two novels.

                  NOVELLA 2.5:  "Forsaken"                  
     Join Agents Emma Monroe and Zack Armstrong.She protected him. He loved her. They can trust one another with their lives, but what about their hearts?

     Special Agent Emma Monroe is a Fallen Siren seeking redemption. Thousands of years ago, she was banished from Mount Olympus by Zeus and cursed by Demeter for failing to prevent the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades. Now she’s working for the FBI, seeking salvation while searching for and finding the missing. Her partner, Zack Armstrong, is a werewolf with a grievance of his own.

     The former Black Ops sniper who once carried out a string of questionable assignments is atoning for his past. Ironically, Zack’s just discovered an important piece of his past has been magically wiped from his memory—an affair with Emma. It doesn’t matter she used the spell to save his life, that’s something he’ll never know. With trust eroded and love overshadowed by betrayal the only thing holding them together is the job.

     When the son of multi-billionaire Roger Maitlan is kidnapped and his babysitter murdered in cold blood, Emma and Zack travel to New York to work the case. They go undercover, infiltrating a playground of private dungeons where those who are rich and powerful can live out fantasies without consequence. What they find is a conspiracy born of a twisted mind and fueled by greed. The clock is ticking. Will Zack and Emma be able to find the missing boy and their way back to one another? 

     The action picks up immediately following the events in Reckoning, and Zack is still furious with Emma as they fly into New York City to investigate the kidnapping of a billionaire's son. That billionaire, Roger Maitlan, turns out to be a long-time associate of Zack's who has pulled some strings to make sure that Zack is assigned to the case. 

     The plot plays out like a police procedural with a lot of twists and turns and a few magic touches. The partners are assigned to work with a New York FBI task force so they have to be sure to keep their supernatural natures hidden when they are not alone. At first the case appears to be a straightforward kidnapping, but then Emma and Zack learn that Maitlan is keeping some dark secrets that are coming back to haunt him. As they search for clues and deal with ransom demands, Zack has to rely on his werewolf form more than once, and Emma must let loose her Siren magic to make a suspect talk. One of the most enjoyable scenes is the one in which Emma goes undercover as a sexy dominatrix wearing a latex cat suit and carrying a riding cropquite a change from her usual mousy disguise, and one that really turns Zack on.

     This time around, Zack and Emma are on their own, with no interference from Kallistos Kouros (the Western Vampire King, Emma's former lover) or Demeter (the goddess who cursed the Sirens). That gives them a chance to work through their feelings for one another. Zack can't help but be angry that Emma wiped his memories, but he soon quells his outrage and attempts to accept that she must have done it for a good reasoneven if she won't tell him what that reason was. Emma loves Zack, but she can't act on those feelings because if she does, Demeter will kill him. Somehow, Emma has to make Zack understand her situation without spelling it out directlyquite a dilemma! To be clear, though, Emma and Zack's relationship problems have no adverse affect on their high voltage sexual attraction, and they manage to sneak away for several steamy interludes.

     This is another strong entry in a solid series with fully developed lead characters and consistently well-planned plots. The action subplot of each story is always suspenseful and original, and the romance subplot always sets new roadblocks in the way of their seemingly impossiblebut very hotromance. As we leave Emma at the end of "Forsaken," she is mentally repeating the phrase that keeps her going: "Redemption could be one rescue away," Perhaps if she finds just one more missing person, Demeter will set her free. She can only hope. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Forsaken."

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "Forsaken" is based on a free electronic copy of the book that I received from the publisher. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

      Set in San Diego, California, this is a world in which supernaturals exist among humans but keep their true identities and their powers hidden. In the past, supernaturals kept to themselves and limited their contact with humans, but in recent years, more and more are living and working with humans, and that is causing some dissension in the ranks of the older supernaturals. 

     In the U.S., vampires live under the control of four sovereigns, and they are not all in favor of the increase in human contact. The vamps in this series can day-walk if they take a certain medication called Protectus, and they generally subsist on bagged blood that they purchase at Blood Emporiums. Emporiums opened up a couple of decades ago, around the same time that Protectus was discovered….It's these two things that really sparked the mainstream movement. It started here in California and spread east, then into Europe and other parts of the world. (p. 104) Werewolves generally live in packs, under the control of their pack leader. In general, the vamps and werewolves in this mythology have the usual traditional powers. For example, vamps are strong and fast and can do memory wipes, and werewolves have the usual moon problem once a month.

     The series heroine is FBI Special Agent Emma Monroe, a Siren. At the beginning of the book, the authors provide this three-part definition of a Siren:
1. One of three sisters ejected from Mount Olympus by Zeus and cursed by Demeter for failing to prevent Hades from kidnapping Persephone (Demeter's daughter).
2. An immortal goddess bound to earth who, in search of her own salvation, saves others from peril. 
3. A beautiful and powerful seductress, capable of infiltrating the minds of others in order to extract truth or exert influence.
     Here is Demeter's decree to the Fallen Sirens—her curse: You will live as mortal, but love will be denied to you, and you will rescue girls until I, Demeter, think you have done your penance. I will be watching. Always watching. Cross me, your lover will die, and your penance will increase tenfold. All because you didn't save my daughter. (from Cursed, p. 284)

                  PREQUEL NOVELLA: "Captured"                  
      "Captured," which was published several months after Cursed, fills in the details on the initial meeting between FBI special agents Emma Monroe (Siren) and Zack Armstrong (werewolf), the series protagonists. You can read the two works in either order, because "Captured" is just a lengthy flashback that has nothing to do with the action plot of Cursed

     In this novella, Emma flies from San Diego to Charleston to serve as a consultant on a serial kidnapping/murder case. She is assigned to work with Zack, whose regular partner is unavailable due to a tragic family situation. Naturally, Emma and Zack are immediately attracted to one another, but Emma knows better than to let herself fall for him. She knows that Demeter wouldn't think twice about killing Zack if she thought Emma had feelings for him because that is the crux of the curse Demeter put on the Sirens centuries ago. (Read the World-Building section of this post for more details on Demeter and the curse.)

     Mostly, this is a police procedural as Emma and Zack work together interviewing witnesses and family members, following up on clueswhich are few and far between, and constantly reassessing the information they have gathered. Eventually, they break the case wide open, and then they have that one night of passion that is referred to in the opening pages of Cursed. Even though Emma knows that Zack is a werewolf, she can't let him know that she knows because that would lead to questions she doesn't want to answer about her own supernatural nature. She also can't explain to Zack why she insists on just this one night, with no follow-up phone calls, texts, or visits. So…it could be a great relationship if only Emma wasn't living under Demeter's curse.

     One fact about Emma that we learn in this novella (and I can't really remember if it was explained in detail in Cursed) is her glamour, which is supplied by Emma's best friend, Liz: “Liz works two spells for me—a reverse glamour to hide my true appearance and a dampening spell that diminishes both my innate powers of seduction and the nifty little side effect that makes me the most reliable lie detector ever.” (chapter 2) 
     The story is well-constructed and fast paced, and the lead characters have enough dimension for the reader to get attached to them, although I'm sure that my knowledge of their personalities from having read Curse first bled over into my reading of this novella. The only criticism I have is that excessive quantities of food and clothing details were shoe-horned into the story line. The clothing details were more frequent in the beginning and eventually eased up, but the food details continued right up to the vanilla gelato and Limoncello the couple consume at the end of their final meal together before Emma takes off for California, leaving Zack behind. In chapter four alone, they chow down on bacon and cheddar pancakes, scrambled eggs, honey-glazed salmon, salad, fries, pulled pork sandwich, baked mac and cheese, cheddar grits, coffee, and tea. Whew! I’m stuffed. 

     Putting the food and clothing over-zealousness aside, this is a nice introduction to the series that sets up Emma's predicament and introduces the man she is extremely attracted to but is afraid to love. I believe that this is going to be a solid series with a fresh take on the frustrations and dangers of being an urban fantasy heroine. In this series, it's not personal danger from the bad guys that worries the heroine the most; it's danger to her loved ones at the hands of a vengeful goddess. This novella begins and ends with Emma's mantra: "Redemption could be just one rescue away," which is the hope that keeps her going. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Captured." 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "Captured" is based on a free electronic copy of the book that I received from the publisher. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.  

                  NOVEL 1:  Cursed                  
     The title of this book refers to its heroine: Emma Monroe, who is a Siren. Emma looks as if she is in her late twenties, but she is thousands of years old. Demeter cursed all three Sirens to live their never-ending immortal lives without love. If they fall in loveor if a man ever falls in love with themthat man immediately dies. Emma found that out the hard way early on when she married a man she loved and then had to bury him three days later. Demeter has promised eventual redemption for the Sirens, but only when they have rescued enough women to atone for their sin. 

     As the story opens, Emma is shocked to learn that her new partner is Zack Armstrong, the werewolf she shared a night of passion with a year ago when both were assigned to the same case. Emma and Zack are both FBI special agents, and Zack has now been transferred to the San Diego office. Their first case involves a missing artist, but when more people go missing and when those cases turn out to be connected, the situation gets complicated and dangerous. 

     The book has two branches in its story line: the romance and the action. In the romance, Emma falls hard for Zack (and vice versa), but she knows that she has to end it to keep him from being murdered by Demeter. To complicate matters, Zack's ex-girlfriend (another werewolf) turns up in San Diego determined to win Zack back. Meanwhile, Zack is trying his best to atone for his past, which has included some wicked deeds that he tries not to think or talk about. 

     In the action plot, Emma and Zack discover that the missing persons all have a supernatural connection. As the intrepid pair follow the clues, they uncover a diabolical scheme that they must stop before more people disappear. Unfortunately, the scheme is so supernatural in nature that they have to keep their investigation on the down-low so that the FBI doesn't learn that supernaturals actually exist.

     This is a well-written book—as you would expect from these experienced and talented authors. The lead characters—Emma and Zack—are fully developed with haunting back stories that deepen their appeal. Even the supporting characters have depth, and that's something you don't always find in this genre. Near the end of the book, we meet a character who will no doubt form the third part of an emotional triangle with Emma and Zack. I don't want to say any more about him because that would be a spoiler. I'll just say that he is a very strong, flawed character who immediately amps up the plot progression and adds a satisfying—if discordant—note of dangerous excitement to the story. I'm definitely looking forward to the next installment. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Cursed. Click HERE to view a "Reading Guide" for Cursed.

                  NOVEL 2:  Reckoning                  
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Cursed.

     First, let's get the romance out of the way (and this is where the spoilers come in). As the book opens, FBI Special Agent Emma Monroe has entered into a friends-with-benefits relationship with Kallistos Kouros, the Western Vampire King, even though she is truly in love with her werewolf partner, Special Agent Zack Armstrong. Because of Demeter's curse (see the World-Building section of this post for details), Emma had her witchy friend Liz erase all memories of the intimate actions that took place between Emma and Zack in the prequel novella and book 1 because Emma doesn't want Demeter to kill him. Although Emma is enjoying her sexual relationship with Kallistos, she doesn't love him, and he is beginning to become overly possessive in the way that studly vampires are wont to do. Meanwhile, Zack and Sarah, his ex-girlfriend, are living together, but that relationship isn't going very well either.

     Now for the action part of the book, which has several connected branches: As the book opens, Emma and Zack are assigned to a serial kidnapping case in which three teenage girlsall students at the same private schooldisappear one right after another over Labor Day weekend. As Emma and Zack gather clues and follow leads, this part of the story plays out like a police procedural. Eventually, they find a vampire connection, and that leads into two other story lines, one involving Zack and Sarah's former pack leader and the other involving a powerful vampire from outside Kallistos' territory.

     Eventually, the love triangle action flares up in several unexpected ways, leaving Emma uncertain as to her future with either man. The action plot ends with the requisite showdown scene that resolves the kidnapping mystery, but it leaves some important loose ends that will no doubt come back to haunt several of the characters.

     I truly enjoyed Reckoning, mainly because of the misery the authors keep dumping on poor Emma (and isn't that perverse?). Demeter is the true villain in this series, hovering constantly in the background, watching and waiting for Emma to show signs of fully falling for Zack, at which time she will sweep in and do away with himpermanently. Demeter is completely untrustworthy, a fact that Emma needs to remember, but keeps forgetting. The action parts of the plotalthough they are well written and fast pacedare there primarily as a framework for this tortured love affair. Kallistos, the third part of the love triangle, is a complex and fascinating mana vampire who never forgets or downplays what he is and a king who always acts first and foremost to protect himself and his vampire subjects. That latter character trait is what Emma has trouble understanding and accepting. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Reckoning

     According to the S.J. Harper web site, the authors have contracted for just two novels, and those books have now been published. As of this date, I have not been able to determine if more books are coming. I will update this post as soon as more information is available.

     In many ways this series reminds me of Richelle Mead's GEORGINA KINCAID series in which Georgina, a succubus, cannot physically be with Seth, her true love, because every time they engage in any sensuous activity (even kissing), she risks killing him because succubi are genetically programmed to automatically drain the life energy of any sexual partner, resulting in his death. Click HERE to read my overview of the GEORGINA series along with a review of the final book. Mead kept poor Georgina and Seth hovering miserably and frustratingly on edge for SIX books. I wonder how many books it will take for Emma and Zack to earn their HEAif, that is, they ever get it. If you haven't read the GEORGINA series, I highly recommend it.

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