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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Christine Warren: GARGOYLES SERIES

Author:  Christine Warren
Series:  GARGOYLES   
Plot Type:  Paranormal Soul-Mate Romance (SMR)     
Publisher and Titles:  St. Martin's
      1   Heart of Stone (12/2013)
      2   Stone Cold Lover (8/2014)
      3   Hard As a Rock (3/2015)
      4   Rocked by Love (3/2016)
      5   Hard to Handle (2/2017)

This on-going post was revised and updated on 3/5/17 to include a review of Hard to Handle, the fifth novel in the series. That review will appear first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the previous four novels. 

                         NOVEL 5:  Hard to Handle                         
     From New York Times bestselling author Christine Warren comes Hard to Handle, the fifth book in her Gargoyles series about a tale that is as old as time…and a love as strong as stone.

     The only male among four sisters, Michael Drummond is no stranger to women’s strength and formidable will. But when a fierce woman warrior from another realm bursts into his life, bringing with her a battle between good and evil, Michael is overcome by an explosive dose of desire that only this stunningly beautiful woman can inspire.

     The first and only of her kind, Ash is a lone female gargoyle, a creature destined to protect mankind from Demons determined to unleash their darkest forces.

     But her bone-deep instinct to do battle is turned off-kilter by her untamed attraction to the dangerously handsome human she can’t stay away from. If they manage to keep the world safe, can they turn the passion crackling between them into a love that will withstand the test of time?

     In my review of the previous novel in this series, I stated quite firmly that I would not review future books. Well…I went ahead and read this novel, and I have to say that I should have stuck with my promise.

     Now, if you are a huge fan of generic paranormal romance, you will no doubt enjoy this story because it hits all the usual marks: handsome but sulky hero, beautiful but conflicted heroine, snarky dialogue from all the characters, evil-to-the-core villains, and steamy love scenes to fill in between battles. The problem is that every novel in this series plays out in exactly the same manner: A Guardian gargoyle awakens and hooks up with its human Warden (who is always standing next to it when it wakes up). As they battle the crazed nocturnis, the two fall in love and become soul mates for all eternity. 

     The only difference this time around is that the gargoyle is a female—the very first female Guardian. Her name is Ash, and her Warden is Michael Drummond (aka Drum), a Dublin pub owner with some magical “finding” powers that he tries not to think about. Michael’s mother and his four sisters are all women of power. For example, his mother, Maddie, is a healer, and his youngest sister, Maeve, is a clairvoyant whose visions always come true.

     After setting the four earlier novels in North America, Warren crosses the Atlantic to Ireland, where the nocturnis have managed to open a hellmouth. (Where’s Buffy when you need her?) At this point, four of the seven demons have risen, so (since this is the fifth novel and the fifth Guardian/Warden) we can presume that a fifth demon will be turning up in the utterly predictable slam-bang showdown battle that ends each and every book in the series.

     In the interval between Ash's awakening and the final battle, the nocturnis make several fireball attacks, kidnap a human, and generally make a deadly nuisance of themselves. Meanwhile, Ash and Michael are falling for one another, but both keep having all sorts of doubts that result in a continuous series of angst-filled interior monologues. Michael reacts to most situations regarding magic with rage and bluster and f-bombs (although, since this is Ireland, it’s spelled “feck”). His over-the-top histrionics get old pretty quickly, to the point that Maeve and Ash have to take turns slapping him on the back of his head once in awhile to calm him down.

     In addition to its predictable plot, the novel feels pieced together as if it had been written in chunks and then spliced together without a good, solid read-through by an editor. Especially in the final quarter of the book, there are several instances of word-for-word repetitious language and oddly placed dialogues that act as stumbling blocks for the reader.

     This time I mean it when I say that in the future I’ll be posting only the publisher’s blurb for the next two novels. (I’m guessing that there will be two more because there are only seven demons and we’ve already met five of them.) If you enjoyed the previous books, you’ll love this one and probably the future ones as well, but if you are looking for paranormal romance with originality and depth, this isn't the series for you.

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from Hard to Handle on its page by clicking on the cover art. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Hard to Handle is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.  

      The series is set in a contemporary mortal world that, unknowingly, is threatened by demonic forces and protected by supernaturals and their human colleagues. The mythology is all too familiar to any reader of paranormal fiction: A small group of good guys (a mixture of supernaturals and humans) must save mankind from some long-dormant demons and their human minions. 

     The good guys are seven "brothers" called Guardians of the Light, who have the ability to shape shift into human form. The Guardians spend much of their time as grotesque stone statues, slumbering through the centuries but awakening when there is a demonic threat. They are supported by the Guild of Wardens. "The Guardians were summoned by the first mages of the Guild….They share...information with us, tell us what the evil forces plan, assist in battling against them, warding us against their evil. They monitor the activities of humans who are enslaved or seduced by the dark powers, and fight against their expanding influence. They bid us to slumber when the threat of the Darkness is defeated, and they recognize when the danger returns, waking us in time to foil its plans." (p. 35, Heart of Stone) In addition to the seven Guardians, there are lesser, non-slumbering guards (both males and females) who battle the weaker demons who show up on Earth.

     The demonic bad guys are called the Seven—powerful demons of the Darkness who have been imprisoned in other realms and are always trying to get back to Earth and destroy the Guardians. The demon minions (aka nocturnis) have organized themselves into a network called the Order of Eternal Darkness. The Seven represent "the sum of all that is evil and all that evil is….It is eternal and relentless and indestructible." (p. 85, Heart of StoneAlthough the powers of the universe could not destroy evil, they weakened it by dividing it into seven pieces: "Seven slices of pure and utter evil whose only desire is to reunite and destroy all life and light in existence." (p. 86, Heart of StoneThe Guardians' job is to keep the Seven apart, banishing them from the human realm when they manage to slip through. So…essentially, the theme of the series is that old familiar battle between good (the Guild of Wardens and the Guardians—plus their girlfriends) and evil (the Seven and the Order of Eternal Darkness).
Gargoyle (above); Chimera (below)

     Not to nitpick, but the Guardians are not true gargoyles; they are actually chimera, or grotesques. To understand the difference, you need these three definitions: 

>>gargoyle is a carved stone figure with a spout that is designed to catch rain water and keep it from running down the exterior wall of a building. It can have a grotesque appearance, but it is always a water spout.

>> A chimera  is a fantastical, mythological, or grotesque figure that is generally used for decorative purposes.

>> In art and architecture, grotesque is a synonym for chimera: a bizarre figure used for decorative purposes. When used as a descriptive adjective, grotesque is also a term used to describe weird shapes and distorted forms (e.g., a Halloween mask might be described as grotesque). 

     Although Warren's heroes are not really gargoyles, I can understand why Warren uses that terminology because naming your new series "Gargoyles" is probably sexier than naming it "Grotesques." I do think, though, that "Chimera" might have been a better choice. The only reason that I am writing about this issue is that it is just one example of sloppiness in the world-building.

     Here's another example: In book 1, we learn that the Order of Darkness has been building up its forces and decimating the warden population for several years. Yet, they haven't taken the single step that would guarantee their eventual world dominationthe destruction or the imprisonment of the stone statuesthe Guardiansthat threaten their existence. If they had taken possession of the slumbering Guardian statues (who can be awakened only by a warden), they could have either pounded them into gravel or they could have dumped them deep into a mine shaft, never to be seen again. Instead, they sent the statues off to various museums around the world where they can be accessed by the general public, including wardens. I hate it when a new mythology has major flaws.

     Apparently, each book will feature one of the seven Guardians. In book 1, a Guardian is awakened by his soul mate rather than by a warden, and that is what will certainly happen in ensuing books. I'm guessing that each book will follow a similar pattern in which a Guardian wakes up when his soon-to-be lover is in danger, defends and falls for the girl, fights off some demons and/or nocturnis, and achieves an HEA.

                       NOVEL 1:  Heart of Stone                       
      The first Guardian is Kees Livingston. As the story opens, he sits on his pedestal on the terrace of the Vancouver Museum of Art and History in British Columbia. One night, Kees awakens from his stony slumber when a young museum employee named Ella Harrow is attacked by a nocturnis while she is sitting near his pedestal. Kees knows that he wouldn't have awakened unless a demon threat is imminent, so he and Ella begin to investigate (using Google, of course). When they learn that the Guild of Wardens has essentially been destroyed over the past few years, they realize that they will have to locate the other six Guardians andsomehowwake them up.

     Ella has had the stereotypical tragic childhood that we find so often in paranormal fiction, and she is trying to overcome a decade of guilt over the death of her parents. She has spent her life knowing that some kind of strange force resides deep within her, and when she lets it out, bad things happen. Kees immediately recognizes that the force is magic and that she has the potential to become a warden.

     The story has little suspense. In fact, one of the villains is completely obvious from the moment he appears on the page. The action and the romance play out in a stereotypical manner as Kees and Ella are forced to flee to an isolated cabin in the woods, where their romance heats up and their enemies surround them.

     The one-note villains are all bad to the corecackling and grimacing like cartoon characters, while the lead couple is bland and underdeveloped. Kees, who views himself as vastly superior to humans, has to come to grips with the fact that he is beginning to have human emotions as he falls for Ella. Ella must learn to control and strengthen her magic and lose her guilt over her parents' death. This is one of those insta-matic love stories in which the couple professes their undying love within days of meeting. Other than the love-speed, my problem with their relationship is that Ella is such a pushoversuch a doormat. For example, after their initial night of blissful consummation, Kees essentially turns his back on her, having decided that he can't possibly be falling for a human (he constantly calls her "little human," frequently with great sarcasm). But his rejection doesn't stop her from deciding that he is the man for her (even though his behavior hurts her feelings). At one point, Ella muses that Kees is "a grumpy, grouchy, dictatorial, annoying, and often thoroughly unpleasant individual," but then she forgives him because he is also "protective, patient, intelligent, and fiercely loyal." (p. 175) In fact, "if it weren't for the wings folded behind his shoulders and the tail wrapped around his lower leg, he'd look like a pretty normal guy." (p. 193). Ella's only saving grace is that she does show courage in battle.

     To add to the glitches that I described in the "World-Building" section above, when Kees first transforms from his loincloth-clad stone self into his human form, he emerges clad in jeans and a T-shirt. He also has a very modern, American speech pattern and has no problem understanding the ins and outs of 21st century life in America. All of this is inexplicable since he is essentially a European who hasn't been awake since a brief period in the 1940s. (And where did those jeans come from?)

     Here is one more example of a mythology problem: In the first love scene (beginning on p. 108), Kees grabs Ella with his huge, clawed hands and passionately kisses her. Isn't his non-human, clawed form supposed to be stone? If so, this is a puzzling scene because Ella comments on his claws, his skin ("like unpolished stone or an emery board"), and on his lips and tongue ("warm and exiting"). Since stone isn't warm, how is this possible? Why isn't his stone tongue slicing up her mouth? Later in the scene, when Kees goes still for a long moment, Ella wonders whether he has changed to his stone form. If he is grabbing her with clawed hands and his skin feels like stone, isn't he already in his stone form? Seconds later, he shifts into his human form. This is a very confusing scene. Does Kees have three forms: stone, human, and something in between? None of this is made cleara definite flaw in the mythology. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Heart of Stone.

     The next book will deal with a Guardian who is in a museum in Montreal. Ella's college friend, Felicity (Fil) Shaltis, will be the one who wakes him up.

                       NOVEL 2:  Stone Cold Lover                       

      The second novel, like the first, follows the standard genre formula for paranormal romance: a feisty heroine, a sexy hero, a string of angst-filled interior monologues, an evil villain who threatens the heroine, and a finale in which good triumphs over evil and the lovers get their HEA. The heroine—Felicity (Fil) Shaltis—even has the requisite tragic childhood: drug-addicted mother and absent father. She also follows the clichéd paranormal heroine rule that requires all vehicles to be called by human names (in this case, Josephine the van and Laurent the motorcycle).

     We met Fil near the end of Heart of Stone when that book’s heroine—Fil’s best friend, Ella—asked her to check out a grotesque statue in Montreal to see whether it might be a Guardian. Sure enough, when Fil sneaks in after hours to check things out, the statue comes to life and defends her against an attack by one of the nocturnis—the demon minions. This Guardian is Spar, who calls himself Spar Livingston (“living stone”—get it?) in the human world. Unfortunately, the nocturnis manages to shoot a dark magical force into the palm of Fil’s hand, leaving a mark that binds her to a demon named Uhlthor the Defiler. Soon, Fil begins to suffer from dark visions and gradually begins acting even more ill-tempered than usual.

     Unfortunately, Fil isn’t as likable as most paranormal romance heroines. In fact, she is so obnoxiously peevish and petulant that she snarls, curses, and sneers her way through nearly every scene. At one point Spar compares her to a prickly thistle—“all sharp tongue and wary distance.” (p. 90) The only time that she’s in a good mood is when she and Spar are between the sheets. Why Spar is attracted to this surly young woman is a mystery, but within a day or so after they first meet, they become passionate lovers. They hit a few emotional bumps on the road to their HEA, but there is never any doubt about their future together. Like her friend Ella, Fil has a magical ability. She can “see” energy that emanates from magical people or objects.

     The lovers soon find a witch who breaks Fil’s demon bond, but the nocturnis still want to get their hands on Fil as a sacrifice to bring back Uhlthor from his banishment. That means that Fil is attacked several times by various types of monsters, including a golem. The incident that sets off the climax is such an obvious TSTL moment for Fil and Spar that I could hardly believe that the author used it. You’ll know immediately that it’s a trap, but the characters are so clueless that they just blunder into it. 

     This is a formulaic series that will probably repeat the same general plot in each book. It’s a good vs. evil story arc, with smart and sassy human women finding their destiny with big, ugly stone statues who turn into handsome, sexy human men. If one-dimensional paranormal romance is your cup of tea, you’ll probably enjoy the books. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Stone Cold Lover.  

     The witch—Wynn Myfanwy Llewellyn Powe—will be the heroine of the next book as she travels to her hometown of Chicago in search of yet another stony Guardian. 

                       NOVEL 3:  Hard As a Rock                       

     Wynn Myfanwy Llewellyn Powe, the witch who helped break Fil's demon bond in Stone Cold Lover, is the co-star of this book, along with her hard-as-a-rock (in so many ways) Guardian lover, Knox. Wynn comes from a family in which many of the males have been wardens. Although Wynn has always yearned to be a warden, the Guild of Wardens has always refused to accept females into their ranks (in direct opposition to the history of the Guild's founding by a group of women).

     In the first scene, Wynn is trying to find the Guardian assigned to Chicago, but when she gets to the site, she finds that the Order of Eternal Darkness (aka the nocturnis) has already blown up his stone statue. As she tries to figure out what to do next, she is attacked by a security guard who works for the nocturnis. Just as he gets ready to stab her, a Guardian appears out of nowhere in his huge, stony, clawed, winged, fanged form and saves her life. This is Knox, a newly created Guardian apparently summoned by Wynn. That means either that Wynn is truly a warden or that Knox is her true mate (because the women of the series have figured out that other than a Warden, only the mate of a Guardian can wake him and that she is always a woman of powerlike Wynn, who is a witch). They have also learned that once the entire demon problem is taken care of, the mated Guardians can demand their freedom so that they can become mortal and settle down in the suburbs with their wives and (hopefully) kids.

     The two plotsaction and romanceare interwoven in the usual manner, with pages and pages of angst-filled whining from Wynn, lots of meaningful glances and heavy breathing from Knox, enough bedroom scenes to keep things hot, and a few tablespoons of action towards the end to resolve the conflict of this book, but not the overall conflict between the Guardians and the Order. The demon Uhlthor (aka the Defiler) is still on the verge of awakening, and the small but intrepid group of Guardians and their mates must keep him from gaining his full powers. This book adds a new element to the series story arc. As Wyn puts it: "Do you think there's something hinky going down at the Guild?" The group suspects that there has been long-term corruption within the Guild that led to the ultimate destruction of the Guild's Paris headquarters and to Uhlthor's subsequent awakening.

     Once again, the same general plot line from the first two books is repeated here: heroic Guardian, sassy but self-absorbed heroine, a sprinkling of one-dimensional bad guys, and the threat of demonic world domination. It looks as if this will be the formula for the rest of the books in the series, so I'll probably just post the publisher's back-cover blurb for the next book instead of doing my own review. 

     If you enjoyed reading the first two books, you'll get more of the same in this one. If you haven't jumped into this series yet, you could read this book as a stand-alone because it reviews the back-story in some detail (mostly in the first two chapters). Click HERE to read an excerpt from Hard As a Rock on its page. Just go to that page and click on the cover art. 

     Just one final nitpick: Most heroines of paranormal fiction swear by the goddess. Instead of saying "Oh, my God," they say "Oh, my goddess," and I have no quarrel with thatusually. But in one place in this book Warren has her heroine say this: "A phone call to Uncle Griffin managed to find the man awake and alert even at the ungoddessly hour of five AM." Really, Ms. Warren…you thought that "ungoddessly" would be the most appropriate word here? Because it brought me to a dumbfounded halt while I pondered its ridiculousness. Better to have skipped the weird, deity-centric "ungodlessly" and substituted "insanely early" or "outrageously early" or simply "at the crack of dawn."

                         NOVEL 4:  Rocked by Love                         

     Kylie Kramer knows that she's putting her life in danger when she decides to investigate her friend's mysterious death. What she doesn't know is that she's being watched over by a powerful protector. A legend in stone who has defended humanity throughout the ages. A rock-hard savior who swoops down from the sky, scoops Kylie into his impossibly strong arms, and draws her into a world that no mortal woman can imagine...or resist.

     As the strongest of the gargoyles, Dag is sworn to destroy the demons that threaten Kylie's world before returning to his stony slumber. But the burning desire she ignites in him is even harder to fight-an all-consuming force that, once unleashed, can never be tamed. As their passion grows, so do the ranks of a demonic army plotting to take over the earth. When the ultimate battle begins, Dag and Kylie must face some demons of their own-to carve out a love that's stronger than time. 

     The formulaic plot of this novel is exactly like the previous three: heroine gets rescued by her rocky hero and then spends the rest of the book exchanging sarcastic remarks with him and their friends (three similar couples) while endlessly discussing plans to stop the evil nocturnis. These books could be read in almost any order because they are cookie-cutter copies of one another. Technically, the series story arc moves a baby-step forward in each book, but most of the action deals with issues entirely unrelated to the nocturnis and the demons they are trying to raise. Like the previous novels, this one is full of snarky dialogue, passionate bedroom scenes, and lots of repetitive generic strategy sessions. Rocked by Love has only two action scenes—one at the very beginning and one at the very end—and neither has very much action. In fact, the final one, which takes place during two brief chapters, is anti-climactic and provides no resolution to the ongoing nocturnis/demon conflict.

     The single element that makes this book different from the others is that Warren has made her heroine Jewish—actually half-Jewish (on her father's side). Kylie calls herself a "half-shiksa" and is not a practicing Jew, although she  spent a lot of childhood time with her paternal grandmother, who is. Unfortunately, this is also the worst element of the novel because Warren has overstuffed Kylie's dialogue with so many Yiddish phrases that the young woman comes across as the worst kind of stereotypical Jewish character on a really bad TV sitcom. Warren turns Kylie’s dialogue into hackneyed prattle, turning her into the well-worn Jewish grandmother trope (not unlike Kylie's own bubbeh, who shows up mid-way through the book). Kylie is constantly moaning, "Oy vey," or falling on her "tohkes," or complaining that something is "farkakta" or "farfoilt." She always dabs a “schmear” on her bagel when she has a “nosh.” When she is surprised, she “nearly plotzed.” She calls the bad guys “meshugener,” “kuppe drek,” and “shmuts,” and she calls her cat (King David) “bubeleh,” “bubbee,” and “boychik.” She calls Dag a “big, boulder-brained bulvan” and a “persistent nudnik.” Believe me when I tell you that this is just a tiny sample of Kylie’s Yiddish references. A little bit of this might have been humorous, but Warren ladles it on so thickly that after a few chapters, the humor evaporates and is quickly replaced by annoyance. If you want to read a really good humorous series with an East-coast Jewish heroine, take a look at Laura Resnick’s LAURA DIAMOND SERIES. Click HERE to read my reviews of the novels in Resnick’s series.

     I almost didn't read this book because I feared that it would be more of the same. Now that I've confirmed my suspicions, I definitely will not be reading and reviewing any more books in this series. I will, however, continue to add new titles to the list at the top of the review, as well as the publisher's blurbs for the new books. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Rocked by Love on its page by clicking on the cover art. 

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