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Friday, March 28, 2014


Author:  Paula Altenburg (aka Taylor Keating)

Plot Type: Post-Apocalyptic Soul Mate Romance (SMR)     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—1 
Publisher and Titles:  Entangled Publishing
          The Demon's Daughter (3/2013)
          Black Widow Demon (11/2013)
          Demon Creed (e-novel, 5/2014)  

     I have finally gotten around to reading Altenburg's series, so this post includes a brief overview of the world-building followed by reviews of the first two novels. The third book (currently being advertised as an e-novel) is due in May.

     The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world 300 years after civilization has been nearly destroyed in a war between thousands of demons and twelve goddesses. The ruins of the great cities of the past are now barely visible under the shifting sands. The goddesses have fled, leaving mortal Earth in the malevolent hands of the demons. A handful of the goddesses' priestesses remain, but most of them perished at the end of the war. In the first novel, we learn the truth about the cause of that war.   

     As the series opens, it is the year 330 PD (Post-Demon Occupation), the year in which the demons set fire to the goddesses' mountain, forcing them to flee from the physical Earth. The mythology is a bit vague about the events of the first 300 years of the demon occupation. This is the only explanation provided (in book 1): "For the goddesses,…this world...provided a chance to escape [from the demons]. They came first, a dozen of them, a long time ago. They traveled the old world in its entirety, bringing life and prosperity with them, and it brought them great pleasure in return. Then the demons arrived, numbering in the thousands, to scour the world with demon fire in their hunt for the goddesses. Mortals tried to protect the goddesses from them, and fought back with fire of their own. Before they fell, they decreased demon numbers to the hundred or so that we know of today." (Demon's Daughter, chapter 2) The surviving demons are currently confined to the Earth's desert because they cannot cross the boundaries built by the Goddesses. At this point, no one knows if any of the Old World still exists outside the boundaries. For these demons, water and sunlight can be fatal, so they hide under the the dry desert sands during the day and prey on humans at night. 

     The surviving human world looks like a mash-up of Mad Max (but no motorcycles) and any Old-West film (but no horses). People travel either on foot or on hrosses (black-feathered, horse-like animals with long legs and enormous, thick-hoofed feet). The hero of book one rides a sand swift (huge, razor-tongued lizard) named Sally. Settlements are widely scattered, towns are few and far between, and travel conditions are both primitive and dangerous. No one goes out at night because that's when the demons are active. The demons are attracted to mortals, primarily women, and when they impregnate a woman, their spawn tears her apart at birth (at least that's the case in the opening novel). The demons are driven into mad blood lust at the first scent of blood, and they view the settlements and cities as their demonic playgrounds (and food supply).

     The geography of this world goes like this: the city of Freetown in the East; the Borderlands in the West (near the end of the world); the Godseekers' mountains and gold mines in the North; and the sea in the South. That's how it is explained in book 1, but book 2 presents a slightly different geography. The Godseekers are a cult of men who were favorites of the goddesses (mostly in the bedroom), and most of them are anxious for the goddesses to return to mortal Earth. 

     Women have essentially no rights in this world, and they are frequently sold as slaves or are unwilling participants in the "entertainment" industry, if you get my drift. "Women, owned by men in this world and used as they pleased, were one of three thingswives, daughters, or whores." (The Demon Creed, chapter 1)

     Characters have one-word names that pertain to their some aspect of their lives. For males, this might be their occupation (e.g., Hunter, Blade, Armor, Gauntlet), a cultural connection (e.g., Justice), an important event from their past (e.g., Siege), or the way they live their lives (e.g., Roam, Runner). Women seem to be named for their physical characteristics or for plants or trees (e.g., Raven—for her dark eyes and hair; Willow; Laurel). Some names are impossible to figure out—for example, Crevice.

            NOVEL 1:  The Demon's Daughter            
     The first novel begins with a prologue that takes place on the very day that the demons burn down the goddesses' mountain. Allia, the last goddess, is in the throes of childbirth, and she commands her priestess, Desire, to kill the child as soon as it is born. That's because the little girl's father is the Demon Lord, and Allia fears that her child will exhibit extreme demonic traits. When Desire sees that the infant is a lovely human-looking baby girl, she talks Allia into allowing her to keep the child alive. At this point in the mythology, demon spawn are always male, so Desire assumes that the baby will be completely human in nature. Just before Allia dies, she agrees that Desire can raise the child. Allia gives Desire two amulets: one with the symbol of a lightning bolt and one crafted from a stone containing all the colors of the rainbow. Allia instructs Desire that the child is to wear the rainbow amulet as a remembrance of her mother and that Desire herself is to wear the lightning bolt amulet to protect herself from the child in case she turns out to be demonic. The lightning bolt amulet has been invoked by the Demon Lord to protect its owner against demons. As soon as Desire determines that the baby is not demonic, she is to throw the lightning bolt amulet into the river so that the child's Chosen will find it and become her protector. Desire names the child Airie—a name meaning rainbows and lightning.   

     Fast forward 22 years. Hunter (ask Demon Hunter) has been summoned to Freetown by the local priestess, the villainous Mamna, who wants him to capture a female thief who has been waylaying travelers on the Goddesses' Mountain. Mamna claims that the girl is a demon spawn who must be delivered to the Demon Lord—a death sentence. Hunter suspects that Mamna isn't telling him the whole story, but he despises demons and needs the money, so he takes the job. Hunter's first demon kill was the demon spawn forced on his sister by a demon lover, followed swiftly by the death of the demon himself. Now he travels the world as a mercenary demon assassin.

     When Hunter arrives on the Goddesses' Mountain, Airie tries to rob him of his packs, and the two of them get into a fight, during which Airie uses her fire powers, thus proving to Hunter that she really is a demon spawn. After Desire forces Airie to calm down, she tries explain Airie's situation to Hunter, but before Hunter can take in the entire situation, Desire dies and the mountain implodes. Hunter grabs Airie and they escape just in the nick of time. Even though Hunter knows that Airie is half demon, she is also is a gorgeous young woman. As they journey towards Freetown, Airie saves the life of Sally, Hunter's sand swift, and rescues a dying boy on the trail. These are not the acts of a demon, so Hunter is very confused, both about what Airie is and about whether he should condemn her to certain death by delivering her to Mamna.

     The plot follows the couple as they get to know each other and fall gradually in love. Meanwhile, both Mamna and the Demon Lord have their own nefarious reasons for getting their hands on Hunter and Airie. The Godseekers also want Airie, mostly because they believe that she is the Chosen goddess who will lead them to the goddesses who fled the Earth three decades ago. They also want Hunter so that they can steal his amulet. Oh yes, Hunter is the one who found the lightning bolt amulet after Desire threw it in the river. That's why he is the Demon Hunter—because the amulet protects him from demons, and that's why fate places him on the Goddesses' Mountain at the very moment that Airie needs a new protector. The story ends with the requisite showdown scene in which Hunter puts his life on the line and Airie is forced to make a life-changing choice.

     I give the author credit for creating a fresh and inventive world with an interesting mythology and some quirky supporting characters. Unfortunately, she doesn't do quite as well with her lead lovers. The two lovers are cardboard characters who fall into the stereotypical roles of über-alpha hero and feisty but naive, virginal heroine. She even throws in a clichéd TSTL moment for Airie. The story is told in the third person voice, mostly from the viewpoints of Hunter and Airie, but also including the Demon Lord, Mamna, Blade (Hunter's best friend), and a handful of others. The most interesting and mysterious character is Scratch, the little boy that Airie rescues. Scratch never speaks, and he appears to have the magical ability to appear and disappear at will. Who (or what) is he? Hunter suspects demonic influence, but the boy always steps in to save them, never to harm them. It will be interesting to see how Scratch's story plays out. The Black Widow Demon will tell Blade's story, and I'm hoping that the author's characterization skills get better in that book. Just one more nit-pick: What's with the weird hat-over-face cover art? Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Demon's Daughter.  

            NOVEL 2: Black Widow Demon            
     This novel takes place three months after the demons are banished from the mortal world, and the world-building makes a sharp U-turn as we learn that demon spawn born to human mothers are not always the monstrous mutations that were depicted in the first novel. Also, contrary to the mythology of the first book, the spawn are not always male and they don't always kill their mothers during the birth process. In fact, the plot of the second book focuses on a small group of spawn, both male and female, who look and act like humans but who have various demonic talents. As this book opens, new demon-related problems are now arising, even though the demons have been banished.   

     The book's hero is Blade, best friend of the hero of book 1. Blade has turned his back on his former life in Freetown and is making his way to the Goldseeker Mountains: "Deep within these mountains was a boundary that the goddesses had created to keep demons confined to the desert regions. He would test that boundary and see what, if anything  lay beyondif any of the Old World remained or if it had been completely decimated during the Demon Occupation more than 300 years earlier." (p. 2) Blade is determined to open a new chapter in his life: "The past was behind him. He was looking ahead. He was no longer a saloonkeeper, an assassin, or a cripple. He was a far cry from the helpless, abused boy he'd once been long ago. He would be none of those things again." (p. 2) 

     When Blade reaches the settlement of Goldrush, he witnesses a Godseeker named Justice attempting to burn his step-daughter at the stake—accusing her of being a demon spawn who tried to tempt him sexually. Justice hates all immortals, both demons and goddesses. He especially hated the goddess who kept him as her sexual "pet," and that hatred has grown to include all women. Raven is definitely a spawn, but she hasn't tried to tempt anyone. She is a beautiful young woman who attracts unwelcome male attention, and her step-father has tried, but failed, to seduce her. In self-defense, Raven stabbed Justice in the thigh. Now he is determined to prove to the citizens of his town that she is a spawn by showing that fire won't harm her. Then he plans to take custody of her and do with her whatever he wants. Raven is determined that will never happen.

     Blade is drawn immediately to Raven (in one of those paranormal romance soul-mate moments), and he immediately begins concocting a plan to free her. Raven, though, suddenly breaks away from her constraints and escapes into the mountains. Blade follows her to be sure that she is O.K., and in gratitude for his help, Raven gives him a demonic amulet that belonged to her late mother (who was murdered by Justice). They agree to travel together until Raven can find a safe refuge. The rest of the story follows the couple as they run, hide, and fight their way to their eventual HEA, with Justice always on their trail. As they travel on their dangerous journey, Blade and Raven try to understand one another, but instead find themselves alternating between passionate sexual episodes immediately followed by lengthy periods of doubt and misunderstanding—in other words, a typical paranormal romance.    

     One of Raven's demonic talents is the ability to "read" the minds of others to ascertain their desires, intentions, fears, and memories, and during the early chapters, Raven is able to read most of Blade's memories and thoughts: "Fractured memories came through to her now, whispers of things of which he didn't speak….Raven knew that while he did not blame her for being half demon, or even seem to hold it against her, he would never forget it. It tangled at the edge of his consciousness with the other memories she knew haunted him." (chapter 9) Raven is able to divine exactly what Blade is looking for in life and is able to read all of his memories about his earlier life, right down to the smallest details, like "seeing" the name of his former lover, Ruby, the woman in Freetown to whom he gave his saloon when he left town. Later, though, Raven is frequently (and implausibly) unable to read Blade's emotions. Sometimes she can, but other times (when the author needs to create a heartrending emotional scene), she can't. At one point, late in the story, Raven agonizes: "He wanted more, but she did not know what it was, only that it was something she could not give him." (p. 252) At another point, she muses, "She could not tell what he thought or how he felt…" (p. 297) The instability of Raven's mind-reading with Blade occurs suddenly and without explanation—creating a huge flaw in the plotting.

     Raven also has the ability (or curse) to go into the Demons' boundary (which is different from the goddesses' boundary) at times of high stress, and if she is touching Blade at the time, he goes along with her. There, they have several confrontations with Raven's father, who wants to use Raven for his own nefarious purposes. Raven has one other powerful demonic talent: she can burst into flame.

     Mortal enemies are not the only dangers that Blade and Raven face. Wild animals called Wolvens (a cross between wolves and mountain lions) roam the mountains. Then there are other spawn, some who have developed into creatures with evil demonic tendencies. 

     We also meet Creed, Raven's childhood protector, who is training for a career as a Godseeker assassin. The Godseekers' training headquarters is the Temple of Immortal Right, located deep in the Godseeker Mountains near the goddesses' boundary. Creed plays a key role in the lovers' escape, and he is slated to be the hero of the third novel. 

     This book sets up the series for more spawns as heroes/heroines. As one Spawn explains: "All my life I thought I was alone in the world. Then three months ago [when the demons were banished], everything changed. I began picking up the presence of others like me, so I set out to find them. Most seem to blend in well enough with their communities and don't have any unusual abilities. They might not even know what they are. But some of us don't blend in at all. I thought there might be safety in numbers so I've been approaching a few who have obvious talents….I discovered that some of them don't need protection. Or want it. And that others are banding together, but not always for safety." (p. 99)

     This is a typical paranormal soul-mate romance that proceeds down the usual rocky road to its inevitable HEA. The one-dimensional cardboard villain is evil through and through, with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, which makes him a predictable, boring loser. With its frontier setting, male-dominated culture, and fervent religious zealousness, the plot reaches back to the Salem witch trials for its roots. The biggest hole in this plot is, as I mentioned earlier, the huge discrepancy in Raven's mind-reading talents. It would have worked if Raven had NEVER been able to read Blade's mind, simply because he was her soul mate. That is a plot device frequently used in other soul-mate series. But to allow her to see everything about Blade's past and to read his thoughts freely and then, all of a sudden, to have her lose that ability—that's just a case of sloppy plotting. And one last point: What's with the title? In slang usage, a black widow is a woman who kills her husband, which never happens in this book. There is no widow—not black, white, human, or demon—in this novel. 

     Click HERE and scroll down a bit to read an excerpt from Black Widow Demon.

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