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Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Author:  Keri Arthur
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Signet 
          Fireborn (7/2014)
          Wicked Embers (7/2015)
          Flameout (7/2016)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 7/9/2016 to include a review of Flameout, the third novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and reviews of the first two novels.

                    NOVEL 3:  Flameout                     
     Emberly and her red hot partner, Jackson Miller, have hit an impasse in their battle against the crazed humans infected by a plague-like virus derived from vampire blood. Their quest to unearth the leader of the group leads them into an ambush—and leaves Emberly at odds with her former lover, Sam Turner, who is dealing with his infection. 

     To make matters worse, three local witches have been kidnapped—and if their spells fall into the wrong hands, Emberly’s powers could end up smothered. With time ticking until the virus consumes the world, Emberly and Jackson must race to save the witches, find a cure, and smoke out their nemesis—or go down in a blaze of glory.

     FAIR WARNING: This review of Flameout      
      contains spoilers for the previous two novels .      
     Em and Jackson are still searching for the research notes of the missing scientists, Wilson and Rosen. At first, Em and Jackson are on their own in the search, but then they are blackmailed, threatened, and otherwise forced to share all of their information with their frenemies and their outright enemies. All of these people are working at cross purposes, trying to get as much information as possible so that they can defeat the others. Here is a list:

 > Joseph Rinaldo (aka Professor Heaton), a powerful vampire who threatens to kill Em and Jackson's friends if they don't give him daily updates on their progress in retrieving the notes. 

  The Paranormal Investigations Team (PIT), a covert law enforcement organization that insists on being kept in the loop or they will imprison, torture, or possibly kill Em and Jackson. Both Sam and his fae lover, Rochelle, work for PIT.

  Frank Parella, head of the sindicati (Melbourne's vampire organization), who promises to protect Jackson's friends from Rinaldo in exchange for information.

  Scott Baker and his werewolves, who also promise protection in exchange for information.

And then there are enemies who just want to see Em dead. Here is that list:

  > Luke Turner, leader of the Red Cloaks (and Sam's brother), who wants to infect the world with the Crimson Death virus. He also hates Em and wants to torture her to death in front of Sam.

  De Luca's vampires, who hold Em responsible for their leader's death (even though she didn't kill himParella did)

  Marcus Radcliffe, head of the were-rats, who despises Em for humiliating him numerous times.

  Theodore Hunt, a crazed werewolf hit man who despises Em because she has ruined his reputation by preventing him from completing two contract murders.

     As the search continues for the scientists' papers, Em and Jackson are repeatedly ambushed by various enemies, but each time, they manage to use their fiery skills to escape. Since Em and Jackson merged their powers (in a previous book) Jackson has developed some Phoenix-like firepower that he is struggling to control. 

     About a third of the way into the story, PIT orders Em and Jackson to assist Grace Harkwell, a witch who has reported that three of her coven sisters have been kidnapped, probably by Luke. As Em and Jackson follow through on a note left behind by one of the witches, they fall into a trap and learn that Luke has powers far beyond what they believed he had.

     From the beginning to the end of this book, Em and Jackson fall into a pattern of searching, fighting off attacks, keeping in touch with their various blackmailers, and….repeat, repeat, repeat. They do take time for a few brief bedroom scenes that are impressionistic, rather than graphic, in nature. Unfortunately, their fire-based responses to the ambushes are so similar that they soon begin to merge into a repetitious blur, and the villains are so one-dimensional that they didn't hold my interest at all, particularly Luke, who turns out to be just a run-of-the-mill psychopath on a power trip.

     I find it difficult to care about Em and her allies because they are also one-dimensional. Although the author allows Em to muse about how important Rory is to her, we see very little of him until the very end of the book. And we never get into Jackson's mind at all, which is the downside of telling a story in the first person from a single character's point of view.

     Throughout the book, Sam is dealing with the effects of his infection by the Crimson Death virus. Although he is now with Rochelle, it is obvious that he still cares for Em (and she for him), but he refuses to admit his feelings. At the end of the book, it is not clear what direction their relationship will take.

     Be advised that this series is structured around a single story line that will be clear only to readers who begin with Fireborn and proceed through the books in chronological order as listed at the top of this post. My recommendation is that you do not try to read Flameout as a standalone because it relies on the outcomes of many past events that are not reviewed in this book.

     This is the last book in this series that I will be reviewing, although I will continue to post publisher's blurbs as new books are published. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Flameout on the novel's page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

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

     Like most of Arthur's fiction, this series is set in the present in an alternate Melbourne, Australiathe same universe of her RILEY JENSON and DARK ANGELS series. In this world, vampires and werewolves have come out to the public, but the rest of the supernatural groups are keeping their magical sides hidden.

     The series heroine, Emberly (Em) Pearson, is a centuries-old phoenix"a spirit born from the ashes of flame." (Fireborn) A phoenix has three forms: flesh, fire, and bird. Em generally maintains human form, but she points out that "I was a spirit rather than a being born of flesheven if I wore human form most of the time…" (Wicked Embers)

     Em lives in an apartment with her bonded mate, Rory, who is a fireman. In this mythology, a male and female phoenix are paired at age 16 during their first lives, a bond that lasts forever. The pair can only have children with each other. Em and Rory have had five children together over the centuries, but they are long gone, having paired up and moved on to other parts of the world. A phoenix has a life span of 100 years, at which time he or she is painlessly reborn as an adult. A phoenix who is killed before achieving 100 years of life is forced to undergo an extremely painful rebirth. If a phoenix pair dies at the same moment, they move on into eternity in spirit form and can never be reborn.

     Unfortunately, all phoenixes are affected by a vindictive witch's curse that prevents them from falling in love with their bonded mates or with any other phoenix. They can be friends and lovers, but never true sweethearts. The witch "cursed us with the inability to love…another [phoenix], forcing us to forever seekbut never findemotional completion outside our own race, thus ensuring that we would forever be left with little more than love's bitter ashes." (Fireborn) As part of the curse, these inter-species love affairs always end very badly. Phoenix pairs have a unique relationship. They "needed to regularly merge flames, or face diminishingin some cases, even death." (Fireborn) This is why their other romantic relationships always fail: because they must maintain their fiery connection (which includes sex) with their other halftheir bonded phoenix mateor they will die. "No matter how much we might love someone else, we could never remain faithful to them. Not if we wanted to live." (Fireborn)

As the series opens, Emberly has three handsome, sexy men in her life: 

     > Rory: Em's bonded phoenix matethe other half of her soula friend and lover for centuries 

     > Sam Turner: Em's former lover who cannot accept the fact that Em must maintain a sexual relationship with Rory; the break-up was five years ago

     > Jackson Miller: a fire Fae with whom Em begins a partnershipfor the dual purposes of pleasure and business; a private investigator who owns Hellfire Investigations

     Sam, a former policeman, now works for a covert agency called the Paranormal Investigations Team (PIT), which employs a variety of supernatural and human agents. While PIT works with the police department, it has its own way of dealing with bad guys and isn't required to follow the rule of law. PIT has wide-ranging powers and deals with "any activity involving paranormal beings that sits either within or without the law and provides a potential threat to humanity." (Fireborn)

     Vampires in this world can disappear into the shadows, but they cannot fly. They are sun sensitive and immortal. The local vampire gangster organization is called the sindicati and is comparable to the mafia.

     Click HERE to go to Arthur's "Aussie Speak" page, which translates Australian idioms used in the novels.

Other works by Keri Arthur: 

     If you haven't read Arthur's terrific RILEY JENSON, GUARDIAN urban fantasy series, you might want to give it a try. Riley is a tough but sexy dhampire: half werewolf and half vampire. She is an enforcer, or Guardian, who lives in Melbourne, Australia (where Arthur also lives). This series is not included on my blog because I read all of the books before the blog was up and running. Click on the series title above to go to the Riley Jenson page on Arthur's web site.

     Arthur has also written two other (less successful) paranormal series: MYTH AND MAGIC (paranormal romance) and DARK ANGELS (urban fantasy). Click on either of the two series titles to read my reviews.

                     NOVEL 1:  Fireborn                     
     Once I got all the bad guys and good guys straightened out in my mind, I had to skim through the book a second time just to be sure I remembered who did what and why they did itespecially the bad guys. For that reason, I'm providing this list that groups the characters into three categories: 


   > Professor Mark Baltimore: the research biologist at Chase Medical Research Institute for whom Em works; rival of Wilson 

   > Professor James Wilson: the research biologist at Rosen 
Pharmaceuticals for whom Jackson works; rival of Baltimore 

   > Harriet Chase: founder and head of the Chase Medical Research Institute; ex-wife of Rosen 

   > Denny Rosen: owner and president of Rosen Pharmaceuticals; ex-husband of Harriet; has a heavy load of gambling debts and ties to Marcus Radcliffe 

   Adam: Sam's vampire partner 

   Rochelle: fire Fae; possibly Sam's lover 

   Marcus Radcliffe the third: were-rat who trades in black-market goods and information 

   Sherman Jones: a thug for hire and petty thief who has some type of connection with Baltimore's death; has worked for Radcliffe 

   > Professor Heaton: probably a fake name; a vampire hit man 
masquerading as a professor in order to gain access to Em and to Baltimore's laboratory 

   Lee Rawlings: a vampire who hires Jones to kidnap Em 

   Henry Morretti: another mob-connected vampire who is after Em and also tries to kill Amanda Wilson 

   Amanda Wilson: Wilson's human wife; a telepath and long-time grifter with ties to the sindicati 

    As the story opens, Em has had a prophetic dream in which Sam is brutally murdered, so even though they are no longer a couple, she goes off into a rough part of Melbourne to save his life. After Em snatches Sam out of range of the guns aimed at him by a carload of red-cloaked monstrous men, he tells her that the men are called Red Cloaks and that they have been infected by the Crimson Death, a powerful virus transmitted through scratches or bites that either kill humans and vamps or drive them insane. The virus was created in a government laboratory as a by-product of an experimental attempt to identify the enzymes that make vampires immortal. (Note: At a later point in the book, the enzymes are described as being the ones that "are apparently responsible for a human becoming a vampire.") (p. 253) Why on earth do all of the Red Cloaks wear those red cloaks? Is it a metaphor of some sort? Em never asks, and Sam never explains. I can't imagine why Arthur doesn't deal with this oh-so-obvious question.

     Em is currently working as Professor Baltimore's secretary, mostly keeping his papers in order and transcribing his notes into computer files. When Baltimore is murdered, Em finds his body and almost immediately gets involved with discovering who killed him and why they stole his research notes. Meanwhile, Em begins a friends-with-benefits flirtation with Jackson, whom she meets on the front steps of Baltimore's building, only to learn that he began the flirtation because of her connection to Baltimore. It seems that Jackson is a private detective who has been hired to retrieve Professor Wilson's research notes, which were stolen when he was recently murdered. Obviously, it cannot be a coincidence that two prominent research biologists, both working on the same virus-related enzyme, are murdered and their research stolen. Coincidentally, both enzyme studies are related to the Crimson Death.

     Very soon, Em and Jackson instigate one investigation, and Sam and PIT begin another. Sam is furious that Em and Jackson have involved themselves in the two murders, and he goes to extreme lengths to stop them, including kidnapping them, temporarily imprisoning them, and drugging them (twice). Throughout the book, Em continues to engage in lots of angst-filled interior monologues about how much she still loves and yearns for Sam, despite the fact that Sam spends most of his time snarling and scowling at her, having her followed, and constantly berating her. Late in the story, when Em chides Sam for using a drug on her that drained away all her powers and left her defenseless, he tells her that he has no qualms about using the drug on her even if he and PIT had no idea what it would do to a phoenix. 

     Em is certain that something has happened to Sam that has turned him into a brooding, dark, mean-spirited man with a streak of violence simmering just under the surface. There are lots of sentences like these: "The darkness within him seemed to explode, and the sheer force of it had me stepping back." (p. 87) "The darkness in him sharpened, even as his control seemed a little more tenuous. Fear skipped lightly into my heart." (p. 199) (“Skipped lightly”? Really? More appropriate would be "slithered darkly" or "slipped silently." "Skipped lightly" connotes a relaxed, carefree tone, not the nervous uneasiness that this scene emanates.) 

     At one point, Sam plans to sacrifice Jackson's life for a key piece of evidence, considering it to be a case of unavoidable collateral damage. Em keeps asking Sam how and why he has changed so much, but he never answers her. I liked Em as a heroine except for her continued devotion to Sam, which is not at all understandable and certainly not logical. I mean, even if they once had a loving relationship, he is obviously not the same man he was then, and he treats her worse than dirt—never a kind word or action. Em's acceptance of all this emotional and physical abuse makes her a weak and irrational heroine. I'm sure that we will eventually learn that some heartbreaking personal tragedy has caused the changes in Sam, so maybe his character will be redeemed in a future book. It would have been helpful if Arthur had included some tender, loving flashback scenes that showed Sam as he was five years ago during his romance with Em, but as it is, we see only this rude, arrogant jerk who has absolutely no redeeming personal qualities. I already have my suspicions about what has happened to Sam, based on a number of clues that Arthur scatters throughout the book, but I'm not sure that I could ever accept him as Em's true love. 

     Throughout the book, Em is followed, attacked by both vampires and Red Cloaks, and stalked by Sam's PIT agents. The rest of the plot plays out in a bewildering convolution of various bad guys who want to capture and/or kill Em, bad guys who want Baltimore's missing research notebook, PIT agents (mostly Sam) who want any information Em and Jackson collect, and a
mysterious supernatural man who just wants to get his hands on Em. 

     Unfortunately, very little of the conflict is resolved by the end of the book. SOULS OF FIRE is definitely being written as a series of interdependent books that are not designed to be read as stand-alones, and that is not my favorite kind of series. Many series have over-arching series plots, but the best of those are planned so that the series plot advances a few steps in each book while a separate (sometimes related) conflict is fully resolved.

     I'm not sure how I feel about this first novel. Certainly, it suffers from the world-building information dumping that is necessary in all novels that introduce a series. But I do like two of the three male leads: Rory and Jackson, both of whom are funny, sexy, and supportive. The concept of having a phoenix as the lead character is fresh and inventive, but sometimes I wondered why Em didn't use her firepower to get out of some sticky situations. I plan to read the second novel when it appears on the market and make further judgments at that point.

                    NOVEL 2:  Wicked Embers                     
    Crimson Death, the plague-like virus spawned from a failed government experiment to isolate the enzymes that make vampires immortal, continues to spread. Emberly (Em) Pearson and her partner, Jackson Miller, are desperately seeking the stolen research for a cure before the virus becomes a pandemic. 

     But their mission is jeopardized by another threat uncovered in Emberly’s prophetic dreams. A creature of ash and shadow has been unleashed on a murdering spree. Now Emberly must summon all her gifts and investigative knowledge to put an end to this entity’s brutal rampage—even if it means placing herself in harm’s way.

     FAIR WARNING: This review of Wicked Embers      
      contains spoilers for the previous novel.      
     As the story opens, Em is having prophetic dreams about a large carnivorous creature that "seemed to be made of embers..., and it flowed from one form to another with ease. Sometimes it looked like a cat, at other times like a large bat…Gradually, though, it settled into the form of a monstrous black dog." At first, the creature (soon identified as an Aswang) sucks the internal organs from already dead bodies, but that soon changes as it begins to hunger for living flesh. The plot, then, revolves around Em and Jackson's hunt for the Aswang.

     Ever since Em saved Jackson's life (in Fireborn) by sharing her fire with him, Jackson has been increasingly able to do new things, such as creating his own fire, reading Em's thoughts, and sensing when she is in danger. These are troubling developments because neither knows what additional side effects will develop. At the moment, though, the mind-reading is working out well between the partners (also, lovers) as they take to the streets of Melbourne to track down the monstrous killer.

     The Aswang plot weaves through the series-encompassing plot: the search for the missing research notes that might include the formula for the cure to the deadly Crimson Death, a powerful virus transmitted through scratches or bites that either kills humans and vamps or drives them insane. As part of that plot, Em is also trying to identify the mysterious gray-cowled man who is the leader of the murderous Red Cloaks (vicious, infected vampires), a man who appears to have a serious personal grudge against both Em and her former lover, Sam Turner. 

     Sam works for a covert agency called the Paranormal Investigations Team (PIT). PIT works with the local police department on supernatural cases, but it deals with magical bad guys in its own way—violently and off the books. Sam is Em's true love for this lifetime, and he has rejected her because of her need to maintain a sexual relationship with her phoenix mate, Rory. (Note: In this mythology, a phoenix's heart can be broken only once in a given lifetime, and Sam is Em's one and only heartbreaker for this one.) In this book, Sam continues to be the surly oaf that he was in the first book, but his attitude becomes more understandable after he reveals that something happened to him that radically changed his life. (And no, I'm not going to spoil the story by revealing what that "something" was, although the author drops so many non-subtle hints that you will have figured it out long before it appears on the page.) 

     Another organizationthe Coalition of Nonhumans (CNH)is introduced in this book, but it doesn't play much of a role in the plot. Jackson describes the CNH like this: "It's an independent resource center for vampires and werewolves, funded by member contributions," kind of like a union. Its purpose is to protect nonhuman rights in the workforce and to promote nonhuman-friendly legislation at all governmental levels. Oddly, Em has never heard of the Coalition, which surprises Jackson (and me), particularly since the CNH was involved in several well-publicized cases when someone tried to kill some CNH members. (I guess Em isn't a newspaper reader.) 

     Just as in the first book, the cast of minor supporting characters (mostly villains) is quite large, particularly because as they keep getting killed off, with othersjust as minorreplacing them. That means that there are a lot of names to keep track of as the plot advances. (Note: Even the copy-proofer lost track of the characters' names. At one point in chapter 8, Amanda Wilson is referred to as Amanda Rosen.) 

     So…Here's how it goes: The minor villains keep getting killed by rival vampire factions. The Aswang keeps sucking out people's insides. Sam keeps being a jerk. Em and Jackson and Em and Rory get up close and personal a number of times. The local werewolf pack, led by Scott Baker, gets pulled into the action. Jackson gets more and more tuned in to Em. Sam's secret is revealed. The leader of the Red Cloaks is identified. And finally, the book ends with the requisite showdown scene that resolves the whole Aswang situation. 

     Like the previous book, this one suffers occasionally from continuity issues. For example, in chapter 6, a psychic tells Em that the Aswang will eventually prefer "younger, sweeter flesh," to which she responds, "Meaning it's likely to go after children?" Then in chapter 12, a Filipino medicine man warns her about the Aswang using nearly the same words as the psychic: "the younger the flesh, the sweeter the taste." Em responds with nearly identical words: "Meaning it will eventually go after children?"as if she's hearing this for the first time.

     And then there's the question as to whether Em can or cannot sense vampires in the dark. In chapter 13, when a vampire disappears into the shadows, Em says, "While he was invisible to the eye, I knew precisely where he was. Vampires might naturally run cooler than the rest of humanity, but they weren't beings of ice and, in most circumstances, I could sense the heat in them, whether they were shadowed or not." In the excerpt from Flameout (the third novel), which closes the book, Em contradicts those words in a scene in which vampires converge on her at night: "I couldn't see anything out of place, nor could I sense...anyone approaching….I might be able to sense the heat in others, but if [the vampires] had none, or if it was concealed in some way, it left me as blind as any human." So…can she sense them or can't she? (I really hate contradictions in the mythology of a series!) 

     This is just an O.K. series. The concept is inventivewe don't see many phoenix heroines in the current urban fantasy genrebut the main characters have very little depth and they are neither charismatic nor interesting. I haven't quite decided whether to keep reading and reviewing these books. Even if I don't continue to review them, I will post the publisher's blurbs and publication dates for all future books. Be aware that this is a series in which each book builds on the events of the previous book, so you need to start reading from the very beginning or you will be totally lost.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Wicked Embers on the novel's page by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. The third novelFlameoutrevolves around the kidnapping of three witches and includes more animosity between Em and Sam.

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