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REVIEW: Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, Sharon Shinn,...

Dear Mss. Andrews, Brook, Shinn, and Singh,

Are angels the new vampires in romance novels? It seems like the number of books starring angels continues to expand exponentially. When choosing to write about angels (or winged beings, in the case of the Guardians), authors invite introspection from readers about the nature of good and evil and the balance of power.

Angels of Darkness Nalini Singh Vampires are predators and humans their prey. When pairing a vampire and human in a romance the power imbalance that writes must address is one of prey and predator. With angels the power imbalance is fundamentally different. Angels inspire awe but their otherness isn’t necessarily predatory so much as inhuman and powerful. An angel-human relationship isn’t about resolving the prey-predator dynamic but rather about protector and powerless. Angels are a like Knight-protectors (though without the horse and armor) and they are often portrayed as protectors of humanity (think guardian angel, the arch angel protector of women and children, etc.). How does this affect how we approach books starring these mysterious not-human beings?

These were the thoughts swirling in my head as I picked up the ARC of Angels of Darkness. I had read books and short stories by Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook, and Nalini Singh; Sharon Shinn was a new-to-me writer.

Angel’s Wolf by Nalini Singh

The anthology opens with Nalini Singh’s story, Angel’s Wolf set the world of Raphael and Elena where all-powerful angels rule the world, create vampires to serve them, and humans live their brief lives much like we do. The angel Nimra serves Raphael and oversees New Orleans and its environs. Noel, a vampire recently healed from vicious attack that left him as little more than pulped flesh, is sent by Raphael to work for her. In Singh’s world angels are cold, uncanny beings of power beyond the comprehension of most humans.

Nimra is the most interesting angel I’ve encountered in Singh’s world. She has a horrific power that can take the violence and badness inside of a person and morph it into that individual’s own suffering and anguish. The meaner you are, the more Nimra can hurt you, which means the most powerful angels—all of whom commit acts of violence, have the most to fear from her. But Nimra herself isn’t mean-spirited or vengeful. Underneath her powerful crust she has a deep compassion which is seen through her love of her pet cats and her affection for her elderly human steward, Fen.

Throughout the story Nimra and Noel are on opposite trajectories. Nimra is slowly revealed to the reader as kinder and more compassionate than her merciless reputation and Noel is revealed as more powerful and capable than his broken victim status. They arrive at an equilibrium where Nimra remains the feared ruler of this territory and Noel rises to become her fear-inducing enforcer.

 

Alphas: Origins by Ilona Andrews

Ilona Andrews’ story, Alphas: Origins is set in the world of the Alphas. This was my first foray into this world that feels post-apocalyptic though it’s not. This is an alien story. Or more accurately, we are all subspecies created by aliens and left to battle until only one remains. At least I think that’s what going on. Most of the story is set in a parallel dimension that has portals into our dimension. I read this Alphas slowly and closely because the world is very complex and I kept trying sort out if I’d missed something. A lot of the time I did not understand what was going on. I was at least as clue-less as the heroine and this confusion created an empathy with her character. (Since finishing the story I’ve wondered if this was a deliberate construct by Ms. Andrews.)

So here’s what I think I know about the story: there is a battle between two factions of mixed subspecies. The “good” side—the one with our hero and heroine—are fighting to get to another dimension in their world while the other faction is trying to kill them. Some beings have more power than others, and fighting, pain, and death are commonplace.

I wouldn’t really call this story a romance. The “hero”, Lucas, is a shifter who turns into a fur covered monster that needs to drink Karina’s blood. Karina is a human who has some genetic link to the original subspecies making her blood food to fuel the hero

I find Ms. Andrews’ world building intriguing, but this such a complex world to introduce in a short story and I became focused on trying to piece together the world-building which distracted me from the character development. The romance, such as it is between Lucas and Katrina isn’t very romantic. They come together out of mutual need—he for her blood, she for her life—and an emotional bond begins to develop. But it the bond stems from the Katrina’s lack of other options—did I mention the leader of Lucas’ faction is holding Katrina’s daughter hostage? I would like to read more about this Alpha world, but as a stand-alone story this one was a tough read.

I should add that when I first saw this anthology was coming and that it was about angels, I hoped that Ms. Andrews was going to write a story about Thanatos, the angel in the Kate Daniels series. I was a disappointed when I found out this wasn’t a story about him and this may have contributed to my dissatisfaction with this story—I wanted one thing and got another.

 

Nocturne by Sharon Shinn

Sharon Shinn’s story, Nocturne, is set in the world of the Samaria series. This is a story of redemption, forgiveness and hope. Moriah has been running from events in her past and the angel Corban is mired in depression and refuses to face his future after an accident blinded him.

Moriah is abrasive and canny, hardened by a tough life and hiding from events in her past. It’s her skeptical attitude and lack of awe for angels that are what Corban needs to shake off the mantel of depression and hopelessness that cling to him two years after his accident. In each other they each find their paths to redemption and the hope for a happy future.

This story is told in the first person and it took me a while to begin to appreciate Moriah; during the first half of Nocturne I had to force myself to keep reading. Shinn peaked my curiosity about the monster (Corban) in the forbidden house, but that was the only thing that kept me reading. I wonder if readers of the Samaria series will feel differently. Would knowing this world have made the story more compelling to me from the start? I’m glad I finished it, but I don’t know if I’ll seek out the other Samaria books.

 

Ascension by Meljean Brook

Meljean Brook’s story, Ascension, is set in her Guardian world. Marc is a Guardian trying to identify and remove a demon who is spreading malice and discontent in his territory. Radha a fellow Guardian and Marc’s former lover, has arrived under the pretense of taking a vacation and offers to help Marc in his search.

As they investigate several murders and follow the trail of clues they rehash their past. More than 100 years ago, while in Guardian training, Marc took a vow of celibacy, but he couldn’t resist his powerful attraction to Radha and he broke that vow. She heard him beg God for forgiveness for sleeping with an unclean woman and took offense (Imagine getting out of bed after a hot and steamy night and finding your partner praying for fornicating with your slutty self. Ugh.).

I think Ms. Brook is a particularly fine short story writer. She deftly delivers subtle character development and emotional arc while weaving the investigative elements that reveal, layer by layer, information about the town and its inhabitants. The evil in this story was sown by a demon, but it was enacted by humans. I found the happy ending to the romance was more poignant after learning the identity of the murderer. The years lost between Marc and Radha as they each battled their inner demons were reflected in the choices of the murder. All of them made choices that led to unhappiness. Marc and Radha got a chance at redemption (and love) all these years later. Who knows, maybe the murder will receive the same, in time.

Each story in this anthology complicated my ideas about angels and reinforced my belief that good and evil are on a continuum with no clear lines demarking where you are on that continuum. As philosophical ideas I found each story offered something compelling; as entertainment I found the stories uneven and on that basis I give the collection a B-.

Cheers,

Jaclyn

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The first book Jaclyn can recall reading all by herself was Cinderella (a pink Disney edition) and all these years later she remains an avid reader of fairy tales, myths, and historical romances. Jaclyn's TBR also overflows with science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, urban fantasy, contemporary, thrillers, and mystery. During the workday she can be found navigating the digital transformation at a university press.

17 Comments

  1. Jane
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 10:21:26

    I was double checking the links this morning and at the goodreads site, there is a comment/review by Gordon Andrews ostensibly 1/2 of the writing team of Ilona Andrews and it is very strange. It reads like a slap against the genre:

    I liked the story we did, but to be honest I also feel like we had to compromise to get it accepted. Ilona, do not read past this point. I don’t mean that in a “oh poor me, I am an artist and I had to compromise my artistic integrity, to get my novel published.” Ok, well maybe a little, even commercial hacks get the blues. When we came up with alphas, we wanted it to be sick and twisted, dark and mostly devoid of humor. Really, we sometimes like to write stuff that is not as funny or fantasy-ish? Can I say that, anyway. So the plan was to make it into a series of it’s own, published maybe as e-books. We made the decision to include the story in the anthology based on the promise that it would be accepted as is, warts and all. Then we then had to make it less dark and more romancy.

    Your review makes it sound like the story isn’t romance-y at all. Did you see the author challenges in the short based on these comments?

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  2. Brie
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 11:17:11

    My favorite story was Alphas but I agree that it was somewhat confusing. To me it would have worked much better as a full-length novel but I think it’s impressive how they managed to create such a complex world in such a short word-count.

    To me it wasn’t a romance and there are elements in the relationship between Karina and Lucas that can be quite off-putting to some, but it does have some romantic elements and you can see how there might be a romance there (although it might be more of a case of Stockholm syndrome, as one of the characters puts it).

    Great review Jaclyn, it’s funny how everyone has a different opinion about this anthology.

    @Jane: to me the story was dark but not as dark as some reviews make it seem, Bayou Moon has some disturbing images that I definitely compare to some of the things going on here so I wasn’t surprised by the violence. I also thing that it had some dark humor in there as well… It does have romantic undertones, but that’s not the main focus of the story.

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  3. Jane
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 11:25:01

    @Brie Is Bayou Moon the swamp book? Yes, that was very violent but also super romantic, in my opinion. In fact, if anything, I’ve seen the Andrews move more toward romance than farther away from it. Plus, I read those two shorts, one that was self published and that was very romance-y.

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  4. Jaclyn
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 11:36:23

    @Jane: I would classify Alphas as fantasy fiction. I would not call it a romance in the “happily ever after” sense. It *could* be labeled a romance if we use Webster’s definition 4 a: “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious…”. Karina comes into her own at the end and is able to throw off the mantel of victim (although I suspect the emotional side of her victim status will linger) and take her place at Lucas’ side in the war between subspecies. She moves to more even footing with (and potentially someday surpassing) Lucas, at least in terms of their power. They do seem to come to a sort of mutual affection, and based on what you’ve posted from Mr. Andrews, this might be how they made the story more “romancy”.

    @Brie: I am inrigued by the world of the Alphas and agree a full-length novel might have worked better–there was so much information packed into these pages!

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  5. Brie
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 11:37:35

    @Jane: Yep, that’s the one. If you compare Alphas to The Edge series or the Kinsmen novellas, then this one’s not a romance (I haven’t read the Kate Daniels books so I don’t know how it compares to those). But in terms of darkness and violence it wasn’t anything new, at least IMO. What’s different here is that the hero is violent towards the heroine and he even thinks about forcing her, although he ends up being all protective-possessive alpha because apparently when you’re a shifter that’s what you do… I really liked this one, it’s complex, a bit awkward and there’s a lot of info-dumping, but it has great potential and I really hope they write more books set in this world.

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  6. MarieC
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 12:11:26

    Great review! While I really enjoyed all four of the stories, the one that surprised me was Sharon Shinn’s. Granted, I haven’t read her Samaria books in a long time, but this story struck me as more empathetic than her others.

    Regarding Alphas, I agree with Brie, that it probably would have been better served as a longer story, but still satifying.

    As always, Ms Singh’s and Ms Brooks’ stories were, IMO, were wonderful!

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  7. Estara
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 12:16:24

    @Jane: The thing is the Alphas stories started on the Ilona Andrews LJ and then moved to their blog as really strange freebies – then an editor acquired them as a novel basis and the pages were removed – and they were really non-romancy anyway.

    I think the main idea had been to write a short excerpt of a story were a an a-hole hero actually behaves as the a-hole he is and how unlikely that is to make a woman love him. And then fans clamoured for more of this strange beginning after the first scene.

    Some while later Ilona posted that she could simply not conceive of how to make a novel out of this and that they had negotiated for the story to remain a short after all.

    I take Gordon’s comment to mean that even then the weirdness and darkness that was in the original scenes had to be toned down for inclusion in this anthology.

    TL,DR: it wasn’t supposed to be romance in the beginning.

    Caveat: this is as far as I remember and I think the origin was a year or two back, so my memory may have misled me.

    Potential SPOILERS!
    @Jaclyn: I’m still waiting for the book, which I won, to wing it’s way to me so a question: did they have to take out the fact that the heroine was blackmailed into helping Lucas by the promise that her child would not be touched and safe back home?

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  8. lisabookworm
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 12:41:38

    I’ve only read the Sharon Shinn story – but I thought it was great. I love almost all of Shinn’s Samaria books and have re-read some of them more than once.

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  9. Mariel
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 15:05:49

    This was a mixed anthology for me. I thought the Singh (A) was the best, with brilliant characterisation and a plot that worked very well in the short format. I think it was the most accessible for people unaware of the author’s previous work as well, which wasn’t the case with the Brook story – I didn’t mind it as a story, but I would have probably got more out of it if I had read any of the Guardians series. (C-, C+).

    I really liked the Shinn (A-, B+), but I’ve always been a fan of her Samaria series, and I thought this was a good addition. I can see how it might not work as well for people who aren’t aware of the series, but it serves as a tempting jump off point. The Andrews (C-, D+) was a disappointment. It really didn’t seem to fit in the anthology at all, and I got really confused by the back story and plot. It might have worked as a full length novel, but even in this short length I found it hard to care about the characters at all, they seemed flat and uninteresting.

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  10. cleo
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 16:38:25

    Thanks for the review. I enjoyed this anthology, but agree that it was mixed.

    I did like the Sharon Shinn story – I’ve read all her Samaria books, plus some others. I think the story worked for me because I trust Shinn as an author (more than the fact that I know about Samaria). Even though Moriah was hard to relate to at first, I was willing to go with it because I trust Shinn’s writing.

    @ Jaclyn – I don’t think this story is the best intro to Sharon Shinn or Samaria. Her books have a different feel. They’re written in 3rd person, for one thing. Some of her characters are as prickly as Moriah, but not all of them. And the first 3 Samaria books have more sf elements, which I like.

    I’ve read Meljean Brook and Nalini Singh, but not their angel series, so this was a nice way to sample both worlds. I think both of them are excellent short story writers. I thought the Brook story worked pretty well as a stand-alone, although there were a few references I didn’t get – I assume they were to things that happened in other books in the series.

    The only story I didn’t love was the Llona Andrews story – because it was so confusing and I was expecting a romance and it wasn’t a romance. Reading that the authors were going for weird and unsettling actually helps. I think it may hold up better on a re-read.

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  11. cleo
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 16:45:07

    @Estara – congratulations on winning the book. I don’t have the book in front of me, but she’s definitely blackmailed into helping – to keep herself alive, to send the other children back safe to their homes, and to keep her daughter alive (but her daughter stays with her in whatever weird world they’re in).

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  12. Teresa
    Oct 18, 2011 @ 21:28:05

    The story I looked forward to the most was Singh’s and I was not disappointed. I do have to say that Nimra’s power is a pretty big spoiler that maybe should not be revealed in the review.

    I’ve read all of Shinn’s Samaria books and was happy to revisit it again. It may be difficult for readers who haven’t read the other Samaria books.

    I was confused by and did not really believe in the “romance” in the Andrews story. I think that contributed to my ambivalent feelings about the story. World building was very dense for a short story.

    I have not read Brooks’ Guardian series and have not been interested enough in her story to continue past the first 2 pages.

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  13. Estara
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 07:58:53

    @cleo: Thanks, cleo! Yeah, I was lucky to win a copy when Meljean Brook had a giveaway on her site ^^ around the release date. But I live in Germany so it’ll be a while until it gets here via Bookdirectory, I bet.

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  14. Jaclyn
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 10:22:24

    @Estara: I read an ARC, not a final book, but as @cleo said, yes, the copy I had included Karina’s daughter as a method of gaining her compliance.

    @cleo: Thanks for that note that this might not be the best introduction tothe Samaria series. I’ll give the series a try–I adore sf.

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  15. Tolouse
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 16:33:37

    I reacted differently to the novellas. I was bored when reading the one by Meljean Brooks, but pleasantly surprised by the one by Sharon Shinn -I will definitely be trying one of her full length books soon.

    As for the one by Ilona Andrews. I was not surprised by the darkness of the story, mostly because I follow her blog, and have read substantial excerpts from the novella – which was originally meant to be a full-length novel. And I found myself enjoying it – especially the ending.

    Nalini Singh of course was awesome as always.

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  16. cleo
    Oct 21, 2011 @ 10:05:33

    @jaclyn – Archangel is the first in the Samaria series and you kind of need to start with it, even though it’s not my favorite. The heroine is annoying and the SF is very subtle. Jovah’s Angel is the second book, more obviously SF, and one of my favorites. Since the short story takes place 60 years after Archangel but maybe 40 years before Jovah’s Angel, and it does introduce you to the basics about the world, you might be able to skip Archangel.

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  17. Chenebe
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 00:02:32

    What a stellar line-up of authors – if you love angels, these are the writers to read.

    Since it seems the thing to disclose our preferences for authors, I’ve read all these authors and enjoyed them to varying degrees. I’m probably most a Sharon Shinn fan, but I’ve been massively impressed by Illona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, and I think Nalini Singh’s writing is very strong but her characters all tend to be too gorgeous, too magnificent, etc even when they are really meant to be cruel and jaded. Meljean Brook is an incredibly smart writer with strong world-building, but I’ve said before that I find her work so cerebral that I find it hard to get carried away by the romance and emotion.

    Okay, so that was ground zero. This was my impression of the stories in the anthology (in the order I read it):

    Sharon Shinn: I liked it, and I always like the fact that her characters and situations are somewhat understated. Even at the end, she resists letting her heroine fall into a romantic swoon, which is realistic considering her situation in life and all she’s been through. May not be romantic enough for some though. B+.

    Illona Andrews: I was left confused and disappointed. One thing I love about their work is the humour mixed with the violence. This was just mainly violence and the Stockholm syndrome. C.

    Nalini Singh: I like her archangel books more than her Psy/Changeling series, and though I did find it a little irritating that Nimra is so noble and wonderful, Nalini was in fine form. Her descriptions were lush and evocative (I loved the scene in her rooms) but I did find myself wishing that Nalini took more risks with her characters. They are all so good-looking/appealing/not-as-heartless-as-reputed. B.

    Meljean Brook: The short story format meant that this story was more digestible then her usual offerings. Wasn’t wild about the story though, and the long misunderstanding just seemed a bit too foolish and wasted. B-

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