REVIEW: Burning Up by Singh, Knight, Kantra and Brook
Burning Up is a new anthology of steamy paranormal novellas from Berkely. I almost never read or review entire anthologies, mainly because it takes me a long, long time to craft four mini-reviews, but in this case I was motivated to do so by my desire to try these stories, all of which sounded like they had potential. Here are my reviews of the four stories:
“Blood and Roses” by Angela Knight
“Blood and Roses” is set on a medieval-feeling world where women called Blood Roses were created to satisfy vampires and keep them content, so they would not rebel against the king. As the story begins, a vampire named Raniero is traveling with a small group of fighting men on a mission for the king. Amaris, a Blood Rose, watches the group while cloaked by an invisibility spell.
She is accompanied by her evil father, the vampire Tannaz, and two Varil, reptilian creatures who love nothing more than to feast on humans. Although she despises Tannaz and the Varil, Amaris has no choice but to help them attack Raniero and his fellow riders. If she refuses, her three year old half-sister, Marin, will be killed by the evil Lord Korban, a wizard whom Tannaz and the Varil are serving.
Amaris uses her magic to cause Raniero to pass out, and he is brought to Lord Korban's castle. There, Amaris discovers that Korban will not keep his promise and release Marin. He uses Amaris's fear for the child's life to blackmail Amaris into seducing a chained Raniero, so that Raniero will send the king a message attesting to Korban's loyalty, and thus delay the king's next attack on Korban.
Of course, Raniero's loyalty to the king is not easily swayed. Amaris does not want to seduce him, but she attempts to do so anyhow. Raniero blames Amaris for her role in his capture. Amaris also has the power free Raniero – if he drinks from her blood he will be able to break his chains. But she is afraid to take such a risk with her sister's life. Will these two trust each other enough to take on the evil Korban and his minions together?
This was my first experience of reading Angela Knight and I was not sure what to expect. While this novella had some detailed worldbuilding and interesting descriptions, it turned out to be problematic for me on several levels.
First, I think it's debatable whether or not the first sex scene was consensual, and while I'm not categorically opposed to all rape in romance (My favorite romance is Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold), I do feel that if that if rape takes place, it should create problems between the hero and heroine. In this case, it's not entirely clear to me to what degree Amaris and Raniero were forced, but since he was chained and she was blackmailed into what happened there, it didn't ring true to me that the sex they were at least partially forced to have did not haunt them later on.
Second, even leaving aside the not-entirely-consensual sex, Amaris and Raniero both had major trust issues. Raniero had been betrayed by other Blood Roses, including his mother who tried to convince his father to kill him. Amaris had been betrayed by other vampires, including her evil father as well as a lover who raped her. Raniero was therefore inclined to distrust all Blood Roses, and Amaris all vampires. I'm not crazy about this type of prejudice but I think I could have gotten over that had I seen the characters gradually, slowly learning to trust one another. But instead these issues too were glossed over and the way the characters overcame their prejudices felt rushed and unconvincing.
Third, there was a lot of darkness in the setup. Raniero loses his men, including a teenaged boy, to the villains' attack. The life of Amaris's three year old sister is threatened more than once. There's loads of violence, and an insane villain whose quest for power would get thousands annihilated, to say nothing of the aforementioned traumas. Entertaining though it was to read about, it also felt like overkill to me — and I'm a fan of darker stories.
The novella did keep me turning the pages to see what would happen next, the writing was smooth and the last scene even gave me a heartwarming feeling, but ultimately, that was not enough. For those reasons, I give “Blood and Roses” a D+/C-.
“Whisper of Sin” by Nalini Singh
This novella, a prequel to the books in Singh's Psy/Changeling series, begins with a prologue in the form of an article in the San Francisco Gazette, which describes a crime wave in Chinatown rumored to be the work of a new organized crime family.
In chapter one, we are introduced to Ria, a 22 year old human woman who lives in Chinatown (her grandmother is Chinese) with her family. Ria has just been attacked and has fought off the attacker with her purse. Before the man could rape her, two changelings from the DarkRiver leopard pack, Dorian and Emmett, appeared and fought him off.
In the paramedic van, Emmett coaxes Ria into speaking and describing the assault. He is furious that a woman was attacked on his watch, and determined to “sniff out the nest this little viper came from.”
An attraction blooms between Ria and Emmett, and Emmett begins to feel protective of Ria almost immediately. Since she is still a target of the crime family, Ria must be protected constantly, and Emmett sees that as an opportunity to court her. But Ria's family members have other ideas. Ria is expected to marry Tom, the son of family friends.
I really liked “Whisper of Sin.” After two books focusing on humans and Psy, it was nice to read about the changeling characters again. I also enjoyed visiting the DarkRiver pack at a time before the events that begin with Slave to Sensation. The worldbuilding was compelling and clear to me as a follower of this series, but it's hard for me to judge whether or not someone who has not read the other Psy/Changeling books would be confused.
The main characters and most of the side characters are appealing. Ria is part of a loving family of strong minded people who think they know what is best for her, and she must learn to stand up to them. I really liked her and I also liked Emmett, who is sexy, strong and affectionate. Emmett knows very quickly that Ria is the one for him, but he has to learn to curb his overprotective tendencies.
The biggest obstacles to the happy ending are Tom and a misunderstanding on Ria's part – she believes that a changeling could not be interested in a long-term, serious relationship with a human. In that sense, the latter is not that suspenseful a conflict because it's evident that this is only a misapprehension that will be cleared up. Still, I was thoroughly entertained by both the romance and the changelings’ pursuit of the mobsters who wanted Ria dead, as well as charmed by the characters. B+ for “Whisper of Sin.”
“Shifting Sea” by Virginia Kantra
This story opens in Scotland in 1813. Major John “Jack” Harris, a survivor of the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, has recently come into the unexpected inheritance of Arden Hall and its lands. He is riding along the Scottish shore that is part of his property when he hears a woman singing. As he approaches the woman, he is struck by her beauty.
The woman, Morwenna, invites Jack into her cottage on the shore, and then into her bed, making it clear to him that she is freely choosing to please herself with his company. The sex is intense and unforgettable to Jack. To Morewenna, who is not what she appears to be, the experience is unsettling. Although Jack's first thought is that Morewenna must be a prostitute, he still invites her to Arden Hall. She refuses to come, but grants him permission to come to her cottage again.
Morwenna is in fact an elemental of the sea, one who can take the form of any of the ocean's creatures, as well as human form. She has decided to try to live on land for a while, although her twin brother disapproves.
The next day, Jack comes across Morwenna at the market, trying to purchase food with a pearl and then with a gold doubloon, when Jack's steward assumes she stole the old coin and accuses her of thievery. Jack comes to Morwenna's aid, which leads to a horseback ride together and then to another sexual encounter. Jack grows more and more fascinated with Morwenna, and Morwenna begins to return this interest. But will she sacrifice her immortality to be with Jack?
This was my first time reading something by Virginia Kantra and I was very impressed both with the author's writing style, as well as with her ability to marry the paranormal and historical elements. I felt that these two aspects blended seamlessly, so much so that I was reminded of Shana Abe's drakon series, where the paranormal and historical are also very well integrated.
There was a magical feel to the story which, along with the inventive use of the seashore setting, also put in mind of the selkie movie “The Secret of Roan Inish,” which I enjoyed many years ago.
My chief complaint with regard to “Shifting Sea” is that I felt that the romance was rushed, especially on Jack's part. He seemed to fall in love with Morwenna very, very quickly, before he really knew her– after a couple of bouts of sex but not much conversation. Morwenna's more gradual evolution toward love and commitment was executed better, though I would have liked to have seen the prospect of sacrificing immortality explored more.
The characters were absolutely delightful – Jack so clearly honorable and caring, and Morwenna independent and unashamed of her sexuality. Since the language and atmosphere were both appealing as well, I look forward to reading more of this author in the future. “Shifting Sea” gets a B+ too.
“Here There Be Monsters” by Meljean Brook (There may be some spoilers in the following review).
“Here There Be Monsters,” Meljean Brook's contribution to the anthology, is also the first story in her new steampunk series, the Iron Seas. This novella, which is a bit longer than the other three and will require a longer review, begins in London, and Ivy, the heroine, is running for her life.
Ivy was born during a time when the Horde (as best I can tell, this is a nation originating in Asia) had infected London's denizens with nanoagents (also called "bugs") that controlled them. Seven years before beginning of the story, Ivy and London's other residents were freed from enslavement when the control tower that signaled the nanoagents was destroyed.
But on the night the story opens, Ivy awoke to find herself unable to move, her body frozen by the nanoagents, while she and the people with whom she rooms were examined against their will. The rest were taken, presumably for enslavement, and Ivy was left behind, but now she's determined to hightail it out of London as soon as possible rather than wait around and become enslaved once more.
To that end, Ivy goes to an inn by the docks. She is searching for Mad Machen, a feared pirate. Ivy thinks Mad Machen might facilitate her escape in exchange for her labor. Ivy worked for a man known as the Blacksmith and as she says “can repair engines, prosthetics…or windups, if you have any automata.” It was in the Blacksmith's employ that Ivy met Mad Machen, who sat with his friend Barker while she worked on Barker's prosthetic leg. Ivy saw Mad Machen show his friend kindness and support, and now, that has given her hope that Mad Machen will help her.
But Mad Machen refuses to transport her, saying that his ship already has a blacksmith. It is at this point that Ivy offers her virginity instead, and when Mad Machen doesn't reply, the fierce expression on his face terrifies Ivy. She begins to back out, but Mad Machen insists that she'll sleep in his bed for the entire journey. Ivy asks him to promise not to hurt her, but Mad Machen merely says they will sail in the morning. Later, he promises to come after her if she runs away.
Mad Machen, or Eben as his friends know him, is furious at Ivy's desperation and at her fear of him. He would never rape her, and in fact had planned to return to the smithy to court her. But now he is faced with a bad situation – he must sail into very dangerous waters, and he doesn't want to put Ivy at risk. Leaving her in London, though, might mean never seeing her again, since she is so desperate to escape the city.
Before Eben can decide what to do, Ivy disappears. Lady Corsair, a female pirate who captains an airship, offers her transport, in exchange for a debt to be repaid later. Ivy jumps at this offer, and two years later, she is living in Fool's Cove, when Lady Corsair and Mad Machen reappear in her life.
Fool's Cove is nearly unreachable by ship, so Ivy thought she was safe from Mad Machen's pursuit there. But she knew he was still searching for her, because of some terrifying stories she'd heard about him. Now Lady Corsair insists that Ivy repay her debt to Mad Machen, and sleep in his bed in the time it takes them to reach Wales, where a work project is waiting for Ivy. Ivy isn't given much choice in the matter – Lady Corsair threatens to loose her aviators on Fool's Cove if Ivy refuses.
Bitterly, Ivy agrees and is taken to Mad Machen's ship. But once there, her fear turns to defiance. She does not know that Eben has a reputation to maintain, and cannot afford to have his crew and other sailors believe he has gone soft. Every time Ivy challenges his authority in public, Eben must come down hard, for to do otherwise would be to put his crew's lives at risk. In private, he accepts Ivy's coin in exchange for a promise not to touch her sexually. But Ivy has only eight coins, and the journey will last more than eight days. What will happen when her money runs out?
I've been waiting a long time to read this story, and it does not disappoint. One of the best things about "Here There Be Monsters" is the worldbuilding, which is intricate and complex, but for the most part, understandable and clear, too. The world of the story feels whole and complete, and it is a blend of historical setting details and contemporary and futuristic technologies. Some of the details are surprising, and all of them are woven together into a fascinating steampunk setting.
The writing made me feel that I was truly there, inhabiting that world. I found the story absorbing and difficult to put down, and Eben and Ivy were both endearing. Ivy had a lot of fear to overcome, but her background made it easy to understand why. Eben was both strong and caring, for all that he had to show the outside world his rough edges. The sexual tension was drawn out in a natural way. I never felt that the sex was being postponed to tease the reader, as I sometimes do with other books. Instead, the characters' choices felt natural and organic.
I have just a couple of quibbles – Ivy's terror of Eben turns into defiance a bit too abruptly, and there were a couple of times when I wasn't sure what something meant (for example I didn't understand who or what the Horde were until halfway through the novella, and I would have liked to know sooner). These things are minor enough though, that “Here There Be Monsters” gets an A- from me.
I'm the kind of reader who is willing to purchase an anthology for one great novella. In the case of Burning Up, three of the four stories delighted me. My overall grade for the anthology is a B.