REVIEW: Dark Rival by Brenda Joyce
Dear Ms. Joyce:
This is only the second book of yours that I have read, so I am still basically a novice regarding your style and vision. The Conqueror was the first book of yours I read, and I did not have a positive experience with it. When I heard good things about your new paranormal series, I thought it a perfect time to try your work again. This book, Dark Rival, the second installment in the Masters of Time series, was definitely an easier read for me, but unfortunately, not a very satisfying one.
It took me more than three weeks to read this book, partly out of frustration and partly out of disengagement with the characters and the plot. My frustration came from what felt like a kitchen sink approach to the paranormal aspects of the novel (time travel, spiritual masters, a healing heroine, demons, crimes of pleasure, and more), historical anachronisms, and character inconsistencies, while my lack of engagement grew along with my inability to suspend disbelief over all of these things. Perhaps if I had read the first book in the series some things would have made more sense to me, but I still believe that a reader should be able to pick up any book in a genre Romance series and have the major elements of the world building make sense, especially because readership often grows with the popularity of a series.
Dark Rival‘s heroine is Allie Monroe, Healer and best friend to three other women, all of whom have particular talents perfect for their work with the Center for Demonic Activities (CDA). There’s Brianna who has “the Sight,” Tabby, who “when she wasn’t practicing spells and scrying for evil, . . . was practicing yoga,” and Sam, the demon hunter. Allie is able to heal the sick, injured, and dying with her pure white light, a gift she inherited from her now-dead mother, and her gift is critical in the fight against Satan-bred demons, who feed off of human power (which they extract through the act of sexual seduction). There are rumors of a mysterious race of god-like Warriors who fight for Innocence to triumph over the Satanic evil, and when one of these warriors unexpectedly appears at a Southampton party (or South Hampton, as it’s spelled in the book), along with one of the demon big wigs, Allie is entranced by this big, bad, Highland hunk, sent from another time to protect her from the demon who wants her -and her power — for his own nefarious purposes. Besides the obvious sequel set-up so early in the book, I also felt a sense of liberal borrowing from various television shows and other paranormal Romances. I realize that very little seems new these days, but there were just so many elements introduced so early on, that I felt like I needed to start taking notes rather than feeling sucked into the world of the novel.
When the Highlander grabs Allie and jumps through time with her, the book begins to move quickly, or at least the characters do. Having recently been told by Tarot-reading friend Tabby that she would meet her mate, a “golden warrior,” Allie realizes that Highlander Royce is he. Virtually without reflection or question, Allie dubs him her own personal “uber hero,” and the woman who has never been in love is smitten. Never mind that a virtual stranger who took her away from all of her friends and family has left her in the Highlands. Never mind that she has no real clue what’s going on. Without a second thought Allie ventures into town for some seductive attire and awaits the return of her Highland warrior, who has been waiting 600 years to take her, in contrast to Allie’s 24 hours of anticipation. Because Master of Time Royce came all the way from 1430 to protect Allie at that Hamptons party, and he must return to that time lest he encounter his future self (there is a rule in the Code against such a thing), he jumped back to the 15th century and ostensibly moved normally through time until the day in 2007 he knows he will return to the place he left Allie to keep her safe from the uber-demon Moffat. So Royce is a bit randy when he comes home to his 21st century Highland estate and finds Allie waiting for him. And after lusty reunion, Allie is certain she’s in love. While Royce realizes that he is now bound to protect Allie from Moffat, he insists that he has no heart to give, having lost it hundreds of years ago when his wife was kidnapped, beaten, and raped by another demon, which led her to reject Royce and their marriage, steeling Royce against ever getting attached to another woman in that way.
If all of this sounds complicated, it’s among the most straightforward part of the book’s plotting, most of which centers around Royce’s quest to protect Allie but resist her allure, and Allie’s insistent pursuit of Royce through time and through the calcified walls of his heart. The majority of the novel’s action takes place in 1430, where Allie follows Royce after their night of passion (with the help of another Master, Aidan, who I assume will be paired up with one of Allie’s friends in a future book), insistent on forcing him to recognize that he is also in love.
Before I describe the problems I had with Dark Rival, I want to mention the things I enjoyed. First is Allie’s independent nature and sexual freedom. The first chapter of the novel finds her in her bedroom, her most recent lover asleep in the background. It is still refreshing to encounter heroines who are unashamed of their sexuality, and this scene especially was a nice riff on the many opening scenes where we see the rakish hero fresh from his lover’s bed. Also, having enjoyed Shelley Laurenston’s Pack series so much, I am now drawn to books that center around strong women with strong bonds of friendship. On Royce’s side, I have to admit that I cracked up when he told Allie that she talked too much in bed, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t lead her on; in fact, it was a nice turn about to watch Allie pursue Royce so overtly and to watch him attempt to resist her increasingly assertive moves. And while I really think the Highland hero has been overdone, I don’t know if I could ever feel that way about Medieval Europe, so to have most of the book set there was also something I appreciated.
Unfortunately, some of my difficulties with Dark Rival are related to those very things I enjoyed. For example, there is an uncomfortable tension between Allie’s fixation on Royce as an object of love and lust and her responsibilities as a Healer. When she finds herself in 1430, for example, her thoughts are on Royce:
She had been grieving and confused and she had not expected such a cold, even hostile welcome. She hadn’t expected a super-medieval, chauvinistic, and heartless pig. Currently he was the jerk of all time, but one day, he would be her lover – and the lover of her life. She corrected herself. He was the love of her life, he just didn’t know it yet.
There was hope.
She was a healer before anything else, but she was a fighter, too.
The thing is, I didn’t really see the “healer first” in Allie. Instead I saw a woman who, within hours of landing in Medieval Scotland, was worried about dressing in the “long, shapeless linen dresses” of the time, because, “Would Royce even look twice at her in such clothing?” So she sends Royce’s friend and fellow Master, Aidan, back to the future to fetch her modern clothes, completely uncaring about how she would appear to the 15th century residents who had never seen a thong, jeans, tank tops, and sleeveless red Escada gowns. And when she ventures into the local village to heal someone (against Royce’s explicit orders), she faces suspicion of witchcraft, NOT, apparently, for her strange garb, but for demonstrating her powers. After Allie explains that witches in 17th century America were burned at the stake, Royce warns her about his time: “Witches are imprisoned, stoned, or outlawed. Take yer pick!”
Allie tells Royce in that last scene that she doesn’t know much about history, and unfortunately she is right, as even her anecdote is incorrect. Those accused of witchcraft in colonial New England were hanged (I think one man might have been stoned); none were burned. Also, as I was reading this book around Talk Like a Pirate Day, I realized that Royce’s strange dialect – neither Middle English nor Highland Gaelic – sounded more pirate speak than historical pronunciation. “Yer,” for example, seemed to function as both ‘your’ and ‘you’re,’ and “ye” substituted for you, sounding old, I guess, but not authentically so. One of the women in Royce’s castle provides the direction to the village to Allie in kilometers, and Allie persistently uses the word “medieval” as an adjective synonymous with primitive, savage, and uncivilized (she refers to Royce as Mr. Medieval, which would be funny if not for the string of historical errors).
Of course, the first scene we have of the 15th century Royce is that of him “jerk[ing] mercilessly” on his charger’s reins, and then kicking him “in the ribs, hard” upon dismount (the horse had reared up). Although I suppose we are supposed to see a hard man in this scene, I was more confused by his actions, because medieval chargers were as much weapons and soldiers as men and their metal blades. They were prized for their fierceness and aggressive nature, and were incredibly expensive and valuable. So for me, Royce’s actions appeared more ignorant of sensible horsemanship than anything else, which undermined my respect for him as a skilled warrior. But Royce seems as disjointed as Allie in many way, in one moment a hard-hearted medieval warrior who cares about the feelings and sexual satisfaction of the serving women with whom he satisfies his prodigious lust. He claims he never loved his wife, but vows he will never marry again or care about a woman after Bridghe rejects him.
Then there are the time travel elements of the novel and the implications of the Code. While Masters are forbidden from changing the past or the future, the quest Royce and Allie embark on will do just that, in a significant way (although there is mention of some mysterious spell Allie’s friends mention about “Fate corrected”). The demons can time travel, as well, but Allie spends a good deal of time alone, even as the men are fearful she will be abducted. I’m not certain why so much energy went into waging and defending massive attacks by the demons and their human minions, when ultimately no such violence is needed to bring Allie into the clutches of the demons. Also, Allie spends the entire book jealous of other women in Royce’s sphere, but when she is transported back in time to the moments before Bridghe rejects a rescuing Royce, she begs Bridghe not to blame Royce for her kidnapping and torture. And at one point, Allie goes back to 2007 New York to find that her family doesn’t know her but her friends still do, something I still can’t work out logically, although I have to admit that by that point I had stopped trying to map it all out.
One of the most interesting things about writing this review is that it had me thinking about how I differentiate craft and taste issues. For example, when I recoiled at the description of Royce’s “huge club-like manhood,” and the “slab” of his pecs, I thought about how language so impacts what I find romantic or not. Although it is difficult for me to imagine how a “club-like” penis is intended to be appealing, I realize that my response to that description and others like it (lots of descriptions of how Allie is “drenching,” “trickling” moisture down her thighs from the sight of Royce’s “engorged” penis, scenes where Allie’s small body is almost rent by Royce’s huge erection) is primarily a matter of taste. As, I think, is my inability to really connect to the prose. However, I think my taste issues did intersect with some of the craft issues in the novel. For example, when Allie and Royce embark on a quest to find out if Allie’s mother is still alive and in Moffat’s hands, she is grief-stricken one moment at the thought of her mother’s fate, and exhilarated the next at the idea that Royce wants to see her in a beautiful gown, on edge at the idea of finding her mother quickly and then distracted by the codpiece of another master (and entertaining visions of matchmaking with her friend Sam). It all felt discordant, as if there were really two novels here that had been document merged.
Several things in the book had interesting potential for me. That the demons committed crimes of pleasure, in which they seduced humans and took all their life-force, was similar to how the Masters could also take energy from humans. Although the similarity is remarked on in the book (when Royce breaks the Code by sampling Allie’s energy), the parallel isn’t really explored. Nor was the nature of “good” and “evil” – both were simply posited, despite the rich potential to nuance the characters a bit with some of the contrasts they each displayed. In some ways, this book really felt like a first draft, and I thought several times that more editing could have yielded great benefit to both the prose and the consistency issues. As it stands, however, I have to give Dark Rival a D, with the hope that other readers will enjoy it much more than I did.