Dear Ms. Cole:
One of my favorite things about the Immortals After Dark series is that all the books are different. Sure, there are some unifying themes – justice v. retribution, finding one’s place in the world and in love, independence v. autonomy, just to name a few – but the stories and the couples are not carbon copies of each other, making each book a new reading experience. Kiss of A Demon King may be the most ambitious book of the series to date, in that it features two alpha protagonists, neither of whom wants to be vulnerable to the other. The power struggle between Rydstrom and Sabine, combined with the complex plotting and increasingly interwoven aspects of the Lore, made Kiss of A Demon King a very powerful, if not perfect, read for me.
Rydstrom Woede may still be King of the Rage Demons, but his kingdom has long been under the control of the usurper Omort, an evil sorcerer who is rumored to be immune from death. His purported inability to die draws him to his half-sister Sabine, Queen of the Illusions, who has died more than a dozen times, brought back to life by the powers of her sister Melanthe (Lanthe). Like many rulers, Omort has no problem with incest, and would love nothing more than to possess Sabine, except for the fact that her fate has been foretold as that of the Demon King’s mate. More importantly, perhaps, Rydstrom and Sabine’s child is destined to unlock the secret power of the Well of Souls, a supernatural vat of untapped power that each faction of the Lore wants to control.
So Omort simply waits and lusts, holding Sabine and Lanthe close with his own form of control (a deadly poison the women must ingest to stay alive), growing less and less stable in the stir of information that Rydstrom and his brother Cadeon may have found a way to end his life, via a magic sword forged by Omort’s similarly evil brother, Groot the Metallurgist. Unable to find a soothsayer who can unfailingly guarantee Omort’s ultimate triumph over his enemies or a union with Sabine, Omort’s desperation places even more urgency on Sabine’s plan to capture Rydstrom and seduce him into impregnating her so that she can claim the power of the Well and free herself and her sister from Omort’s sadistic control.
Unfortunately for Sabine, Rydstrom’s will is just as strong as hers, and his pride is just a little bit wounded at the fact that Sabine was able to weave her illusions effectively enough to make him prisoner in the dungeon of the very castle from which he used to rule the Kingdom of Rothkalina. Sabine may possess the power to weave illusions that seem real, but she does not have the supernatural power to force Rydstrom into serving as husband, mate, or stud, despite her numerous earthy (and earthly) gifts.
Anyone who read Dark Desires After Dusk is aware of the illusion Sabine uses to entrap Rydstrom, and those who haven’t will get a replay in Kiss of A Demon King. However, there is little overlap beyond that scene, as Kiss of A Demon King has enough to keep the reader occupied, what with the turmoil in Omort’s court, Sabine’s plan to mate with Rydstrom, Lanthe’s own troubles with a vengeful Vrekener (enemy of the sorceresses, one of whom may be Lanthe’s own mate in a future book?), Rydstrom and Sabine’s escape from Tornin and travels through the desert of Grave Realm, and Sabine’s inability to survive for long without her dose of Omort’s poison. If all of this sounds a bit confusing, that’s probably because it was for me, so I cannot express it more elegantly. In fact, I’m still not sure I picked up on everything in play, or understood why everything worked the way it did.
Consequently, it was the plotting aspects of Kiss of A Demon King that snagged me up, sometimes disorienting me and sometimes seeming unnecessarily overcomplicated. For example, I had to read the Prologue twice, once at the beginning of the book and once again after I finished it, not really feeling grounded until that second read. And then it felt like the only reason it was included was to provide some backstory for Sabine and fill in relevant details from previous books. Unfortunately, this resulted in something I don’t ever remember encountering in an IAD book: infodump. A downside to the complicated plotting and intersected stories framing Kiss of A Demon King was the periodic insertion of chucks of backstory:
So much was at stake in the fight to reclaim his crown-from Omort the Deathless, a foe who could never be killed.
Rydstrom had once faced him and knew from bit ¬ter experience that the sorcerer was undestroyable. Though he’d beheaded Omort, it was Rydstrom who’d barely escaped their confrontation nine hundred years before.
Now Rydstrom searched for a way to truly kill Omort forever. Backed by his brother Cadeon and Cadeon’s gang of mercenaries, Rydstrom doggedly tracked down one lead after another.
It is a tough call, I think, to know how much a reader might need to understand all that is going on, especially if she has not gotten through all the previous books in a series. An author may not want to alienate new readers while at the same time not wanting to bore veteran readers. Up until this book, I think Kresley Cole handled this difficult dance perfectly, but here it felt a bit clumsy to me.
Another byproduct of the complexity was that certain things didn’t make total sense to me. For example, there are these covenant tablets in Castle Tornin that signal a promise made. Sabine has one in which she promises that she will remain sexually pure if she can remain free from being sexually forced. It is clear the promise has been broken when the tablet falls and breaks. Omort has respected these covenants, essentially relying on others to remain loyal within a court that is hardly harmonious (and placing him in a reactive position should the alliances break). I know that in holding to the Sanctuary covenant Omort supposedly keeps Sabine’s loyalty and cooperation, but he clearly has other ways of ensuring that. Is it simply that there are many interwoven promises in those covenants, networks of loyalty that Omort needs to keep his rule? That may be the case, but since he can steal some the supernatural powers of other beings, why must he depend on such mundane promises of loyalty? I am still not completely clear about why Omort couldn’t just steal enough powers to disempower others like he did to Cade and Rydstrom, who could no longer trace. In fact, I’m not completely certain about how these powers are stolen or transferred from one being to another in general.
For me, the problem was that in virtually all the scenes taking place in Tornin I was not fully oriented to everything that was occurring, especially in the latter portions of the book where the scene was being set for the ultimate standoff between Omort and his final destiny. I am one of those readers who has a difficult time visualizing busy actions scenes to begin with, and in this book there was just so much that needed to be played out and wrapped up that I didn’t feel like I was keeping up very well. For example, characters travel between planes through the use of portals, and I kept wondering why these portals limited travel to the extent that they did. Why, for example, was Rydstrom able to facilitate the transportation of many demons through a portal from a desolate plane called Grave Realm to various places in the United States (and why did people remain in less than ideal place to begin with?), but his brother couldn’t follow him through from New Orleans to Tornin?
Lest it seem like I did not like Kiss of A Demon King, though, let me turn to what I loved about the book: the relationship between Rydstrom and Sabine. You know how there are movies where an actor will emit such power on screen that you simply can’t look away from them when they are in a scene? Well, that’s how I felt about Rydstrom and Sabine. These two are so powerful as characters, so vividly portrayed and potently alive on the page, that I found them riveting. And fortunately, almost the entire middle section of the novel is taken up with their growing relationship.
I am not sure I have ever met a character like Sabine. A virgin, she has both incredible sexual awareness and seemingly unflappable self-confidence; Sabine is definitely not Romance’s stock virgin heroine. Capable of steadfast loyalty, she is unsentimental, ruthless when she needs to be, and unapologetic about her love of gold. In Rydstrom, she’s not looking for love or even a good time; she’s seeking the means to her preservation and a way for she and Lanthe to rule Rothkalina themselves.
And although we have been acquainted with Rydstrom for several books now, we have not really seen the depth of his pain over losing the crown or his loneliness in not finding his mate yet and not knowing what his future holds. On the one hand Rydstrom wants to regain the power stolen from him, but his overweening sense of responsibility has also bred some resentment toward the beings he once ruled. In short, Rydstrom faces the dilemma of the hyper-responsible in that he is driven to do the right thing but frustrated that so much rests on his shoulders.
There is no lack of irony and conflict between Rydstrom and Sabine. She knows that the Demon King is her mate but seeks no lasting relationship. Rydstrom wants his mate but refuses to give in to Sabine’s advances, even when his instincts tell him she is his. She is a nuevo-nihilist who “cares “about nothing very much” as opposed to not caring about anything, while Rydstrom constantly feels the burden of authority. But all of that just makes for a stronger – and more difficult – attraction:
“Are you falling for him?”
“Could there be a more doomed relationship? It is ridiculous even to contemplate.” His husky voice . . . the way his smooth skin tasted, “He’s just so… so good.”
“I think that intrigues you,” Lanthe said. “He’s a male as strong as you, and one you can’t defeat.”
The truth is, that neither can defeat the other, which both fuels and frustrates their mutual appeal. Especially because Sabine represents everything Rydstrom disdains – well, at least appears to disdain:
She sat at the foot of the bed. “That’s the difference between me and you. I won’t try to convert you. Do I like that you never lie and esteem things like valor? Of course not. But I don’t try to rid you of those traits. Why does your kind forever seek to change ours?” That was what she hated most about them-not their odd, counterintuitive beliefs per se, but that they would force them on others.
“Because we live more contented lives. We have loy ¬alty, fidelity, honor-”
“All three are overrated. The only chance you have to demonstrate any of them is to deny yourself some ¬thing or someone that you desire.”
What Sabine soon discovers, though, is that Rydstrom is more attracted to her badness than he lets on, which gives her a certain amount of power over him, which is in turn matched by Rydstrom’s unwillingness to cooperate with Sabine’s need to be queen and to carry Rydstrom’s legitimate heir.
How one goes about bringing two characters together who do not have obvious chinks in their emotional armor is no small feat. There is a fine balance between keeping the sexual tension alive and not surrendering either character’s emotional guard too soon or too cheaply. Kiss of A Demon King keeps this balance beautifully, by slowly, slowly wearing down Rydstrom and Sabine, allowing them to torment each other, allowing each of them to take the upper hand in turn, forcing them to remain together long enough to be revealed to each other in new, unexpected ways.
Her lids slid closed. Peaceful. Perfect. . . . When she opened her eyes, she found him studying her face. The possessiveness in his gaze made her breath hitch. “My naked body is spread out before you, and you’re looking at my face?”
“I’m trying to figure out how your mind works. If I can do that, then this”-he trailed his fingers between her breasts and lower-”will always be mine to enjoy.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I have to, Sabine.”
This process is facilitated by a road trip, so to speak, with Rydstrom and Sabine getting the chance to escape Tornin for Grave Realm, a barren outpost of Rothkalina that contains portals allowing for transport off plane. But the portals are remote, requiring days of arduous hiking through desert-like conditions, and it is it through this section of the novel that Rydstrom and Sabine grow closer. True to their characters, however, neither simply lies down for the other, and both carry numerous secrets. Rydstrom, for example, has lied to Sabine about the oath he delivered to her in captivity, an oath she believes is a wedding vow (it’s actually a vow for revenge), and Sabine allows Rydstrom to falsely believe that she might be carrying his child.
These lies are enough to bind the two but not enough to seal their relationship. After all Sabine is still supposedly an “evil sorceress” (“It’s not my fault the truth and 1 are strangers-we were never properly introduced.”) and Rydstrom is still supposedly a straight-laced King. Watching their personalities fill out within the context of the novel was a true pleasure. For these two, it’s not enough that they are attracted to each other, and it’s not even enough that they ultimately love each other; for them it’s about trust and the incredible risk they take in trusting the other when all signs show that to be dangerous.
Had the whole of the novel read with the same taughtness, emotional impact, and even pacing as the middle sections of the book, this would have been a straight A for me, as the relationship between Sabine and Rydstrom is among my favorites in the series. Assigning a grade that adequately expresses my reading experience of Kiss of A Demon King is difficult, but a B seems fair on balance.