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REVIEW: Dark Lover by JR Ward

REVIEW: Dark Lover by JR Ward

Dark Lover by JR Ward Caught in a Mad Bromance – Dark Lover

In Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this) the witches of Lancre bless the child Tomjon with three gifts: to make friends easily, to always remember the words, and to be who he thinks he is. I read Wyrd Sisters at a young age, and the witches’ gifts always stuck with me, ever since I’ve rather admired people and things that are what they think they are.

Dark Lover is what it thinks it is.

For those of you who don’t already know, Dark Lover is the first instalment in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. The eponymous Black Dagger Brotherhood is basically a meze platter of hot dudes, each lovingly detailed with handy character traits for easy reference.

So there’s Wrath, the Blind King, the six-foot-six broad-shouldered massive-wanged leader of the Brotherhood. Then there is his second in command Tohrment, the level-headed one who is the only warrior amongst the Brothers to have found true happiness with his shellan. Following on from those we get Rhage, whose Hollywood-perfect good looks give way to a terrible beast when his curse is upon him. Vishous, the goateed, tattooed genius whose gloved left hand holds a terrible destructive power. Zsadist, the former blood-slave whose face is marred by scars and whose cold black eyes hold the promise of death. And Phury, who … has really good hair.

I could be wrong, but Dark Lover felt to me like it had a very clear sense of its target audience. It seems to have been aimed at people who like a particular set of things, and to have set out to serve those people by including as many of those things as humanly possible. This left me feeling a bit ambivalent about the book, because about half of the things which the book was throwing at me were things I really liked, and about half of them were things that made me want to facepalm so hard I gave myself a nosebleed.

Roughly speaking, I could sum up my reaction to the book as: Vampires, cool. Vampire society with extraordinarily rigid and painfully stereotypical gender roles, not cool.

I liked the setting, I liked the Black Dagger Brotherhood and the Lessening Society. I liked vampires-as-species rather than vampires-as-undead (I’ve seen this in a couple of paranormals actually, I suspect it’s a way of a avoiding the “fucking a corpse” problem you’re otherwise dealing with in vampire romance). I quite liked the mystical greebly stuff with the Brothers all having a Curse and this being a part of who they are. I was okay with the Scribe Virgin, although I wasn’t sure I could take the name seriously – it just felt too much like two nouns randomly jammed together, like she hangs out with the Taxidermist Misanthrope or the Barrister Masochist. Of course I suppose when the rest of your society are called things like Wrath, Rhage, Phury, Ahngry and Rheallyquhiteupsehtrightnow “Scribe Virgin” is actually fairly sensible.

I was less than wild about the way vampire “males” and “females” had their lives so utterly defined by their genders. Basically the Males Are The Warriors And Do The Protecting while the Females Are Protected And Provide Emotional Support. I do get that this kind of setup has an appeal for some people, and I’m really not judging, but I found it profoundly offputting. The whole thing just felt essentialist and unbalanced. For example, vampire males are allowed to have more than one shellan (vampire wife), but vampire females normally only have one hellren (vampire husband) despite the fact that female vampires fairly explicitly go into a mating frenzy every few years during which they need more lovin’ than any one male can reasonably provide.

I don’t think it helped that both Wrath and his first shellan Marissa are shown to be profoundly damaged by the gendered expectations of their society, but their society is not blamed for the damage. Wrath fails to protect his family from the lessers and feels he has failed as a male because Males Are For Doing Protecting. Marissa spends two centuries with Wrath treating her like shit, and feels she has failed as a female, because Females Must Support Their Males. Both characters are shown to be mistaken in their self-recrimination but not for reasons I’m comfortable with. Wrath is wrong to feel that his failure to protect his family makes him a Bad Male because his actions since have shown him to be a Good Male who is good at Fighting and Protecting. Marissa is wrong to feel that Wrath’s rejection of her makes her a Bad Female because her endless, selfless devotion to him actually made her a Good Female, and her status as a Good Female is ultimately reinforced at the end of the book when she finds somebody who appreciates what a Good Female she truly is (and also, arguably, when she allows Wrath to leave her to be with the heroine, because again making sacrifices for her Male seems to be what Good Females do in this setting). At no point is it suggested that Wrath or Marissa would have been better off if their society hadn’t made these unreasonable demands of them in the first place, they just mistakenly believe that they have failed in their duties, when really they have succeeded.

So, umm, anyway. Plot.

Dark Lover is the story of Wrath, who is King of the Vampires (although like movie!Aragorn and, I think every king I have ever seen as a viewpoint character in mainstream fiction, he believes himself unfit to lead) and Beth who is … umm … a human female. Okay, I’m being a little bit unfair here, Beth isn’t completely devoid of personality, and towards the end of the book she develops the pleasing habit of telling the hero where to stick his alpha bullshit, but the text is far, far less interested in her than it is in the Brotherhood. Wrath is asked by his Brother (that’s capital-B brother, so metaphorical warrior-brother not literal brother) Darius to protect his (Darius’) daughter. Wrath initially refuses, but then Darius is blown up by a car bomb (he clearly couldn’t have stayed in the Brotherhood for long anyway – I mean I know Darius is the name of a dead Persian emperor but compared to the rest of the Brotherhood he might as well have been called Dave).

So anyway, Darius’ daughter turns out to be Beth. Beth is super-awesome-mega-hot. The kind of hot that makes literally everybody she meets who isn’t a villain fall in an appropriate degree of love with her (this is at least an upgrade on the more common kind of super-awesome-mega-hot which just makes everybody want to rape you). Wrath breaks into Beth’s apartment, and she freaks out, so he erases her memory. The next evening he breaks into her apartment again, and they have sex despite only having said about seventeen words to each other. This happens in chapter eight. Chapter eight of fifty-five. It also begins what I like to think of as the Saga of Wrath’s Erection. At the start of chapter ten, we are given this description of Wrath’s naked body:

“His upper arms were the size of her thighs. His abdomen was ribbed as if he were smuggling paint rollers under his skin. His legs were thick and corded. And his sex was as big and magnificent as the rest of him.” (p. 92)

Now I don’t normally nitpick writing, particularly not at the sentence level, and I don’t actually think that there’s anything wrong with that description at all – it conveys Beth’s breathless wonder at the sight of Wrath’s naked (and, we later discover, hairless) body perfectly well. And I fully appreciate that, in context “as big and magnificent as the rest of him” reads most naturally as “big and magnificent in the same way that the rest of him was big and magnificent.” Unfortunately the line was just ambiguous enough that I spent the rest of the book stuck with the mental image of Wrath’s penis being literally the same size as the rest of his body.

It doesn’t help that Wrath’s erection is described in decidedly … umm … animated terms. It’s constantly straining for freedom, or being sprung from his flies, or pulsing with a heartbeat of its own. Even when quiescent, it casts a remarkable shadow over the narrative. Early on Beth feels it like a thick rope against her belly, and towards the end of their relationship Marissa is first excited and terrified by Wrath’s erection, and then crushed to realise that:

“That erection wasn’t because of her. Wasn’t for her.” (p. 187)

By the end of the book, Wrath’s erection was coming perilously close to being my favourite character. It could almost have been a member of the Brotherhood in its own right. Although I suppose it would have had to call itself “Ehrection” or something. Although thinking about it, it could have got away with “Phallus”.

Anyway, the rest of the plot concerns the efforts of “Mr X” the Fore-lesser of the Lessening Society to wipe out the Black Dagger Brotherhood by … umm … murdering prostitutes. In theory the plan is to use the delicious hooker-blood to lure out “civilian” vampires so that he can torture them for information about the Brotherhood but holy shitmonkeys does that sound like a terrible plan. I mean surely that’s like trying to get hold of military secrets by just randomly abducting people off the streets, your chances of grabbing somebody who actually knows anything are basically zero. I mean, I suppose vampire society is smaller and more close-knit, but the Brotherhood really don’t seem to hang out with anybody outside the Brotherhood. A major substrand of Mr X’s plan is to build up his ranks by recruiting more lessers. He manages to recruit exactly one, a boy named Billy Riddle who just happens to have tried to rape Beth at the start of the book.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, I was quite pleased that the book made it very clear that Billy Riddle had tried to rape the heroine because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was a horrible little shitbag who liked to rape people, rather than because she was Just That Beautiful. On the other hand I’m not wild about rape-as-plot-device, and I was particularly bothered about how much manly manly man-bonding Wrath did with maverick-cop-on-the-edge Butch O’Neil over their shared desire to inflict physical harm on the guy. Perhaps I’m just being overly touchy, but if somebody tries to rape your heroine, I don’t think the primary narrative function of that event should be to provide the basis for a good bromance. Having said all that, I thought Beth’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of the attack was fairly well handled (although I should stress that I am in no position whatsoever to be making judgements about that sort of thing). She’s shaken but not incapacitated, she feels she should go to the police, but doesn’t want to, and feels ashamed of not wanting to. It all felt interestingly shitty and low-key.

Anyway, Mr X inducts Billy into the Lessening Society. They try to kill Wrath. They fail. Beth is pretty cool in the final confrontation, actually getting to kind of sort of be a part of the fighting a little bit (although her role is mostly “essential last-second distraction” it’s still a step up from “victim”). Overall I found the whole ending a little bit anticlimactic – Mr X has been talking a really big game ever since chapter seven, and so I’d really hoped his plan would have a bit more to it than “and then me and this one guy who has no training whatsoever will kill the extraordinarily powerful vampire king who, by the way, I have only just found out really exists so I have absolutely no way of knowing what his capabilities are (by the way I am extremely meticulous in my work)”. I got kind of the feeling it was setting up for a bigger confrontation later on, but Mr X wound up looking kind of nonthreatening. I think that a big part of the problem was that the Brothers are clearly, individually, far more powerful than the lessers, but that the lessers don’t seems to like working in groups. Even Mr X, who is trying to reorganise the Lessening Society into something more military, seems at pains to avoid sharing his plans with his fellows, which means that in the final confrontation Wrath is only outnumbered two to one, odds which have never presented any members of the Brotherhood with anything resembling a challenge.

All in all I didn’t dislike Dark Lover. A lot of the time I could see why it was doing what it was doing, and why people whose preferences are different to mine might be into what it was doing. And I do have a sort of vague, intellectual interest in seeing what the other brothers’ books look like, but I never quite got that popcorny must-keep-going feeling that I understand a lot of other people have had.

Everything I learned about life and love from reading Dark Lover: Vampire hunters smell of baby powder. Vampire kings have no pubic hair. If your species is in trouble, breed a master race of hot warrior dudes. The only thing stronger than true love is an epic bromance.


REVIEW: Lover Reborn by J. R. Ward

REVIEW: Lover Reborn by J. R. Ward

Dear Ms. Ward:

I haven’t read a book in this series since Book 5.  My interest waned as I felt the series moved farther away from the core romance base where the series was birthed.  I read the flyleaf of the hardcover when I received my complimentary copy and discovered that this was the love story of Tohrment.  Tohrment lost his bonded mate in book one when she was shot, a casualty in the vampire/lesser war.  Because suicide would prevent Tohr from reaching the Fade, the vampire heaven, where he would be able to live out eternity with his Wellsie and their unborn son, Tohr spends each night fighting the vampire enemies with the hope of death.

Lover Reborn by J. R. WardHe hasn’t fed from another woman in quite some time and his frame is becoming gaunt and weak.  With each swipe of the blade, he seeks oblivion.  Even in his blinding grief, however, he is a man who loves his adopted son, John Matthew, and the king, Wrath, that Tohr serves.  Tohr is caring man, crippled by his loss.  I’ve been trying out new paranormal romances but the power in this book makes those other authors’ stories seem anemic.  Tohr’s grief is a palpable, living thing.  It is as animated and full blooded as some characters in other books.  One scene early on in the book features Tohr taking Wellsie’s dress that she wore during their bonding ceremony and placing it on “her” side of the bed, stroking it:

With a shaking hand, he touched the satin of the filled-out bodice. There were whalebones set within the fabric, the structure of the dress built to enhance a female’s gentle, curving body.

It was not as good as her rib cage, though. Just as the satin was not as good as her body. And the sleeves weren’t as good as her arms.

“I miss you. . . .” He stroked the indentation of the dress where her waist would have been—should have been. “I miss you so much.”

To think she had once filled this dress out. Had lived inside of it for a brief time, nothing but a camera shot of one evening in both their lives.

Why couldn’t his memories bring her back? They felt strong enough, powerful enough, a summoning spell that should have had her magically reinflating the gown.

Except she was real and alive only in his mind. Ever with him, always out of reach.

That’s what death was, he realized. The great fictionalizer.

The struggle I had throughout the story, however, was that Tohr’s entire emotional arc was getting over his grief or perhaps, coming to terms with it.  Tohr is confronted by an angel, Lassiter, who is stuck in the In Between and charged with a task of winning his freedom from the In Between by convincing Tohr to let go of Wellsie.  Because Tohr’s grief and his refusal to move on from Wellsie’s death is keeping her from entering the Fade, vampire heaven.  She is becoming nothing, a spirit to haunt the In Between, a purgatory.  In order for Wellsie to escape the In Between, Tohr must overcome his grief, start to live again.  Tohr is tormented by this – that his actions are causing Wellsie pain and preventing her from an eternal peace and happiness.

No’One is a former member of the vampire aristocracy, a Chosen.  She was stolen from her home and raped repeatedly by a Sympath.  As part of the backstory that was revealed in previous books, No’One was impregnated and subsequently rescued by the Brotherhood.  During her pregnancy, No’One is cared for by Darius and Tohr in their early days.  No’One gives birth to a half Sympath/half vampire named Xhex (her story is in Lover Mine).  No’One kills herself and Tohr buries her but she comes back to life ordered by the Scribe Virgin.  No’One refuses to take a name, hides her remarkable beauty in dark robes, and seeks to undertake the most menial tasks available.  She no longer feels as if she is a woman of worth ever since her abduction and rape.  She is taken into the home of the BDB to reconnect with her daughter, Xhex.

No’One and Tohr begin to use each other. Tohr to try to get over Wellsie and No’One because she believes her service to Tohr as a blood donor and then later as a sexual mate is part of a greater atonement.

There were several things I appreciated in this story. First, the unexpected happened, particularly at the end.  Second, you addressed what I thought was one of the biggest weaknesses in the series, and this is the role of women within the patriarchal vampire society.  Finally, the multitude of story lines were deftly woven together and while the subplots didn’t captivate me like the main romance, they all played off each other.

The powerful emotional connection I felt to Tohr’s grief overshadowed the romance.  I did not believe that Tohr fell in love with No’One.  His grief wasn’t packed away until about 90% of the story was through.  I was unconvinced that No’One’s love was returned. I believed that Tohr could come to love her but not that he actually did.  Further, I felt that his dark moment which led to cruelty wasn’t assuaged by a sufficiently meaningful grovel.

The ploys for future stories were obvious and unlike a couple of twists to the Tohr and No’One storyline, were predictable which lessened their emotional impact.  I was fully engaged in the story when Tohr and No’One were on page but was impatient at times to move through parts such as Xhex and John’s struggle to maintain their HEA or Quinn and Blay’s apparent continued misunderstanding.  Likely because I haven’t been following these stories, they held little interest for me.  When I was finished, I was vaguely dissatisfied but the grief storyline will stay with me and I’ll reassure myself that Tohr’s good heart will eventually come to love No’One in the manner in which she deserves.  B-

Best regards,