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Dear Author

REVIEW: Dragon Actually by G.A. Aiken

Dear Ms. Aiken,

book review When I heard you were expanding beyond the pack books written as Shelly Laurenston to this Dragon Kin series, I was really looking forward to these new books.   Not only do I have a soft spot for dragons, but I still love the tough, independent heroines for which you are known.   And in that sense, Dragon Actually (comprised of two related stories) does not disappoint:   Annwyl and Rhiannon, the two heroines, are at the top of the female alpha scale.   But in terms of the overall world-building, character, and relationship development, the book read to me like more of a draft than as finished, polished work.

In Dragon Actually, Annwyl the Bloody (aka Annwyl of Garbhán Isle, Annwyl of the Dark Plains) prepares to faces off against her eeevil brother, Lorcan, the Butcher of Garbhán Isle.   The story opens in the midst of a battle scene in which Annwyl is struck through with a sword, convincing her that she will die before she has a chance to take her brother’s head.   Her impressive bravery right to the end is impressive, however, especially to the enormous black dragon who inhabits the land on which she is fighting.   Fearghus the Destroyer does not particularly like humans – except to snack on, of course – but as he unleashes fire upon her brother’s soldiers and tenderly brings her wounded body back to his cave, he is captivated by the little human.   So enlisting his sister, Morfyd, a witch, to heal Annwyl, he becomes determined to keep her safe and help ensure that she can finish her deadly business with Lorcan, whose bloody reign and taste for torture are ruining the kingdom.

Unbeknownst to Annwyl, Fearghus and his kin can transform into humans, so while Annwyl knows the two as dragon and human, and not as dragon siblings, they hold the ancient power of both species.   And so as Annwyl grows stronger within the safety of Fearghus’s cave, Fearghus convinces her to train with a “friend” of his (himself in human form), which creates a sort of love triangle with only two real participants.   Annwyl shares and stronger and stronger emotional bond with Fearghus the dragon, and an incendiary physical passion with his human counterpart, all the while never suspecting they are one and the same.   Fearghus, in the meantime, grows more and more afraid of telling Annwyl the truth, even as her time in his presence grows shorter and, most unluckily, several of his siblings and his father show up to complicate things considerably.

The main romantic tension in this story is centered on the divided loyalty Annwyl feels for Fearghus’s two forms.   She grows more and more in love with the dragon and more turned on by the human, while Fearghus knows without ambiguity that he is completely in love with Annwyl and increasingly afraid she will feel betrayed by and ultimately reject both parts of him.   The story is not particularly complex, nor are the main characters.   Initially, defeating the brother seems urgent, although the urgency fades during the part of the story in which the romantic bonds grow, re-emerging near the end as the action picks up toward the climax and resolution of the Annwyl v. Lorcan conflict.

For me, the primary appeal of Dragon Actually was the kick-ass sassy heroine and the Shelly Laurenston trademark sarcasm:

“Fearghus?”   She closed the book in her hand and turned, her chain rattling more.   But it wasn’t Fearghus standing in front of her, but a tiny human.   How cute.   Bercelak sent her a little something to munch on.

“And who are you?”   She always liked to chat with her meals before disemboweling.   You never knew what you might learn.

The human female did not answer.   She just stared at her.   A typical response when humans saw her.   She stood much larger than most dragons.

She snapped two talons together.   “Hello?”

It came alive, clearing its throat.   “Um . . . I am Annwyl.”

“Annwyl.   Annwyl.   I do not know an Annwyl.   So are you my dinner?”

“No.”   It took a step back.   “No.   I’m not dinner.   Let’s never say that again. . . .”

Funny.   Bitchy.   Sarcastic.   All good.   I like that we get the scene from Rhiannon’s point of view, because it adds to the disorientation they both feel.   Beyond that, though, I really have little to say about this story.   It took me an incredibly long time to get through it, actually, as I picked up the book and put it down more times than I can count.   There were moments where I felt that it was bad enough to be good, and times I felt it was just meh.   Things bothered me.   The dragon’s wings, for example, are made of leather.   Just how did the beast tan his own wings, and are they original dragon hide?   The huge battle scene at the end of the book in which Annwyl faces off against Lorcan is amazingly anti-climatic thanks to some dragon antics that could have been unleashed an eon ago, bypassing Lorcan’s evil hold on Garbhán Isle.   The relationship conflict connected to Fearghus’s dual nature has a strange trajectory, with a resolution followed by a separation that I could find absolutely no reason for beyond maintaining the drama and extending the story in order to set up the next tale, which featured Fearghus’s parents, Bercelak and Rhiannon.

Chains and Flames was not the story I was expecting after Annwyl and Fearghus’s (I was thinking Morfyd and one of Annwyl’s military leaders, Brastias), but it did provide a nice context for the strange image we have of Rhiannon in Dragon Actually (she was chained to the wall of her cave) and a convenient way to introduce more of Fearghus’s siblings, for, I’m assuming future books.

Rhiannon is a white dragon, which means that she should be very strong in the Magick (dragons are color coordinated, so blue dragons have blue hair in human form and the like); however, she is much weaker than she should be.   Her mother, Addiena, is now Queen of the Dragons, having prevailed in the Dragon War, in large part thanks to the fierceness and intelligence of her Battle Lord, Bercelak The Great (aka Bercelak the Vengeful).   And now Addiena has decided that her daughter Rhiannon should be Claimed by Bercelak.

Unlike the typical virginal miss of much Romance, Rhiannon is not at all deluded about her mother’s motives.   Rhiannon knows that her mother is trying to both test Bercelak’s loyalty and bring her daughter further under her own thumb (uh, claw), especially since Addiena is only a red dragon, and not, theoretically, as powerful as her white dragon daughter (and am I the only one who was wanted a bit more irony with the white magickal powers?).   So Rhiannon makes her own plans, which Rhiannon interrupts by stripping her daughter of all her dragon magick, dropping her, literally, half dead right in front of Bercelak’s cave.

Unbeknownst to Rhiannon and Addiena, Bercelak has always had a thing for Rhiannon; not only is she the sexy, homicidal older woman, but her haughty beauty entrances the somber Bercelak from his first glance.   Given a choice, Bercelak would choose Rhiannon over her mother, although that is not much of a comfort to Rhiannon, who does not trust anyone or anything linked to her ruthless mother, at least not until Bercelak and his family prove their loyalty to her by taking on her case against Adienna.

Like Dragon Actually, Chains and Flames contrasts a destructive family relationship with a nurturing romantic attachment.   This is a consistent theme in Laurenston’s work, although I think it is handled with more finesse in some of her Pack books.   Although I must say that I enjoyed the family dynamics more in this story than in the first, in part because Bercelak’s father is quite unconventional (he prefers to live as a relatively powerless human most of the time), and the sexual connection between Bercelak and Rhiannon is unabashedly kinky (in a pretty vanilla sort of way, but still). They indulge in testing the limits of their power, as dragons, as humans, and as a couple.

Beyond that, though, there just wasn’t much dimension to either Chains and Flames or Dragon Actually, even though I was more actively entertained (read:   I got through it in one sitting) by the second story.   Despite the difference in color, I had a hard time telling the siblings apart, making me wary of pursuing this series very far (although I am very interested in Morfyd’s story, should there ever be one).   And as much as I enjoy these women who are definitely the equals of their strong alpha males, I’m starting to get the sense of “same old” when I read Laurenston’s work, and not in a way that engenders comfort so much as tedium.

I understand from the Samhain bookstore that this book was previously published by Triskellion, but since it is now being published by Kensington and Samhain, I am assuming that it has been edited for republication.   Regardless, I read it as a new book, although I don’t know if that made a difference in how I responded to it.   On the one hand, I have no problem with ebooks reissued by print houses, since there is much excellent work in epublishing (my favorite Laurenston books are those Pack Challenge books published by Samhain).   On the other hand, these stories simply felt anemic to me, and finding out they were reissues made me wonder how they differ from the originals.   Whatever the changes, they were not enough for me to find these two stories as compelling as I wanted them to be.   Dragon Actually finished as a C- and Chains and Flames a C, not horrible, but not outstanding in any way, either.


This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

REVIEW:  Here Kitty, Kitty by Shelly Laurenston

REVIEW: Here Kitty, Kitty by Shelly Laurenston

Dear Ms. Laurenston:

402.jpgFor those readers who are looking for stronger and sassier women in Romance, your Magnus Pack series may be a perfect match. When I got Here Kitty, Kitty, the third and final installment in the paranormal adventures of best friends Sara Morrighan, Miki Kendrick, and Angelina Santiago, I hadn't even heard of you, so I decided to read the series from the beginning, allowing me to appreciate and enjoy Here Kitty, Kitty that much more.

And enjoy it, I did. Although this review is technically for the third Pack book, I did not treat it as completely independent in my reading, and cannot in my review, either. Also, I should clarify that the first two books in the series, Pack Challenge and Go Fetch!, were published first by the now defunct Triskellion and then by Samhain. If you initially read or purchased the Trisk versions, I recommend re-investing in the Samhain editions, which I found to be significantly stronger.

At the center of these books are three incredibly strong women, assertive and present in the way I often want the women of JR Ward's Brotherhood series to be. Angelina Santiago, heroine of Here Kitty, Kitty, is the girliest of the three, a tall Latina beauty who favors Chanel shoes, Louis Vuitton bags, and Glock .9mm handguns (but the "Bitch's Hammer,–? aka baseball bat, will do in a pinch). Having dropped her friend Miki off at the airport for her trip to California to see Sara (who is now living in rowdy bliss with her wolf biker pack), Angelina has remained in Texas, unaware of grave danger posed by a rabid band of shifter hyenas. That's right: Laurenston's series is about rival groups of shifters, including wolves, tigers, leopards, and hyenas. The wolves and the cats are at odds (as dogs and cats are wont to be), and the hyenas seem to prey on everyone, generating unexpected danger for the likes of Angelina, who is saved from a vicious hyena attack by two tiger shifters –" brothers who then casually roll dice for her, generously including their absent brother in the contest.

Unbeknownst to Nik Vorislav, his brothers bring his winnings, in the form of Angelina's unconscious body, from Texas to Nik's home in North Carolina, and when Angelina wakes up clad in nothing but a sheet, she thinks Nik is some hillbilly thug, and does her best to knock him out and get away. No simple head butt and toilet tank top to the head will level Nik, though. So it's not long before both he and Angelina realize that shifter politics have escalated to the point where she is actually safer with the tigers than she would be in Texas or California. I don't think readers get the best sense of all the various grudges and rivalries and dangers among the shifters without reading the series as a whole, but I think there's probably enough here to get the gist of things.

What is clear in Here Kitty, Kitty, just like in the other books, is that you bring a freshness to paranormal Romance by creating three women who have seriously over the top personalities. These women could be mercenary hitwomen or spies, no problem. They fight hard, talk rough, and love uneasily. They're loud, defensive, protective, fiercely loyal to one another, proactive, and emotionally wounded despite their surplus of bravado. Angelina, for example, can't stand to be touched physically, and her idea of a perfect relationship is a one-night stand with a stranger. In that, she seems a perfect match for Nik, who, as tiger, is not supposed to pick a life mate, but rather have young with several tigresses. And yet, from the first moment, Nik and Angelina are mutually disturbed by the incredible chemistry they share, disturbed enough to play an amusing game of cat and, er, woman, for quite a while. And this, really, is where your writing shines, in the banter between the characters, the uninhibited nature of both her women and men, and their equivalent strength:

She watched him eat for a moment, then asked, "So you're not married, are you?–?
Nik choked on his burger. He hit his chest several times to dislodge the beef while
she watched him quietly.
"Why do you ask,–? he wheezed out.
"Just a question.–?
"My kind don't get married. We don't settle down. We live alone. Happily.–?
"So you're not like the wolves?–?
He shuddered. "No. We are not like the wolves.–?
"No. Not really. I'm just looking for shit to say.–?

Nik insists on calling her "sugar,–? and Angelina returns the affection by referring to Nik as "hillbilly–? or just plain "cat.–? At first, Nik isn't impressed with Angelina beyond her physical beauty: He waited for her to say more, but she appeared to be a bit slow-witted. Kind of like his Uncle Billy whose baby sister hit him in the head with a brick. It's not until she whacks him with the toilet tank and shoots at him through a door that he begins to understand that she's different. As they become better acquainted, they incessantly taunt and aggravate one another, all the while marking each other — literally and figuratively — as something out of the ordinary. When Nik shows Angelina his tiger self, she's fascinated but still unwilling to give an inch:

"Is this your way of saying good night?–?
He dragged that big tongue across her cheek.
"Dude! Disgusting!–? But she laughed in spite of herself and immediately let go of her sadness.
One paw released the banister and he hung off the side. He stared through the bars of the railing and it took her a moment to realize he was staring at her. Well, her and her no- panty-wearing ass.
"Hey! Eyes front, cat!–?

The real fun of this book, like the other two in the series, is watching this incredibly strong woman fall ass over ears in love with a guy who routinely turns into a 700 pound tiger and can't seem to follow in his brother's footsteps and spread his romantic attention around. Instead, Nik's like his father, who has what can only be described as an unusual relationship with Nik's mother, who berates her mate by day but purrs within his bed every night. While the relationship between Angelina and Nik is not that combative or volatile, it is not particularly gentle, either. Like everything else about the book, the lovemaking between Nik and Angelina is raunchy and over the top. And fun.

Some books are fun because they are so extreme, and the Magnus Pack series is among them. The women really make these books for me, and I cannot imagine enjoying the alpha male characters without these powerful women to love and challenge them. Of course, over the top characterizations have their price, especially when it comes to character development and the building of a deep romantic attachment. That whole pack/pride "call of the wild–? natural attraction can only go so far, at which point a more subtle, nuanced approach is necessary to even out the tone and solidify the emotional ties the author wants to establish. This, for me, is where the book –" and the series as a whole, but especially this book –" stumbles. As much as I enjoyed the raucous adventure of these two characters struggling with and finally sating their lust, I think the book becomes a bit strident in its insistent excess. In the same way that there's not much middle ground with the characters, neither is there much with the narrative, making it more difficult to carry off the tenderness and deep sense of attachment the reader is supposed to discern. As much as I enjoyed the risks you took with these characters, especially the women, I also would love to see more flexibility in voice. The roughness in the writing is partially eclipsed by the raunchier tone, but not completely, and in a longer book (Here Kitty, Kitty is not much over 200 pages), I think it would bother me more.

You have a print publication coming out soon from Kensington, and I am very interested in seeing how that compares to the Samhain books, especially because of the differences I saw between the Triskellion and Samhain books. My hope is that your writing continues to grow, that you expand your narrative repertoire as the work matures, and that you find a way to balance the wonderful bravado of the female characters with deeper expressions of emotion and more subtle characterizations. I also hope that you are able to maintain your sassy voice but also change up the rhythm and the patterning of your narrative structures, adding more variety to your plotting and style. For Here Kitty, Kitty, though, and for the series as a whole, I give a high B-.