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Pooka in My Pantry by R.L. Naquin

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Monster Haven, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 236 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Seriously Addictive Series

You'd think finding out you're an empath and monsters are real, then dispatching a deadly incubus and saving the lives of countless women would have granted wedding planner extraordinaire Zoey Donovan at least a small reprieve from the crazy, but no. No such luck for the intrepid helper of the Hidden. Between delivering sea monster babies and doling out love advice to closet monsters, keeping half her life a secret from her best friend, and pining for her missing sorta-boyfriend, EMT/not-so-grim reaper Riley, Zoey's life has not just taken a turn for the surreal, it's parked there and grown roots.

Now she's managed to annoy Death.

Apparently Zoey has the extreme misfortune of still being alive, despite being slated to die on two separate occasions. Death gets mighty cranky when that happens. Throws the whole cosmic balance out of alignment. Now she's got to deal with Riley's supervisor and a craptastic bit of bad mojo tripping her up at every turn. If she survives the next two weeks she'll get taken off death's To Do list, but it will out her as an Aegis to the Hidden head honchos.

If that happens she'll be snatched from her life and everything she knows and be consigned to work for the Hidden council for the rest of her life, so it's sort of a whole damned if she does, dead if she doesn't sort of situation. Which...when you consider just how Zoey's life has been going lately...isn't really all that surprising when you think of it.

Just another day in the life of Zoey Donovan and her creepy coterie.

Quotable:
Friends don't let friends get felt up by the supernatural.

It was love at first paragraph. Seriously, all it took was the first paragraph of the first book to know I would adore this series, and the kicks and giggles just keep on rolling in this second installment. I love the characters, I totally dig the author's voice, and the stories keep me entertained for hours of pure reading bliss.

Zoey is so much fun as the heroine. She's wacky, weird, and wonderfully socially challenged. With a heart as big as Texas and a penchant for trouble, she's easy to root for when her life spins out of control. Which it does. Constantly. Love it!

Even more than my appreciation for Zoey is my absolute worship of her inner circle of monsters and other non-human creatures. Maurice! Molly! Iris! It doesn't matter how much page time they get, they steal every scene. Especially Maurice. I was even more bummed than Zoey when Maurice went to visit his estranged wife for so much of the narrative. And don't even get me started on Andrew's fennec fox, Milo.

No, really, do not get me started. I'm still struggling with forgiving Naquin for that. Bad author! No cookie for you!

We get to see some new faces in this one, of course. As the title suggests, we meet a wonderfully pervy little pooka who, while not as universally appealing as Maurice, did add a good amount of chaotic amusement. And then there were the gremlins. I loved the gremlins. Bump and Glob and Bink were in what? Two scenes? They stole the book, I swear. So cute! So fun!

With this wonderful cast of characters, I have to admit, the story doesn't really need to be that spectacular to keep me entertained, which is probably a good thing, because in both books, the external plot conflicts were my least favorite parts of the books. And this one was just a bit less engaging than the last. I love the chaos of Zoey's life, but for about three quarters of this book the storyline centered around her surviving all the bad luck thrown her way.

It was fun, sometimes hilarious, it was even occasionally heartbreaking, but it wasn't exactly layered or complex. Towards the end of the book the plot starts to add some interesting elements, and there are some twists and turns I wasn't expecting as the book rolls towards conclusion, but it ended up seeming almost like an afterthought, or some heavy-handed foreshadowing of a more meaty conflict for the next book. It didn't quite fit as seamlessly into this one as I would have liked.

I have one more slightly dissatisfied confession, too. Despite my rabid fandom of romance, Riley didn't work for me as Zoey's erstwhile romantic interest in this book. We met him in the first book and I liked him just fine there, but in this one he just seemed more of a character appendage than the story contributor he was in book one. Most of the time here he pops up looking wild-eyed or acting worried for Zoey, is good for a lip lock or two, then slips beneath the surface again until the next time he is brought into a scene. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for romance man candy, but he just didn't offer me much beyond that in this story. I hope there is more done with his character in the next book.

It certainly goes without saying that I'll be slavering to get my hands on that next book. I can't wait to see how the developments in this one translate to upcoming events in the next. I can't wait for more of Zoey's wacky day-to-day life, either. That's some of the absolute best of both books!

Speaking of both books, I think new readers could probably start the series here and catch up to what's gone on with little trouble. Naquin explains previous events well enough, and she has an ease with reminding readers what went on before that I appreciated. I wouldn't recommend you do that, though. Start with the first book. Don't miss out on any of what went before. You'll thank me for it. Trust me.

More Quotables:
"Did you ever hear the song, 'Don't Fear the Reaper?'"
"Sure."
"Did you ever think that song wouldn't have been written if people didn't already fear them? Nobody's written a song called 'Don't Fear the Kittens,' have they? Of course not. Nobody's afraid of kittens. That would be stupid. Everybody in their right mind is afraid of reapers."


We talked and laughed, and for a while, I thought we were safe from anything else going wrong. Never say that. Never think it. That's usually when the screaming starts.

The Monster Haven Series:

The Darkest Surrender by Gena Showalter

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Lords of the Underworld, Book 8
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 426 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle




Nice Place to Jump Back Into LotU

Strider, keeper of the demon Defeat, isn't having the best few months. Though the Hunters who have made the Lords' lives hell have been quiet lately, it hasn't exactly been vacation time around the Buda mansion. Then there's the fact that he lost the woman he wanted to his brother in demonic possession, Amun, keeper of Secrets. That sucked big time.

If that isn't sad enough, Kaia, the stunningly beautiful and twice as aggravating harpy he doesn't want...okay, doesn't want to want, which is the same thing, really (or so he keeps telling himself)...keeps popping into his life, challenging him at every turn. Definitely not a good thing for the Lord who suffers unimaginable agony any time his demon fails to win a challenge. Problem is, he owes Kaia a debt, and when she collects, Strider will be forced to face his most terrifying challenge yet, winning the heart of a harpy.

~*~

It's been over two years since I last visited with Showalter's Lords, a break I needed after growing increasingly concerned with what felt like a lack of series arc progression in the preceding couple of books. In truth, I wasn't sure I was ever going to return to the series, a series for which I had once been a tremendous fan. Then, the other day, I got this huge yen on for some of Showalter's specific brand of writing and I dove back in where I left off. As it turns out, the break did me good and this book served as an excellent place to return to my beloved Lords.

Maybe because it's been so long I didn't find myself getting as frustrated with what I felt was another book that tread more water than it did progress the series arc. Or maybe I just loved Strider and Kaia so much, both individually and as the romance H/h, that the still-impending all-out war with Rhea and her Hunters didn't bug me as much for still being impending. Then again, maybe it's just that Showalter's writing is so obviously the pinnacle of the paranormal romance genre that I couldn't help but marvel anew at her sheer talent.

Whatever the reason, I liked this book a lot. I adored both Strider and Kaia and was extremely happy to have their relationship arc be given its due. Kaia is one of my favorite female leads in the series - actually, she may just be my all-time favorite, now that I think about it. Not just because she was a whole lot of awesome (and she is...just ask her), but because she was one of the more three dimensional and fleshed out of all the females in the series, with a wealth of issues and insecurities as well as a wildly colorful and intense personality. I really felt like her personal history and the bad rep she has with the harpies offered up a lot of very meaty story that Showalter wove with delightful ferocity.

The plot surrounding the Harpy Games was a lot of fun, and tying in one of the relics that the Lords have been hunting lent the story the necessary impetus for Strider and the Lords to take an active interest in those games. That pulled everything and everyone together into a nicely cohesive, well-populated bundle of great reading that I heartily enjoyed.

This is also one of the funnier of the installments, which is never a bad thing for me. Showalter has always provided her readers with a healthy dose of ribald humor in each book, but between Kaia and her twin, who are just hilarious, and Strider with his ego checks, this one really tickled my funny bone over and over. It was also wicked sexy (as per the norm), fun (ditto), and yet still managed to kick me in the gut a few times, too. Classic Showalter fabulousness.

My only real issues with the book were with the cut-away storylines for Kane and Paris. I have to admit, they bored me a little. Okay, a lot. Obviously, both of their books are imminent, so I can understand the groundwork that's being laid, but I have to confess...I'm totally over the angsty, damaged, and no longer sympathetic Paris. I know, I know - sacrilege. I'm sorry to say it, believe me, but between his ambrosia addiction and his wretched Promiscuity, he's fallen off the pedestal and I found myself not liking him enough in this book to care that the next book (finally) is his. And that's saying something, because there was a time when I ached for the man's plight every single time his name was so much as mentioned.

There just comes a point for me when a character's personality, attitude, and actions devolve to such a degree that I question whether or not he can ever be redeemed. I hit that point with Paris in this book. Showalter is tremendously talented, though, so I have to believe his book will have all the necessary elements to pull me back from the anti-Paris ledge. Well, I hope, anyway, or my return to the LotU series may be very short-lived.

I still really hope we're soon going to be getting to the Cronus vs. Rhea smack-down that so desperately needs to happen. I'm even more over those two asshats than I am Paris. Personally, I kinda miss the early days, when Galen and the Hunters were the Big Bads. Throwing in the pantheon of gods and screwed up Titans has (admittedly) added complexity and depth to the world, the mythos, and the conflict in the series, but it's also been a big headache for what feels like a really long time. I'm ready for a heavy dose of ibuprofen now. Maybe then I'll be good to go with Paris.

Dancing with the Devil by Keri Arthur

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Nikki and Michael, Book 1
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Bantam Dell publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




A Dance with Several Missteps

Private investigator and psychic Nikki James is on a case that's hitting a little close to home. She's tracking a troubled teen for her frantic father, a teen who reminds Nikki of herself at that age, when the girl enters an abandoned house with a serious lack of curbside...or any other sort of appeal.

Nikki can feel the evil that waits within the building, calling to her client's daughter, courting her. It's like nothing Nikki has ever felt before and it makes her want to run screaming in the other direction, but that's not an option Nikki is willing to take. First of all, the girl matters too much to her to leave her to her own bad choices, but there's also another tiny problem with running away; the dark presence Nikki has felt following her as surely as she has followed the teen.

What she finds when she follows after the girl and enters that hellish building, though, will rip apart Nikki's understanding of the world and the monsters in it and introduce her to a whole other level of nightmare.

Michael Kelly was sent to Lyndhurst to save Nikki from the very beast he's hunted for almost a hundred years. Saving her life, however, and using her as bait to catch the fiend, do not have to be mutually exclusive. If he was burdened by a conscience maybe that thought would bother him. If he hated the monster she has managed to stumble upon any less, or been any less intent on ending its blighted existence, maybe he'd let it.

~*~

My favorite, and in this case, most applicable, definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That's me when it comes to books by Keri Arthur. I get tantalized by a creative premise or intriguing-sounding characters or fascinating plot ideas and I get sucked into reading them, only to be brought up short by frustrating story elements and disappointing characters. By now I should know that there are just things about how and what Arthur writes that don't appeal to my personal reading tastes and I should leave them alone, but here I am again, drawn back in.

Insanity.

In my defense, I did mostly enjoy Arthur's Ripple Creek series opener, Beneath a Rising Moon, so it's not like I don't have experience with liking her work. Too often, though, I find the sort of things that were in this book: characters who act in ways that don't make sense given what's going on around them and a plot that treads water for too long while the characters slog through a quagmire of angsty emotional dreck that doesn't seem to fit who they are and where they are in their acquaintance. Some of the choices made and actions taken by the characters are just stupid, and some story threads get far more focus than they should while other significant elements go unresolved.

It's a familiar frustration made more untenable by my very hope that this time it would all come together for me. It didn't.

It started great, though. I can't deny that. Nikki's damaged but determined character drew me in and Michael was a dark, sexy enigma who appealed. The case Nikki is working on goes bad very quickly to kick off the plot, and she's drawn into a dark, dangerous reality she didn't know existed. It was a strong, captivating opening.

Then the trouble started. There was a decided lack of explanation for who Michael is, who he works for, and why he's there to save Nikki, but Nikki accepts his oddly random presence with far fewer questions than I would have expected given her inherent trust issues and her own psychic impressions of his character. Convenient for the story's body count, however, she doesn't accept things she should accept later in the story and her stubborn ignorance ends up killing a lot of people and threatening her own life. More than once.

Not that her mistakes ever really blow back on her conscience. She's too busy grinding herself up over the mess she made and the losses she suffered in her distant past...because damage suffered years ago is what's really important when people are dying around you in the here and now as a result of something you did...or didn't do.

Stuff like that drives me batshit.

Of course, if Michael had spent five seconds explaining himself and outlining his reasons, motivations, and plans instead of just pressing Nikki - a complete stranger, really - to blindly trust him over and over and over again, many of the problems in the book could have been avoided. I guess it wouldn't have been very much of a book in that case, but there are other ways to create plot conflict without having characters act with an abject lack of intelligence, maturity, and good sense. As it was, the constant trust tug-of-war between Nikki and Michael felt repetitive and tedious by the halfway point and downright aggravating by the end.

That, along with an egregiously self-involved Nikki during a very pivotal emotional scene, killed any potential for me to have a bunch of warm feelings for the foundation of their romantic relationship.

As for Michael, who's supposed to be an expert on all things Jasper, he had an intensely annoying habit of making assurances and assumptions based on his vast experience with the guy (which, honestly, only seemed vast in years spent hunting, not in actual combative situations). Problem was, he was always wrong. Didn't stop him from the annoying habit, though.

Jasper is too young to stay awake during the day...wrong. Jasper won't attack so close to dawn...wrong. Jasper's not strong enough to take me on...wrong. And it went on and on. It didn't exactly take me long to realize that all of Michael's "Jasper won't" moments were just previews of exactly what Jasper would do next.

I would have beat my head against a wall at that point, but I figured Nikki and Michael would take care of that for me while I was finishing their story so I didn't bother.

The irony (and really sad fact) is that for all the myriad problems I had with this book, I didn't hate it. I didn't like it, nor would I say it was an okay read for me, but I didn't hate it. I actually still really like the idea of these characters and this world, and despite myself - or maybe because of that whole insanity thing - I am curious about what happens next for Nikki and Michael. The book ended with a bit of a cliffhanger in that regard, and though I hate cliffhangers, I wasn't bothered by this one. It felt necessary.

Or maybe by that point I just needed a Nikki and Michael break.

Murder in Thrall by Anne Cleeland

Genre: Mystery
Series: Acton and Doyle Scotland Yard, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 288 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Unique and Intriguing British Mystery Series Debut

First-year Detective Constable Kathleen Doyle knows she's in a rare spot. Those in her position don't normally get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she had drop in her lap the day the titled and much-lauded Chief Inspector Acton personally requested her presence on his high-profile murder case. For the three months they've partnered since then, Doyle has been on tenterhooks, desperate not to screw up what she knows is a fantastic opportunity for her career. Equally desperate not to lose the respect of the stoic and brilliant DCI Acton.

Unfortunately, making a hideous first-year mistake and winding up locked in a tack room by a murder witness while said witness flees their most recent scene isn't quite the way to go about avoiding either, but there it was.

Her error is mortifying, and Doyle is certain Acton's going to toss her back into the quagmire of first-year tedium, no matter how many times she heartily apologizes...and she can't say she'd blame him if he did. The fact that he does no such thing is perplexing, but that's only the beginning of Acton's mind-boggling behavior. And given the doozy of a murder mystery they're having such a hard time sussing out, Doyle is starting to feel overwhelmed by both the case and the man.

As it happens, the complex mystery of a murdered horse trainer and subsequent killings around London turns out to be the least complicated aspect of Doyle's life from the moment Acton, in a highly uncharacteristic move, offers Doyle a completely different sort of lifetime opportunity entirely.

But it's one that may just put them both in the crosshairs of a vicious killer.

~*~

Brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed, this series debut by Cleeland drew me in from the first page and held me captivated to the very last word. I loved almost every single thing about it, especially the phenomenal Kathleen Doyle, who has become perhaps my favorite female lead character in this genre. She is so exquisitely prosaic, a common Irish lass of meager education but fierce determination. Impetuous, occasionally rash, young and ambitious, but also kind and generous of spirit with a gift for sensing truth that serves her well in her job, her personality is a bright beacon shining across every page and was a large part of what hooked me at the start and kept me enthralled.

I just loved her. I loved Acton, too, but I'll get back to him in a minute.

I do want to caution readers expecting a gritty British mystery with this book. That's not the whole of the picture in this case. There is an utterly unique but inescapable romantic thread that more than wends its way through the narrative of this tale, it drives a significant portion of the plot. So much so that I would feel much more comfortable if this were labeled a romantic suspense (albeit an nontraditional one) rather than a mystery. Fortunately I prefer a little romance in everything I read, so the evolving relationship between Doyle and Acton did nothing but elevate the read to near dizzying heights for me and I wouldn't trade a second of it.

In fact, I enjoyed their relationship so much that it sort of overshadowed the actual case Doyle and Acton were working on. It was just so deftly written, so slowly and subtly woven into the lives of her two characters, with such a delicious element of darkness that added a wealth of conflicting emotions, that I couldn't help but remain riveted by it. The endearing relationship (with, okay, some creepy moments) between the charming Irish commoner and her highfalutin DCI Extraordinaire, Lord Acton made me a happy, happy reader.

To be fair to the mystery elements of the plot, the whole book was so well-written that I went back and reread a goodly portion of it when I got through it the first time. Only then did I truly appreciate some of the more subtle intricacies in the writing, and I saw so very many wonderful moments of foreshadow and attention to minute detail that I was literally wowed by the sheer authorial talent it took to pull it all off. So very, very well done.

Now back to Acton. On one hand, he has a very British uppercrust side to him. Stoic and taciturn to the extreme, he practically oozes stiff-upper-lip propriety. But that's just the surface, because underneath all of that he's a cauldron of intensity, and his brilliant detective public persona is just a few steps removed from the nearly pathological interest he has in the fair Kathleen.

He is the epitome of alpha male, but to be frank, not always in the most healthy of ways. In fact, the snippets that start each chapter provide an eerie look at the scope of his interest in her. It was creepy at times, and definitely obsessive, but it was also humanizing and intensely personal, a side of him readers do not see from the Doyle-centric point of view of the narrative. The fact that he freely offers her the truth about his less-than-legal activities before they start any sort of personal relationship, and that it's so clearly rooted in his vulnerability, went a long way to helping keep him out of my too-creepy-to-like category.

Honestly, though, I have an extensive reading history rife with the sort of borderline-disturbing alpha-male shenanigans Acton got up to in this book, so I may have been more accepting of it from the beginning. Readers of paranormal romance in particular (like me) will definitely recognize his type. If Acton had been a werepanther or sprouted fangs around anyone with a paper cut, his behavior would be positively common - even expected.

There really was only one thing about the whole of this book that didn't work for me. In fact, I hated it...at first. There is a massive plot twist that crops up late in the book that more than took me by surprise, it completely poleaxed me. And it made me mad, because up until then, everything had been so flawlessly, carefully written that it seemed grossly out of place and cacophonous against the symphony of preceding developments. It just seemed like such a flagrant abuse of a deus ex machina that I wanted to stomp on my Kindle.

It wasn't until I'd gone back and reread some things, mulled some other things over that I realized that I should have seen it coming. Everything was there to let me know it was coming, in fact. Subtle, and out of context at the time, but with the added vision of hindsight, it really could have been no other way, given what we know of Kathleen as a character, what we learn about Acton, and what is there in some of their dialogue. I still can't say I liked it but could no longer hate it, either. The manner in which it was introduced was just too out-of-left-field for me to really embrace it, but I do have to admire Cleeland for the brilliant way the story built up to that point. The sophistication and intelligence in all the small pieces of information that went into that twist and big reveal were truly spot-on.

Careful and sophisticated, this story was a feast for the brain and a treat for the heart. I didn't think the mystery was as strong as the relationship between the characters, but I didn't need it to be. It was, in short, almost perfect just as it is. I can't wait to spend more time with Doyle and Acton, either, because their story is far, far from over.

The Demon's Desire by Kendra Leigh Castle

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Hearts of the Fallen, Book 2
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 232 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Covet publisher Entangled Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Hero Issues

As the sister of the vampire king and a behind-the-scenes co-ruler of Terra Noctem, Drusilla has spent her two thousand years existence supporting her brother and protecting their people from danger, whether that danger comes from without or within. In the two years since several of the Fallen escaped from hell and agreed to defend Terra Noctem in exchange for sanctuary there, one Fallen in particular has been a bane to her people. And it's the one who in Dru's opinion has always been the most frustrating, volatile, unapproachable...and, okay, fine...gorgeous of them all: Meresin.

Lately, though, Dru has noticed Meresin is becoming even more erratic and hostile. The fallen angel who commands lightning has always had the habit of electrocuting any vampire who annoys him, but recently everyone seems to annoy the angry, standoffish Fallen. Just by existing, apparently. It's beginning to create an untenable situation, one her brother is threatening to solve by banishing Meresin from the underground city forever. For all that she loves her brother and her people, the thought of Meresin being banished lights its own fire in Dru.

But how can you save a fallen angel who, by all indications, couldn't possibly care less about saving himself?

~*~

I'm a huge fan of Kendra Leigh Castle's books, especially her Dark Dynasties series, but this one wasn't as wildly entertaining to me as I'm used to from the author. I had a firmer grasp of the world and characters than I did in the preceding book, so that was a plus, but the plot seemed a little two-dimensional and flat to me and because it centered around Meresin's very internal conflict with himself it wasn't as compelling to me as a story with a more three-dimensional plot and extensive external conflict.

It didn't help that I didn't like Meresin all that much.

I could have, I think, if his character had evolved a little differently throughout the story. I'm a huge fan of tortured heroes, and Meresin is definitely tortured...but he was never my idea of a hero. My biggest problem was his attitude about his issues. It sucked. He's surly, self-destructive, defeatist, and pissed off at the world, and while I think he had good reason for all his self-pity and angst, at least initially, wallowing in it and focusing on it for eighty percent of the book while he pushes away any expression of concern, kindness, or affection with bitter fury did not make for fun reading.

And it didn't make for a very satisfying romance.

Meresin reminded me very much of a wounded animal, so broken by life that he lashes out at the slightest provocation, so damaged and self-loathing that even a touch of kindness feels like a slap of pain. And so damned alone, so starved for a single wisp of some measure of goodness despite it all that he's dying inside.

Oh yeah, that's usually right up my alley. Some of my favorite heroes in the paranormal romance genre are the most damaged and wounded male in a brotherhood of alphas, but what separated Meresin from those others was a combination of the utterly defeatist attitude and ambivalence towards changing the inevitability of his fate. Not to mention a preponderance of whining about how no one understands his pain.

Even if that were true, dude, you're thousands and thousands of years old and one of the most powerful beings on the planet. Man up and learn a coping mechanism or two for pity's sake. Get a dog. Provide free electricity to a few low-income families. Do something besides brood and wallow and piss off everyone who could possibly give a damn about you.

The shame of it is, I liked Dru a lot. I actually liked her a whole lot. Strong, independent, intelligent, she's exactly the sort of romantic heroine that I find most appealing. She's a pretty impressive chick for someone who's older than dirt. Two thousand years hasn't mired her in stagnant elitism, like so many vampires of her age in so many other books. She was a completely solid heroine who dealt with Meresin - and her feelings for him - surprisingly well and with much patience and persistence, and even a little fire when it was called for. She fits into the world and the story very well.

I just wish she'd had more to do besides tag along as Meresin's unwanted sidekick for so long into the book. There simply wasn't enough in the plot to give her to do beyond that, what with the sole focus of the narrative locked on fixing Meresin. There was a very minor thread about her own bad memories, and that area could have benefited by a more complex backstory, but it wasn't bad. When it came to her relationship with Meresin, though, and the evolution of it throughout the book, it felt way too much like she was doing all the work and he was doing little more than spouting off why she shouldn't bother.

And then there was the big story climax.

For a book so locked onto redemption as the end-goal in a series dedicated to exactly that, I was disappointed and surprised at the abrupt catalyst and conversion here. There was so little actual evolution in Meresin's character throughout the book that when the climax arrived, his about-face was lacking in almost all foundation and the subsequent conclusion felt anti-climactic as a result. In a book of this length, it was especially jarring because there was plenty of room for a more subtle change in his character over time.

This just wasn't as great a KLC read for me as others, but it did have it's moments and I'm not finished with this series by far. Castle's writing style is wonderfully rich in personality and vitality, and while I wasn't sold on the romance between the two characters and thought their relationship arc suffered from Meresin's issues, they did have a satisfying amount of chemistry. Plus we get to see more of the enigmatic Levi, who has interested me - a lot - since the previous book. He's as deliciously inscrutable as ever.

It may never be Dark Dynasties, but even with my lukewarm feelings about this book, this series isn't a bad way to spend some reading hours.


Hearts of the Fallen Series:

Heart of Iron by Bec McMaster

Genre: Steampunk Romance
Series: London Steampunk, Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 437 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Love the World, Not So Much the Heroine

When Lena Todd was growing up, all she wanted was to be a part of the Echelon, the ruling class of blue bloods and their human thralls, but that was before her father was murdered and her life irrevocably changed. Then her sister met and married the rogue blue blood Blade and her brother safely transitioned after being infected with the craving virus. Lena was able to leave her home in the warren...and the infuriatingly attractive verwulfen who lived there...for another chance at her dream.

It was a dream that became a nightmare. Now Lena sees the Echelon for who they really are, and uses her position as ward of her blue blood half-brother to gather information on them and pass it on to Mercury, the leader of the Humanist party. Lately, though, Lena's been growing more and more uncomfortable with her role with the group and she's starting to wonder what their end game truly is.

Will Carver knows the fire that destroyed the Echelon's draining factories, the filtering and storing factories that supply the necessary blood to the ruling class, is an act of aggression that the Echelon won't take lying down. The Humanists have started a war that could level London under a swath of destruction.

He should've known if there was trouble, Lena Todd would be up to her pretty neck in it. The woman is as irritating as she is beautiful and as stubborn as she is elegant. She's also the only woman Will has ever wanted, but because of the loupe virus that taints his blood, she's nothing he can ever have. That doesn't mean he won't do everything in his considerable power to protect her.

Will doesn't know exactly how she is connected to the Humanists, but he's going to find out. Lena may never be his, but the only way the woman will become collateral damage in an escalating conflict between blue bloods and humans is over his dead body. And a protective verwulfen in a berserker rage is almost impossible to kill. Almost.

~*~

Kiss of Steel, the first book in Bec McMaster's London Steampunk series, was one of my favorite reads of 2012. I fell in love with McMaster's authorial voice and the gritty, dangerous world she created. The characters were vibrant and layered and their struggles and triumphs captivated me. It was a fresh and original read that stuck with me long after I turned the last page.

That's an awful lot to live up to, but even allowing for that going into this book, I ended up less entertained by this second installment. The world is still well-drawn and wonderfully atmospheric, with a myriad of dangers ranging from the mundane realities of day-to-day living in the rookeries to the paranormal threats posed by powerful blue bloods, and McMaster's writing is just as awesome a blend of detailed description and pulse-pounding action, but neither the plot nor the main characters of this book thrilled me like the first one did.

I couldn't warm up to Lena. I wasn't crazy about her in the previous novel, and she didn't do much to endear herself to me in this one. She's young and reckless with it, which too often put her in the role of a helpless victim bordering on stupid, and that bothered me. Even late in the book, when she'd gone through some pretty significant changes, she still couldn't manage to get herself out of trouble without help. And the games she played with Will through most of the book were immature and showcased an unappealing insecurity.

Will was the more likable of the two of them. He's the definition of taciturn, and he has that self-sacrificing martyr gene that tends to rub me the wrong way, but he's also a strong, protective, possessive alpha male. That appealed. I just wish I'd gotten as good a feel for him as a character as I did Blade in his book, but too much of his character definition revolved around him having loupe, not who he was as a man, and it made him seem a bit limited and two-dimensional to me.

When their relationship finally started to gel, I enjoyed both of them much more, but that came surprisingly late in the book. The reasons for the slow progression of the relationship arc were fairly significant and valid, and their chemistry in shared scenes was strong, and if the external plot conflicts had more appeal to me, everything would have been great.

The blue blood political plot threads and the Humanist agenda may not have been as personally appealing to my tastes for plot conflict as a rampaging vampire slaughtering the masses, but it was solid and well blended, if not as detailed and spectacular as I would have liked. The steampunk elements had more presence in the narrative, which worked well for me. It got off to a slow start for me, though, and it didn't really start to work for me until I was well into the book.

Right or wrong, had the first book not wowed me as much as it did, I think I would have liked this one more than I did. Some things were great, and it was certainly just as well written as its predecessor. Other elements just didn't provide the same level of visceral pleasure I got from that one. That being said, I can't wait for my next visit to McMaster's London Steampunk. I really like the story potential of the characters that will be featured in the next installment.


The London Steampunk Series:

Hunger Awakened by Dee Carney

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Vampire Hunger, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 240 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included  thoughts and comments are my own.

Surprisingly Entertaining

Born vampire Sebastian Kent guards the ruling council of the same vampire community that ostracizes him for his unknown heritage. A heritage Bast has spent hundreds of years researching in an exhaustive search to find out who his father is. Who he is. But Bast may have run out of time. He's in a human club on the hunt for the blood he needs to survive when he's overcome by a wave of scorching heat he doesn't understand and laid low by a debilitating sickness he can't control.

Alice Bowman has hit rock bottom. Fighting an illness that is slowly killing her, broke and homeless, she ekes out a pitiful existence in the dismal days between meager disability checks. She's just found her dinner in a dumpster next to a club when she hears someone being violently ill in the alley.

Helping a sick stranger get home isn't the safest thing she's ever done, but something about the man compels her to help him. Maybe it's just his obvious wealth combined with her desperate need. And Bast has his own motives for wanting to keep Alice close, not the least of which is that her touch soothes the searing agony that's threatening to destroy him. Letting her into his world is against the very rules he's sworn to uphold, but letting her go screams against every instinct he has.

Working together may provide their only hope of survival, if being together doesn't first get them killed.

~*~

Every once in awhile I read a book that I like way more than I should. This second installment of Carney's Vampire Hunger series is one of them. I had quite a few issues with the story. The plot, which didn't extend much beyond Alice and Bast dealing with what's going on with him and his mysterious illness, was straightforward but a little one-note. There were some fairly tenuous connections, too, like the genealogy work Alice was so adept at, and the real stretch to provide her ancestry as a reason their connection was so intense. That bordered on eye-rolling to me.

Bast came off as a callous douchebag in the first chapter, then seemed to get a personality transplant without much story development to support it. He and Alice had some depth of character, though. More than the secondary and ancillary characters, anyway, as they were very two dimensional - when they were featured at all. And the big secret, Bast's paternal side, was blatantly, painfully obvious long before either character caught on to what he was becoming.

All of those issues really should have made this book more of a struggle for me, but to be honest...they didn't. I really enjoyed this book. I liked Alice very much from the moment she's introduced in the story, and once Bast's personality had that about-face, he was a great male lead as well. I liked how they related to each other and took care of each other when each was at their worst. They had great chemistry both in and out of the bedroom, and while definitely not very complex, the plot was more than enough to keep me invested in finding out their fate.

I haven't read the first book in the series but didn't need to. The world is fleshed out well enough in this book to provide a loose framework for the series. There are a couple of characters I assume were featured as the main romantic pair in the first book, but they're not involved until late in this one. They didn't have huge roles, but Carney introduced them in a way that provided sufficient exposition for their participation without bogging down the narrative with a big info dump.

There is one word of caution I'd like to give about one element of the read. There's a lot of sex, and it's nice and hot, but I know some readers are put off by the "c" word when referring to a woman's naughty bits, and that happens a lot. I'm sort of ambivalent about it myself, as it's certainly not the most romantic terminology, but it didn't so much bother me as it just sort of disrupted the flow of the sex scenes a little. That may be a larger issue for some.

Though this certainly isn't what I would consider a perfect book, I was still thoroughly entertained. I'm not sure, after just this one read, where the series is heading, exactly, but I think I'll stick around for the ride. I'd be thrilled by a more layered plot and a bit more meat to the story, but honestly, Carney did quite all right in this second installment without it, so I won't really complain, either.

Stone Guardian by Danielle Monsch

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Entwined Realms, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 374 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Romantic Geek Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Most Fun I've Had Reading All Year

Twenty-six years ago, her life began...and her world ended.

Larissa Miller grew up in the years following the Great Collision, the day the human realm and the realm of magic slammed into each other and merged. Sheltered by her single father and four elder brothers, all of them cops, she's lived a pretty idyllic life in the human-only city, the dangerous reality of orcs, necromancers, werewolves, and any of the sundry deadly creatures who now share her world a distant concern.

Of course, distant concerns can get a whole lot closer pretty damn fast when you're attacked by a group of zombies, creatures of nightmare who shouldn't even be able to get past the magical wards that protect the city. Larissa's life doesn't seem quite so idyllic after that. She just doesn't know why. Neither why she is being targeted by the baddest of the baddies nor why a gargoyle came to her rescue. But she's going to find out.

For three months Terak has clung to the shadows, watching the human woman whose fate is linked to that of his clan, according to one very inscrutable Oracle. As clan leader, it is his responsibility to protect her. He just didn't know what he was protecting her from until he caught the scent of death and decay on the breeze.

Even after the zombie rescue Terak doesn't know how Larissa's safety will impact his clan but it no longer matters. Given the depth and breadth of the rage that courses through him at the mere thought that anyone would dare attack what was his, he has more than a sneaking suspicion that the little human has become very important to him. And with a necromancer after her, as being set upon by zombies would indicate, his little human's problems are just beginning.

He will end them for her or die trying. He is gargoyle. It's what he does.

~*~

I can't even begin to adequately express just how much I loved this book. Reading it was the most fun (with a book) that I've had all year. I loved it. I loved the world, loved the story, loved the characters. It was a trifecta of awesomeness!

There was so much great storytelling going on in this book. Everything from the prologue, which gutted me, to the conclusion, which tantalized me, was a thorough, intriguing, thrilling, emotional journey that captivated me and held me in thrall until the end. Not only were the primary plot threads and story elements woven together well and fully developed, but there was a delicious subtlety to elements which were merely introduced. At times it was maddening, but in the very best, "Ohhh, I want more of them/that NOW!" way that left me ravenous for the continuation of the series.

Without doubt, Monsch has a gift for creating exactly the sort of varied, sophisticated narrative and three dimensional plot that I most enjoy. To be honest, though, that gift pales in comparison to her sheer, unmitigated genius for character creation.

Larissa is a solid heroine, and while she isn't my preferred type for the genre (she's a little too innocent for that), I loved her personality and practical attitude. She gets a lot shoved at her at once, and I couldn't help but admire the way she soldiers through some fairly massive paradigm shifts, adapting as she goes. Her growth and evolution throughout the story was appealing, and I was pleased with the ease of her acceptance of Terak.

And positively delighted by his consternation over it.

Terak was a whole other massive dose of fantastic. First: gargoyle. Yay! I think they're sadly underutilized in the genre and I'm a total sucker for them. Second, Terak is my absolute favorite type of romantic hero. He's a big, bad, and totally kick-ass warrior, but when it comes to Larissa, he's befuddled by the strength of his instinctive reaction to her, even as he revels in it. And his confused pleasure every time she does or says something that displays her trust and comfort level with him was so damn endearing. Loved him.

That said, I have to be honest. Though wonderful and fully entertaining, neither Larissa nor Terak, nor their romance, were what pushed this book over the edge of five star reads into that ultra-small group of books I consider favorites. That honor lies exclusively with the few members of the Guild we meet in this book. Secondary characters Fallon and Laire stole every single scene they were in, exploding across the page and into the main characters' lives with a vitality and multihued vibrancy that is absolutely unmatched in recent memory.

I loved Larissa and Tarek, but Fallon and Laire rocked my world. I'm dying to spend more time with them and find out all those devious, delicious little details about their lives and acquaintances, details that were merely hinted at in this book. They were truly spectacular.

I'm not saying there weren't any critical elements. There were one or two things that didn't work for me nearly as well as the rest, or things that I would have liked to see evolve a bit differently. Most notably was a moment late in the book where Larissa hops on the Stupid Train for a short jaunt to Hapless-Victimtown despite spending every preceding moment in the book being exceedingly cautious and pragmatic. And I think I pulled an eye muscle with the severity of the eye roll that her moment of doubt about Tarek's motives caused. That was pretty heavy-handed and awkward.

All of that is usually exactly the sort of stuff that dims my enthusiasm for a read, but it just didn't in this case. There was way too much awesome going on before and after it all. The minor quibbles I had didn't do much more than flash on my radar before being overshadowed by my overwhelming pleasure in everything else. So very much pleasure, so much reading entertainment, so much fun. Absolutely the best time I've had while reading in a very long time. I'm so incredibly bummed that the next book won't be around until 2014. So long to wait!!

Quotables:
"Before Laire comes up with a reason why we should start removing clothes to prove some theory, I got a question." Fallon said. "Can we teleport out of here if this turns ugly?"
"Nope, our only hope will be for you to swing your sword, Wulver to fang out, and me to set everything on fire... Ooh! Liquor," And Laire turned way, walking to the bar.
"Laire, get back here! You do not drink before we meet with our mortal enemy."


"I don't think you belong here."
Laire plopped down on the barstool. "And I'm supposed to care about the opinion of someone who drools over corpses? Your implants have more sense than you do."


"Please tell me you recognize the most in-demand mercenary in the business?"
"Why, did we have a drunken one-night stand you forgot to tell me about?"


"Who do they think I am, sending a pansy-ass like that against me?"
Fallon patted Laire's shoulder, a there-there motion. "I don't think they knew we'd be waiting when they prepared this trap. But for you, we'll send his head back to them with a note to not insult you again. Does that make you feel better?"
Laire gave a long, theatrical sigh. "I don't know, maybe."

Spirit Sanguine by Lou Harper

Genre: M/M Paranormal Romance; LGBT
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 236 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Fast, Fangy, and Fun as Hell

Back in his hometown of Chicago after spending five years in eastern Europe slaying vampires, Gabe Vadas is having a hard time adjusting to life stateside and feeling at loose ends on a Friday night as he cruises the bars downtown. Not sure exactly what he's looking for, he ends up with way more than he bargained for. He bumps into the most doable guy in the place, quite literally, and as luck - and his neglected hormones -  would have it, the guy is a vampire.

It was supposed to be simple. He'd done it so many times before. All he had to do was track the vampire back to its nest and kill it.

Okay, so that plan didn't quite work out as he'd anticipated. Instead  he ends up getting shot in the ass by a tranq gun and when he comes to, he's sprawled out on the couch in the vampire's lair...well...apartment, really. And while the vampire is seriously brassed off, a rather expected response all things considered, he's not so much with the bitey and killy. A decidedly unexpected response. Though by no means unwelcome.

It helps that the vampire, who introduces himself as Harvey Feng when the bellowing and reprimands are done, is even more attractive up close than he was in a crowded bar.

Gabe may not completely trust that Harvey is exactly who he says he is at first, but the undeniable lust that burns between them is hot enough to raise even an undead's body temperature, and Gabe's willing to give the guy a chance to convince him that the vamps on this side of the world are a bit different than those he was used to. The bennies, after all, are to die for.

~*~

This is one of those books I'll remember more for how much fun I had while reading it than the actual story, or stories, themselves. Not that the stories were bad. They weren't at all. I just had such a good time with Gabe, Harvey, and all their friends that that's what sticks in my mind the most.

Though the book isn't really what I'd call an anthology, it's also not a single story either, exactly. The book is split into four novellas, and each has it's own self-contained mini plot arc, but from the first to the last each novella picks up where its predecessor left off and the events of everything that happen in each build the backstory and set the foundation for the external conflict in the next. Because of that, it ends up reading more like a single story split into four parts as opposed to four truly individual novellas.

The nice thing is that readers get to see the relationship and romance arc between Gabe and Harvey evolve as each story goes along. I liked that aspect a lot. In fact, I didn't want it to end, and I sincerely hope that Harper will return to them in the future, because I absolutely adored them both and there just seems to be so much potential for them to get themselves into further mischief.

And Gabe and Harvey getting themselves mired in mischief provides a hell of a good time reading.

I will say the writing style wasn't my favorite element of the book. Maybe because the stories were split into novellas, the plotlines of each felt a little thin. The narrative throughout each story also maintains a line-of-sight sort of style. There is quite a dearth of description in the narration and what little there is stays directly in the sight line of each plot thread as it develops. There just isn't much world building, scene description, or detailed action written out, including the sex scenes - which is a true shame, because they were as quirky and kinky as Gabe and Harvey were, and like the greedy fiend I am, I wanted more.

The style makes for a fast-paced tale, but for a reader like myself, who uses description and detail to visualize scenes and gets mental movie clips of events as they unfold, it limits the depth of what I pick up from a story and impacts my emotional connection to the plot.

It did not, however, limit my emotional connection to the characters and their relationship. I was fully engaged and delighted with Gabe, Harvey, and their small band of friends and frienemies.

Gabe and Harvey are the driving force of the book and I loved them to death. I also loved how Harper incorporated their personal histories into the arcs of the external conflicts of each novella's plot. By the end I felt I knew not only who they were as characters, but where they came from and what made them into the men they were at this point of their lives. It was all very nicely done.

It would be a crying shame if this is all there is for Gabe and Harvey. Not only because they're so awesome together, but also because I felt there were a few unanswered questions and unresolved story elements. Nothing that detracted from the read at all. It just made me even more hungry for more. More Gabe and Harvey and more from new-to-me author Lou Harper.

Quotables:
So far this had been the second weirdest day of his life, but as his mother used to say, strange was just something you haven't gotten used to yet.


"Good thing you're a lousy shot."
"You moved."
"Ah! My bad. Is that how hunters do it? Ask the deer to hold still?"


"May I suggest an official ceasefire? No slaying each other for a while. What do you say?"
Gabe screwed up his brows. "It's highly unorthodox. Why would I trust you?"
"Why would I trust you? I've abstained from killing you or even feeding on you twice so far. You, on the other hand, have shown far less self-control. You really don't have the moral high ground here."


"Get dressed. Hurry! We need to get you something decent to wear."
"What's wrong with my clothes?" Gabe protested.
"You have the fashion sense of a drunken marsupial. I'm surprised the fashion police haven't taken your gay card away. C'mon, chop-chop."

Bare it All by Lori Foster

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Love Undercover, Book 2
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Length: 480 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Too Much and Not Enough

From the moment he met his new neighbor, Detective Reese Bareden knew two things about the quiet and reserved Alice Appleton: he wants her, and she's had the sort of trouble in her past that put shadows in her eyes and motivates her to keep several deadly weapons in easy reach. That sort of baggage makes it difficult to get close to the woman, but with the help of his new dog Cash and the fact that his apartment is still a crime scene, at least he has an in.

And once in, Reese has no intention of letting Alice kick him out.

She has been through hell and survived, though Alice still bears the scars of her past on her psyche. Those scars keep her vigilant, keep her cautious, and keep her as far off the grid as she can be. Having the handsome Reese sleeping on her couch presents a host of issues to her composure, but she can't honestly say she minds. In fact, she'd be even happier if she could get him from her couch to her bed.

When her hyperawareness thrusts Alice into a dangerous world of drug running, human trafficking, and murder to save a young woman in trouble, Reese practically loses his mind with fear for her safety. He doesn't care if he has to bend a few rules or pull in every favor he's owed, he'll do whatever it takes to keep her safe. And if the cost is the risk to his own life, so be it.

~*~

I've been reading and enjoying Lori Foster books for years, but I have to admit, this one didn't work for me. I can't say I disliked it, really, but there were more than a few elements that didn't appeal. Alice was one of them. Her personality rubbed me the wrong way. I liked her sincerity and honesty even in awkward situations, but the prim ingenue aspects of her character drove me nuts.

The woman draws gorgeous alpha males to her like bees to pollen, each one feeling the overwhelming urge to protect and defend her from the big bad world that done her wrong. Her emotional baggage lent her an air of fragility and every male in the story keyed on it. I like my protagonists flawed and/or damaged, but I prefer strength in the face of adversity, and more independent, self-reliant heroines. I also prefer a more emotionally equal partnership in romance relationships. Alice was a bit too much the damsel in distress.

Sure, she kept telling everyone she could handle herself. Repeatedly, in fact. I just never bought it. For good reason, as it turns out, as she managed to insert herself into more than one dangerous situation she didn't see coming - despite her vaunted situational awareness.

Reese didn't bother me. In fact, he's one of the things I liked about the book. While he was fairly stereotypical, I don't mind the alpha male stereotype, and his jealous reactions to...well...every male in Alice's life but him amused me. He had such a big soft spot for Alice from the very beginning and if I'd liked her more, I would've loved his fall into love.

I also enjoyed Rowdy, Pepper's brother from the first book in the series. Even when he was being a lecherous slimeball incapable of keeping his junk in his pants and unwilling to even try, I liked his contribution to the story. I'm really looking forward to his impending tumble into monogamy (hopefully) with love interest Avery, who we meet again in this book. Call me twisted, but I hope that tumble is fast and hard and gives him all sorts of bumps and bruises along the way.

As much as I enjoyed him, though, I thought the reason behind his appearance in this story was extremely shaky. I just couldn't quite buy that Rowdy was so motivated by his alpha male savior complex that in the absence of the need to keep protecting his sister, who is now happily engaged to Reese's partner Logan, he takes it upon himself to approach complete stranger Alice out of the blue and worms his way into her apartment and her life to become her newest champion.

That more than stretched my willing suspension of disbelief, it chewed it up and spit it out. I'll wait until his book to deal with the fact that he's a disrespectful asshat bordering on rampant misogyny when it comes to the legion of women he beds, but in this one, a much more believable and realistic reason for his initial involvement and subsequent solid contribution to the story would have been much appreciated.

Several problems with various other story elements, like the sparsely detailed and anticlimactic reveal of Alice's past, the too-quick and convenient resolution of her emotional issues, and the anemic and inconsistent suspense plotline also hampered my enjoyment of the read.

In the end, I felt the book was more palatable to me as a romance than as a romantic suspense, even with my issues with Alice. It was really Reese's headlong and enthusiastic tumble into love and my interest in Rowdy that kept me reading, because I couldn't begin to engage in the plot threads surrounding the Bad Guy and the danger he posed for the characters.

Fortunately, I've read enough books by the author to know my impressions of this one were extremely atypical. One book that didn't appeal to me hasn't turned me off Foster, it's just made me doubly interested in trying the next.

Love Undercover Series:

The Demon's Song by Kendra Leigh Castle

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Hearts of the Fallen, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 242 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Covet publisher Entangled Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

More KLC is Always a Good Thing

There may be a myriad of things Phenex would rather be doing than entertaining the haut monde in a hoity-toity vampire club on a Friday night, several thousand of which pay a hell of a lot better...literally, but when you're a demon-hunting Fallen who used to be the Angel of Song, the gig at least gives you a chance to connect with the very music that called you into being eons ago.

The night starts looking up when Phenex catches the scent of blood. A lot of blood. Definitely a bad omen in this particular club, which sits above the underground haven of the supernatural community he's tasked to defend. Looks like he'll be pulling double duty as entertainer du jour and otherworldly ass-kicker after all.

Emergency room nurse Sofia Rivera is on a mission. Her roommate and best friend hasn't been home in days, so she sneaked into the club where she works to talk to her and make sure she's okay. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but that was before she caught sight of her friend in the crowd, followed her into the bathroom, and tumbled headlong into a horror movie. Some freak was...biting her friend...drinking...he had fangs...

Before Sofia could really process the reality of the situation, she's defending herself against an actual vampire, and if that isn't enough to make her brain take a fast train to Looneytown, the huge guy with the big set of wings and the really serious sword who slams into the bathroom and cuts the vampire in half right in front of her sure helps pack her bags.

Now Sofia's got to contend with a group of rogue vampires who aren't fond of letting witnesses live and a pushy, arrogant...and, okay, gorgeous former angel as a self-assigned bodyguard making sure she does.

~*~

As a huge fan of Kendra Leigh Castle's Dark Dynasties series, I was thrilled to see this new series debut. I was a little perplexed when I started reading it, though, because it sure didn't read like a first book. In fact, it very much read like the third book in an existing series. Turns out, there's a good reason for that. Though released by a different publisher, there is an earlier novel and a short story/novella set in this world with some of the characters that show up in this book. That created some problems for me in this story because I definitely felt like I was missing something whenever those characters were mentioned or their histories discussed.

It wasn't an issue of not being able to follow the developing events in this book, or the world not being sufficiently defined. It was just a niggling sense of being out of the loop that pervaded while I was reading. I hate that feeling, but I tend to be fairly obsessive about reading a series in timeline order to begin with, so it's likely it bothered me more than most.

Setting that aside, though, I liked this book very much. Castle creates lovable characters. Her heroes tend to be alpha males who are deliciously flawed or tragically wounded in some way but with big squishy centers for their heroines, who themselves are feisty, independent, intelligent females and very easy to like - a plus for me, because I'm picky about my book heroines. Phenex and Sofia were right on trend and I enjoyed them both very much. They had depth of personality, fantastic chemistry, and each complimented the story and each other.

I mean, come on, Phenex had flower boxes! Loved that!

The plot lacked some of the complexity and definition of her Dark Dynasties series, and the storyline leaned more heavily on the romance and relationship between the main characters than on the external plot conflict, which often felt more like an afterthought. That was a shame, too, as I really enjoyed the world and the idea behind Terra Noctem, the underground city of nightwalkers. I would have loved to see those expanded with a meatier plot.

Fortunately, the characters were strong enough and their romance compelling enough to support the book without it. Phenex and Sofia had a great relationship, and the ups and downs of its evolution were truly driven by the people they were and the lives they had lived to that point. I've gotten so tired of stumbling across contrived relationship conflict in romance. It's boring and trite. The conflicts that crop up between Phenex and Sofia were natural consequences of their personalities, their passions, and their pains.

Sofia in particular endeared herself to me with an unshakable strength of character and determination to be true to herself in the face of ravaging heartbreak. I loved the hell out of her for that...though I did want to give Phenex a kick in his sexy tush for putting her into that position.

The book also has a solid cast of intriguing secondary characters with a truly unique, and sometimes contentious, dynamic. There lies a wealth of story potential and I can't wait to read it. I definitely want to spend much more time with them and in Terra Noctem in future books. I don't expect this series to approach the depth and dimension of Dark Dynasties, but with Castle at the helm, I have no doubt I'll be highly entertained and fall in love with each Fallen on their rocky road to redemption.

Ratings Guide

Here is a rundown of what the star ratings mean to me! It's not a perfect system, so you may see me add in a .5 star here and there if my impression of the book falls somewhere between these:

5 Stars - Loved it
4 Stars - Liked it
3 Stars - It's okay
2 Stars - Didn't like it
1 Star - Hated it

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