Scorched
by Sharon Ashwood, fantasy (2009)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22864-2


Scorched is the second book in Sharon Ashwood's The Dark Forgotten series, but you do not have to read the first book, Ravenous, to understand this one. The plot here stands alone in many ways, and the author has a pretty cute way of filling you in on details (using snippets from a radio talk show to explain the way the spooks work in this setting). While the characters from the previous book show up here, you can easily follow their story.

In fact, reading and enjoying Ravenous turns out to be a handicap, I've discovered, where Scorched is concerned. The characters in Ravenous had their brainpower degenerate as the story progressed, but that story was so fast paced and the thrills just wouldn't stop coming. Therefore, I was very entertained despite the fact that the heroine Holly was far weaker than Ms Ashwood tried to pass her off to be. Scorched is a far slower paced story, for a long time there is no threat of a sinister villain to keep the suspense coming, and the romance which should fill the void caused by a lack of compelling conflict is decidedly lacking in so many ways.

Conall "Mac" Macmillan was one of the many stupid people that populated Ravenous. This former police officer knew back then that some spook was masquerading as human to kill her victims, so when he saw a hot young woman he didn't know in a bar, he happily accepted her invitation to stick it in and say hello. Surprise, the woman turns out to be the big bad villain of the previous book. She infected Mac with demonic woo-woo, made him her pawn, and I would have laughed so hard at this moron's plight if I didn't feel like banging my head against the wall.

So, in Scorched, Moron Mac is back, and even better, he's the hero of this story. It has been a year since his mistress was vanquished in battle, and now he's trying to get his groove back. Alas, he is still tainted by demonic woo-woo and the hero of the previous book threatens to kill him when they first meet again in this story. Of course, they both pose and blow a lot of hot air, but one thing Ms Ashwood is fond of in her story is to make her characters very stupid for the sake of the plot. So Alessandro, Kick-Ass Enforcer of Fairview, waves a sword impotently and humiliates himself with a show of grotesque ineptness. It's hard to explain in a truncated manner what happens next, so let me just say that Mac's attempts to evade Alessandro leads him to the Castle, which is actually a portal leading to another dimension where warlocks, sorcerers, and such try to lord over each other.

Our heroine Constance is a vampire, but because she had been taken in the moment she rose from her grave, she has never killed a human being and as a result she's as weak as a human being. She can't even sparkle, which should tell you how pathetic she is. And be warned, Constance embodies the word "pathetic" from the first page to the last, so if you have high blood pressure and you dislike wishy-washy heroines who can't act without coming close to having a nervous breakdown, be careful while reading this book. The fun begins when Charlotte's son, the incubus Sylvius, faces imprisonment. He is deemed too powerful by the guardians that watch over the Castle and protect the outside world from the folks inside the Castle, and therefore Sylvius needs to be contained in a small prison designed for his kind. Constance is like, oh, over my dead body, but her supremely useless wailing self ends up being used as a hostage, heh, by the guards. If Sylvius didn't surrender, pathetic useless Mommy Dearest will bite the dust.

Bereft of her precious son, Constance decides to start munching on people to become a monster so that she can challenge the guards and get back her son. Her first target happens to be Mac, whom she encounters in the Castle, and her attempt to bite him - culminating in her begging pitifully for him to let her gnaw on him - is so embarrassing that I feel like killing myself out of shame on her behalf. Constance is a mix of a typical Mary Balogh heroine and a typical Jo Beverley heroine - she is determined to do something but she is so incompetent at it that her constant futile fumbling is a train wreck. And by "train wreck", I mean it's like watching a train full of blind and crippled 90-year old grannies hurtling at full speed over a precipice. Constance cannot do anything without waffling or wailing unnecessarily about virtue. She can't even steal a key that will allow her to escape the Castle without internally wailing that stealing is wrong and therefore she feels so guilty as a result. Constance's constant song in this story is that country song with a chorus that goes, "It is wrong, but I must do it, oh, so let me whip myself in guilt... not that I can do it anyway, but at least I show some buxom enthusiasm in being stupid, so that counts, right?"

Fortunately, Mac is here to save Constance from hurting herself. He does everything on her behalf, so all she has to do here is to remind me painfully that she is nothing more than a stupid submissive milkmaid who shouldn't be charged to do taxing things like thinking, while she's often whipping herself unnecessarily over some bizarre sense of guilt.

This is why the romance is so lacking - the whole thing smacks of a dysfunctional mess in the making. Mac abruptly decides that he can't let Constance go. I can't help thinking that Constance is his attempt at regaining his humanity. After all, she's useless, constantly in need of someone to prop her up, and, unlike those nasty harlots out there, she would never threaten him or even challenge him in any way. Constance is a sheltered and pathetic creature used to serving her master, so hey, Mac is just another male authority figure to transfer her focus on after she feels betrayed by her current master.

I'm sure you can tell that I cannot stand both Mac and Constance. Unfortunately for me, the slow-moving focus means that the story is mostly focused on them, ugh, going round and round in their bizarre fixation on being a martyr because they are both not humans. The other filler subplot involves Ashe, Holly's sister and the heroine of the next book, trying to kill Alessandro because she's convinced that he's bad for Holly. In Sharon Ashwood's world, heroines are not allowed to be competent - or so it seems - so Ashe naturally embarrasses herself several times over while trying to pull that whiny "I have issues! I have issues! Oh my god, I have issues!" thing on me. I seriously hope she doesn't annoy me in the next book as much as she annoys me in this one.

Too many whiny characters hell-bent on being martyrs to their issues, a plot that for a long time doesn't go anywhere but in circles as those annoying whiners keep going at it, and a slow and sleepy pace all contribute to make Scorched a big disappointing follow-up to Ravenous. Sigh. Still, there's always the next book, so I hope the author gets back in shape in that one.

Rating: 66


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