The Demoness Of Waking Dreams
by Stephanie Chong, fantasy (2012)
Harlequin MIRA, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7783-1314-4


I wish I can give The Demoness Of Waking Dreams a lovely high score and a tacky background image for this review, because she has taken two huge risks here, risks that will most likely not endear her to the genteel romance reader population in general.

The first risky thing she did is to let a villain from the previous book, Where Demons Fear To Tread, star in this one. Worse, a female villain, because we all know how our double standards work. We forgive heroes for everything and anything as long as no children or animals are involved, but we scream bloody murder if a heroine dares to step out of line even a little from the acceptable code of conduct. I cringe, thinking of the reaction the author could very well get, when she has Luciana Rossetti commit murder here. Sure, Luciana is not giddy with joy with what she has to do, but you know how we romance readers can be.

The other risk is that there is no clear-cut happy ending here. The happily ever after of Luciana and the hero, the angel Brandon Clarkson, is left up in the air, most likely to be wrapped up in later books. To be fair, this book is marketed simply as a novel in a mainstream women's fiction line instead of a romantic urban fantasy, but who are we kidding, right? We pick up a Harlequin book for the romance and we generally expect a happy ending. Again, the author is opening herself some potential unhappy reaction by pulling this stunt. Mind you, this stunt is actually one of the more believable aspects of this story.

Anyway, I would recommend enduring, er, reading the previous book first before tackling this one, if only to get a better idea of what Luciana had done up to the opening of this story. Luciana is a demon who specializes in poison, and she is currently hot property among both angels and demons because she has created a poison that can kill them (previously, angels and demons are immune to poison). Our hero Brandon was a cop until he was killed ten years ago, and he had since been elevated (heh) as an angel. He is charged to bring Luciana in. But he's not the only one after Luciana, and finer feelings only complicate matters.

I initially hesitated to read this one because my reaction to the author's previous book had not been all sunshine and cheer, to say the least, but I was sucked in when the author had Luciana describe the heroine of the previous book as "moronically innocent" and Brandon sneers at the "New Age bullshit" in the previous book. I'm all for mocking that ridiculous book and its heroine's fantastical stupidity passed off as a virtue, so I thought this book wouldn't be so bad after all.

Well, it turns out that this book is nowhere as bad as that book, mostly because there are no idiotic "innocent" heroines redeeming villainous heroes through the power of their sparkling hoochie. In fact, this story actually centers on Luciana, with Brandon mostly relegated to a prop to Luciana's character development, and Brandon isn't going to the Penis that Reforms the Fallen Woman like I thought he would be at first. Unfortunately, Luciana's redemption is not at all believable, due to the methods Ms Chong opted to use in her story.

Luciana's redemption is jump-started using a popular but never believable device - the classic "I used to be so nasty, but all of a sudden I begin to develop a conscience!" trope. In this story, Luciana begins feeling sorry for her victims and she even regrets sending her victims to Hell when their souls are destined for Heaven. And she admits that she has no idea why she starts feeling this inconvenient empathy for her victims. This is not a very believable start to Luciana's redemption if you ask me, because this is pretty much the author telling me, "Look, I don't know how it happens, but it happens, alright, so let's just go with the flow." Sorry, with this reader, it's not happening. I don't buy a redemption story line if the author doesn't want to make the effort to show me why the redemption can happen.

The author then adds to this poor start of the redemption plot line by putting Luciana is a position of weakness, to amplify Luciana's vulnerable status in what seems like an effort to make me feel sorry for the heroine and go, "Awww, she's so weak and she's always in trouble, so maybe she's not so bad after all." This is another classic plot device, and again, rarely a believable one. The blurb in the back cover that claims how evenly matched Brandon and Luciana is, and that is true, because both characters are evenly matched when it comes to incompetence. But Brandon has only been an angel for ten years, so he has an excuse. Luciana has been around for much, much longer, so I can only wonder what is behind Door Number 3.

It's actually quite embarrassing how Luciana always claims that she is a master at seduction and a strong demon, only to crumple and even flee ten seconds into any situation of adversity. Everyone seems to be able to deliver the smack down to Luciana with surprising ease in this story, and you know me - there's nothing I enjoy more than reading about a weak heroine's constant stumbling and tumbling around even as the author repeatedly insists that Luciana is this awesomely cool and cunning heroine. To be fair, Brandon is also built up to be this awesome angel, but he doesn't deliver the goods either. Since Luciana gets most of the spotlight in this story, and she's supposed to have been around the block longer than Brandon, however, her informed attributes are far more obvious. Also, she always boasts of being awesome, every time before she falls flat on her face, and she always brags afterwards about how she will get the upper hand soon, just you wait. Unlike Brandon, therefore, Luciana is begging me to point at her and laugh at how she can never walk the talk. I don't think this is Ms Chong's intention. At least, I hope not.

So no, at the end of the day, I don't buy this story. Everything about it feels very artificial and contrived, the work of an author who wants to push the envelope but is quite hesitant to actually do so. There is some nice writing here - sometimes the narrative is lush and gorgeous, sometimes it's overwrought and purple, but there's no denying that this story is steeped in gorgeous atmosphere - and, as I've said in my review of Ms Chong's previous book, the author seems pretty capable of telling a story if she puts her mind to it. It's just that she seriously overestimates the strength of her heroine and she consistently uses unconvincing shortcuts to portray the redemption of her anti-heroes and anti-heroines. If she can overcome these annoying issues in her stories, I'd recommend her to fans of Marjorie M Liu. For now, however, this book isn't going anywhere.

Rating: 57


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