Scent Of Darkness
by Christina Dodd, paranormal (2007)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22173-5


I have always thought that I have overdosed on the whole Christine Feehan/JR Ward-style "I see you, I automatically lifemate/bondmate you!" stuff and nonsense passed off as "romance", but little do I know that Christina Dodd is going to hop on the whole "we meet, we mate, on your nerves we'll grate" bandwagon. And if Scent Of Darkness is anything to go by, it's going to a pretty enjoyable ride on the admittedly stale rollercoaster.

Part of the reason is how Ms Dodd has always been writing about these "mate, mate, mate!" alpha heroes long before Christine Feehan puts out her first book and while some of her heroes have been assholes while others are adorable teddy bears, her style goes very well with the current trend of the paranormal subgenre.

This book is the first one in a what seems like a series of four books called Darkness Chosen. In 1000AD, a mean bad Russian named Konstantine Vladinski made a deal with the Devil. In return for giving the Devil his soul, he gains the ability to change into a beast of prey at will. The better to kill his enemies, of course. The Vladinski family icon is fragmented into four to seal the pact, with the Devil sneakily hiding away a central fragment so that the Vladinski clan has no chance of getting out of the pact.

So, today, we come to the American Vladinskis. Boris Vladinski has fled to America with his wife Zorana a few decades ago to escape the rest of his clan and he has taken the last name of Wilder. This proves false those nasty rumors about a certain Constantine Maroulis, who tried to ruin civilization as we know it by participating in a season of American Idol, being one of these American Vladinskis. Our story begins when during the Fourth of July party Zorana goes into a mysterious trance, sprouts some spooky prophecy, and sends poor Boris into what seems like his death bed. Apparently the Russian Vladinskis are up to no good and it's up to the American Vladinskis to retrieve the four missing fragments of the long-lost Madonna icon to break the curse of their family.

It is somewhat anticlimatic, therefore, that after all that set-up this story takes the turn for the most mundane. Christina Dodd's contemporary romances have a fossilized feel to them because they could have easily been published by Mills and Boon back in the 1970s. Here it is no different. Our hero Jasha Wilder is super rich enough to own everything and anything and he lives in an isolated large stretch of forested land where he can be the master of his domain. The heroine is Ann Smith, the virginal secretary of Jasha who has been in love with him ever since she first sets eyes on him.

One stormy day, she drives to his place to pass him some documents that require his signature. At the same time he is out in his wolf form running with real wolves until he encounters a hunter and everything goes bang-bang-bang as a result. After injuring and causing the hunter to flee, our hero goes home where our heroine catches sight of him transforming from wolf form to human form. She flees, he gives chase, she drives her car off the road, and he ends up shagging her right there on the roadside. Fortunately, the storm has stopped - I think - or they will both be suffering from a flu or something come morning. Along the way, Ann somehow discovers the first fragment of the icon in the woods just like that. No, really, just like that.

Jasha is all "Mine, mine, mine!" the moment he deflowers Ann and like the other heroes by this author, is obsessed about being the first to take the heroine's virginity that I suspect he has some Mommy issues. Fortunately, the borderline forced seduction scene is pretty hot in a guilty pleasure way and I am easy enough to be persuaded to go along with the story because of this.

There is an obvious compartmentalization in this story because once the whole sex/mate thing between these two characters are established, the external conflicts all of a sudden pile up towards a denouement. However, it is during the most busy second half of the story that Scent Of Darkness is at its most memorable because this is where Ms Dodd is most clearly pressing her tongue against her cheek. It is as if Ms Dodd has attempted to read a Christine Feehan novel as homework before writing this book, rolls up her eyes at the whole "mate, mate, mate" thing in that book, and proceeds to rip the concept apart in this second half.

Ann asks and forcefully makes Jasha answer some really relevant questions about their relationship. She's not content with the whole chemical-driven, destiny-propelled "mate for life" thing that apparently binds them together. She insists on knowing whether he loves her and whether he sees her as a person worthy of respect as well as affection. Both characters are forced to argue, shout at each other, and even loathe the other person as they both examine the paper-thin relationship they have at that moment and have to face questions to which they may not like the answers to. I appreciate how Ms Dodd is implying that a destiny-determined bond is not enough for a relationship to work; the characters have to like and respect each other. And believe me, Ann demands that Jasha respect her even as Jasha rightfully throws some of Ann's double standards back at her.

Both characters are literally put through the emotional meat grinder and pulverized into mincemeat that I am half-convinced that the author is more than happy to have her characters break up and go separate ways at the end of the book. I am quite disappointed when the author tacks on a resolution where the hero saves the heroine and they both realize that they actually are in love. This resolution seems too simplistic and neat considering how Ms Dodd has her characters pretty much rip apart the formula made popular by Christine Feehan and rebuild their relationship again from scratch.

Because Scent Of Darkness doesn't just follow the "mate, mate, mate" formula but also questions the formula and breaks it apart so that the characters will reexamine their bond and their feelings for each other, it is much better, I feel, than anything Christine Feehan or her clones have put out in the past. Jasha is a standard hero of this author but Ann really forces him to accept her as his equal instead of being a mere sex-toy and destiny-come-true brood mare. Factor in the usual well-done sexual tension and delicious love scenes as well as always readable prose and I have a pretty good read in my hands.

I have some reservations about this book, but ultimately I have to concede defeat to Ms Dodd. She's lost me somewhat with her contemporary romances but she's got me back with this one. This book is a subversively enjoyable story with the bonus of Ms Dodd not-so-subtly announcing to the reader that she can do the whole mate/destiny thing much better than all those pretenders out there. Make one of the brothers a shapeshifting warthog and we'll be golden.

Rating: 86


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