by Darragha Foster, paranormal (2006)
Liquid Silver Books, $4.75, ISBN 1-59578-259-1
I have to hand it to Darragha Foster - she writes stories with premises that would make an editor run out of her office screaming in frustration. The heroine of Death Warmed Over, the second book in the author's erotic fantasy romance series Teaching Old Gods New Tricks, is Hel, the youngest of Loki's three monstrous offsprings and the Queen of the Underworld according to Norse mythology. The right side of her form is that of a young and very beautiful woman while the left side of her form is that of a shriveled corpse that comes complete with Medusa-like snakes that pass for hair. Hel also smells of roses rotting over a grave. As another character would say, Hel's ideal boyfriend should be blind and with a dodgy sense of smell. That or a fellow Norse God who is brave or foolish enough to love a woman that even Thor, the strongest god, fail to defeat in a bout of wrestling. No one, not even a god, can hope to defeat death, after all.
Alas, with the rise of modern religions and the decline of the worship of the Norse gods, these gods are forced to retire and live among mortals. Hel is the last to leave her divinity behind, for she has to stay behind and oversee the reincarnation of the many souls in the Underworld before the new gods boot her out of her office. Now, she has to relinquish her throne and walk the mortal world. Her destination? New Mexico, where many of her fellow Norse gods are enjoying the hospitality of a renovated and refurbished Valhalla currently managed by Heimdall, the god that was supposed to watch over Bifrost the rainbow bridge and sound the horn to signal the end of the world, and his human wife.
Hel's father, Loki, once upon a time caused the death of the god Baldur. It's a long story; let's just say that Baldur's mother Frigg had made nearly every thing on earth promise never to hurt the beautiful Baldur. The mistletoe is the only thing that does not make this promise. Since Baldur cannot be killed by pretty much everything, the Norse gods entertain themselves by throwing things at Baldur like they are all William Tell wannabes. Loki places a mistletoe branch in the hand of Baldur's blind brother Hodur and encourages poor Hodur to take aim and... oops.
During this time, the messenger god Hermod and Hel are happily shagging, with Hel experiencing the joys of the flesh for the first time. Hel blames herself as well as Hodur for Baldur's death, reasoning that her loss of control in Hermod's embrace leads to her inability to... er, do something, I suppose. This is the main issue standing between Hel and the hero of this story, Hodur, as they meet again in the New Mexico Valhalla, where Hel is now the new employee and Hodur the latest guest to arrive.
The premise of Death Warmed Over sounds really good, doesn't it? I really love how Ms Foster takes a particular aspect of Norse mythology and uses it to create an interesting setting for her story. And the heroine! And what an interesting heroine Hel promises to be.
Unfortunately, Death Warmed Over soon becomes a very disappointingly mundane story. After the build-up about Hel's dual visage of beauty and hideousness and how she wants a lover who will accept her for what she is - both her beautiful and hideous aspects of her appearance - the author does a copping-out of stunningly awful proportions by having Hel turning into a completely whole beautiful woman with perky breasts just in time for Hodur's appearance in this story. All that build-up about Hel's snake hair and the waft of rotting roses constantly emanating from her form - gone, to be replaced by a typically beautiful heroine. All that build-up about conflicts are also evaporated when it becomes clear that Hodur, for some reason, never holds any grudge against Hel or Loki for the death of his brother. So there is really no conflict here other than the presence of a crazy guy who wants Hel to love her and be his spouse as he uses her to ascend to godhood himself.
The pacing is a little off as well. The book starts very beautifully on an introspective bent as a bittersweet Hel prepares to leave the world that she has known all her existence for the first and final time. I love how Ms Foster allows Hel to reflect on Hel's sexual awakening and her subsequent attempts to reconcile her sexual desires with the fact that as the Queen of the Underworld, it's not like Hel can have any man that she wants the way other goddesses like Freyja do. Ms Foster demonstrates that she is capable of writing pretty well in an introspective manner instead of always being in a relentless cheery mode. I also love the build-up of the story that parallels Hel's dry sense of humor very well: Hel realizes that Hermod, her first lover, only lusts after her when he is very drunk and when he's sober, he runs ultimately into the arms of a divine creature of another culture. A male divine creature. That he met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Hodur is a one-dimensional Fabio-clone hero, although he fortunately doesn't speak in a clunky and smarmy manner like Hel's father did in the previous book. Hel, on the hand, is pretty consistent as a regal heroine who doesn't take crap from anybody, although there is a very clear and contrived moment in this story when Hel behaves in an uncharacteristically passive manner that allows the bad guy to cause more trouble in the story. Ms Foster really overplays her hand in that manner - she's not being even a little subtle there, hmmm. I also love there are stronger world-building and canon detail in this book, especially when the previous book doesn't really do much for Ms Foster's premise other than showcasing sex scenes after sex scenes. Here, the going can get pretty slow as the first quarter of the book, before Hodur's appearance, is all about Hel learning and discovering how Valhalla works. While I don't fault anyone for yawning and putting aside this book during those moments, I find the details in Ms Foster's world-building most interesting so I enjoy learning alongside Hel how Valhalla works.
And the slow but detailed world-building is what convinces me that this book is originally meant to be a much longer book only to be cut short and modified into a shorter length more appropriate for an ebook. All the details about Valhalla works go nowhere because the story soon plunges into a sex romp marathon between Hodur and Hel with very little about Valhalla's backdrop actually being used effectively in this story. It is as if Ms Foster takes all that trouble to explain to me her world only to push her world to the background in the later half of the book. Likewise, all that effort in detailing Hel's unusual appearance goes nowhere and feels completely wasted since Ms Foster ditches the whole thing and make Hel a beautiful and therefore very ordinary heroine quickly into the story. The chance for a long and difficult internal conflict between Hel and Hodur is removed when Ms Foster makes Hodur more interested in getting into Hel's pants than anything else.
I love Death Warmed Over and I find it very interesting and riveting in those chapters leading up to the moment when Hel miraculously turns into a beautiful woman. When Hodur shows up, I can fall asleep there and then because all that is special and unique about Death Warmed Over is shoved aside for elements of a more typical fantasy romantic erotica. I personally find the villain more interesting than Hodur because unlike bland and perfect Hodur, the villain is demented and desperate enough to be simultaneously fascinating and pathetic to me.
So here's the deal. I'll just put aside Death Warmed Over and chalk it as a very obvious effort by the author to modify an adventurous story into something more marketable in the electronic publishing environment, which at the time of writing sees romantic erotica being the hot cakes of the moment. The purist in me cringes at this because I can't help feeling that Ms Foster is deliberately dumbing down her fantasy into something less complicated in order to sell it and that feels like an act of selling out on Ms Foster's part to me. Yes, yes, I know, authors have to eat too. Therefore, when and should Darragha Foster ever has the chance to revise this book and expand it to fully utilize and exploit the effort and the details she has put into creating the canon behind her series, let me know. I'll wait. This book is just a nibble of something that could have been so much more delicious, like a tiny piece of the Tiramisu that Ms Foster is deliberately keeping away from me.
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