by Carolyn Jewel, fantasy (2005)
LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52658-1
When I finish Carolyn Jewel's A Darker Crimson, I have a hunch that there will be readers who will be up in arms about several aspects of the story, mostly that of the heroine having sex (not too voluntarily) with someone who is not the hero somewhere in this story and enjoys it in the process. But me being me, I don't mind the fact that Ms Jewel doesn't allow herself to be fully restricted by the limitations of the formula within the genre. Unfortunately, while there are many things to enjoy about this story, there are enough flaws to make the book an uneven read.
In the latest installment of the Crimson City dark fantasy romance series (feel free to use the search engine below to look up the reviews of previous books in the series if you are not familiar with the series), the heroine is a human cop, Claudia Donovan. What seems like a not that awful meeting with the vampire hero Tiberiu Korzha at the scene of a gristly murder turns out to be something more complicated. Let me see if I can explain things without giving away too many spoilers. In the previous book, the underwhelming Through A Crimson Veil by Patti O'Shea, demons are introduced into the canon as potential power players in Crimson City. In this book, several clans of demons are planning to become power players in Crimson City now that the portal separating the demonic realm of Orcus and Earth can be opened by select humans. Claudia turns out to be one of these women. Meanwhile, her daughter Holly turns out to be half-demon so the demonic granny - who conveniently happens to be one of these people seeking entry into Earth - has some people take Holly back to Orcus. Claudia wants to go along, not that she has much choice in the matter when her superior, who turns out to be a demon in disguise, drags her back to Orcus along with Tiber.
Still with me? Feel free to make a flowchart or a diagram if that will make things clearer. Tiber is hoping to make a political alliance with the demons, which is a good thing if I think about it because the super-duper bad demon guys, the Bak-Faru, prefers to take back Earth the old-fashioned way of rampant destruction and nihilistic carnage and the other demon clans are reluctant to align with the Bak-Faru as long as Claudia and Tiber offer a different solution to pave the way to the demons returning to Earth. The other demons don't trust the Bak-Farus, after all. For Claudia, her Full House happy ending with Holly and Tiber will have to be delayed when an unexpected complication arises: her preordained mate is the leader of the Bak-Faru demons, Lath. Lath is the other man whom Claudia will end up having sex with while they are both under the bond of the vishtau. While it's all hormones, dark drives, and not much common sense at work here, Claudia doesn't shriek that she is ruined forever and therefore she is going to audition for the next Mary Balogh melodrama. In fact, she kinda enjoys it while the going is good, hmm.
Perhaps you can tell by now, but the overabundance of details in the plot can be overwhelming. Some of the events taking place hinge on coincidence while many subplots clutter up the pages without adding much to the romance or the external conflicts, such as the vishtau angle. Speaking of the vishtau, I wonder whether Ms Jewel is aware that she has created a far more magnetic and mesmerizing antihero in Lath than in that tedious milquetoast that is Tiber. While I like the fact that Tiber is a genuinely threatening vampire who at first finds Claudia expendable, soon Lath supplants Tiber in the sexy "bad and mad to know" department: what Tiber is, Lath is as well ten times better than Tiber. The fate that befalls Lath at the end, needless to say, is not one that I find pleasing in any way. The wrong guy is made the hero, if you ask me.
Still, Tiber isn't a bad antihero in his own right, it's just that when Lath shows up, he's immediately in Lath's shadow. Claudia is a fine strong heroine in the sense that she is emotionally tough and she can rescue herself instead of depending on Tiver. Ms Jewel puts Claudia through so many ordeals in this book that a part of me is impressed that Claudia isn't a babbling lunatic by the last page. But while I find Claudia's emotional toughness and self-reliance most enjoyable, her feelings for Tiber (and his for her) aren't as fully developed as I'd have liked. They seem, to me, to fall in love without any credible developments to make their attraction plausible.
Since this book is Ms Jewel's first paranormal romance, I'm impressed that she manages to come up with something that will fit very nicely among a shelf of books by the likes of Kelley Armstrong and LA Banks. Still, the prose could be improved, especially when the author uses a certain word a little too often during certain parts of the book (such as "screamed" during the first few chapters - I'm ready to pull my hair out when Claudia "screamed" one time too many). Ms Jewel could have cut down on several subplots of the story. For example, the daughter subplot is okay, the demons wanting to come back to Earth subplot is also okay, but put them together and we'll need at least a trilogy to give those two subplots and so many others in this book ample room to be developed. When A Darker Crimson ends, it leaves enough unanswered questions that I am nearly certain won't be fully addressed by Jade Lee in the next book.
At the end of the day, I'm torn. A Darker Crimson, as a dark fantasy story with romantic elements, is a fatally flawed yet darkly haunting piece of work. I especially remember this scene where Tiber drinks the blood of a female demon slave and drowns in the ecstasy of the intimate act while struggling with his conscience - that scene is nearly poetry. But A Darker Crimson would have been a better book if it's part of a single-author series. Which is to say, if Ms Jewel can somehow beg or persuade Ms Maverick and Dorchester to grant her license to explore Crimson City without being constrained by a canon or a plot that isn't entirely hers in the making, and A Darker Crimson is, say, the first book in the series, I would be more receptive to this book. Knowing that Ms Jewel is closing the door on her story after the last page and passing the torch to Jade Lee leaves me feeling that this book has left me high and dry, hanging out for some closure that will most likely never come. When it comes to that, it is too easy for me to ask myself whether I have wasted my time reading this book.
The fact that I find myself wanting to see more of Ms Jewel's vision of the demon world and its politics explored and developed, however, is a testament of Ms Jewel's ability to create a story that reels me in and gets me intrigued. If Ms Jewel wants to start a series of dark fantasy stuff, I'm interested to see how the new direction will turn out. While A Darker Crimson, to me, is currently the second best book in the series, I wish it hasn't left me high and dry like that by the last page. That's not... polite.
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