Kiss At Your Own Risk
by Stephanie Rowe, fantasy (2011)
Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-4195-6


Kiss At Your Own Risk is most likely the first book in a new series, but it could have fit in very well with Stephanie Rowe's Immortally Sexy. Certainly this one follows the same formula of zany and irreverant humor as well as over the top, almost farcical wacky hijinks of gorgeous paranormal spooks.

Blaine Underhill and his sequel bait friends have recently escaped from the clutches of the evil witch Angelica, who took them in as boys and proceeded to torture them in order to mold them to her version of perfect males who will never hurt women again. Alas, these guys are forced to leave one of them behind, and now Blaine schemes to rescue that fellow. To do so, they need to kill Angelica so that she will never stalk them again. They have no idea how to kill her, but there is a Black Widow around who will know.

Trinity Harpswell is a Black Widow - she is cursed to kill the men she love. And by "kill", I mean just that - the curse takes over her and drives her to kill those suckers. The curse also shows her the most effective way to kill her victims. Trinity is tired of killing, however, even if the men she kill tend to turn out to be serial killers and such, because everything is about her and she's going to throw a fuss until everyone pays attention to her caterwauling. She will break the curse for good if she doesn't kill anyone in five years, and when the story opens, she's one week short of breaking the curse... forever!

However, when she stumbles upon the man who gives her her first kiss and she feels the Black Widow taking over, she refuses to run at the urging of her father and her friend. After all, if she doesn't beat her craving, she will never be... oops, one more dead sucker on her conscience, just the way she loves it. Actually, her father kills that man to spare Trinity of being cursed forever, but, you know, I think we can blame everything on Trinity. Worse, some vaguely defined powers-that-be seize this opportunity to capture her father's soul and marks him for permanent erasure unless Trinity uses her abilities to identify and kill a monster that is terrorizing the place while being stubbornly hard to kill. Trinity naturally goes, "Oh no! I have to kill... again? And it's all own fault? Wah, wah, wah..."

And then she gets kidnapped by Blaine, who wants her to kill Angelica for him. Or at the very least, show him how to kill her. Trinity thinks that falling in love with Blaine will be disaster because she's so tired of being a murderer. Wait until she realizes that Blaine plans to kill her once he's done with her. He's just being kind. No, not because Trinity is bloody stupid, but because Angelica has programmed her soul to enter Trinity's body should anything happen to Angelica, and Blaine reasons that the world is better off without Angelica. Ergo, Trinity must die.

Kiss At Your Own Risk is certainly a different kind of story, and the author's sense of humor still works for me. However, this story makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable despite my enjoyment because of the power imbalance between Trinity and Blaine. In fact, this story has an exaggerated and rather depressing portrayal of the relationship between men and women. Angelica is the way she is because she had been dumped by the man she loves, and therefore, she channels all her hatred and frustrations into molding men and women into her warped idea of perfection. And when her ex shows up in her life with the clear intention of using her again, Angelica can't resist him at all because she loves him too much to ever stop. Therefore, this story has a villain that is, while despicable, pathetic as well as stupid. It is hardly satisfying to see her perish, especially when her ex goes off scot-free at the end of the day despite his own less-than-noble machinations.

But it's not just Angelica who is pathetic here. Trinity is already in love with Blaine pretty much from the get go despite not having many reasons to do so. She loves him because he fits her idea of the mad, bad, and dangerous to know stereotype, which is hardly reassuring. Indeed, this book has the women constantly talking about how great it is to love a dangerous man who can kill you, and while I can understand that sentiment, I'd hardly use the word "love" to describe such an attraction. Still, Trinity is in love, just like she was in love with those men she ended up killing. What makes this one so different from the time when she loved and then suffocated Tinky Winky? I don't know. The author is too busy writing one-liners to tell me. Because Trinity is already madly infatuated with Blaine when his own feelings for her are less than clear, there is a power imbalance here, because Trinity's feelings for Blaine allows her to be manipulated by him.

Then again, that's how love is portrayed in this story. These women, once they decide that they are in love with some guy, are so intent to make that guy happy that they throw everything - self-respect, dignity, self-control - out the window just to get that guy to whip it out. The only halfway decent "be in control, don't let those men use you" yammering comes from Angelica, who eventually breaks her own rules because she is too weak to give her ex the finger. This is a story that is full of anti-romance rhetorics masquerading as a romance novel - the rushed happy ending does not in any way mask the fact that this story is all about how women make such big fools of themselves over men when those same men have no problems choosing bros before hos while manipulating those women's susceptibility to their pee-pee power to their advantage.

It doesn't help that Trinity has the brainpower of a gnat. When she is not weeping hysterically, she is shrieking that nobody must die, not even those who would kill them, because she's that kind of heroine, one would run into a heated battle screaming that everyone must stop because killing is bad. She's pathetic and stupid, reminding me of all those foolish women who keep falling for and letting themselves be used by guys no matter how many times one can try to warn them. There is a happy ending here, but that's because Blaine decides late in the story that he loves her too. Trinity is, at the end of the day, in a place that is no better than Angelica when it comes to men.

As for Blaine and his friends, I want to know how these men can suffer from not one tiny bit of angst despite having endured more than a century of torture and worse at Angelica's hands. Instead, they are very busy auditioning for the roles of Chandler Bing, Ross Geller, and Joey Tribbiani in the upcoming remake of Friends. Blaine is all about the male machismo, wisecracking like Chandler aside, but there is very little evidence of a working brain in his head. Poor Trinity comes off as even more pathetic than otherwise when she is throwing everything to the wind for this guy.

The climax of the story is disappointing too, because the author tosses aside the rules she had established up to that point for some "love can overcome everything" mawkish nonsense. What could have been a touching scene turns out to be a cringe-inducing one because a secondary character proclaims, "That's all a woman wants, to be loved." After reading for over 200 pages about how stupid women can be over men, I really don't want to be hit in the head with that conclusion. That's all a woman wants, love? Really? Oh, I think I need to lie down for a while.

On paper, there is very little reason not to enjoy Kiss At Your Own Risk when one enjoyed similar books of this nature by this author in the past. But this one has some distressingly cynical - and some may even say, pretty accurate and true to life - portrayal of the foolish lengths women go through for men who are not good for them. I can't help feeling that the happy ending feels tacked on - the story should have ended in tragedy for a more natural conclusion of this unhappy story. So yes, really, read this one at your own risk.

Rating: 68


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