Once Bitten
by Clare Willis, fantasy (2009)
Zebra, $4.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0871-2


Zebra has done right with Clare Willis by giving her debut urban fantasy effort Once Bitten an eye-catching cover that is hard to overlook. The packaging is perfect, except for the label on the spine: "paranormal romance".

I don't know how readers led to expect your typical paranormal romance will react to this one, because this one is definitely more urban fantasy with a touch of romance than a straightforward romance. I have no problems with this, but I've heard stories of authors who had a very hard time bounding back after their books were misrepresented as romance when they were better off targeted to a different audience, and I certainly hope this won't happen to Ms Willis.

Angela McCaffrey is your typical assistant account executive in the Hall, Fitch, and Berg advertising agency in San Francisco. When the story opens, her boss Lucy Weston is MIA, and Angie finds herself competing with her room mate and colleague Kimberley Bennett for the perk of handling the accounts left behind by Lucy and the subsequent promotion that will follow. She finds herself handling a client called Macabre Factor. These people provide expensive services like tinted contact lenses, detachable fangs, and make-up for rich folks who want to live the "vampire lifestyle". That seems harmless... until Lucy shows up, dead and completely drained of blood. Guess who discovers Lucy's body. Meanwhile, Angie knows that Kimberley is capable of underhanded techniques, which she doesn't become too concerned about because she seems to be ahead of Kimberley in the promotion race, but she will soon learn just how underhanded Kimberley can be.

Yes, there is a vampire boyfriend in this story, Eric Taylor. The fact that his name is not Aleksander Cullendor DeMarcoff is a credit to Ms Willis's sense of restraint and good taste. But he is built up as a potential villain in this story, often staying in the shadows, so he doesn't have a solid presence throughout the story to be a compelling romantic lead. He is, instead, the guy the heroine falls for and we have to take her word for that.

The good thing about Once Bitten is that, at its heart, it is a very entertaining horror mystery story as the heroine slowly learns more about the shadowy plot that she has unwittingly stepped into. The author writes like an old hand in the business, with Angie being a likable, realistic, and refreshingly normal heroine at the core despite some obligatory urban fantasy "special heroine" trappings. The suspense and the pacing are both very well done.

It is when the author tries to force Eric and Angie to become a romantic couple in the last few chapters that the story falls apart spectacularly. The problem here is that Eric is just not given enough screentime, so to speak, to become a believable romance hero. Heck, for a long time, he's a potential villain. Angie's reaction to him is eeriely reminiscent of Mina Harker's reaction to Count Dracula (Angie's boss is named Lucy Weston with a good reason), and only a very careless reader will be surprised when Eric admits that he initially uses his woo-woo on Angie to get her to become attracted to him and put out to him. Of course, he also says that he stops using woo-woo once he realizes how much he likes her, et cetera, but come on, I'm sure we have all heard that before, haven't we?

A romance novel needs to convince me that the romance is real. In this one, there is too much of an element of mindscrew in the relationship for me to fully believe that Angie loves Eric freely and willingly. This is why I said initially that Once Bitten is an excellent urban fantasy rather than a paranormal romance. The urban fantasy elements in both the mystery and the suspense are top notch. The romance, however, is a total failure. And, the thing is, if the author has given Eric a more prominent presence in her story, the urban fantasy elements would not have been as strong as they are now. In other words, this story would have been fantastic if there had been no romance and the heroine walked away into the sunset alone.

My opinion of Once Bitten is that it is a very entertaining story, but my recommendation comes with the suggestion that you should not rush out and get this book if you like paranormal romances but not urban fantasy stories. I seem like splitting hairs here, but trust me, when it comes to this book, such distinction is necessary. In the meantime, I think Ms Willis should just go with the flow and write an urban fantasy story, even if it isn't a romantic one, for her next book. That's where her strength lies, I feel.

Rating: 83


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