by Zoë Archer, historical/paranormal (2011)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-2227-5
Zoë Archer's Devil's Kiss is the first book in a series called Hellraisers, which chronicles the adventures of five gentlemen who decide to accept a gift from the devil. It's quite a risky premise, so perhaps my disappointment of this book stems from how unexpectedly safe the whole thing turns out to be.
You see, James Sherlock, the Earl of Whitney, is a gambler. Yes, he has the obligatory sad childhood blues, but he lives for the gaming table - the thrill, the danger, and the heady sensation of winning. He and his four friends are bored and debauched men who are having a time of their lives in a gypsy camp one day when they decide to visit an ancient ruin. They end up releasing a gentleman who calls himself Mr Holliday - this gentleman offers each of them a gift that is tailor-made to their heart desires. I tell you, I'm wondering how the author is going to pull off Bram's story - that sex-mad fellow gets a gift that essentially allows him to date rape any woman he desires without repercussions. Anyway, back to Whit: his gift is to be able to control the odds and win any gamble that he has a stake in.
Zora Grey, our heroine, is one of the gypsies Whit encountered earlier. She tries to stop them from reaching the ruin, as her Tarot cards warn her that great evil lies in that place. But she arrives too late, alas, and Mr Holliday binds her to a card - she can never stray too far from the card - and gives the card to Whit, who desires her. Zora is also unable to lie to Whit. Perhaps it is a good thing that Whit's vices do not include forced seduction, or this story could move into really murky territory, heh. Fortunately, Zora has some unexpected allies that may be able to help her break the devil's hold on Whit and save the world from being taken over by the devil.
As the plot involving the devil wanting to turn the world into a literal hell on earth seems to span all five books, I'm going to just go with the flow and not say anything about that aspect of the story. After all, that plot is only developing. However, I can say that I am not as emotionally invested in Whit's salvation as I should have been. After all, he's a bored twit who has all the money and time and women in the world - hardly the type of person to feel sorry for. So he has some issues about his past. Big deal, everyone has them. Most significantly, he willingly accepts the devil's gift. He only panics when he is confronted with inevitable proof that his soul is really doomed thanks to his action, and only then does he run back to Zora like a scared kid who has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Until that point, he's willing to exploit and enjoy his gift to the hilt. So why should I care about Zora wanting to redeem such a man? He doesn't seem like a fellow who wants to be redeemed; he seems more interested in getting out of the bargain he has willingly made with the devil. Since he made his bed - why shouldn't he lie on it?
As for Zora, I have a hard time being convinced that she somehow knows that there is a man worth saving in Whit. She only knows him for a short while, and in that moment, all they shared was some superficial conversations where she not-so-subtly calls him a bored twat and he thinks she's hot. They have a physical attraction, that I can see, but I lack Zora's conviction that all hot guys are worth saving because
they are so hot they are socially conditioned to be what they are and therefore they are actually misunderstood. And for all her prattle about being convinced that the "old" Whit is still in there, worth saving, what is the "old" Whit anyway? A bored privileged brat who spends his time gambling, drinking, and fornicating. After getting the gift from the devil, he turns into a gambling, drinking, and fornicating twat who just happens to win more at the table. Seems like the devil has merely upgraded this fellow, if you ask me. I have nothing against gambling and fornicating, mind you, I just don't see this good man that Whit supposedly was before he was cursed by the Devil. And I also don't see how Zora can come to the conclusion that Whit is worth saving. Seems to me that she's just rationalizing things because she's hot for his face and body.
Speaking of Zora, she's quite a nag of a heroine. From the moment she meets Whit, she's constantly talking about living right and doing the right thing. Perhaps that is the kind of woman Whit needs, one who would nag at him and keep him under a tight leash, but at the same time at the mercy of her lust for his face and body so that she won't get the upper hand all the time. That doesn't mean that she is an interesting character, though. She's too obvious as a foil for Whit, to the point that she comes off like a stern schoolteacher who can't make up her mind whether to boink or to punish that bad boy in her class.
As for the rest of the story, I do like how the author handles Whit's gift, although she seems to have stopped short of going as far as she could have. For example, Whit's gift doesn't just apply to the gambling table, as life is a gamble too. Therefore, Whit should have been affected more by "risky" situations in his life, such as Zora's inevitable pregnancy. Instead, the author chooses to let the dice fall, so to speak, in a more predictable and safe manner that doesn't challenge the inevitable outcome of the story too much.
Mind you, I don't think Devil's Kiss is a bad book. The pacing is fine and the narrative is engaging. This is an interesting story, mostly because the author is walking on somewhat uncharted territory here. It's just that I'm disappointed by how the author ends up playing it safe, mostly by preempting the hero's redemption by having the heroine blindly believing that he is worth saving long before he comes to the same conclusion.
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