by Sharon Ashwood, fantasy (2010)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23073-7

Unchained is the third book in Sharon Ashwood's The Dark Forgotten series, but it stands alone very well. Characters from previous books make non-intrusive appearances only when necessary, the setting is well-defined from early on, and the plot is self-contained. If you read this book on its own, you will miss out on how Ashe Carver and Capt Julian Reynard first met in Scorched, but I believe that you can still get into this book fine as the bulk of the relationship development between those two happens in this book.

Our widowed heroine Ashe Carver is a slayer. A witch who lost most of her powers due to a tragically unwise act in her teenage years, she prefers to use her stake to do the talking where misbehaving vampires are concerned. She showed up in Fairview in Scorched, hoping to bond with her daughter Eden and live a more "normal" life with her, and she's still there when Unchained begins. Embroiled in a custody battle with her parents-in-law over Eden, Ashe needs to prove that she is a suitable mother to Eden. This means that she has to downplay the more unpleasant aspects of her slayer gig. She takes up a job at the local library, because you can't be more stereotypically proper and sensible than a library staff.

But it isn't easy trying to be Lorelei Gilmore in a place where spooks run wild. Firstly, Capt Reynard shows up with grave news: someone had stolen the jar containing his soul and he will soon die unless he recovers it. Reynard is the leader of the old-school guardsmen of the Castle. The Castle is a supernatural prison that houses all the spooks deemed too dangerous to be let loose on the world. The old-school Guardsmen are essentially immortals as their souls were taken from them and housed in jars kept in a hidden room, therefore allowing them to serve in their posts in perpetuity, at least until they were truly damaged beyond repair on duty or their souls were stolen from them. Someone has stolen Reynard's soul for who knows what reason, and he will die soon. Reynard, up to that point essentially trapped in the Castle since he couldn't leave the Castle for more than a few hours without his soul, needs someone to show him around in this brave new world, and Ashe can't bring herself to turn him down.

Also, Ashe's sister Holly manages to have a baby with her vampire husband. This is a momentous development since vampires aren't exactly fecund. And no, don't ask me whether Holly is related in any way to a Bella Swan. I don't want to know. At any rate, some vampires believe that having Renesmee Cullens of their own will consolidate their powers over other vampires. One vampire boss decides that Ashe, the other Carver sister, will be an excellent candidate to bear his child. Ashe, as you can imagine, isn't exactly thrilled with the idea, but that vampire dude isn't going take rejection well. Don't worry, this particular subplot isn't as tacky as it sounds: there is no magic vagina drama in this story and Ashe doesn't turn out to be a Special Heroine somewhere down the road.

I enjoy the world building in this series, but my biggest grumble about the previous two books in this series is that Ms Ashwood always started out claiming that her heroines are amazingly powerful, but those heroines turned out to be... well, not that amazing. Indeed, I was at first hesitant to read this book because Ashe was built up in the previous book to be this powerful slayer that had vampires everywhere quaking in fear, only to give a display of embarrassing incompetence in that book. Fortunately, Ashe is far more capable in this book. Ms Ashwood still overstates Ashe's prowess in this book, but at least Ashe can hold her own here without requiring the hero to protect her. That makes her a few steps ahead of the heroines of the previous books.

I've always enjoyed a story with a competent heroine who can walk the walk as well as she talks the talk, but what makes Unchained a truly remarkable read is how well the author has everything in a state of perfect balance - the angst, the action, the introspection, the romance, and the external conflicts. The internal conflicts do not overwhelm the external conflicts or vice-versa. There is plenty of angst - Ashe's guilt over her action in the past that caused the death of her parents, her fear that she is becoming increasingly estranged from her daughter, Reynard's fear of experiencing love only to have it all taken away from him, and more - but all the emotional drama fits perfectly in the story and blends nicely with the rest of the story. There are no moments where I have to put the book down and wonder whether it is the right time for the characters to have sex or whine about their past, for example. Everything flows smoothly and naturally here, and the result is a very entertaining read that packs an emotional punch as well as gets the adrenaline into a rush.

The romance is a very nice one. It's not too deep, which is probably a necessity given how busy the story is, but the romance still manages to remain believable. The chemistry between Ashe and Reynard is both sweet and touching. After all, Reynard is on borrowed time here. Either he dies or he has to return to the Castle, back to his routine in that dark and passionless place, and therefore, forging an emotional bond with Ashe is going to bring him plenty of pain. It helps that Reynard is so adorable, finding Ashe's competency in kicking rear ends something that turns him on.

The action elements are well-done too. I'm pretty much at the edge of my seat by the time the last third of the story rolls in and all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit to reveal the big picture. The plot isn't the most original or surprising, so it's how Ms Ashwood paces her story and builds up the suspense while getting me all worked up over the story that makes Unchained a very good read.

The secondary characters are few, fortunately, and I like how they don't show up just to flog future books in this series. They all have their roles to play in the plot, and those characters from previous books do what they do without dragging plot lines from their own books into this story. Eden, Ashe's daughter, is thankfully neither stupid nor irritating. She has issues with her mother, but she doesn't scream or do stupid things to move the plot along. I really like the anti-heroic secondary character, the dark fae prince Miru-kai, who does the things he does here because he's terrified of life without his dying human companion by his side. I'm jaded enough with all these urban fantasy series so I don't normally want to see secondary characters get their stories, but I won't mind reading a book with Miru-kai as the hero, heh. I feel that he's bad enough, but still with some sympathetic traits, to be a memorable bad boy hero in his own right.

Oh, and am I sick to feel really bad for the villain? I don't know, maybe it's because I play too much Neopets, but I'm starting to feel some degree of empathy for monsters who just want to have fun.

At any rate, Unchained has me firmly on board the series for now. This book has been prime first-class entertainment, and it goes without saying that I can't wait to read more.

Rating: 90

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