Darkfever (Fever, #1)
Karen Marie Moning
Recommended for: readers looking for PNR/UF with a cheerfully "feminine" lead
"Personally, I'd never had any desire to save the world. Decorate it? Yes. Save it? No."
So says MacKayla "Mac" Lane, a blissfully blonde, beautiful, buxom bartender Barbie from Georgia. Of course, that was before her sister is murdered, left alone to die in a dingy alley on the other side of the world. Reeling from grief, Mac embarks on an ill-judged journey to Dublin, and her life of cheerful banality utterly disintegrates. Suddenly, the continued availability of Iceberry Pink nail polish is no longer the biggest worry of her world. For when Mac reaches Dublin, she discovers that fairies are real and that she is one of the rare humans who can see through their glamours. With her new vision, the world is a more frightening place: predators suck the life and soul out of unsuspecting humans, terrifyingly beautiful beings attack humans with deadly allure, and a mysteriously knowledgeable man seems to have his own subtle schemes for Mac.
If you're interested in a story with quite a bit of romantic suggestion and a darkly creative twist on the fey, take a look at Darkfever. Unfortunately--and I feel like I've been saying this a lot lately-- it didn't work for me. One issue is that it's outside my genre: although not precisely a paranormal romance, the sexual elements heavily dominate the plot. Writing style also turned out to be a huge issue for me, from simplistic language to rather distracting malapropisms, such as Mac describing herself as "broody" (pretty sure she's not up the duff, so I suggest "brooding" as a better choice). So that you can judge for yourself, here are a few quotes:
"My lids were heavy as paperweights and I blinked slowly. My face was wet. I wasn't sure, but I thought I was crying. I couldn't be dying." [and I'm not lying--I'm trying, but I'll soon be sighing...]
"Nowhere to go but forward. Backward was a path forever barred to me now." [...and it wasn't before?]
"It was the backside of a world-class athlete. Tall, strong, powerful muscle poured into black leather pants." [My mental image: a jello mold.]
And how purple do you prefer your prose?
I was taken aback by his glittering midnight eyes, the velvety gold of his skin, the sexy curve of his mouth, with that full lower lip that hinted at voluptuous carnal appetites, and the upper one that smacked of self-control and perhaps a bit of cruelty.
"Gone was the energetic step that had bounced so prettily on air."
"Barrons' shrug was a Gallic ripple of muscle beneath crimson silk."
And then there's the sex. I don't read erotica and my emotions aren't wired that way, so maybe it's good. I just found it alternately hilarious and embarrassing. Quotes(spoilertagged for work-safety)
'I was instantly wet, hot and slippery in my panties, every cell ripe and swollen with need....the friction of my nipples against my bra was suddenly an unthinking torture device, my panties more binding than ropes and chains.'
'The night air felt suddenly cool on the scorching skin of my breasts, frigid to the fire of my nipples.'
'From somewhere behind he, laughter rolled like smooth, round cool pearls sliding slowly over my clitoris, and I was suddenly a great, bottomless abyss of excruciating sexual need. My legs were shaking, my panties were gone again, my inner thighs were soaking wet...'V'lane,' I whispered, through lips swollen and plumped, just like my breasts were swelling and plumping.'
'Even now, my back was still arched with sensual invitation, my bottom was questing up like a cat in heat, and my every move was supple, sinuous.' [My mental image here is just...hilarious.]
I find this all quite problematic: V'Lane (what a name for an Irish creature!) basically repeatedly rapes her, while Barrons is controlling and abusive.
At least they are intended to be disturbing.
] However, the book also contains some quite fantastic lines; for example, Mac's observations at a Fey gathering:
That was what women were here: beautiful, impeccably waxed, coifed and groomed, softly laughing, brightly dazzling possessions. Trophies. They weren't people in and of themselves, but reflections upon their men.
I found the sentiment well-expressed and was curious to see how that it held true within the narrative. Other than Mac, we really only have two named female characters: Fiona, who is characterised only in terms of her abusive relationship with Barrons, and Alina, who isn't given much of a personality outside of her role as Macguffin and they way she was influenced by her Demon Lover.] While I was interested by the enigmatic Jericho Barrons, I found his speech jarring. Jericho, supposedly British to the core, affects a rather stilted Masterpiece Theatre dialect, salted with an impressive number of Americanisms, from "Hell in a handbasket" to "a million ways to Sunday". With his references to "fat-clothes" and leg-shaving, he seems a bit too au courant with strictly female topics.
Perhaps surprisingly (given that this is me), I don't have all that many gripes about Mac. In general, I think female UF protagonists try too hard to have it both ways: they tend to make a pretence of being tough, smart, down-to-earth, and "above" all the "feminine" fripperies of sex and fashion, but promptly proceed to obsess about men and dresses and jewellery and parties, apparently never even noticing the discrepancy. Mac just skips unabashedly to the outfit-angsting. She is utterly straightforward about her personality. She loves fashion. She loves pink. She plans her outfits as strategically as a battle-mad general. She considers dyeing her hair to be one of life's ultimate tragedies. She's beautiful, she knows it, and she's not particularly humble about it: "There was no doubt that I looked worse than I'd ever looked in my life. I wasn't proud of it, yet at the same time I was. I might never manage ugly, but at least I bordered on invisible." When Mac is distracted in the middle of a crisis by pretty outfits or "hot" men, she is utterly true to the way she presents herself. While this meant that I was often bemused by Mac's attitude and had difficulty connecting to her as a character, I found her lack of hypocrisy refreshing.
Of course, some aspects of Mac's personality grated on me more than others. For example, I was repeatedly irritated by Mac's airy assumption that physical appearance is key in relationships. Take her shocked reaction to seeing a plain girl with a gorgeous guy:
"She was a tad easier on the eyes than mousy, which was why I noticed them, because he was drop-dead gorgeous...I admit I was fascinated. Though the women wore a frothy short skirt, a silk blouse, and was smartly accessorized and polished right down to her French-manicured toenails, the kindest anyone would ever call her was plain, and yet he seemed to positively dote on her."
Good god! A man liking a woman for something other than her appearance? Scandalous! Dire supernatural forces simply must be involved! Don't worry--they are.] This attitude is echoed in her depiction of a healthy relationship:
"'Distinguish yourself,' my mom had told Alina and me, 'in an age where girls often make themselves too available to boys, by making him work a little for your attention. He'll think he's won a prize when he gets it, and he'll work that much harder to keep it. Boys turn into men and men put a premium on what's harder to get.'
Have I mentioned what a wise woman my mother is?"
For me, any attempt at a feminist message was rather drowned out by this type of "wise words", the characterisation of the other women in the story, and Mac's willingness to be directed and controlled by the men around her.
Equally problematic was the undercurrent of bigotry in Mac's thoughts. It starts with her pitiful complaint that "I was a twenty-two-year-old single white female alone in a strange country"-- as if her race, like her age and lack of connections, somehow made her vulnerable. The trend became more apparent later:
"He was almost frightening...that cold, arrogant face that was such an unlikely blend of genes. 'What's your heritage, anyway?' I asked irritably, backing away, putting more space between us.
...'Basque and Celt. Pict to be precise, Ms Lane, but I doubt you're familiar with the distinction.'
I was no slouch in history. I'd taken several college courses. I was familiar with both cultures, and it explained a lot. Criminals and barbarians. Now I understood the slightly exotic slant to the dark eyes, the deep gold skin, the bad attitude. I didn't think there could be a more primitive pairing of genes."
"With his looks, some would call him Black Irish, but it wasn't Spanish or Melungeon blood in his veins, it was an unspoken-of Saudi ancestor that had bequeathed something fierce, dark, and ruthless to the O'Bannion line."
Not only does she back away from Barron, attempt to categorise him by race, and then dismiss them as primitive and savage; she also appears to think that doing so is completely acceptable. A flawed and fallible protagonist is not a bad thing, but Mac's biases are never challenged. I feel that such disturbing beliefs, especially when they are voiced so matter-of-factly, must be confronted within the text.
Overall, I found Darkfever an interesting book, if perhaps a little too romance-focused for me. The plot was a little strange--even at the ending, I felt like I was in the opening segments of the story, and I suspect the series is very tightly connected. While the writing style didn't really grab me and I found parts of her personality troubling, I thought Mac, with her open appreciation for "feminine" pleasures, was a a refreshing change. Darkfever introduces a fascinating world that I feel confident the later books will expand and explore.