Full disclosure: I was in Lancaster, CA last weekend (don’t ask) and found myself at a Wal-Mart at 10:30 in the evening on a Saturday. I was looking for something to read—while I cooked like a turkey in the sweltering heat on the asphalt of Willow Springs International Raceway under a canopy (98 degrees Fahrenheit even in the shade—but Captain Awesome had Macgyvered some tubes and spouts together to create a misting system to keep me cool)—and the cover of this book caught my eye. I’ve read a couple of books by this author several years ago and I was just kind of meh about her writing, but absence must make the heart grow fonder because I REALLY ENJOYED THIS BOOK (and have since put a bid on a huge lot of her old books on Ebay). I ALSO ONLY PICKED UP THIS BOOK BECAUSE THE COVER HEROINE LOOKS ASIAN. There, I said it. As you may know, I’m a Woman of Color, particularly of the Asiatic persuasion and because it’s rare to find an Asian female as the lead in a mainstream romance novel released by a huge publisher, I was excited to find this. And I’m glad I did! The heroine is sassy, smart, and brave and the hero is suitably noble, sexy, and good (even though his name is Zacharel, which rhymes with Mackerel *snerk*). Turn the lights out… it’s time to get romantic.
The Plot as I Understood It Annabelle Miller (mom is Japanese, raised in the U.S. and dad is a white dude) wakes up one morning after a deliciously sexy dream on her eighteenth birthday to find her eyes burning painfully, as though someone plucked out her eyes, pissed acid in the sockets, and shoved her eyes back in (I hear ya—I’ll never shotgun ten shots of cheap bottom-shelf tequila on a dare ever again). Fearing she’s blind because her eyes hurt so very badly, she screams for her parents who barge into her room and freak out when they see that her pretty brown eyes have turned ice-blue. They drag her out of bed and into the family car to take her to the hospital. Just as they’re about to drive away, a big-ass demon lands on the hood and eviscerates both of her parents while laughing maniacally. Annabelle loses it and runs to the house, covered in blood and holding a knife she had used to defend herself against the demon, to wake up her older brother. Obviously, her brother (who thinks his sister has lost it and killed their parents) doesn’t see the demon and when the cops come, they haul Annabelle away for killing her parents and lock her up in a mental hospital. Brutal.
Four years later, Annabelle is battle-scarred and more than a little worse for wear, thanks to the nightly visits from demons ordered to torture and brutalize her (as long as they don’t kill her). Annabelle has also learned how to fight, even managing to kill a few of the demons who’ve attacked her. Unfortunately, she’s the only one who can see these demons and other nasty beasties due to her (SPOILER – you know what to do)demon-infected eyes, a sure symptom that a demon had taken a liking to her and taken her as a concubine, and everyone still thinks she’s looney tunes. While she may be a bad-ass demon fighter, however, Annabelle also has to contend with lecherous hospital officials and staff who enjoy molesting her and taking pictures of her when she is tied up and sedated. One particular offender is a doctor she calls Fitzpervert and because he’s human, Annabelle can’t kill him or she’d be in bigger trouble. After all, you can kill all the imaginary creatures you want, but if you kill another human being, your ass will probably fry. But since she was declared insane and sent to the loony bin, they’d probably lobotomize her for killing the doctor. I don’t know, my extent of mental hospital knowledge is whatever I’ve seen on Girl, Interrupted and Sucker Punch. But I figure that’s what would happen. At any rate, it would be very bad for Annabelle to kill humans.
Meanwhile, an angel named Zacharel is in charge of an army of other angels who are basically in the reject—marked for a fall to hell—bin. One of the reasons Zacharel and these other angels are in trouble is that they have propensity for chasing down and slaughtering demons at all cost, even to the point of the killing humans they’re supposed to be protecting (for example, if a human were possessed by a demon and an angel cuts off the demon’s head… dead human). Because Zacharel is the biggest offender of all this, any transgression committed by anyone under his command will be taken out on him. This also means that if Zacharel were to “fall,” so will the other angels he’s in charge of. Zacharel is trying his best to reform his angels, but it doesn’t help that the lot of them are a bunch of disrespectful, sassy-mouthed, disobedient assholes. The unusual demon activity in the mental hospital where Annabelle is staying catches Zacharel’s attention and he and his army descend upon the area to check out what’s going on. He follows a demon to Annabelle’s room and he realizes that Annabelle can see him and the demon even though she’s not supposed to be able to (but she has those evil demon eyes, remember?). Zacharel decides that Annabelle must be some kind of demon concubine and is about to leave her to her fate when the door opens and Fitzpervert walks in to molest Annabelle, who is tied up and sedated. Zacharel gets the dirty doctor to go away, rescues Annabelle, and takes her to his cloud (they’re like condominiums for angels) so that she would be safe from the demons who seem to be intent on capturing her and torturing her some more. But Zacharel doesn’t have the noblest intentions for saving Annabelle. The moment the two of them touch, Zacharel feels something that he had never felt before and for an angel who is known for being stone-cold unemotional, this is something worth investigating. While battling their growing desires for each other, the two of them decide to team up and find out once and for all which demon killed Annabelle’s parents and why the demon would stop at nothing to get to her.
The Heroine Annabelle Miller is twenty-two years old and plenty sassy in the way of a Whedonesque character. Her parents were slaughtered by a big-ass demon, her older brother doesn’t talk to her because he believes Annabelle killed their folks, and she gets regularly molested at the mental hospital where she’s locked up for the rest of her life. And yet… she keeps on keepin’ on. This chick is just full of piss and vinegar. If I were her, I would be severely catatonic and sitting in a diaper filled with my own waste, but I’m lazy like that. She’s almost unbelievably full of life and gumption, considering all the shit she’s gone through. And maybe I missed the Karate Kid training montage, but how in the hell does Annabelle manage to win a fight with demons? Is it because she’s Asian and instinctively knows how to fight? Ha ha, I’m kidding. No, seriously. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who has supernatural power and skills, had to train under the tutelage of Giles everyday just so she could kick all sorts of demon/vampire asses. I get that the demon who orders her constant persecution and torture doesn’t want her killed, only molested, so maybe the minions take it easy on her? But then again, she’s had four years of fighting demons, so maybe she just hones the ass-kicking skills on her own or something. Anyway, she seems to be extraordinarily self-reliant and able to bounce back pretty quickly from whatever is thrown her way. She’s not an idiot and can take care of herself. She doesn’t headlong into danger and can actually handle herself. My only problem with Annabelle is that she’s too… capable. It’s almost a little hard to believe considering she was only 18 and living with her parents when all the shit hit the fan. I’m assuming she had a happy home life and she didn’t have to worry about fighting for her food or stealing cars and selling them to chop shops in order to have money for rent. Pre-demon Annabelle seems to come from a happy, middle-class home with no worries, so… how does she learn to be so tough and resilient? I guess witnessing a demon eviscerate your parents and consequently getting imprisoned for their murder can really mature a person and teach one how to kick demon ass or something. I would have liked to see scenes (even flashbacks) of Annabelle encountering her first demon and trying to figure out how to get rid of it. Or Annabelle trying to make sense of everything. I mean, she just takes to everything like a duck to water. There doesn’t seem to be an adjustment period for this chick; she just goes for it.
The Hero Zacharel has a deep, deep pain inside. This is because when he was a younger angel, his twin brother was captured by demons and tortured to near death (angels can die in this ‘verse). When the brother—I forget his name, let’s call him… Mackerel— is returned to Zacharel, he is in such bad shape that he begs Zacharel for death. There’s only one way to give an angel the TRUE DEATH and that’s to have him drink from the River of Death. Even though it almost kills Zacharel to do so, he goes to the River of Death, fetches the stuff for Mackerel, and gives it to him before setting his body on fire (to kill the body as well as the soul and spirit). Zacharel takes all the love he has in his body and puts it inside the urn that contains his brother’s ashes, so that they will always be together. Because of this, there is a black spot on his chest and it will keep growing like cancer until he dies. Until that happens, Zacharel is focused on straightening out the angels in his army and getting promoted to the Elite Seven, which is a super-special army of warrior angels with golden wings. Meeting Annabelle and being barraged by all sorts of crazy feelings for her are definitely not part of the plan. He doesn’t want to get into anymore trouble with the Deity and yet he finds himself breaking the rules for her. He finds himself putting the safety of Annabelle above everything else and focusing on finding out who killed her parents, even as his own immortal soul becomes imperiled.
Oh My Word! I liked Annabelle and Zacharel (hey, their names rhyme!). I think they’re a good pair who bring their own strengths and experiences to the relationship. They complement each other very well. Even though Zacharel is an immortal being, Annabelle has her own contributions too. What kind of bothered me was that they went through the Romance Novel Stages of Luuurve a little too quickly. Dislike to distrust to mental lusting to love in quick succession. Annabelle has been locked up in a mental hospital for four years where she has been assaulted and molested practically everyday; even though there are a couple of scenes that show how she was adversely affected by this traumatic time of her life, the effects seemed almost… shallow at best. She freaks and lashes out at Zacharel the first time they almost get groiny, but she gets over it fairly quickly and is soon on her way to Sex Goddessdom. Meanwhile, Zacharel, who has spent thousands of years being an unemotional block of ice, is all of a sudden acting like a hormonal 14-year-old boy with a huge, raging crush on Olivia Munn. Basically, he starts out mistrusting her because he thinks she’s a demon’s concubine, then he’s suddenly crushing on her and wondering if her skin is as soft as it looks, then before you know it, he’s gung-ho on risking everything to keep her safe because he’s soooo in lurve with her. I realize there’s a reason for this: (SPOILER ALERT!) THEY’RE MATES! MATES! MATES! but that’s such a cop-out and a tired romance novel trope in a story that I was really enjoying for its originality. While I liked their chemistry and really enjoyed them as a couple, I just couldn’t buy that two such emotionally damaged people could come together (so to speak) so very quickly.
And then there are the sequel baits. Surprisingly, even though this is the beginning of a series and each of the other “bad boy” angels are going to eventually get their own books, I was not really annoyed by their presence. Usually, these characters are extraneous and serve no purpose at all to the narrative (except to pimp out their own books), but they actually help out the story this time. I really like the camaraderie and closeness that three of the guys share; it vaguely reminds me of the Butch/Vishous/Phury dynamic of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series (they’ve been through some really bad, traumatic stuff together, so they basically like to hang out and decompress together after every battle). I like these guys. The next guy to get his own book even plays an integral part in saving the day… though, come to think of it, he plays a bigger role than the hero in saving the day. Hmmm… I’m really looking forward to his story, though, so I guess the author was successful in that endeavor.
I was sort of annoyed by the side characters from the OTHER books. It seems this series shares the same universe as Showalter’s “Lords of the Underworld” series, so there’s a few characters from there that pop up and just clutter everything up. There’s a scene in this book where a bunch of them pop up and I had trouble keeping up with who everybody was and what they were doing in the scene. It just felt like one big reunion and I wasn’t really excited to see them because I’d never read that series before. At any rate, I was intrigued enough by some of the characters introduced that I kind want to read them, too. DAMN IT. You win again, Showalter!!
And the big bad villain? Figured out who he/she was in the first three chapters, but when the book got to the big unveiling, especially how it was resolved, I still felt a tiny pinch in my heart. My eyes may or may not have gotten watery.
As for the world-building, I found it satisfactory, though not necessarily groundbreaking. How many series of books starring a supernatural band of brothers falling in love while fighting evil and kicking ass have you read in the last five years? Exactly. Expect more of the same, with some bits of mythology from different cultures thrown in together for a big world-building salad. There seems to be a HUGE-ASS WAR brewing in the horizon between the angels and some Greek deities because the Titans have escaped and are looking to start some shit or something. It’s looking like there’s going to be a huge fight… a Clash of the Titans, if you will. *snerk* (Not unlike The Ascension in Kresley Cole’s books, perhaps?) The author doesn’t clarify if the angels are from the Christian mythology, but they do live in the sky and they serve a Deity (capital D) who in turn serves a Higher Power. I’m not sure if all the gods—Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sumerian—live in the sky together and hang out. But the idea of Utnapishtim playing chess with Vishnu while Jesus and Zeus talked shit in the background amuses me greatly.
What really disappointed me the most about this book is that the author doesn’t take the opportunity to make a “Big Trouble in Little China” joke. There’s a Chinese girl in that movie who has green eyes and Annabelle has blue eyes even though she’s… I’m just kidding. There’s a running “joke” in this book about people referring to the Asian heroine as “china doll” and stuff like that and she tends to get huffy about it because she’s actually half-Japanese. Ha ha, it’s funny when people can’t tell Asians apart. That never gets old. Anyway, before anyone gets too excited, Annabelle’s ethnic background doesn’t mean jack in the story. She’s half-Japanese like I really like the color violet. She doesn’t know Karate (…I think—though she does fight really well), doesn’t out-drink anyone with sake bombs, and there’s no ancient Japanese secret to pull out and save the day. Which is good, I think. Mostly. Though I really think she really could have used an ironic “I Suck at Math” and “No, I will not love you long time” t-shirt to seal the deal. That reminds me: I saw a t-shirt that has an image on the front of Cthulu holding a balut in one of his tentacles with a grossed out look on his face. I thought it was pretty funny. I wish I’d bought it.
Anyway, bring on the next book, Ms. Showalter. I’m ready.
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