Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Darkness Chosen Series, by Christina Dodd - Review

Love. This. Series.

I’ve been a Christina Dodd fan for a long time. Historicals, contemporaries, and now paranormals – this writer does it all and does it well.

Generally I try to provide some kind of angle on an author, but I’m having a little trouble pinning anything unique down for Ms. Dodd. Now, that sounds like a bad thing—are her stories generic? No, not at all, but I think she doesn't have a particularly distinctive style. She takes advantage of trends, moving from medievals to Regencies to contemporaries to paranormals with the shifts in the market. If she weren’t so damn good at what she does, some folks might find that objectionable. So if you’re a die-hard historical fan who got hooked on her Regencies, I suppose you might be annoyed.

I’m trying really hard not to damn Dodd with faint praise here, with words like “reliable” and “competent” coming to mind. Make no mistake, these are big compliments as far as I’m concerned. It’s no secret that there are a lot of crappy books out there on the new release tables, and for me, it’s nice to know where to go for a sure thing.

Even so, I was surprised when I saw the sneak peek for Scent of Darkness. Fortunately, I was well into my recent paranormal addiction, and it was a very tantalizing peek indeed (yummmm) so I couldn’t wait to scoop it up. Jasha is about as hunky as they get, and I loved Ann’s quiet competence.

After two years or so of near-immersion in paranormal romance and fantasy, I’ve started to figure out one of the make-or-break points in this kind of story: it's the moment when the mortal, “normal” character realizes that something very weird is going on. Dodd handles it perfectly, IMO, by 1)offering incontrovertible evidence—Ann watches Jasha shapeshift before her eyes—and then 2)throwing them into mortal physical danger without allowing them too much time to think. Let the adrenaline kick in, and logic can get sorted out later. By contrast, I’m having some trouble with Jacob, by Jacqueline Frank, and I think it’s because the heroine is just so calm about it all. Demons, you say? How interesting. How lovely. They seem nice. Ooo, look at all the books. Oooooookay then.

I really like the mythology that Dodd builds up for this series. It’s straight from traditional Russian fairy tales, with a bit of Catholic mysticism thrown in for good measure. The premise is that the Varinski family made a deal with the Devil some thousand or so years ago, and the moment is now upon them where the deal just might be broken. On the line is no less – and no more—than the immortal souls of the current branch of Varinsky tree (Americanized to the Wilders), deeply marked by evil but struggling toward redemption. While the author describes the struggle as “epic,” in one blog post, I don’t really see it that way. Star Wars is epic. The Wayfarer Redemption series (a double trilogy) is epic. Nothing less than an entire planet and its sentient population is at stake. Epic is pretty hard to do, IMO. A single family, far-flung as it may be, struggling more or less in secret, is a far more believable scope for urban fantasy; especially if it's set in the same world I'm supposed to recognize. And Dodd does a good job of balancing the Varinski’s evil “superpowers” with her own brand of kryptonite.

Touch of Darkness, well, it moved so fast I didn’t really notice its flaws until after I was done, which pretty much tells you its strong point: it does a great job of forwarding the series arc, the action is superb and the pacing hurtles you through it. Tasya is perhaps Ann’s polar opposite; an adventurous photojournalist bent on revenge, who has an inkling of the Wilder family secret. And everyone knows that a journalist and a deep dark family secret is a bad combination. The sparks between her and Rurik were good too. My one complaint is that their occupations, which have a lot of potential, were kind of just blown off after the first couple of chapters. Plus, I just don’t find birds as sexy as wolves or big cats, I guess.

Into the Shadow is by far my favorite. For those readers who are tired of seeing romances set in the same old places, try the Himalayas. In a region steeped in superstition, Karen is already a believer in things that go bump in the night before she discovers Adrik’s dark side. The seduction between the two of them is the hottest thing I’ve read in ages, and I don’t mean any single scene. Adrik is as edgy of a hero as I’ve ever seen, and yet his redemption is believable and gut-wrenching. Their relationship tests the unwritten boundaries of genre romance, and there is an element of non-consensuality that some may find untenable. For me, the way the characters manage it and react to it works, but others may disagree. The series arc ratchets up in violence as the unredeemed Varinskis throw all their significant, Devil-sponsored resources into preventing the Wilders from fulfilling the prophecy that will cost them their power. And Karen’s father plays a great role that goes well beyond the typical cardboard generator of daddy issues.

Into the Fire was a bit anticlimactic for me. With 20/20 hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that Dodd gave a little too much away in the preceding books, leaving the last one to be just too predictable. If anyone can’t figure out the role that Firebird is going to play in the prophecy before they even start the book; if anyone can’t figure out what the impossible thing that the little child does the instant the clue is dropped, well, that person would have to be even less subtle than I am. Which is pretty thick.

On the romance, I thought that the hero, Doug, was way underdeveloped. I suspect that there was just so much going on, so many ends to tie up, that there weren’t enough pages to develop the romance between Doug and Firebird. Another beef I had with this book is tough to discuss without spoilering, so I’ll just say I didn’t quite buy what happened with Firebird herself at the very end. And one last nit-pick-- the prologue is in the first person: some… person… listening to his? her? Russian grandmother tell the story of the Varinski legend. As I said, I’m not very good with subtle, and I haven’t the foggiest notion who this “I” person is. Which irritates me, perhaps disproportionately.

It sounds like I hated the book, but I didn’t at all. It missed the mark a bit, but the mark was set pretty high by the previous 3 books. What IS good about #4 is that it provides a satisfying conclusion to the series arc; really good action scenes and a Final Battle that thoroughly delivers. The role of the Rom and Zorana’s gifts in this final book was a great addition, hinted at in book 3 but realized in a way that still held some surprises. If you’re a fan of Dodd’s contemporaries, or of paranormal romances, I would still recommend the series as a whole, despite its imperfections. While the romance element faltered a little in two of the books, taking a backseat to the action, I found the mythology compelling enough to push through those flaws, and I have to say, I absolutely loved each of the four scenes where the icon was found. Situations of extreme danger, of blood and natural elemental fury, along with a touch of mysticism, made each of these scenes a standout. I particularly liked how each icon struck a deep chord with the heroines. Each was individual but each formed a part of a greater whole. A standout series, truly.



Marsha said...

I agree completely with your assessment of the Darkness Chosen series. I actually read them out of order, having picked up Adrik's story without realizing it was supposed to follow his brothers'. And, wow, what a story it is - definitely my favorite of the four.

And, yes, I agree that the series wrap-up wasn't quite up to its job. I'm satisfied with it, though, for having provided all the answers and a suitable denoument, even if it seemed less intense and sparkly than its predecessors.

I wonder if we might see more of Firebird in the future. I don't have the book in front of me, but I remember some line about how she got the power she has that ended up with everyone shrugging and going "huh...imagine that" and moving on. Since we don't know everything about her yet (trying to describe this carefully without spoilers here) that seemingly tossed off conversation might mean we see her again someday with more of her legacy explored.

Nicola O. said...

I had the same thought, Marsha. I left it out of the review because I couldn't figure out a way to discuss it without spoilering. But given that there's NO information that I can find anywhere about what Dodd has planned next, I think it's a reasonable speculation that it might have something to do with Firebird's special specialness.

Marsha said...

I just reread Jasha and Ann's, uh, opener in the woods and wow! What a scorcher. Definitely a grand way to start the series. I'm thinking I'll laminate those pages and start carrying them around in my purse for whenever I need a little pick-me-up.

I'm kidding, of course, but not a lot.

Marsha said...

Oh! And I almost forgot...in addition to open questions relating to Firebird there's a bunch of stuff on Ann and Tasya that isn't really resolved, either. Not in a way that the books feel incomplete just that I think there's more to say about all three women.

Karen, though, I don't know about. She seemed fully realized to me in ways her sisters-in-law didn't. Then again, she got the whiz-bangiest hero so maybe it's a wash.


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