This is Paul Marron, a funny, articulate, down-to-earth guy with a pointy nose, a nasal voice, a limited but effective cooking repertoire, and a fine ear for music:

As you can see, he’s a good-looking young guy, but it’s only when you widen the frame and get him to take his shirt off (the latter being, it must be admitted, not particularly difficult) that an important extra point begins to dawn on you: Paul is rather gorgeous, in a well-sculpted, compact kind of way.

Paul himself must have realized this fairly early on, and it gives rise to a bit of irony: that this somewhat private, old-fashioned, and oddly shy guy (his sporadic attempts at blogging virtually scream ‘I really don’t much want to do this’) would make a very good living taking his clothes off and posing for pictures of his chiseled cheek-bones, his shapely shoulders, and most of all, his astounding abs. Readers of romance fiction can recognize those abs as quickly (and as fondly) as they recognize their own children, because Paul has appeared on innumerable paperback covers over the last few years.

Although the real-life details of his day-to-day are probably endearingly prosaic, Paul leads a vigorous double life as the characters in all these books, so it seems only natural (aesthetically and, um, otherwise) to peek in from time to time on those alternate adventures, just to see how busy the other Paul is keeping himself.

We could start anywhere, really (and not necessarily in romance – he’s popular on sci-fi covers too, as we shall see). At any given time in every bookstore in the United States, there are at least a dozen covers featuring Paul in one pose and costume or another. 2010 will see at least 50 such covers, and 2009 was the same way, with this one set of cheekbones magically morphing onto cover after cover.

So let’s start with Paul the magical being – in this case, code-named Bran, a prince of the otherworldly Sidhe (those of you who’re familiar with Celtic mythology need not get your hopes up, though) in Velvet Haven, the first book of Sophie Renwick’s “Immortals of Annwyn” series, issued as a trade paperback this year by Heat, a not-particularly-scholarly imprint of Penguin. Bran is described several times in the book as a handsome devil, and there’s Paul on the cover, flexing in leather pants and a leather vest-cape that looks like something his employers at Undergear would sell with a straight (well ….) face, plus a gigantic tattoo of a type Paul himself is perhaps a bit too squeamish (or is it sensible?) to inflict on his own body.

Paul is a bit of a jerk in this book, but perhaps with cause. It turns out he’s been cursed by Cailleach, his cool drink of water co-ruler back in the mystical realm of Annwyn, and the curse is just the type romance writers love to think up: he will never find true love, but his mystical powers will be energized by lots and lots of raw, passionate sex. David Copperfield never got that in his contract, but I bet he wishes he had.

So Paul is bitter – at Cailleach, at the evil twist of fate that has imprisoned his brother in stone for centuries, and at mortals in general, whom he despises even though they provide him with his magical Viagra. And when the ritually-murdered bodies of fellow Sidhe keep turning up in the mortal world Bran now calls home, he naturally suspects Cailleach of some further treachery – or perhaps the treachery starts with Suriel, the fallen angel who prowls the perimeter of the novel and steals every scene he’s in. Suriel is clearly playing his own game, and he can be refreshingly diabolical, as in the scene where he saves the badly-wounded Bran and then makes an inventively scientific threat when Bran refuses to do as he says:

“I wouldn’t make a deal with you if my last breath depended on it.”

Suriel laughed and stepped on his arm harder, making him scream inside. “So much pride,” he said. He clicked his tongue as if he were chiding a child. “It’ll be your downfall, you know. You’re not in Annwyn, King. You’re among mortals. And you know what mortals love? They love knowledge, science. They hunger for it. And wouldn’t you make a nice little science project for the doctors at the hospital.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Imagine what they would say once they started examining you, system by system.”

In the distance, Bran could see the big blue square with the large white H. “You blackmailing son of a bitch!”

OK, so Paul isn’t at his most articulate in Velvet Haven (nor his most poetic – at one point, in mid-coitus, he informs his bedmate “you fuck like a nymph”; even when the reference can be checked, it’s not the sort of thing a girl likes to hear right at that moment), but there’s a very good sense of word-rhythm on display in that center paragraph and many other such paragraphs in this smutty, smutty book. Renwick might not be able to show this novel to her mother (and if she can, I’d like to meet the woman), but she can hold her head up in the company of her romance author peers.

The key to the mystery in this book seems to be the mortal woman Mairi MacAuley, a knockout nurse with psychic powers (it’s all a bit much to take in, and it’s to Renwick’s credit that she never slows down and explains it all for more than a sentence or quick paragraph here and there – the story takes off running, and we get filled in on the bare minimum of exposition we need to keep up; science fiction and fantasy authors routinely pooh-pooh the romance genre, but Renwick unfolds her created world with a skill and control that most of those sci-fi authors couldn’t muster for all the gold-pressed latinum in the quadrant) who falls in love with Bran and may hold the key to lifting his curse.

Or at least providing him with lots and lots of acrobatic sex. Velvet Haven isn’t exactly a raunchy piece of straight-up porn – there’s too much plot for that, and the book’s two most interesting characters, Cailleach and Suriel, don’t even come within bodice-ripping distance of each other – but hoo boy, Paul gets several extended (so to speak) erotic workouts in the course of the book, including one climactic (so to speak) episode during which he’s tightly manacled.

And naturally in the course of the book (which very much has a first-chapter feel to it, intimating more “Immortals of Annwyn” books to come) Paul learns to un-harden (er, that is, soften) his heart and care for this mortal woman, despite his previous strictly dietary relationship with he species.

The archangel Gabriel puts in an appearance (he gets the worst of a verbal exchange with Suriel, as does everybody else), and the full extent of Cailleach’s villainy is gradually revealed. Paul doesn’t exactly end up happy at the end of the book, but that’s to be expected: although in real life he has an extremely infectious smile, happy endings don’t really match up well with the force-10 pout he’s got going on this book’s cover.

Will Paul find true happiness in his next adventure? I’ll keep you posted.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue