Just when we might have been fearing for Paul – just when we might have been wondering (and perhaps he wondered too? Do pouty super-models wonder about the future, or do they live in the perpetual present?) if our hero was fated to helm multi-national corporations and woo unconvincingly unwilling secretaries for the rest of his shelf-life – along came just the change he was waiting for, and all it took was the Apocalypse.
Well, not the Apocalypse exactly – but close to it. In Jordan Summers’ 2008 “Dead World” novels Red and Scarlet (and the later sequel Crimson), the near future setting looks fairly grim: war is brewing between the forces of corrupt government (here embodied in the slimy, ruthless politician Roark Montgomery – think Malcolm McDowell in his hammiest late period and you’ll have it perfectly) and the hidden society of the Others, humans with seemingly supernatural abilities derived from long-forgotten scientific experiments (like the ones that gave rise to male models in our own world? Summers is wisely silent on the issue…).
In the first book, Gina “Red” Santiago is a member of an elite tactical squad – she’s a dab hand at unarmed combat and a crack shot with her laser pistol – sent to a small town to root out possible Others-related trouble. There she encounters Sheriff Morgan Hunter, but one glance at the cover of Red will alert readers that she only maybe also encounters Paul. In that first book, a terrific little adveture story told in Summers’ winningly hard-boiled way, not only does “Red” learn something amazing about herself, she also falls in love with hunky Sheriff Hunter, who’s hiding a fairly big secret of his own.
Which is to say, they’re both werewolves. Morgan’s been doing it a long time, and eventually he starts tutoring “Red,” whose transition from ‘us’ to ‘them’ is predictably bumpy. But it’s only in the series’ second volume, Scarlet, that we start to view a new and exciting reality of our own: it’s only in Scarlet that we begin at last the journey to Planet Paul.
The first step in that journey is right on the cover. Instead of neatly-pressed linen or (gawd help us) turtleneck sweaters, we see a dirty tank-top stretched taut over Paul’s chest, we see his gorgeous face looking straight at us and tilted slightly down for maximum brooding impact, and most importantly, we see the glint of near-future semi-apocalyptic light glinting off the bare, sweaty flesh of his throat and shoulder. This is no memo-dictating business tycoon.
The actual text of Scarlet follows suit. In the narrative, “Red”s former employers – and the insidious Roark – are after both her and Paul, and it seems like they’ve enlisted the entire world to help out. Our heroes are almost alone (there are two heroic supporting characters, but, hilariously, they spent most of the book humping like bunnies rather than helping out) against impossible odds. But that doesn’t stop Summers from doing what so many of our previous writers have hesitated to do: releasing her inner Paul-lust. On the surface, passages like this one might be intended to represent “Red”s point of view – but it’s pretty obviously the author herself – and by extension the rest of us – who’s getting swept away:
The wind picked up. Morgan had his dark head thrown back, letting the desert breeze caress his skin. Wildness surrounded him, oozing out of his pores like the sweet musk that covered his body. The man was magnificent in his rugged beauty. His wolf brushed his flesh in a primitive caress. Despite his civilized reserve, it always lurked just beneath the surface, a barely leashed sexual being that was impossible to ignore. Even now he drew her to him without trying, the aura of dominant power second nature.
But as gratifying as it is for it to finally make its appearance, naked Paul-lust isn’t the only crucial element that’s been missing so far. The full glory of Velvet Haven has many components – one of them is Paul in full ‘rugged beauty’ display (in reality, one couldn’t really call Paul’s fine, miniature features rugged – but in fiction, the translation works), yes, but another is taking that beauty and beating the stuffing out of it. We must not just have Paul’s masculinity unbound – we must have it then promptly bound up again.
So it is in Scarlet, where the forces of the evil Roark capture Paul, rough him up, and chain him to a wall for weeks. This is certainly a good start. When “Red” is captured and thrown in his cell with him, she’s appalled by the shape he’s in and, werewolf to werewolf, asks the natural question:
“Why didn’t you shift? You could at least have healed your wounds so you could escape.”
“He [Roark] has the place under electronic surveillance. He vowed to broadcast the vid-clip if I shifted. It would play right into his plans to expose the Others. I couldn’t do that. The whole world is worth more than a single individual.”
Red swallowed hard as the full import of their situation hit her. “Not to me,” she whispered.
(That “Not to me” is quintessential Summers – there are neat little lines like that one scattered throughout all three of these books)
Summers has often commented that the genesis of the “Dead World” novels was a simple question: what if Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf were the same person? She meant the question to get at the heart of the ‘tough girl’ sub-genre of urban fantasy that’s now dominated by the Sookie Stackhouse novels of Charlaine Harris, but it serves equally well to bring us closer to the heart of Planet Paul. Little Red Riding Hood is small, shapely, visually arresting, and readily victimized; the Big Bad Wolf is brawny, brooding, strangely magnetic, and easily drafted as an anti-hero. The two halves of Paul, in other words – but what if they were the same person? Novels that have seized on only one half or the other have failed to achieve maximum Paulification.
Scarlet and Crimson share the distinction of being among the first books to show us the path to that goal, but they won’t be the last! Now that we’ve had a taste of that potential, how can we be satisfied with less?