Posts from January 2013

January 5th, 2013

From the BPL: The Time of the Wolf!

bates hall

In 2012 more than in any previous year, I found myself playing catch up at my beloved Boston Public Library, the best public library in the world. Some of you will already know of my affection for the sumptuous solidity of the McKim building – and especially for the soaring beauty of Bates Hall, under whose towering windows and glowing green lamps I’ve written three novels, ten short stories, and roughly a thousand book reviews. The BPL (both the gorgeous old McKim half and the less-than-gorgeous newer Johnson half) is one of the basic cornerstones of my Boston existence (along with the Atheneum and of course my beloved Brattle Bookshop)(at the latter of which generous gift certificates can always be ordered in my name …); for years, I’ve prowled its shelves in happy times and sad, and I never leave empty-handed.

But just recently, just in the last year or so, I’ve found myself gravitating more toward the newer books, constantly reminded of the dozens and dozens of new titles that simply eluded me in 2012. Through Open Letters Monthly and my various other reviewing homes, I manage to cast a wider net than I ever have before – I’m constantly hounding my publicist friends for review copies and then lugging them home from the Post Office (the review copies, not the publicists). But even so, plenty of books get by me – and I see them all lined up at the BPL like just so many enticements! So from time to time I’ll be combining those two favorite things of mine – the Boston Public Library and reviewing new books – to do some catching-up here at Stevereads. Starting today with:

The Time of the Wolfbpl - time of the wolf - 3 january 2013

by James Wilde

Pegasus Books, 2012

James Wilde is the pseudonymn for Mark Chadbourn, the British author of (among other things) the quite good fantasy novels The Silver Skull and The Scar-Crow Men, the first and second volumes in the “Sword of Albion” series (with the third, The Devil’s Looking Glass, set to make its US debut in mere moments), which are set in a not-quite England shot through with sorcery and presided over by a lethal, larger-than-life hero, Will Swyfte. The American covers of those novels feature brooding male model Paul Marron dashing about in doublet and hose, which he seldom dons in real life. Under the name James Wilde, Chadbourn published a novel in the UK called Hereward: The Devil’s Army which in 2012 got a hardcover American edition retitled (and better titled) The Hour of the Wolf, and a glance at its cover – a dark, eye-catching design by Jeff Miller at Faceout Studio – is enough to warn that more things have changed than just the author’s nom-de-plume. The product-description, “A Novel of Medieval England,” accompanies the grim image of a hooded man holding a broadsword as though it were a chalice. Not a doublet in sight.

And yet, not so much has changed. The Time of the Wolf takes place deep in the midst of the 11th Century English fen country and surroundings, which were reputed to be just as full of sprites, faeries, and demons as anything in The Silver Skull – and might well have been, for all we still know about the day-to-day realities of the time. Turmoil was the watch-word, turmoil was everywhere. The year is 1062, and England is a bloodstained chessboard of competing powers. The nominal king is Edward, but he’s weak and distracted, and several of his earls are jostling for more power. The Church watches warily for any chance to increase its power. Vikings maraud, the ones in this book lead by the unrefined but intelligent Harad Redteeth. And most ominous of all, just across the Channel a ruthless warlord named William the Bastard is busily building an army and a navy, intent on nothing less than the conquest of England. Such is the board, but what individual pieces – the spies, the priests, the over-powerful noble families, the humble village-dwellers – were doing at any given time is almost as much a matter of conjectural fancy as the stuff found in Chadbourn’s (very well-researched) fantasy novels.

Even more so the character James Wilde chooses as his conflicted hero: Hereward, the indomitable warrior posthumously nicknamed “the Wake” (meaning alert, watchful). Even in his own time, Hereward was very nearly as mythical a figure as Will Swyfte: exiled by his own father (and declared an outlaw by the King) for rowdy behavior when he was still a teenager, larger-than-life adventuring in many countries before returning to England in 1069 and taking up arms against William and his conquering Normans, sacking Peterborough Abbey and fighting William’s forces at the head of a motley little army. Hereward offered himself as a focal point for local resistance to the Normans – and Wilde became convinvced, we’re told, that this story should be the basis for a novel (no mention is made of Charles Kingsley’s best-selling 1866 novel Hereward the Wake, but I thought – perhaps over-hopefully – that I detected an echo here and there in Wilde’s book).

Certainly in The Time of the Wolf Hereward gets a novel after his own heart. The thing is swimming in blood up to its (probably gouged) eyeballs. Wilde may not mention Bernard Cornwell by name, but it’s hardly necessary: Cornwell’s trademark hysterically omnipresent hideous violence speaks for itself. Even in the first pages, in an opening scene that culminates with Hereward rescuing the monk Alric from Redteeth and his men, the barrage of glass-shards and police sirens is unrelenting:

“He’s defenseless,” the monk stuttered.

“Good,” Hereward angled his sword above the mail shirt and drove it into the man’s chest until the tip protruded from his back. The Northman gurgled, eyes frozen wide in shock. When Hereward withdrew the blade, hot blood trailed from the body where it had been opened to the air.

There are quieter moments scattered throughout (some of the best of which involving exchanges between our Dark Ages Odd Couple of Hereward and Alric), and even the furtive, utterly doomed gesture at a romance. The sources for the outline of Hereward’s life suggest a three-dimensional invidvidual, and occasionally Wilde tries to show us that person – before lapsing back to his favorite single-dimension, the Realm of Evisceration. This sub-genre of historical fiction – call it yore gore – has been undergoing a lucy reading time of the wolfsteady expansion since Cornwell re-introduced it to modern bookstores nearly two decades ago. Conn Iggulden, Steven Pressfield, Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Simon Scarrow, and the rest of their blood-spattered peers (no peeresses, since no sane woman would write this way in a million years) may serve as the models or prods, but with The Time of the Wolf Wilde has proven that he can hack and slash with the best of them.

The book leaves open the possibility of sequels, and history is uncertain what eventually happened to Hereward, so the potential for a nice meaty series is there. Wilde’s particular vision of his hero – a man as tormented by his own homicidal rages as he is by the evildoers who elicit those rages – is compelling enough to make readers of this first volume hope for many more.

With apologies to Charles Kingsley, of course.


December 26th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Vindication!

We’ve been through it all with our hero Paul Marron in 2011: every up-thrust of fate, every downward suck of the pump, all the vicissitudes that might befall anybody but that seems so much more pronounced when they happen to a set of pecs so perfect, a pair of buns so perky, a pair of cheekbones so chiselled. That Paulie was destined for greatness, we never doubted – not even in those dark early days when barbaric directors of photography would routinely require him to wear clothes. There were appearances in those days that seemed less than self-assured, perhaps even groping. More often than the rest of us, perhaps, surly business tycoons or ruthless entrepreneurs found themselves siring bastards willy-nilly with buxom Australian secretaries or enterprising English nannies. Sometimes it almost seemed like there was nothing more to life than slashing double-entendres, mountains of disposable income, and molten, pile-driving sex in fast cars and frothing jacuzzis. Anybody could be forgiven for despairing.

Our boy was resolute! He endured savage werewolf combat, cynical mercenary work on distant worlds, and being the bondage boy-toy of a lascivious vampire queen. He walked on the wild side, trying on one supernatural identity after another, and although there were pitfalls along the way, the Romance world eventually rallied round. Quickly it became apparent that Paul himself – not the cover art, not the costumes, not even the presence of a breathless woman in a state of euphoria, but simply the smoldering sight of Paul himself – could illuminate a book’s cover with all the saucy enticement its prospective readers would ever need. Identifying with the characters was no longer necessary – our hero was so damn sexy, the mere sight of his smooth, taut chest and softly rounded abs could start readers fantasizing to, um, beat the band.

We have followed Paul this far, and now we find him at the summit, the King of the Romance covers. For all we know, there’s some super-sexy young model in the cornfields of Iowa unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly – the young ones get hungrier all the time) prepping himself to top our Paulie – but for right now, all such claimants are grinding away very firmly underneath him. In the rankings.

So great his his mastery at this point that he need not even show all of his luscious, puckered face. Such is the case with Jacqueline Frank’s Seduce Me in Dreams, a fast-paced and (for a Romance novel) uncharacteristically action-packed quasi-science fiction tale of an elite strike-force of the Interplanetary Militia tasked with protecting the lovely Ravenna, leader of the Chosen Ones, a small group of aliens with the potential for vast psychic and telekinetic powers. Leading that strike force is … well, you’ve already guessed it, haven’t you? Yes, our boy here goes by the rather distinctive name of Bronse Chapel (if it were spelled just slightly different and located in the Castro district instead of interstellar space, there’s a slim chance it might already by known to our hero), and it’s his job to make sure Ravenna and her powers don’t fall into the wrong hands. Frank keeps her book absolutely skimming along, and she makes sure there’s a full charge of electricity between her two main characters – and the electricity starts with the cover itself, where Paul is so confident of his ability to take us firmly in hand that he doesn’t even need to show us his come-hither eyes.

That decision isn’t repeated on the stunning cover of Jill Myles’ Gentlemen Prefer Succubi – far from it! Fronting this frothy tale of fallen angels, ruthless vampires, and surprisingly gynmastic succubi is a cover of a very different order: here, Paul is fully visible, scorching eyes, long, lavish hair and all. True, he’s wearing some faint suggestion of a shirt, but its purpose is clearly the reverse of what we usually think of: it’s designed to reveal, not conceal. In Myles’ story, a hapless young woman awakens (in a Dumpster) to find that she’s been transformed into a succubi by having a little naughty sex with a fallen angel – and if that sounds a bit crowded with fantasy stereotypes, you should know that Myles is only getting warmed up! Unlike so many supernatural romances on the market, Gentlemen Prefer Succubi, in addition to having one hell of a title, doesn’t take itself too seriously – not much about its fantasy world makes the kind of coherent sense we find in some other romance writers, but readers will be having too much fun to care. It’s unavoidable that the book itself can’t really compete with that cover, but it sure tries hard.

Same thing with Kim Lenox’s “Shadow Guard” novel Darker Than Night, which features Paul as Rourke, Lord Avenage, the immortal Ravenmaster of England, a skilled hand on the battlefield and, mercifully, a stranger to such practical but unfashionable things as hauberks or chain mail. Instead, his main weapon – in addition to that rather large sword he keeps poised at the ready (he’s a lefty, which will complicate both his pitching and his catching, one imagines) – is his sheer semi-naked sensuality. There’s his taut but not over-pendulous chest; there are his ‘piano key’ delts in high relief, there’s the ridge of his brachial artery running down that slim little bicep – and of course there’s that gorgeous puss, those flaring nostrils, those dark-shadowed eyes. Who needs armor if you’ve got all that? Of course, in Lenox’s dark, atmospheric tale of immortal combat behind the scenes of ordinary contemporary life, very few of the beings involved actually need armor – certainly a creature as dangerous as Paul/Rourke can do without it for the sake of selling a few thousand more copies of this book. The real Paul, confronted half-naked and hefting a sword, might not be all that intimidating a sight (he’s more of a lover than a fighter), but hey – that’s why they call it acting.

And then there’s what has to be the single greatest extant Paul Marron cover, the one that combines the key elements of all the others and then throws in that certain something extra: Vanessa Kelly’s Sex and the Single Earl. The story is told with all of Kelly’s whiplash-dialogue and richly textured period details – it’s Kelly’s best novel and a stand-out example of the ‘new breed’ of Regency Romances that have replaced the slim, prim volumes of yesteryear. This is the story of arrogant, powerful Simon St. James, the fifth Earl of Trask, and the marriage of convenience he orchestrates with Sophie Stanton, and it’s told with as much vim and humor as Kelly can muster, which is quite a lot. But all such efforts fade a bit in the shadow of that cover! There’s our boy, in knee-high leather boots and skin-tight breeches, a thick leather belt, and that surly, enticingly-lit open chest – and that facial expression! Pure, direct confidence – utterly ignoring the fawning woman in order to stare directly at you. This is the cover our hero was striving toward during all those dark and wandering days when cover conventions forced him to gaze longingly at some stand-in for his readers! This is the quintessence of the Paul Marron cover, the Paul Marron experience if you will, and it brings our long ogling odyssey to a gushing climax (and full circle). The Romance industry will no doubt treat us to many more glimpses of Paul – there’s plenty of life still in those cheekbones! – but this one says it all.

November 8th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: the Golden Age!

When last we left our hero Paul Marron, he had overcome a disastrous fashion mis-step and gone back to his roots, as it were, to find renewal and new hope. Romance had rekindled in his supermodel heart, and the Romance world had begun to reciprocate, with a vengeance. Traditionally, Romance novel covers displayed the customary imaginative partition: there was a beautiful young woman in the process of being enraptured, and there was a handsome young man doing the enrapturing. During the puritanical 80s and 90s, book cover designers were chary of having their products look like actual snapshots from mid-coitus, so the positions these young couples tended to take were more athletic than functional (one – unintended? – side-effect was that often on those covers it looks like the handsome young man is rapturing the beautiful young woman … er, Brokeback Mountain-style), but both sides of the Romance equation were accounted for. Women (and, presumably, one out of every ten men) reading these novels could either fantasize about being that ravished heroine, or they could fantasize about being ravished by that handsome young man.

Our boy Paulie changed all that. Cover designers were clearly overwhelmed by the sheer Kelvin-range of his cheeky smolder, the tectonic pout of his lips, the sexy swivel of his svelte shoulders. They discovered that when Paul Marron, sultry and perhaps a bit dishevelled, is glaring out at you from the cover of a Romance novel, he’s actively fulfilling both fantasies at once – he balances the equation all by himself. Soon, dozens of Paul Marron covers were appearing every month in bookstores across the country, all sporting variously manipulated images of Paul – and only Paul. For the first time since the era of Fabio, a male model was judged sufficient to sell a Romance novel to women without any women on the cover. Who needs direct imaginative identification when you’ve got those intense Italian eyes lasering into you?

Kresley Cole realized this early on, and the cover of her 2008 entry in her “Immortals After Dark” series shows it! There’s our boy – in this case, masquerading as a full-fledged demon (complete with forehead-horns!) by the name of Cadeon Woede, who manages to become erotically fascinated by the mortal woman Holly Ashwin even as supernatural forces conspire to reveal that she’s the chosen Vessel, so called because every 500 years a woman is fated to give birth to a child who’ll change the otherworldly balance of power for good or evil (yep, the female lead is called a vessel, and it turns out super-macho para-military demons like Paul can only really tell if a woman is destined to be his by sleeping with her … this isn’t a fantasy novel aimed at Gloria Steinem’s night-stand). He abducts poor Holly and, um, auditions her rather strenuously, and in the course of the book she discovers that she herself isn’t what she seems … yet another exponent of the disturbing Twilight-ethos in which a young woman can only achieve self-awareness through getting rogered good and proper by a man. Although at least in this case the man was a sturdy little super-model and not a mush-faced bent-chested little Gothling …

We go from primal supernatural fantasy to primal supernatural fantasy by turning next to Pamela Palmer‘s “Feral Warriors” novel Desire Untamed, which features a truly astounding cover-image of our hero in mid-crouch, buck-naked except for a lion-head arm-band. Palmer, wise woman that she is, clearly has a thing for Paul – he’s appeared on a number of her book-covers, but never to more mesmerizing effect than here: caught in steamy red, muscles taut, eyes glowing, hair unabashedly Fabio-esque. In this book Paul goes by the name of Lyon, the leader of a band of Feral Warriors, the Therians, who are seeking a woman – a woman they call the Radiant, who’s destined to renew their fading race (three guesses how)(sigh). Unbeknownst to her, that woman is ordinary every-day preschool teacher Kara MacAllister, who discovers in the course of the book that she herself isn’t what she seems … so yes, Palmer and Cole have essentially written the same book, with our boy Paul doing double-duty as both a sexy demon and an enormous house-cat. But the point is: look at that cover! In many ways, it’s unlike any Romance cover seen before: not only is it explicitly erotic in ways that all that Brokeback Mountaineering couldn’t hope to be, but it’s explicitly personal – directed squarely at the reader in open invitation. It’s instantly one of the very best Paul Marron covers of all time.

Urban fantasy gives way to science fiction in Susan Kearney‘s Rion, the second instalment in her “Pendragon Legacy” series. Here Paul goes by the name of, you guessed it, Rion, a half-breed space explorer from the planet Honor who kidnaps sexy human telepath Marisa Rourke because she unwittingly holds the key to the salvation of his … OK, OK. So it’s just possible there’s a trade-off going on here. It’s possible this astounding new level of Paul Marron covers comes at a price – not just to Gloria Steinem but to women everywhere, who are here reading adventure after adventure of female main characters who have no clue about their capabilities or even identities until those things are revealed to them, through sex, by a sultry Paul-avatar. And the Paul-avatar uses the (allegedly) affectionate adjective ‘little’ in conjunction with her name/title for the whole book. And the sex happens because she’s been abducted and sprawled forcibly on the bed/chamber floor/forest sward/starship bridge. OK, OK, so this trend is pretty bad. But again: look at that cover! This one takes the Marron Gamble to new levels: there’s nothing promised here except the promises implied by our hero’s stunning face. That’s a far cry from horny Brazilian millionaires.

We come right back down to Earth for Stephanie Tyler‘s Hard to Hold, in which Paul appears as Lieutenant Jake Hansen, hard-bitten (and yet gorgeous!) Navy SEAL who’s ordered to darkest Africa to spirit feisty, sexy Dr. Isabelle Markham out of harm’s way. Since he’s ordered to do this with or without her cooperation, we’re talking about our fourth abduction in just this one entry, although at least nobody’s expecting poor Isabelle to save an entire planet (or are they?). And the cover doesn’t disappoint: there’s our boy, steamily glancing off to his right, sweaty torso clad in a tight tank top, taut little chest sporting Special Op dog-tags, handsome face drawn to sharp, intense focus. Pre-Marron, such a cover would have been unthinkable – cover-editors would have said it lacked any kind of story-line. And they’d have been right: any other model couldn’t manage to convey a story-line simply by pouting there. But this particular model has been forged, as we’ve seen, in countless adventures – he’s known apocalyptic wastelands, English country villas, immortal vampire-queens, and more than a few tightly-bound perils, and he’s emerged from them all with a cover-confidence never seen before in the Romance world.

Where will it take him, you wonder? Why, to a series of ever-more-satisfying climaxes, of course! We’ll seize on one in our next thrilling chapter!

October 17th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Handling Scandal!

When last we checked in on our chisel-cheeked hero Paul Marron, he’d done the seemingly impossible: he’d bounced back completely – and quickly! – from what my dear old friends “The Guys Next Door” would have called a “Bad Hair Day” (links to either of those quoted terms would be too cruel even for me – let’s just say there were dark by-waters of the ’90s where only the foolhardy went, and from which few returned unchanged). Paulie had regained his mojo by returning to his roots: brooding, brooding, and more brooding! Sometimes, you just have to get out of your own way and let your perky pecs and perfect puss do what they were made to do – this is the essential life-wisdom of the male model. Our boy has let his body lead him into the strangest places: extraterrestrial paramilitary outfits, corporate boardrooms, post-apocalyptic wastelands, the shackles of ravenous vampire queens; he’s seen Fortune’s Wheel turn, and at times perhaps he’s questioned whether or not he had what it takes to smolder for a living.

But the same pendulum-swing that brought him down so low he was toying with his hair color and considering going back to school (economics or environmental studies? Hmmm) has now begun its upward arc at last, and suddenly the feral confidence we all saw many months ago on the cover of our very first entry in this epic series. Suddenly, the Romance world knows that Paul Marron is synonymous with scandal, and it can’t get enough.

A fairly sedate start to this up-tick, then, in the decorous confines of Julia London‘s A Courtesan’s Scandal, in which Paul goes by the name of Grayson Christopher, the Duke of Darlington. In London’s fast-paced story, the Prince of Wales wants his good friend Paul to act as a kind of decoy, pretending to squire and conquer the beautiful Kate Bergeron so that polite society doesn’t realize the Prince himself is visiting her in the off-hours. Even here, in 1806, Paul is that classic male model combination of haughty and naughty as he accepts the arrangement and begins to lock horns – and other applicable parts – with the lady in question. Kate prides herself on her self-control, but which of us could count on much self-control around our boy Paul in a snug silk vest? Pretty soon, they’re both fogging up the windows:

Kate had never felt anything more than tolerance at the prospect of physical relations with a man, but tonight … tonight she felt urgency, a strong and natural flow of desire for Grayson. She sought his body, her hands beneath his shirt, raking down his chest and back. Her mouth was open beneath his, her tongue twirling around his. She pressed her breasts against him, and when he pushed her hands away to unbutton his shirt, she boldly moved her hand to the front of his trousers and slid her palm down his erection.

Grayson lifted his head as if he meant to say something, but he didn’t speak at first. He could only look at her with eyes darkened by his longing. She cupped him, rubbed her hand against him.

Kate,” he said hoarsely.

Fans of well-done romance can’t go wrong with London, but fans of Paul will know that an arrangement such as the one cooked up here by the Prince of Wales is simply impossible – our molten little model masquerading as somebody else’s love-dupe? Hardly! Paul doesn’t feather his hair in the morning in order to have it tousled as some kind of consolation prize. There can only be one cock of this walk.

Paulie moves forward a generation – to 1848 – but appears to change very little in Liz Carlyle’s A Touch of Scandal, where he calls himself Adrian Forsythe, Lord Ruthveyn, he of the ‘impossibly’ black hair and eyebrows, a stern and sultry man very much in the Duke of Darlington mode, a hard, private man who’s spent a good deal of his life “Haring about Hindustan risking life and limb in the service of Her Majesty’s government and its well-shod bootheel, the East India Company.” Carlyle’s distressed heroine Grace Gauthier (whose shipping-magnate employer has just been brutally murdered, a crime of which the police believe she might not be entirely innocent) has a decidedly mixed first impression of our brooding hero:

The man – Ruthveyn – seemed disinclined to say more, and Grace resisted the impulse to ask anything. Save for his thick raven hair, sun-bronzed skin, and a nose that was perhaps a tad too strong, he could perhaps have been an Englishman – or Satan in a pair of Bond Street boots.

Naturally, that first impression isn’t quite mixed enough to stop them from flinging each other’s clothes off, but to her credit, Carlyle serves up a more complicated story than the simple fireball of lust we’ve all experienced with Paul so many times by now. Nothing is quite what it seems in One Touch of Scandal, and beneath his rough exterior, our hero is a haunted man:

“Do you see those shadows, Grace?” He was staring at the row of houses beyond the glass. “They come creeping relentlessly across the street, every day, without fail, ever destined to shroud us as the sun sets. That is what fate is like to me. Like an impending shadow that cannot be evaded. And we know that it is coming. Sometimes, just before the veil falls, we can even glimpse what lies within. And sometimes what we see is but a chimera – or the reflection of our fears.”

Since Barbara Cartland first put quill to parchment, the crux of all romance novels has been a fairly simple trade-off: the hero saves the heroine from some incipient danger (brigands, blackmailers, bad husbands, or all three), and in exchange, the heroine saves the hero from just that kind of creeping darkness. Carlyle stays true to this pattern, but she stocks her novel full of twists and turns – and even a slight element of the supernatural – so that the reader can’t comfortably predict where the happy ending will come from.

One thing readers can certainly predict – especially if they’re loyal Stevereads fans! – is that the pattern shown on One Touch of Scandal‘s covers is the one that will win the day. In the book’s inset, we see our boy sprawled on a red velvet couch, frilly shirt parted to reveal his V-neck and collarbone – an almost monkish arrangement that feels like a throwback to the timidity we know Paul has discarded like some clinging turtleneck. And so it is – on the book’s front cover, we see two of the essential Paul Marron elements on full display: nakedness, and indifference to whatever female happens to be sharing the frame. Those elements have never let our hero down, and they’re now carrying him to greatness.

They carry him one crucial step further, in our next chapter!

September 9th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: On the Rebound!

OK, a little time has passed, and we’ve been able to gain a little perspective. When last we saw our hero Paul Marron, everything was fine in the lower latitudes: the curving thighs, the narrow waist, the neat little stack of abs, the bulging biceps, the deliciously rounded shoulders, that cut-glass chin and smoldering pout, those protractor cheekbones, and the sultry, piercing eyes – check, check, and check. The problem came just north of all that: in a madcap and heedless decision, our hero got his perfectly-feathered sandy-brown hair dyed blond. No doubt it seemed a good idea at the time, but no amount of Regency epaulettes, cowboy spurs, or spaceman armor could justify it in the unforgiving light of the morning after, and a young man as fashionable as Paulie must have seen that better than anybody. Friendly cousins can be blond; well-meaning village curates can be blond. But rakes and billionaires and werewolves? Let’s face it: peril and peroxide don’t mix. Marronites may have wondered if a shining career could possible recover – or what Paul would do next.

Turns out he did what comes naturally: to lick his wounds (and wait for that color to wash out), he returned to his jet-setting secretary-impregnating old haunt, Harlequin Books, whose always-reliable stable of loose-floozy writers has been titillating and entertaining the American book-buying public for decade after tastefully torrid decade. After being welcomed back into the fold (perhaps with some teary hugs in the office? With everybody trying hard not to look at that color?), Paul threw himself into the realms of international high finance, taking on the name Nicolas Dupre and becoming a powerful theater impresario in Australia in the wonderful Miranda Lee’s novel A Night, A Secret … a Child. Nicholas is on top of the world when he receives a card from his tiny home-town, where he was, we’re told, Mr. Popularity:

Not that the girls weren’t after him; they were. At eighteen, Nicholas had been tall and handsome, with wavy blond hair and Nordic-blue …

Oh no!

Obviously, Paul moved on.

His next port of call was broiling-hot Athens, where he called himself Talos Xenakis (surely a cry for help?) and busied himself impregnating beautiful young American Eve Craig – indeed, impregnating her so thoroughly she promptly lost her memory. This concoction was called Bought: The Greek’s Baby and was served up at breakneck pace by the delightful and hilarious Jennie Lucas, who’s no stranger to having Paul parade around on her covers (did he seek her out? Did he plead with her – in that honking Brooklyn accent – “Jennie, you have to help me!”?), and she falls to her appointed task like a trooper:

How was it possible for a man to be at once so masculine – and so beautiful? His black hair brushed the top of his ears. He had the face of an angel. Of a warrior. His Roman nose had been broken at least once, from the tiny imperfection of the angle. He had a full, sensual mouth, with a twist of his lip that revealed arrogance and perhaps more – cruelty?

Black hair! How Paul fans must have leapt for joy! Could it be? Could their long, national nightmare be over at last? With trembling anticipation they may have turned to The Melendez Forgotten Marriage by our old friend, the winning and elegant Melanie Milburne, in which our boy has switched passports yet again and is now calling himself Javier Melendez. We find him wooing delicate little Emelia – who’s also having trouble remembering things (what is it with these girls? After all, are they ever going to do anything more memorable in their lives than romp in the sack with Paul Marron? Geez):

A tall raven-haired stranger with coal-black deep set eyes stood at the end of the bed. There was nothing that was even vaguely familiar about him. She studied his face for endless seconds, her bruised brain struggling to place him. She didn’t recognise any one of his dark, classically handsome features. Not his tanned, intelligent-looking forehead or his dark thick brows over amazingly bottomless eyes or that not short, not long raven-black hair that looked as if it had last been groomed with his fingers. She didn’t recognise that prominent blade of a nose, and neither did she recognise that heavily shadowed jaw that looked as if it had an uncompromising set to it …

Uncompromising indeed – now that some essential lessons had been learned: coal black, dark, raven-black, raven-haired … surely the world got the hint? This was a new Paul – or rather, the return of the old Paul, and his rise would be higher and longer than ever before! We’ll begin to come to grips with it, in our next episode!

August 29th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Heading for a Fall!

When last we left our hero Paul Marron, he was being coaxed and shaped and stiffened in his resolve by several pairs of firm and knowing hands, and he was steadily rising toward ultimate fulfilment. The life of a pouty super-model isn’t always a box of pansies; it’s sometimes difficult to know where to step next. Our Paul has certainly not been conservative – he’s tried his hand at just about everything, from frustrated billionaire to frustrated alien mercenary to frustrated werewolf to frustrated bondage-slave to frustrated all-purpose supernatural being, with many stops in between. There’ve been good decisions and bad decisions (the latter usually involving clothing – as in, wearing any), and there’ve been naughty, naughty ladies waiting at every turn to latch their talons on our boy (it’s theoretically possible there’ve been some naughty, naughty men as well, but we’d hardly be in a position to comment on that), and it can all get a bit hectic. No doubt Paul could sense that his destiny was finally sidling up next to him on the solo-flex, but how to grasp it?

One strategy felt more natural than all the rest: Paul must focus on Paul! Not in the narcissistic sense, mind you, but still – unlike most other models who’ve indulged in romance cover-work, Paul seemed to realize his full potential only when he was the only hard-body on any given cover. Readers so coveted his luscious little body and chiselled face that they wanted both all to themselves – and the strategy worked: books with Paul going solo on their covers sold very briskly. If our hero weren’t so well-grounded, it might have gone to his head.

Look at the cover of Jayne Ann Krentz‘s 2009 volume Fired Up, for instance: Paul’s so sure of himself, so sure his magnetism will rule the gaze, that he doesn’t even bother to look at us – he merely favors us with a profile, a moonlit shot of his perfectly feathered hair, and his soft, rubbery lats. In Fired Up he’s Jack Winters, descendant of the famous 17th century alchemist Nicholas Winters and latest victim of the Winters Curse, which drives the men of the family to become ‘psychic monsters’ unless they can lay their hands on something called the Burning Lamp (which neither burns nor is a lamp, but hey). Stroking the lamp will make everything better – but only with a little help: the lamp must be tended by a woman who can manipulate its dreamlight energies, so generations of Winters men find themselves searching for such a woman, always with time working against them. Perhaps not an entirely familiar concept, Paul desperately searching for a woman to stop him from going crazy, but there you have it.

Krentz goes at all this with the businesslike passion you’d expect from somebody who’s written 200 books under three pseudonyms. She’s cooked up a detailed story about rival secret societies and the various psi-operatives they watch, control, and employ, and she doesn’t really have time for the precise control somebody might exercise if, for example, they only published two books a year. Maybe that’s why on Page 25 our heroine Chloe is told that Paul is 36, and then on Page 47 she’s told the same thing – in the same conversation. Or maybe she just doesn’t believe it, any more than the rest of us do.

In any case, Chloe turns out to be the very lamp-tender Paul’s been looking for – something he first guesses when mad, passionate sex with her manages to calm his inner turmoil for a while (who would have guessed that?) And together they make an excellent team – complementary super-powers and not an ounce of body-fat between them. From Paul, Chloe learns the sound a six-pack makes when you rub it really fast (for the curious, it’s oddly similar to the sound of a car driving on a flat tire), and from Chloe, Paul learns how to more precisely control his powers, to the point where he can psychically follow someone else’s experiences:

“There’s a guard?”

“Outside the door. I remember seeing him the last time I woke up. I try to sit up. That’s when I remember the restraints.”

“You’re tied to the bed?” Chloe asked, horrified.

“I’m shackled to the gurney with leather straps, the kind used in hospitals to control violent patients.”

(That’s not Paul narrating his own experiences, more’s the pity)

That supernatural element is another key to the quintessential new Paul experience – he’s often at his best when he’s out of this world. And if a tortured psychic victim is good, surely a super-hot vampire strike-team commando is even better? That’s what we get in Susan Sizemore‘s 2010 opus, Primal Instincts, which also features only our second truly epic Paul book-cover. All the elements are there: the deadly-serious look in the eyes, the epic pout, the bare, glistening torso, the ridged shoulders and padded pecs, the brachial vein running down the arm like a drain-spout, the washboard abs, the ready hands, the vaguely counter-culture tattoo (ah, but which counter-culture? So many possibilities…), and best of all: leather pants. Naturally, Paul and leather go together like eggs and bacon under any circumstances, but if there’s one leather ensemble that says “I’m peeled all over Paul!” more than any other, it’s surely leather pants. The cover of Primal Instincts scarcely needs the rest of the book: it’s a work of art all by itself (the artist in question is Gene Mollica, and Paul friends the world over owe him a debt of thanks – he’s no stranger to depicting Paul in various states of undress, and he’s also responsible for the great covers to the “Iron Druid” series).

There is a book attached – an elaborately-realized (Sizemore may just be the dorkiest romance novelist currently working) story about secret societies of vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures roaming around freely in the normal human world, unseen guardian angels warring with unseen menaces to mankind, and everybody all the while operating by their own careful rules and regulations. In Primal Instincts Paul goes by the name Tobias Strahan, and he’s the head honcho of an elite vampire special-ops squad, the Prime of his vampire clan and lord of all he surveys – until Flare Reynard shows up, a clan heiress herself and an object of dangerous fascination for Paul. Very dangerous, in Sizemore’s fantasy scenario, as Tobias charmingly explains:

“Tribe females belong to the strongest males. They exist to be bred. They are bought and sold and fought over. Mortal slaves are used for sexual pleasure, but every Prime knows never to become involved with a vampire female. Use their bodies, stay out of their minds. Breed them, then pass them on to the next master as quickly as possible. Try not to taste them; never let them taste you. Never even look into their eyes. There are all sorts of superstitions about how females drain Primes’ strength, many examples of their evil ways. The whole point is to keep Primes from bonding with females.”

To which some Paul-fans (you know who you are) will cheer, “Hear! Hear!”

And surely this is the summit, yes? A sexy, super-macho stud-vampire who spurns bonding with females and sports the tightest leather pants in the crypt – surely once our boy Paulie has reached this kind of pinnacle, he can only move from glory to glory, with no more sloughs of despair?

You’d think that, and you’d be right – except for one horrifying possibility:

What if you get drunk one night and let your girlfriends DYE YOUR HAIR?

If we turn to Jennifer Haymore‘s 2010 novel A Touch of Scandal (although any of Haymore’s novels will equally shock – they all feature the same bizarrely transformed Paul), that’s exactly what we see. Gone are the raven, feathered locks that have lured us on through alien landscapes and windswept highland meadows, and in their place stands a shock of brainless beach-bunny blond locks fit for a peroxide party down at Baywatch Central. Gone is the sultry allure of Paul’s Italian ancestry, replaced by tow-headed ignominy that couldn’t seduce a willing go-go boy. The fingers shudder to post the full horror of it all:

Can our hero possibly recover from such a weird fashion misstep? Tune in next time to find out!

August 17th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: the Warren Court!

Perhaps growing weary of his life as a multi-millionaire shape-shifting bounty-hunting alien werewolf bondage slave (yeesh – who wouldn’t grow weary of all that from time to time?), our hero Paul for a brief while returned to Merrie Olde England where he’d been relatively happy once before. And what more natural identity to assume once in England of 1809 than that of Lord Byron?

In truth, it was only a matter of time. Our Paul shares so many traits in common with Byron, after all – stunning physical beauty, identical height and body type, same husky, suggestive timbre to the voice, same compact yet fluid physicality, same studied-yet-involuntary sensual appeal (and perhaps one or two other things that slip the mind at the moment). For the better part of a decade, Byron held a wide reputation for being the most handsome man in England. The amazing thing is that it took romance writers so long to make the connection.

And the wait isn’t over yet, because the Byron our Paul turns out to be this time around isn’t that Lord Byron – he’s Lord Cade Byron, one of the brothers of the Duke of Clybourne, and like all his brothers, Paul – er, Cade – probably spends half his waking hours telling people he’s not related to the famous poet. But although they’re not related, the Byron brothers share something of the poet’s mythos – they’re headstrong and provocative (well, all except for egghead brother Drake, although even he has his moments), and they often choose to be snidely dismissive of the great society’s norms. Also, like the poet, they attract trouble and temptresses in equal measure.

In other words, we’ve entered the world of Tracy Anne Warren, who writes some of the most charmingly escapist Regency romances currently on the market, and whose covers had a brief, torrid affair with our chisel-cheeked hero back in 2009, starting with Tempted by His Kiss, which opens with pretty young orphan Meg Amberley seeking shelter from a blinding snowstorm at the remote estate of the aforementioned Lord Cade Byron. Cade is holed up away from the convivial haunts of his family, brooding over his capture and torture on the Continent six months earlier at the hands of a French agent known as Le Renard. Paul only barely escaped from that encounter, and he’s sequestered himself in his northern estate to let his scars (and his crippled leg) heal and generally feel sorry for himself. Meg’s arrival jars him out of his reverie, and soon he’s back in London – where he’s shocked to recognize Lord Everett, the hero of the hour, as his former torturer. Of course nobody believe him – except perhaps Meg, and it isn’t long before the two of them are facing Everett’s loaded pistol, and Paul is getting a treatment that seems a bit familiar:

Everett motioned Cade toward the chair. For a moment he looked as if he might resist, but a glance at the gun Everett was still pointing her way obviously changed his mind. Moving with a more pronounced limp than he had shown for a while, Cade crossed the room, pausing to lean his cane against the nearby wall before taking a seat. At the servant’s urging, Cade placed his hands around the tall back of the chair so his wrists could be tied together using a stout length of rope. Nearly finished, the man gave a last, hard tug that made Cade’s muscles visibly tense against the strain.

Readers of this series will recognize the tenor of revelations about Cade/Paul. “He knew all about how it felt to lose control,” Warren tells us. “To be denied free will while one trembled on the brink, a second shy of breaking, of begging, of agreeing to violate one’s most sacred oaths in order to make the agony stop…”

Yes indeed!

With admirable flexibility, Paul has no sooner conquered the villain (the old knife-up-the-frilly-sleeve trick that’s no doubt got him out of many a tight spot in Brooklyn) and taken the girl in his arms than he’s pivoting, dodging into the nearest storeroom, and emerging as … an entirely different Byron brother!

In Seduced by His Touch, Paul is going by the name Lord Jack Byron, a wastrel who falls so deeply into debt to a wealthy London merchant that he has no choice but to agree to marry the man’s daughter Grace in exchange for a clean slate. Naturally, Paul worries that this Grace has gone unmarried all this time because she’s, as he puts it, a “gorgon,” but the truth turns out to be far more pleasant, as romance novel truths invariably do (Warren, who can’t keep her sunny native ebullience out of her prose even at its most serious, writes infectiously happy books, despite the brutal backdrops of some of her plots). He finds her charming, and of course she returns the favor:

Glancing across the room, she found him talking with Edward and Cade. The three Byron men were all handsome, but to her, Jack far outshone his siblings. He was the epitome of masculine beauty, standing tall, dark, and dynamic in his stark black and white evening attire, his neatly combed hair already showing a charmingly rebellious bit of wave.

And lest you think Paul’s quick identity change frees him from the family duty of constantly clarifying, think again:

Her aunt’s eyes grew round. “Byron? No relation to the poet, I suppose?”

“No, ma’am. That particular gentleman and I share no familial ties, nor do I claim to have so much as an inkling of talent in the art of penning sonnets and odes. Let me say, however, that it is a distinct pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He bowed with a practiced flair that made her aunt’s cheeks pink like a schoolgirl’s despite her nearly sixty years.

Ah, our Paul! Such a charmer! Where will he turn up next?

July 27th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: The Fair New England Girl!

When last we left our hero, Paul Marron, his taut little body, bristly hair, and pouty lips were all in the taloned clutches of some very naughty ladies, the type who wear sunglasses at night, the type who deck themselves out in calf-length leather coats and strike poses in graveyards, the type who are openly and very proudly up to no good. And we could hardly say which was worse: the designs these naughty women had upon our boy Paul, or how much he seemed to enjoy it.

Certainly he’d been in tough clutches before, including being the semi-willing bondage-slave of a queen vampire, or being the business office boy-toy of one gold-digging secretary or other, or even scrapping his way across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with nothing but his smoldering eyes and his shoulder-mounted laser rifle to see him through. But these naughty ladies were different: they seemed almost to want to keep poor Paulie to themselves, when obviously his bounty is meant to be shared with the rest of the world (or at least the rest of some strategic locations in Brooklyn). Surely his legions of fans could wonder if he would ever struggle free of those lacquered nails – perhaps they could even wonder if Paul was such a patented bad boy that he might not even attract any other kind of hussy.

Ah, but those fans would be reckoning without the full wonder of our perennial subject, with his perky little pecs and his flexing thighs, and his acute business sense. We’ve watched our hero waver and perhaps even lose his way, but surely those days are behind him? After the cover of Lover Avenged, can there be any thought of Paul backsliding to the days when he let others write his destiny? No, all he needed to rescue him from the thrall of those naughty, naughty ladies was a good old-fashioned New England girl.

She came along in the form of romance author Hannah Howell, who’s written more Scottish Highland romance novels than you could cover with a tartan skirt and whose brief fling with Paul in 2008-2009 freed him from the tatts-and-harleys rut he was falling into.

It’s the oddest thing, this fascination romance authors have with Scottish Highlanders – the characters and setting are on equally stratospheric popular footing with the American Wild West and Regency London, and all three are mystifying to me. All three eras/settings were caked in filth, dried sweat, rotting teeth, and brutal, unthinking violence – not one of the three of them has any genuine nobility to recommend it, and yet nine-tenths of all romances written before the current all-supernatural-all-the-time craze are set in one of those three locales. Having read half a dozen of Hannah Howell’s books, I find it easy to doubt that she’s ever actually met a Scottish Highlander. I have, on more than one type of occasion, and the experience was never anything but infuriating – and not in a sexy way.

Nevertheless, our author his Highlander-happy, and her titles include Highland Wolf, Highland Champion, Highland Barbarian, Highland Savage, Highland Conqueror, Highland Sinner, Highland Promise, Highland Wedding, Highland Thirst, Highland Lover, Highland Groom, Highland Vow, Highland Hearts, Highland Honor, Highland Angel, Highland Knight, and, inevitably, Highland Vampire. Only her Highlanders are fat, greasy, inbred illiterates – they’re broad-shouldered, brooding, tousled-haired sexpots with a penchant for bearing flesh. Sound familiar?

Enter Paul, with kilt at the ready. In My Lady Captor (talk about sounding familiar), he’s English knight Ruari Kerr, and he’s taken hostage by fiery Scotswoman Sorcha Hay in 1388 and held for ransom to insure the release of her captured brother from his English prison. To Sorcha, Paul is just a means to an end, a big strapping piece of currency – but that kind of plan is pretty much always foiled by Paul’s rather pronounced sexual magnetism, and Sorcha will be no different – although she puts up a mighty good fight, as Paul confides to his friend Rosse:

“The lass shared your bed. Why wouldnae she wed a mon she took as her lover?”

Ruari wished he had not confided that to Rosse. He knew it was why the man kept pinching at him about Sorcha. In one drunken moment of weepy confession about a lost and much-missed passion, he had given Rosse a good-sized club to use against him. Now, to get the man to stop worrying the subject of Sorcha, he was going to have to confess something he found both painful and embarrassing. His life had never been so complicated or emotionally trying, and he freely blamed Sorcha for the unpleasant changes.

“She doesnae want me for a lover or a husband,” he finally said.

In Highland Fire, Paul switches sides and becomes the Highlander himself, one Tavig MacAlpin, who’s slowly falling in love with the beautiful woman he rescued from certain death, Moira Robertson. There’s more to Moira than meets the eye, however, including the slight element of the supernatural Howell (the big softy) likes to work into many of her books. Of course, fourteenth century Scotland is no place to be showing witchy ways, and in due course the requisite mob of villagers come looking for her, and she must think quickly in order to prevent the headstrong Paul from martyring himself for her:

“I’m sorry, Tavig,” she whispered and, swinging the bag he had shoved into her arms just before her accusers had arrived, she knocked the sword from his hands.

Tavig gaped at her then lunged for his sword. Geordie and another man moved faster, quickly pinning him in their hold. Another man rushed forward to grab her. She winced as he roughly yanked her arms behind her back and bound her wrists together.

“What did you do that for, lass?” Tavid asked, staring at her with a mixture of confusion and fear.

“I ken that ye are a good fighter,” she replied, smiling sadly. “Ye couldnae win against so many, howbeit.”

“Neither can you, dearling.”

“Mayhap not, but ’tis only me they are accusing. They would cut ye down to get to me, and I would still be taken. I decided I didnae really want to see ye die in some fruitless display of gallantry.”

“Which he may still try,” said Jeanne, stepping closer yet being very careful to stay out of a glaring Tavig’s reach. “I think he needs to be secured somewhere so that he doesn’t try to set her free. She could yet use her spell to draw him back to her.”

“What are ye going to do with her?” he demanded as his wrists were tied behind his back.

“We will take her to the priest,” replied Geordie. “Father Matthew will ken what to do with her.”

It’s pretty comfortable territory, isn’t it? A supernatural temptress, a danger-filled plot, and defiant, muscular Paul with his hands firmly tied behind his back. But for all Howell’s lively plot-twisting, this mucking around the Highlands looks almost like another rut, and we know there’s more to our boy than simple rutting! Tune in next time to see if he escapes the heather!


July 6th, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: The Naughty, Naughty Ladies!

When last we left our bare-chested, chisel-cheeked hero, he’d been through the ringer: he’d been a bookish (and even worse, fully clothed) werewolf, a vampire queen’s bondage-toy, a bitter alien bounty-hunter, a rakehell businessman (on a couple of different continents), and even a British ne’er-do-well. He’d had crises of confidence (what male model hasn’t?), perhaps taken bad advice, and done a butt-load of work for International Male and Undergear, where the merest glimpse of his famous smoldering pout was enough to sell out an entire shipment of lace-front bikini thongs. This was fame – this was the peak of his profession – and yet, something was missing. True, all the heterosexual and fashion-conscious young guys shopping in catalogs now considered our Paul the ne plus ultra of sporty negligee, but surely there’s more to life than flesh-colored shape-enhancers? Through hard work and a generous helping of good genetics, Paul had risen to a certain dominance of the couture world. But was there still a part of him that yearned to be dominated? To be shaped like clay by strong, certain hands, to be re-made into something out of this world? To achieve this, he needed that one crucial element that’s been shaping men since the dawn of time.

Paul needed some naughty, naughty ladies.

You all know the type: three-quarter-length leather trenchcoat, sunglasses even when it’s cloudy outside, the gentlest touch of stiffener in the hair, the lightest brush of rouge on the cheeks, the arms akimbo or defiantly crossed, one leg jutting out at a cocky angle, and the whole combination virtually screaming, “Honey, you’re gonna have to do more than that to impress me.” The publishing world makes much ado over its crusty Tom Clancys and its posingly cerebral Jonathan Franzens, but the simple truth is: the best-seller lists have been almost the sole territory of these naughty, naughty ladies since Patricia Cornwell first butch-chopped her hair and posed in front of a chalk body-outline.

When it comes to crafting breakneck-paced, frankly erotic romantic fantasies, these ladies know exactly what they’re doing – and exactly what they want. And in due course – and with disconcerting unity – they decided they wanted our boy Paul. With cat-like (cougar-like?) claws, they latched onto him, yanked him out of English countryside period-pieces, ripped most of his clothes off, slapped press-on tattoos wherever they’d do the most good, and parked him on the covers of their steamy, uncompromising romance covers. They gave not thought to posing some half-naked woman alongside him – these naughty, naughty ladies just don’t have time for that kind of folderol. These deal in elemental forces, in bare essences, and they harbor no illusions about what it is their audience wants. The whole reason they can live in gated communities and send their kids to the Ivy League is because they know their audience – and that audience doesn’t want to daintily identify with some simpering woman on the cover of a novel: they want a good clean glimpse of a handsome, voracious man right before he swoops right at them, leaps through plate glass at them, steps out of the darkness right at them.

Somewhere around the halcyon year 2008, these naughty, naughty ladies realized that although Paul might not be the biggest, most muscular model out there (or even – gasp – the prettiest), when it comes to doing the whole voracious thing, he has no equal. All he needed was the freedom to show it.

Enter Christina Dodd and her “Darkness Chosen” series (these ladies almost invariably write books in series), specifically the volume called Into the Shadows. This is the story of feisty, strong-willed adventure hotelier Karen Sonnet, who’s guiding an expedition high on the flanks of a mountain somewhere along the border of Tibet and Nepal – an expedition intent on finding lost treasure, although that’s now secondary in Karen’s mind. For many nights in a row, she’s been visited in her tent by a mysterious man who doesn’t seem human and leaves no trace of himself behind come morning (only the most cheeky tattle-tales among you will know how much of that might describe our Paul himself!). It’s the last thing she expected, and it touches her in ways that go beyond the erotic – although Dodd, true to her naughty, naughty nature (don’t let those website photos of hers fool you – sure, there she is curled up on a window-sill with a steaming cuppa and an adorable yellow lab … but I wouldn’t be surprised if the cup contained straight vodka, and the dog is probably only acting all cute and addled (basset hounds have been known to perform the same trick), is happy to keep the erotic part simmering on full heat:

She reclined on her narrow cot in her tent at the foot of Mount Anaya. The darkness pressed down on her; the sense of wrongness in this place oppressed her. She hated everything about it.

And tomorrow she would rise. He would be gone. And she would go to work, another day spent in hell.

So she wept.

He caressed her face with his fingertips, found her tears, said, “No. Don’t do that.”

The tears only flowed more quickly.

He kissed her. Kissed the dampness from her cheeks, her lips, her throat … He kissed as if they hadn’t bade love only ten minutes before. He kissed her with passion. He kissed her with intent. Finally, she forgot to cry, and remembered nothing but desire.

Afterward, as she slid off to sleep, she thought she heard him say in a slow, hoarse voice, “You make me real again.”

Her mystery lover, as she soon finds out, goes by many names – and he isn’t quite real, not in the ordinary-mortal sense of the word. He’s a member of the Varinskis, a semi-legendary group of savage Ukrainian shape-shifters whose infamy is used in bedtime stories to frighten children all over Central Europe (“The children should be frightened,” our hero, Paul, says at one point, “they should shiver in their beds to know creatures such as me are abroad in the world”). Paul himself can transform into a sleek, powerful panther at will, and he does so many times in the course of Into the Shadows, both to menace poor Karen and to save her.

From a Paul who shape-shifts into a panther in order to save the girl, it’s just a small step on little cat feet to a Paul who shape-shifts into a lion in order to save the world, and that’s exactly the situation in Pamela Palmer‘s steamy 2009 fantasy romance Desire Untamed, the first in her “Feral Warriors” series. In this book, Paul is, um, Lyon, the leader of the aforementioned Feral Warriors who are charged with the defense of the Therian people. Key to that defense is radiant female Therian called, um, the Radiant – she’s all that stands between the Feral Warriors and defeat at the hands of vile demons knowns as the, um, Daemons. That Radiant is Kara MacAllister, but Kara knows nothing about her vital genetic legacy – until Lyon tracks her down and tells her all about it. And even then, she’s not buying it:

“Why do you call me Radiant?”

“You are the caller of the energies of the Earth. It’s through you that your race renews its strength.”

“I don’t understand.” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “I don’t care. I don’t want to be your Radiant.”

Needless to say, a few dozen pages of access to Paul’s burly shoulders and oh-so-inviting chest – not to mention his ability to transform into the world’s biggest pussy – quickly changes all her reluctance into ecstatic cooperation. She wouldn’t have hemmed and hawed at all if she’d only looked at her novel’s cover first: it’s pure, animal Paul – and who could resist that?

Those were-kitties might have had different methods, but they were united in one trait: they’re pretty identifiable as heroes right from the start, despite their bad-boy trappings. Far more grey areas exist in Lover Avenged, a novel in the “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series of the mighty J. R. Ward. This novel is a very different proposition than the other two – on scale alone if nothing else. Ward writes big, densely-detailed romantic fantasies full of gutter language, intricate, multi-layered plots, and great heaps of great dialogue. Palmer and Dodd (!!!) write quick, frothy escapist fare, and they do it with flair; Ward, in book after book, writes something far more ambitious. There’s still plenty of titillation in her books (she’s not a square or anything), but there’s also a fully-envisioned fantasy world out there, complete with its own vocabulary, taxonomy, and hierarchy. It’s like Tolkien played out on Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, only the Elves stop every fifteen minutes to have sex with the private dicks. Or something like that.

Lurking somewhere near the top of the food chain in this dark and perverted world is a dark figure named, um, Rehvenge – that’s our Paul (despite the fact that Rehvenge is about two feet taller than our hero), and here he’s fallen so low, so thoroughly embraced his dark side as a quasi-vampire and owner of a nefarious drug-laundering nightclub, that in the novel’s first half he’s utterly indistinguishable from a bad guy:

Drug dealing was a very lucrative business.

In his private office at ZeroSum, Rehvenge went over the night’s receipts at his desk, meticulously checking off the amounts to the penny. iAm was doing the same over at Sal’s Restaurant, and the first order of business at each nightfall was the meet here and compare results.

Most of the time they came up with the same total. When they didn’t, he deferred to iAm.

Between the alcohol, drugs, and sex, gross receipts were over two hundred and ninety thousand for ZeroSum alone. Twenty-two people worked at the club on salary, including ten bouncers, three bartenders, six prostitutes, Trez, iAm, and Xhex; costs for them all ran about seventy-five grand a night. Bookies and authorized floor dealers, meaning those drug dealers he allowed to sell on his premises, were on commission, and whatever was left after they’d taken their cut was his. Also, every week or so, he or Xhex and the Moors executed major product deals with a select number of distributors who had their own drug networks either in Caldwell or in Manhattan.

(Nor is the lord of all this wretched excess himself above it all – that scenario is immediately followed by an extremely realistic description of Rehvenge shooting up). Like other naughty, naughty ladies – indeed, more so than any of them – Ward doesn’t pull her punches: when she sets out to make a fallen character, they’re guilty of more than some unpaid parking tickets – they’re well and truly fallen. It’s true that Rehvenge is due to meet Ehlena, a vampire with a heart of gold who will eventually change him for the better – but it’s a slow, (literally) torturous process, and Ward revels in every agony, personal and physical, that she puts poor Paul through before she’s done with him.

That’s the glory of this book’s cover, perhaps the first truly great Paul Marron book-cover: in just the simple physical fact of him, of his bare skin and bolt-steady stare, we get a cloud of conjured stories – the book attached is very nearly superfluous … the best it can hope to do is live up to the possibilities of that face.

These three books very much do, thanks to the underrated talents of some naughty, naughty ladies. But is Paul destined to stay in their clutches permanently? Or is there perhaps another, quite different, group of ladies eagerly waiting to grab hold of him? We’ll find out – in our next thrilling chapter!

June 1st, 2011

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Trembling to Release!

When last we left our hero, Paul Marron, he was revealing more of his true self to his feisty British wife in the 19th century … not by granting her wish for long, heartfelt chats by the fireside at night, but by stripping off his frilly shirt and tossing it with a sideways wrist-action into the nearest hamper. For far too long, Paul had been compromising his innermost being, not to mention his lats, delts, traps, and pecs, by resorting to that last refuge of the scoundrel: clothing. And what had it won him? A hitch hunting aliens, a whirlwind werewolf weekend, and a couple of ditzy secretaries … hardly the universal acclaim every self-respecting pouty male model yearns for every time he wakes up in the morning! Something was missing, and as we’ve seen so far in our odyssey, Paul was slowly, gropingly coming to feel the rough outline of what he needed. It wasn’t hard: what he needed was to be himself, to breathe free, to go commando, as it were, ‘neath the trousers of life.

2008 would bring him the beginnings of that chance, after one initial stumble: Jayne Castle’s Dark Light, in which our Paulie is John Fontana, the new boss of the Crystal Guild of ghost-hunters on the distant planet Harmony.

It’s not that the book itself is a stumbling-block, not at all. Jayne Castle is one very experienced novelist who virtually never puts a foot wrong in telling a story – understandable when you consider that bestselling author Jayne Castle is also bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz, and that both those bestselling authors are also bestselling author Amanda Quick (like our hero, this is a writer who knows a thing or two about alternate personae). And this particular book’s premise is intriguing: a human-race colony world cut off from Earth and forced to contend with the not-always-natural phenomena of their adopted world Harmony. Castle’s craft can’t be faulted either: she knows from long experience to jump right into her plot and to involve her readers by showing rather than telling. Dark Light is a fast-paced, gripping-trashy read (and noticeably different in tone and pace than the novels of Krentz or especially those of Quick … Castle has managed the knack of making all her various pseudonyms sound slightly different, a feat worthy of applause wherever it might occur …).

No, the problem, from a Paul-o-centric point of view, is that the book clearly wasn’t written with our pouty prince in mind. The first faint hint of trouble comes in the repeated mentions of Fontana’s “intensely thoughtful expression,” but it’s this astonishing description that really causes the trouble:

He was a couple of inches above average height; not so tall as to tower over everyone else in the room, yet somehow you would always know that he was the man in charge. No one would ever call him handsome, Sierra thought, but that did not matter, not to her at any rate. What he was, was fascinating.

Fascinating he well may be, but … no one would ever call him handsome? That not only jars with our long acquaintance with Paul, perhaps the single most handsome himbo model to come down the pike in 100 long, lonely years, but it also jars with this book’s very cover, on which we see our boy looking chiselled and surly against the freakish lightning of an alien sky. And the instant we look at that cover, we see the most likely source of the dissonance: once again, our hero is wearing clothes – in this case a long trench coat draped over his smooth, rippling upper body. It’s a depressing sight, especially when we thought we’d put those dark days behind us forever.

But it’s only a minor stumble, and oh, how sweet the recovery that starts with Erin McCarthy‘s 2008 mass market edition of You Don’t Know Jack!

Relief floods through us before we’ve even opened the book, because of that scrumptious cover: here is one of the first gestures toward the quintessential Paul Marron cover, the kind of cover that has finally realized not only that excess clothing must not be allowed to clutter up our view of Paul but that nothing must be allowed to clutter up that view, including the vixens of the books themselves: in this resplendantly simple image, Paul essentially stands alone – the only addition is an adoring one, that creeping, gently appraising hand (is it a woman’s hand? So hard to tell…) resting lightly on Paul’s taut, rippling chest. The point of the image is clear: Paul himself is the gateway to all the pleasures of this book – those pleasures are summed up in his feathered hair, his stylish stubble, and his pert little body.

Of course, there’s more to the book than that allure, however animalistic. McCarthy began her writing career as a contest-winner, and that always gives things an extra jolt: contest-winners start their careers with a burst of approval denied to more drudging rejection-collectors, and it tends to show in their work. You Don’t Know Jack is a light, breezy tale about New York social worker Jamie Lynn, whose sassy gay friend Beckwith predicts that she will meet the man of her dreams very soon and spill food on him. These words are hardly lisped when she quite literally runs into Jonathon “Jack” Davidson on a crowded subway and smears his shirt in the spaghetti lunch he was carrying. She immediately notices that “he had a strong jaw, and he smelled like soap and tomatoes,” and then she takes in the sight of him:

He shrugged, the movement drawing her attention to his broad shoulders. She fought the urge to squeeze his biceps. Beckwith hadn’t warned her about the sexy factor. This guy was built like a race horse. No, that didn’t sound right. He was … was …lickable.

No condescending chit-chat about anybody being ‘fascinating’ here! What she runs into on that crowded subway is a solid little plug of pure Paul Marron, complete with devilish grin and irreverent sense of humor (at one point – not much later! – he “felt such profound sympathy for the pain Jamie and her breasts were in that he decided to give her an orgasm to distract her. Free of charge” – that’s – er, more or less – our boy!). There follows a quick series of encounters featuring clothes flying off in all directions, erections that last all day like Mentos, and more tongue-licking than the chameleons in a David Attenborough special. And because McCarthy, underneath her at times strained sauciness, is a winningly sentimental writer, there are also plenty of what our dear departed Oprah would have called “awww moments,” as when Paul/Jack says, “I’ve never believed in fate, or love at first sight, or anything that couldn’t be planned or quantified. I’m not an impulsive man. Until now. Until you, Jamie Lynn.”

Fate is certainly on the prowl as You Don’t Know Jack comes to an end. The year 2008 was ending as well, and ending on a strong note in the continuing adventures of our hero. But even his greatest fans wouldn’t have predicted just how big, how truly engorged, his career would become in 2009. We’ll take that topic in hand next time!