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Issue #126 - February 2006

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Never Judge a Book by its Cover

By Juliet E. McKenna

Inevitably, first impressions do count. Mortal Danger by Eileen Wilks doesn’t look like a genre book and the classification is paranormal romance. On the plus side, it’s a classy cover, with no bodices ripping or biceps rippling. There are enthusiastic quotes — from romance magazines. I remind myself there’s a lot of good writing in that genre even if I don’t choose to read it. And I’m an author in a field too often judged on the basis of writers dealing in lowest-common-denominator clichés. So I’m honor bound to judge this book on its merits, if I expect anyone to do the same for my work.

The opening scenes are certainly intriguing. We see a vividly unnerving Hell through the eyes of a young demon, Gan. Wilks manages to make this creature appealing and yet entirely alien with its lack of conscience or guilt. Its mistress is a vile monster reveling in dehumanized sexual perversion, yet the most frightening thing here appears to be an unassuming human girl. We learn that the target of this unholy alliance is one Lily Yu but more questions are left hanging.

More questions arise as we’re introduced to Lily Yu at her sister’s wedding. She’s fending off an importunate cousin when she sees a woman she killed three weeks earlier. It becomes apparent that this second book is very much a continuation of events in the first, Tempting Danger. This could be a far greater problem than any assumptions I might make about romance writers. If you haven’t read the first book, you certainly have to be alert to pick up the details of what happened, to make sense of the current situation. Fortunately the balance never quite tips into incomprehensibility and there’s soon plenty of action setting this story going in its own right.

Lily is brutally attacked as she follows this apparent ghost. Given she recently narrowly escaped being sacrificed to a vile goddess by the Most Reverend Patrick Harlowe, that brings in the FBI’s Magical Crimes Division. Lily works for them now, partly because of her experiences but mostly because she is sensitive to magic, experiencing it through a fascinating kinesthesia. The demon Gan’s magic is orange, it turns out.

Only Lily is more than any of these things. She’s the mate of Rule Turner, a werewolf prince. Their bond goes far beyond mere love and he is far more inclined to rely on his own people and resources in his determination to protect her. The handling of this relationship soon shows the quality of Wilks’ writing. The wedding indicated a deft touch and a keen eye for the bonds and tensions between sisters, cousins, children and parents. The fall-out from the attack on Lily shows similarly acute observations of professionals dealing with those they consider outside their circles. When it comes to Lily and Rule, we see both their viewpoints as they deal with the adjustments they both must make to their new situation. They have separate histories, professional and sexual, an age gap to deal with, and potentially difficult families standing on the sidelines. Both realize there’s a lot more to making a relationship than the initial courtship.

I find this an unexpected plus of reading this second volume first. A few of the supernatural/human couples on the genre shelves seem permanently stuck in adolescent ‘will they, won’t they?’ phase. In terms of this book, such a ‘grown-up’ element definitely helps anchor events to a recognizable reality which makes the transition to the unreal all the more believable. And as far as adult content goes, sex is handled with consummate writerly understanding of when less is more.

Wilks’ choices in the werewolf mythos are very interesting. Aspects such as rapid healing, long life, clannish families and the rarity of true mate-bonds facilitate rapid familiarization for the reader. On the other hand, she picks up a far less well-known tradition where werewolves are the ‘dogs of God’. In this case, they are the chosen of a goddess, one whose key aspect is not unsurprisingly the moon. They fight against the evil of the hell dimension where that unassuming girl is plotting against Lily. Rule remains focused on this threat while Lily and the FBI pursue the Most Revered Patrick Harlowe, who has now apparently turned serial killer, because the evil that drives him, that comes from this hell, is blind to werewolves.

Opposition of female forces rather than typically masculine principles is another thing that distinguishes this book. So do the overt religious elements. Where some writers skirt such undoubted complications, Wilks sees how sensitive inclusion adds to the sense of reality vital for suspension of disbelief. Her restraint in adding references only when they naturally serve her purposes makes this all the more effective. A similar light touch weaves magic into an integral part of this world. Werewolves have recently come into the light and the supernatural has been grudgingly acknowledged. The FBI use sorcery for their own purposes, as do the werewolves.

Lily is working with Cynna Weaver, an abrasive female cop with a talent for magical finding, while Rule relies on Cullen, a clanless werewolf and instinctive mage. These secondary characters, and others, are adroitly drawn and offer their own perspectives on Lily and Rule, further rounding out the tale. The hunt is on, focusing on Harlowe’s crimes with the clarity and compassion of the better class of crime novel, running in parallel with the supernatural. Thrill seekers visiting the tacky Club Hell get far more they bargained for: Rule is dealing with the reality of evil, not fakery for the sake of entertainment.

It turns out Patrick Harlowe is killing to draw Lily to him. He’s in possession of a lethal demonic artifact that could cause utter calamity. Rule sees the danger to Lily but she cannot hold back when Harlowe sets a diabolically heartless trap for her. She soon finds more than her loyalties divided. She’s caught in Gan’s inconstant, illogical hell. Rule is caught with her, in wolf form in a realm with no moon. If they cannot find a way out, someone will die. But can they find a way out without someone dying? The resolution is both satisfying and shocking. This battle is over but the war goes on. As opponents in this story are dealt with, new players have appeared who promise to change the rules quite drastically.

I found Mortal Danger a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’ll be looking out both for the previous volume and the next book in what promises to be a series well worth following.

Mortal Danger - Eileen Wilks - Berkeley - mass-market paperback

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