Book Review

Dark Lover by J.R. Ward

C-

Title: Dark Lover
Author: J.R. Ward
Publication Info: Signet 2005
ISBN: 0451216954
Genre: Paranormal

I blogged obliquely about this book two years ago. I am a judgmental douchebag—I admit this up front. But as Sarah noted in her review at Romancenovel.tv: I’M OUTIE? A massive thug says “I’m outie”?

No. For the love of everything Alicia Silverstone, no.

And this particularly choice turn of phrase always kills me when I look at the first page: “advanced degrees in violent crime.”

Pray tell, sirrah: Where, perchance, may I obtain an advanced degree in violent crime? No, before we even address that burning question: what would an advanced degree look like? Would an MFA be a Masters in Fuckin’ yo Ass (up)? Can you get PhD’s in, say, Violating Your Parole Like A Dumbshit, or Roid Rage (with specializations in Pointless Property Damage or Kicking The Crap Out of Your Girlfriend), or Mini-Mart Robbery Gone Bad?

And I won’t even go into the names, because really, that’s like shooting fhish in a bharrehl.

For these reasons and more, I avoided reading the book. Look, I told myself, if a book can give me about three hours’ worth of riffing material from the first two pages alone, will I be able to get my internal smart-ass to shut up enough to allow me to read through the goddamn thing?

The answer, surprisingly, was “yes.” Dark Lover is nothing if not compelling. It’s also, well, crap. Hooray for compelling crap. We loves us some compelling crap over here in Smart Bitch Central. The grade is essentially an average of my enjoyment (about a B-) and the writing (D throughout, verging on D- in spots). But but but! Ward deserves daps for the Mary Sue joke towards the end of the book. It single-handedly saved this from falling over in to the dreaded D territory.

Do I really need to summarize the story for you? Have you really lived under a rock for the past two years? Because I’m pretty goddamn sure I’m the last person to have succumbed to the lure of the giant homoerotic rapper wannabe clusterfuck tastiness that is the Black Dagger Brotherhood. But just in case you are one of the few, the proud, the hermetically sealed from pop culture (or at least romance-related pop culture), here’s the skinny. Yo. It be off the chain.

Wrath is the King of the vampires—and the last pure-blooded vampire around, incidentally. And he has all sorts of issues about leading His Race

 

to the glory of the Third Reich

 

, as well as massive issues about love and intimacy; that, combined with his monstrous cock, short temper and predilection for killing bad guys (in this book, you know they’re teh ebil because they smell like baby powder and can’t get boners) basically makes him classic romance novel hero material. When one of his warriors, Darius, asks him to ensure his half-vampire daughter, Beth, completes her difficult and dangerous transition into full vampirehood safely, Wrath refuses.

Then Darius gets blown into itty-bitty bits by a car bomb. And Wrath, wracked with guilt, goes to check out Beth’s situation, and finds that while he’s completely reluctant to help her, nothing can prevent a Monster Cock from uniting with a Magic Hoo Hoo. It’s like when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, except with more improbable orgasms and body fluids. And behold, within a couple of weeks, he resolves pretty much all his issues about love, intimacy and his hesitations about leading his race (part of which involves purging the world of a subhuman species that’s in league with a Satanic figure and engaged in a world-wide conspiracy to destroy his people).

And then there are the rest of his Brothers. Not real brothers. And not actual brothers either, if you know what I mean, despite their love of Ludacris. His fellow brothers-who-look-as-if-they-possess-advanced-degrees-in-violent-crime-except-they’re-really-killers. The Black Dagger Brotherhood. All of them will get their own stories and Magic Hoo Hoos, of course. The sequel baiting is shameless, as is the dangling of hot, tormented vampiric types. And then there’s the poor schmuck of a cop with absolutely no life who gets sucked into their world as well—but then Sarah wrote a hilarious and brilliant review of his story here.

Oh, and in the midst of all that is a heroine. That’s right. These are heterosexual love stories—nominally, at least. Beth starts out rather interesting, but devolves into a rather bland Mary Sue type by the end of the story, with all the Brothers fawning over her awesomeness. Remember what the more saccharine Julie Garwood heroines were like? Yeah, kind of like that, except with more pointless angst and less charming ditziness.

Like I said, I enjoyed the book a surprising amount, considering a) how terrible the prose was (which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker—as always, I like point to my love of Gaelen Foley and Dara Joy as evidence that I don’t need scintillating prose to love a book) and b) how repulsive I found the characters. The story had an energy and drive that made me turn the pages, even though I knew exactly how everything was going to turn out.

But the characters…oy. To be frank, the Brotherhood didn’t come across as tough; they came across as really, really young, and trying much too hard. Guys who are that painstaking about appearing like hard-asses make me think of small-time drug dealers, or teenage boys showing off they cribs. (“It’s Delux, son! Delux. S’not that hard.” Heeee.) The contrived thug-speak and references to hip-hop did not help this image, feel me? Unlike Sarah, I had no problem picturing what race they were. The impression I got from the story was they were old Eastern European aristocracy, so the dudes were white, white, white in my head, and the way they spoke like unholy Valley Girl/gangsta rapper hybrids circa 1992 just compounded the hilariousness.

Less hilariously: The way in which the struggles the vampires faced was couched in racial terms made me feel squidgy inside, and not in a good way. You may have gathered this from the review. It’s not that I think the vampires are unjustified in killing off the lessers, it’s just that when bad guys are portrayed in that bad a light—as being somehow inherently evil when, frankly, the good guys come across as more creepy in some ways (the Scribe Virgin made my anti-authoritarian hackles stand up like whoa and like damn)—I can’t help but wonder what their side of the story is, as told by a differently-biased narrator. That kind of good race/bad race rhetoric and the obsession with bloodlines and pure blood being “stronger” than unpure blood…squidgy, squidgy, squidgy. For this reason, Tolkien and much of high fantasy in general makes me cringe, too. I mean, I get that the whole “born a king” concept taps into a lot of powerful fantasies, and let’s face it, autonomous democratic collectives based on consensus and merit just aren’t sexy, but sometimes, I just look at the framework of the world and go “Huh.” It’s not that I think these are somehow inherently racist portrayals, but the Othering mechanisms in these sorts of narratives are really, really fascinating, no? Especially the voluntary impotence of the Lessers vs. the overbearing virility of the Brotherhood.

Somebody needs to write a dissertation on the multifarious ways fertility issues are presented and worked out in romance novels. So much fodder for delicious, delicious deconstruction and analysis.

Oh, and speaking of the Scribe Virgin: man, she is one creepy-ass motherfucker. Holy shit. Screw the Omega. The Scribe Virgin is the one to look out for. I kept picturing a combination of Sadako and the Blair Witch every time she was described, only more glowy. Sarah said she picturd Orko, which is, like, leaps and bounds more awesome than the image I had in my head.

But like I said: the book was compelling. All that roaring, and rippling muscularity (Wrath’s abs are likened to smuggled paint rollers at one point, which: HEE. LA. RI. TY.), and angsty toothsome goodness was good, campy fun. I laughed, I cringed, I wanted to smack some of the characters around, but dammit, I turned those pages. I finished that book in two days, which is unheard-of nowadays for me.

So for those of you who haven’t read this book yet: everybody else loves it. And I mean everyone. Odds are high you’ll love it, too. If, on the other hand, you’ve found that your tastes correlate with mine a lot more closely: approach with caution and a finely-honed sense of high camp, because you’ll need it.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Gwen says:

    Like I said, I enjoyed the book a surprising amount, considering a) how terrible the prose was (which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker—as always, I like point to my love of Gaelen Foley and Dara Joy as evidence that I don’t need scintillating prose to love a book) and b) how repulsive I found the characters.

    Candy – how is this even possible? Could you have perhaps liked the prose and the characters a bit more than you state in your review, but don’t want to admit it out loud?  You had to have liked them somewhat to have liked the book as

    little

    much as you did.

    I typically laugh my arse off at your reviews and posts, but this one seems a bit hyperbolic for something you finished in two days.

  2. 2
    Lo says:

    I am still under the rock.  But I have purchased a ticket out and plan on reading it after the holidays.

  3. 3

    I am still under the rock.  But I have purchased a ticket out and plan on reading it after the holidays.

  4. 4
    dillene says:

    God help me, but the BDB setup reminds me of “Metalocalypse”.  Starring Wrath as Nathan Explosion and Zsadist as Pickles the Drummer.

    Because that is what giant, kill-happy white dudes dressed in leather should be listening to, you know.  Metal.  Not rap.  METAL!  DAMMIT!!

  5. 5
    Cat Marsters says:

    I read Dark Lover.  Found it underwhelming.  Was not surprised and in fact secretly pleased to hear the rest of it was as absurd as it promised to be.

    I’m so over the ‘We’re so bad, baby’ school of vampire romances.  I want a vampire who talks like a normal person (don’t call her baby, she’s a grown woman, and if you think she really is an infant then, dude.  Getitng the horn over her is NOT appropriate) and dresses like one too, not like, say, a gimp.

    As for the whole ‘born a king’ thing—Candy, have you read Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books?  Featuring Constable (later Corporal and Captain) Carrot, who has this mega sword, and this crown-shaped birthmark and this uncanny ability to lead people and make them happy…and who has a habit of quietly destroying any evidence that says he’s the Secret King of Ankh-Morpork, because really, he just wants to be a copper.

  6. 6
    Marianne McA says:

    Pratchett has a lovely thought somewhere about people having a king-shaped space in their heads.

    Sadly, however brilliant Ward is, I could never get past the names.

  7. 7
    Candy says:

    Gwen: Hmm. I’ll have to think about your point a bit more. Part of the issue here is that I finished the book really really fast because I didn’t pause long enough to think over the issues, but once I did, the more they seemed distasteful to me, which tends to inform the tone of the review rather than the immediate afterglow of the read, if you know what I mean.

    Cat: Oh, I’ve forgotten about Constable Carrot! It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read any Pratchett—I read a dozen or so Discworld novels back when I was teenager and really enjoyed them.

    Dillene: HOLY CRAP YES. BDB = Metalocalypse. And to be honest, while the BDB being obsessed with death metal would’ve been equally silly and over-the-top, they wouldn’t have raised my “oh my god they’re such culture-misappropriating poseurs!” hackles quite so badly.

  8. 8
    Lorelie says:

    nothing can prevent a Monster Cock from uniting with a Magic Hoo Hoo

    “What are you laughing at, Mommy?”

    “Um, nothing sweetheart.  Go play.”

  9. 9
    eggs says:

    Re: picturing the Scribe Virgin.  In my head she always looks like the Mother Superior of the Bene Gesserit in Dune.  Remember the box MS had that could sense the true nature of who-so-ever stuck their hand in it and kill them in an instant?  I picture the glowing hand of the SB as being the same deal.  In fact, there are many parallels between the clothing, demeanor and long range breeding plans of the Bene Gesserit MS and the SB.

  10. 10
    rooruu says:

    Ah, if you want an entirely dihfferent vampire, Robin McKinley’s book Sunshine, which has been mentioned here before, is wonderful.

    Laughed like a drain at your rehviews of JR Ward’s Wohrk.  Fabulous!

  11. 11
    Lazaraspaste says:

    Oh man, this review made me laugh so hard because dude, it’s just so true. Everything you said is exactly how I felt about this series. I’m waiting for the last book in which it turns out The Brotherhood and The Lessers are all the just the same dude (John, much) and it’s all happening in his head. Like Sally Field in “Sybil”.

  12. 12
    fiveandfour says:

    Mini-Mart Robbery Gone Bad?

    This takes me straight to that fantastic chase scene featuring Huggies and dogs from Raising Arizona (not to mention the line my family loves to say at random: “Son, you have panties on your head”).

    Now I’m wondering how a mash up of a country song and a “hard core” rap song would work out.  H.I. and Wrath together in one musing – I must say I never saw that coming.

  13. 13

    autonomous democratic collectives based on consensus and merit just aren’t sexy

    I don’t think Jules Jones would agree.

  14. 14
    EGS says:

    I read until they have magical, random sex for the first time and put it down – totally unimpressed.  I’m probably missing some key female hormone, but this book just didn’t grab me at all.

  15. 15

    Fiveandfour, if you want to hear a country music/rap smash up may I suggest the ever fabulous Asylum Street Spankers.  Whammo did a great song called Hick Hop.  I hope this link works.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhJx1gpl0kM

    I have to say that I too found these books to be much like crack.  The whole time I was a little chagrined because I knew in my hind brain that they just weren’t that well written.  The main thing that bugged me, though, and man it really bugged me the whole time, was the appropriation of hip hop culture and the gangster ethos by this rich, rich, super-empowered seemingly white guys.  Candy hit the nail on the head; they are definitely trying to hard.  But worse in my mind, rap and the whole gangster ethos are about the disenfranchised and the poor getting theirs, moving up economically etc etc.  And these guys, yeah, it doesn’t seem to me that they ever had to worry too much about food stamps. 

    Of course, when I would get too worked up over this particular cultural appropriation, I would just remind myself of all the very white frat boys at UT Austin who just adored that rap music.  I mean, come on, yo, the man had totally been holding them down.  *sigh*

  16. 16
    Becca says:

    I’m with those who just couldn’t get into these books, and I tried, I tried!

    and I’m not against badly written un-PC word-crack either, because I’m doing a re-read of the Lensman series by E. E. Smith, and loving/hating every minute of it.

  17. 17
    kari says:

    Every single criicism stated in Candy’s review and in every comment in this thread is absolutely 100% correct. And I STILL love those fucking books like a fat kid loves cake!  It’s a sickness, I tell ya!

  18. 18
    Candy says:

    Here’s another random thought:

    The Lessening Society seems more merit-based than blood-based; how is vampire society (especially the brotherhood) structured? Wrath is the Vampire King, and he’s also the biggest Baddest Vhampyre Evah, true dat (double true), but that seems to be a function of his pure blood more than anything else.

    More stuff to chew over.

    Also, has anyone else noticed that in real life, the world’s biggest, baddest conquerors and leaders have been on the smaller side of the scale? Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Charlemagne were all pretty shrimpy, if memory serves correctly. And think about our current world leaders: most of them wouldn’t win beauty awards, and this is true of much of the royalty. Not that tihs has ever impacted fiction much; it’s just amusing to ponder sometimes the disconnect.

  19. 19

    Put me down as one who hasn’t read it and isn’t particularly interested.  I think they lost me at the extra “h” thing.  Nothing I’ve read since leads me to want to invest my time and energy.

    As an aside, I just finished reading Shelter by Susan Palwick.*  600 pages of awesomeness set in a near future San Francisco. When I closed the book my reaction was, “Wow.  My brain needed that.”  Lately I’m reading too much crap and not enough mind stretching fiction, so I appreciate the SBs taking one for the team and doing the reviews.  And as usual, Cand(h)y’s review was its own form of awesome.

    *(Not a romance, but if you want one of her books with a wonderful romance in it, read The Necessary Beggar.

  20. 20
    Carrie Lofty says:

    Eggs, I always wanted to be Bene Gesserit. Made of awesome. Except for Jessica, who was kinda a whiner.

  21. 21
    karibelle says:

    I am honest enough to admit that my funky spelling of the word “criticism” was actually the result of my poor typing skills and not some attempt at BDB type spelling.  The fact that I only typed half of myscreen name is due to the fact that it is exam week and I am sort of brain dead.

    spamfoiler- pay13 I would pay much more than that for a decent night of sleep!

  22. 22
    willa says:

    I pretty much agree with almost all of Candy’s review. Thank you for posting this! I feel like I’m not crazy for thinking the same things.

    The “pure bloodline” trope is really creepy in this and other fiction. It’s why I so dislike the Kushiel series: all that strange prejudice and, well, racism. It was gross.

    Why does so much Fantasy fiction focus on people becoming great because they’re Chosen, or Destined, or their blood is so very pure? David Brin wrote a great article about this oddness at Salon.com.

    I also never once imagined the male characters as anything other than white European with Transylvanian roots—and now I’m wondering how other people saw differently—is it because of the language used? The slang just struck me as suburban white kids trying to be cool. Sad.

    Again, thanks for posting, Candy. Nice to hear many of my problems with the book stated by someone outside of my crazy little brain.

  23. 23

    Another thing about this series—when you hear the term deux ex machina, in these books, the improbably HEA really *does* come from their god(dess).  In two of them, she directly intervenes to pull the HEA out of thin air—once saving the heroine from certain death, the other time intervening to turn the dead heroine into a ghost. 

    I prefer stories where the HEA doesn’t come from outside, yanno?  And you’re right—the Scribe Virgin creeps me out like damn, too.

  24. 24
    Charlene says:

    I felt as uncomfortable with this book as you did, and I think it’s because Ward doesn’t show the reader that she realizes she’s writing dystopian fiction.

    It’s not easy to write a story set in a dystopian society. The writer has to make the protagonist appealing enough so that the reader sympathizes with her while at the same time explaining how a sympathetic character can be found in a completely unsympathetic society. Orwell did this by creating a society whose members are either cowed into conformity or re-educated if they rebel; Zamyatin had his protagonist D-503 rebel when the combination of love, higher mathematics (!!), and insanity leads him to doubt the One State. Ward, on the other hand, uses only love to humanize her characters, but it isn’t enough. Hitler was still Hitler despite his love for Eva Braun.

    Ward also seems to echo Lovecraft in her unsympathetic dismissal of the subhumans as Satan-worshipping inferiors. This is even more worrisome since Lovecraft was an unrepentant, foul racist who saw the English as the epitome of humanity and blacks as barely human if at that, and whose portrayal of racial minorities is strongly paralleled by Ward’s.

  25. 25
    Charlene says:

    And that should have been “paralleled by Ward’s treatment of the subhumans.”

    ARGH

  26. 26
    lil says:

    Am I the only one that thought Wrath was a big old douche?  If he cares so much about his brothers then why did it take Darius’ death to get him to do anything about Beth? 
    And really, I can’t believe that Marissa didn’t develop an eating disorder or start cutting herself after spending centuries being treated like a big old bag of blood by the dude who’s supposed to be her mate.  They were mated for, what, a couple hundred years and they never had a conversation about their relationship? 
    I couldn’t tell the other brothers apart.  There was the good looking one, the really good looking one, the other good looking one, and the scary guy.  Whenever there was a crowd scene I couldn’t keep them straight.  (And Ward barely manages to do that herself.  Homosayswhat?)
    My reaction after reading this was “meh.”
    I skipped the second and read the third, which I kinda dug because I do like me some tortured, anghsty heros.  Then I read the second and was underwhelmed again.  Alot of people disliked the 4th book but not me.  It’s my favorite after the third.  The 5th was a major disappointment.  Too much deus ex machina for this gal.  Ward needs to pull this series together or I will give up altogether after the 8th or 9th book.  I mean it.  She has four more books to win me over or she’ll be crying all the way to the bank.

  27. 27
    Shannon C. says:

    I will never get over the BDB as Metalocalypse comment. It is so very true.

  28. 28
    puccagirl73 says:

    :D LOL, I love the BDB books, but it is true that most of the brodas do talk like wannabees, I always kept picturing them as deformed hulking Vanilla Ice/Justin Timberlake look-alikes (MWAHAHA) that stepped out of “Alpha Dawg” or “Phast and the Phurious”  ;D.  Kudos to Ward for the new take on the vampire language (Gangsta Vamp).  Ward just needs to put the fizzle with the pale, doormatty sistas (Magical Hoo-hoos) or I’m like Outie, Phaster than Speedie Gonzales.

  29. 29

    Andrew Vachss, who writes genuinely gritty books about genuinely tough people, is constantly poking gentle fun at characters like the BDB guys with their overt “hard” looks. Basically on the (I think correct) theory that if you’re really tough, you know it, and you go out of your way not to attract attention.

    That said, I enjoyed Dark Lover more than I thought I would. I didn’t love it, and I didn’t go immediately hunting down the next book in the series, but I thought it was okay. I liked Butch the best. I kept reading for him. :-)

  30. 30

    Oh, and if the Scribe Virgin can give Wrath sight for a minute as a gift, why can’t she just give it back to him for good?

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