Generally we have a lot to say around these parts about kickass heroines who go all wussy or, God forbid, humpity sexfiend on us. Or, for that matter, heroines who are labeled as strong, feisty, or even lethal on the back cover but then spend the whole plot hiding behind or whimpering for a big hulking male to come and kick the ass on her behalf. Highly unsatisfying.
Which is why I am so pleased when I discover a genuinely kickass heroine. Jasmine Parks, aka “Jaz,” in Jennifer Rardin’s new series (Yes, yes, another series. I’m going to read a stand-alone single title next, I swear) is 100% bonafide grade A certified-by-Oregon-Tilth Kick. Ass. What are the ways in which the ass is kicked by Jaz? Let me count them:
1. She gets hurt. She falls out glass windows, shit (not literally) falls on her, she gets cut, hit, slapped, beaten, and bitten, and she says “OW” and then keeps going because if she stops to nurse her wounds and whine about how she’s a delicate little flower, she’ll die. There’s fight sequences that make you wince, because Jaz will get the ever living shit beat out of her and still stand up and kick the ass.
2. She doesn’t call for help unless she needs it. Her partner has otherworldly powers (more on that in a minute) and can kick slightly more of the ass than she can, but does she hide behind a pillar and whine for him to come save her? Nope. She pulls yet another weapon out of her sleeve and serves up the ass for more kicking.
3. She rescues herself time and again from some bad situations, while also keeping in mind the relative health and safety of other people who have come into her world. She looks out for her partner, the people who help her, the could-be-a-stock-character-yet-is-awesomely-developed gadget dude who builds neat weapons, and all the other characters who enter her posse. No one is expendable in Jaz’s estimation.
4. She tends to become personally offended and outraged when innocent life is taken for granted and needlessly killed. She tries to keep collateral damage to a minimum, and gets really freaking pissed if her target kills people and taunts her with it.
5. She knows that getting the funky-funky on with her partner is a bad idea, and repeatedly recognizes that and thus lectures herself out of doing so regularly. She’s strong in her own convictions, so the sexual tension builds for understandable reasons without being contrived.
6. She’s flawed, emotionally wounded, unsure of herself at times, and at times genuinely surprised that she’s able to kick all the ass what needs kicking. Yet, turn the page, there’s more ass kicking.
Have I explained sufficiently how much I like Jaz? She’s ornery, prickly, haunted, wounded, exceptionally smart, and lethal. Even when she bugs me, she does it in a way that’s understandable for her character, and I can get over it easily enough. The kickass heroine, how I love thee. I’m about three minutes from being an annoying bint and emailing the author, her publicist, and anyone who knows her to beg for book three because I’m sorry I’m done with 1 and 2.
Allow me to back up a step and explain the plot. Warning! Herein be paranormal action romance cliches, but fear not! They are served up marvelously. Rardin manages something rare and downright awesome: she takes what could be a retread of so many stock characters and plots and does that thing with the frying pan and the huge flaming leap of fire from the burner and behold: awesome sauce.
Jaz Parks is a CIA assassin whose targets are paranormal villains. Some of what she’s after are known paranormal creatures – vampires and the like – and some are creations of Rardin’s imagination that are seriously, seriously creepy. At the start of the novel, Jaz is teamed with a vampire named Vayl, also an assassin, and one of a few vampires who isn’t trying to snack on humanity. Vayl is also one of the most accomplished assassins in their field, and she’s plenty intimidated by him. But Jaz and Vayl’s partnership is brilliantly balanced, despite his being immortal and all super powered and undead. Technically, she is his bodyguard and is meant to protect him as an elite asset of the US government’s paranormal assassin team. But in their interaction, you rarely see her subjugating herself for his sake. His asskicking is neatly met by her asskicking, and never once is there an upset of power that allows the reader to think less of either character.
In the first book, Jaz and Vayl are sent to find a plastic surgeon in Miami with ties to a terrorist, find out what said surgeon knows and then kill him and go get the bad guy. Obviously, that’s not exactly what happens.
The plot is fiery. En fuego, in fact. The action is fast paced and relentless, and it took me more than a few days to read the last 30 pages because this is not a book you can skim. It’s literally nonstop, and because the book is narrated in the first person by Jaz (haters of first person, sorry to burst your bubble) you get her perspective of the action as it unfolds, as well as her own nervousness and slightly bitter, sardonic humor. There are times when her narration is too detailed, and I expect her to say, “And then I put my left foot down, and then my right, and then my left…” but when those same details are applied to a fight sequence, I have a sharp picture of the scene. The detailed narration that drags at some points is likely part of Jaz’s character – because she’s an assassin who spends much of her time under cover, she has to notice the fine points of every moment.
I’ve said elsewhere that series books that feature the same protagonist pair work well for me when each book contains an individual mystery or action plot that is solved at the end, and when there’s a smaller happy ending for the protagonists. Rardin must have heard me ranting because the spicy attraction between Jaz and Vayl is delicious. Both have issues and emotional trauma to overcome, and flaws to work through and grow through. The attraction between Vayl and Jaz is acknowledged equally, but is slow igrowing. He’s terribly into her but she tells him no repeatedly – and stands by her resistance to him because she is aware of what she needs emotionally. She’s recovering from personal loss, and she knows she needs time to repair herself. It’s not often you have a heroine saying, “No” to any increased intimacy and the hero and heroine both respecting that “No.” As a result, the slow build is delicious.
Vayl, aside from being a vampire, and hundreds of years old, and possessing of some ancient badass powers, yadda yadda yadda, is a Guy. He acts like a guy sometimes, despite his antiquated formality. He is boneheaded like a guy, occasionally jealous like a guy, and it’s refreshing to see a vampire with personality flaws. Usually they’re stone perfect and so damn dull with their perfection, like an overpriced armoire for sale with no nicks or scratches that’s allegedly 300 years old. Come on now, someone’s toddler scratched the side with a toy in the last hundred years. No way is something that’s so old supposedly so perfect. And yet so many vampire heroes are so freaking perfect it bugs the crap out of me. It’s almost as if there’s an assumption that after many hundreds of years of living one would have all the answers of how to handle any situation, that is, if the immortal person in question didn’t eschew society in general and go live in a cave like I would. I find it much more fascinating that Vayl, despite his power and age, is flawed and often acts like a petulant butthead. Moreover, Jaz calls him on his behavior.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy has a lot of story to build, and does so without collapsing under the weight of its own history. The plot has to follow the duo to Miami while also introducing the characters, explaining the origins of Jaz’s own mysterious abilities, and revealing Vayl’s history in small portions as well. Much to my delight, Rardin forces Vayl and Jaz into positions of increased intimacy under duress, and because it’s narrated by Jaz, she reveals slowly how she feels about Vayl, while she also observes Vayl, leaving the reader room to interpret Vayl’s actions in one way while Jaz explains them in another. Jaz is a master of taking in a potentially emotionally conflicting moment and convincing herself of an alternate meaning or dismissing her initial reaction in favor of a scenario she can handle. Witnessing her realization that she’s deliberately misreading Vayl is also delicious because her reaction is mixed with insecurity, hope, fear, and unwillingness to rock the not-entirely-tranquil boat of their partnership. Seriously, can you tell I really like Jaz? It’s rare that I dig a heroine this much.
As the series progresses, I have to wonder if Rardin has an endpoint in sight, or a goal towards which she’s working with Jaz and Vayl, because their attraction will eventually come to a point where they either act on it or don’t, but either way they face changing their partnership irrevocably. While I have my regular familiar fears about series books that feature the same protagonists building a bonfire of attraction toward one another, based on what I’ve read so far, I trust that Rardin has both hands steering the plot of the story, and if Jaz and Vayl’s relationship does change, it will be satisfying and ultimately for the better of both parties.
And if not, given the skill of her writing, I’ll enjoy it anyway. Because did I mention I like Jaz a LOT? Yeah. Kick ass.