Before I start my review, let me get this off my chest: I paid $55 for this book. I’ll wait while you pick yourself up from the floor.
Granted, I paid a premium price to buy it from my local independent bookstore, and so I could read it immediately, but since the cheapest Australian bookstore price we could find for this book was just short of $40, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I give a big old WHAT THE FUCK?!? And you know what gets me most? It’s the fact that this could’ve been a much leaner, much cheaper hardcover if the series weren’t so damn “bestselling” that suckers like me keep putting up with the fat just to get to the ever-dwindling romance between the pages.
So—expensive hardcover? Punishes the loyal reader.
Anyway, I’d been looking forward to Rehv’s story because J. R. Ward wrote some pretty dark, very angsty scenes with him in Lover Revealed, plus I was interested in what happens between John Matthew and Xhex now that he’s stopped all the whingeing. It’s frustrating, then, that Ward seems to have changed the focus of this series towards the greater world building and vampire mythology at the expense of the romance, particularly since Ehlena is probably my favourite BDB female character to date.
Lover Avenged is the seventh book in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series (and if you don’t know what that’s about, you can read Decadence’s very thorough cheat sheet starting here). The primary romance plot centres around Rehvenge, the owner of popular club ZeroSum who featured quite prominently in Lover Revealed as the vampire from whom Marissa fed. Those scenes between Rehv and Marissa—and Butch angsting over Rehv and Marissa—are some of my favourites in the series.
Rehv is a symphath, a breed of vampires who are normally exiled because of their ability to manipulate others’ thoughts and feelings. As far as I can tell, they revel in intense emotions and this can lead them to acts of violence just to satisfy their emotional cravings. I think. I haven’t been keeping track because it’s all gotten a bit too hard, to be honest. Anyway, Rehv is being blackmailed by his half-sister. Every month he has to pay her off, in cash and in sexual favours, to keep her quiet about not just his status but also that of Xhex’s, his head of security at ZeroSum, a good friend and a fellow symphath. This need for a constant flow of cash led Rehv to the drug trade, and he’s one of the biggest drug lords in the city. In order to dampen his symphath urges (and let me just say, how ridiculous is this term “symphath”?!?) Rehv injects himself with dopamine, which he gets from Havers’s clinic. It’s during these visits that he meets Ehlena.
Ehlena is a nurse at Havers’s clinic. Unlike most of the vampires we’ve met so far in the series, Ehlena’s struggling financially after her father squandered away their family wealth in bad investments. Between her job and the demands of taking care of her father, who’s slipping further into dementia, Ehlena doesn’t have much time for a social life. She feels a connection with Rehv although she doesn’t really trust him. When she notices that he seems to be suffering from an infection, she smuggles him some antibiotics and loses her job as a result.
But when Ehlena discovers Rehv’s secret, she’s devastated. So is he, and, because he has nothing left to lose, he decides to confront his blackmailer and end her hold on him even it means never seeing Ehlena again.
Secondary (and tertiary) plots
There are a few secondary plots in the novel. Wrath gets quite a lot of pages dealing with his deteriorating vision and his desk duties as King. At the start of the novel, he goes out to fight Lessers even though, as King, he’s not supposed to be doing that anymore. Whereas I liked Wrath previously, I struggled to care about him at all in this book. I don’t understand how he turned into a selfish brat all of a sudden, and for a King, he’s pretty bloody stupid and irresponsible. Rhage and V come across as so much more worthy of being leaders. There’s a subplot to overthrow—or rather, kill—him, which involves Rehv.
The lesser plot centres around Lash, the Omega’s “son” as he tries to rebuild the lesser army and figure out a way to get enough money to fund their activities. His big plan is to take over the drug trade in the city and create an alliance with the symphath colony. Lash is marginally more interesting that the previous lessers, but I think this subplot suffered from too much politicking and not enough direct confrontation with the vampires.
The main romantic sublot is between Xhex and John Matthew—no doubt in preparation for the next book. John Matthew accidentally walks in on Xhex self-medicating by—and I’m not sure I got this right—binding her legs in these metal clamps that cause her to bleed. Or something. The pain basically subdues her symphath urges. Shocked by the intrusion, Xhex says some pretty harsh words to JM. JM takes this to heart and, combined with what he feels as constant rejection from Tohr, he decides to give everyone a big Up Yours and take control of his life. Of course, that means having a threesome with Qhuinn and a prostitute. Whatever. Xhex watches JM’s self-destructive behaviour and mourns his loss of innocence and her part in helping it happen.
There’s also a subplot around a ZeroSum prostitute who’s found dead. It turns out her violent boyfriend is the drug contact that Lash uses to break into the city’s supply chain for drugs. Xhex tracks him down and kills him, drawing the attention of a local police detective as well as Lash, who’s attracted (in an evil, sadistic way) to her strength and symphath-ness. There’s a hint that the head prostitute in ZeroSum might be an angel or angelic or something. Good heavens, don’t we have enough characters to keep track of???
And for Tohr fans, this is the book where he starts to move past his grief and anger.
I’m still not sure what Lassiter is doing.
From romance to urban fantasy?
I have no idea why Ward is toning down the romance in favour of the external plot. Her strength as a writer is in romance—and, in particular, the emotional conflicts between lovers who seem to be in a situation where love simply isn’t enough. And her weakness has always been the world building—the campy slang, the hopeless antagonists, the uber-powerful heroes, and the inconsistent application of the rules of her world. The move to less romance-focused books is a misstep, I feel.
First, it’s not what readers signed up for when they invested time and money in this series. Fair enough, she wants to branch out creatively, but I think she should’ve done that by starting a new (but related series) or a completely different world altogether.
The thing is, her writing method—“the voices in my head”—is not conducive to any sort of long-term series arc. This is obvious in the way the BDB rules have been broken willy-nilly. The Scribe Virgin in this book bears no resemblance to the Scribe Virgin in Dark Lover. And an urban fantasy with weak world building is just a mess.
But most disappointing is how the romance has suffered. There were very few scenes in Lover Avenged that moved me enough to make this book worth my money and my time. Rehv, who needed a lot of redemption—not the least because he’s a drug lord—doesn’t really step up, to my mind.
Rehv and Ehlena
For me, one of the strongest aspects of the book is Ehlena. For the first time, we see a heroine who has her own life, a career, family, hopes and fears. Unfortunately, the emotional honesty in Ehlena’s scenes seems to disappear when she’s with Rehv. Their encounters seem superficial, designed for thrills, and I attribute that to the lack of pages devoted to their story. For such a thick book, the scenes between Rehv and Ehlena are surprisingly few and far between.
I was so looking forward to better understanding Rehv and seeing how Ward turns a drug lord who’s biologically predisposed to be amoral into a loving, deserving hero. Did she succeed? Kind of. Because I liked Ehlena, I was willing to accept Rehv. But I think Ward could’ve done much better with him, and she basically sidelines him in his own book. I don’t mean that he doesn’t feature heavily—he does—but emotionally I don’t think we get more than a superficial understanding of what motivates him. A lot of his scenes with Ehlena seem contrived, his lovey-dovey conversations out of character. The phone sex scene icked me out a little. Usually, Ward manages to find some balance between macho aggression and emotional tenderness, but not so much in Lover Avenged, although Ehlena’s presence does help.
Because sex in romance is about emotions
One of the things I loved about previous BDB books is Ward’s ability to write a compelling sex scene and then end it with utter devastation. That kind of emotional rollercoaster can be quite yummy when you know that the book will eventually sort out the happy ending. I was looking forward to more of that in Rehv’s story because of his impotence, his symphath side, his sex on the side with his half-sister. Unfortuately, most of his scenes with Ehlena didn’t really strike a chord with me. They were okay, but not great.
Wrath’s scenes with Beth were just annoying.
The most compelling sex was between Xhex and John Matthew. When JM goes a bit loopy and decides to take control of his sex life, it’s just devastating to watch Xhex realise what she’s done to him. I never thought I’d like Xhex, but I’m barracking for her to get her happy ending. John Matthew’s emotional arc seemed a bit forced, though, and I wish Ward had been more subtle in showing how Xhex, Tohr and JM’s rape drove JM to his (arguably) self-destructive behaviour.
Over at Very Occasional Book Reviews, I commented that part of what bothers me most about the last few BDB books is the fact that many of the problems could’ve be caught by tighter editing. So, in fact, there’s an entire team of people responsible for producing a book so thick I have to pay the equivalent of 2 hours of work to buy it. A convoluted plot isn’t what makes a story compelling—it’s how characters react to what’s happening around them that readers respond to.
And there’s no reason the book couldn’t have been trimmed by at least a third of its size. Wrath’s entire blindness/fighting subplot could’ve been released as a novella. It added nothing at all to this book. It could have added something to the political subplot of trying to have him overthrown, but Ward doesn’t really do that. It was mainly focused on Wrath’s internal character development and his relationship with Beth.
I had other technical problems with the book. The most irritating were the missing question marks. Look, I get that sometimes authors will flout correct punctuation to emphasise a point, but OMFG the question marks seem to have been on strike when Ward wrote this book. I can’t believe that these would’ve gone unnoticed by the copyeditor AND the proofreader, so I can only assume that the author insisted on screwing around with the question marks. Why? Seriously, WHY?
Also, the slang is getting ridiculous. At one point, someone actually shortens “pizza” to “‘za”. Does it even make sense to shorten a 2-syllable word by choosing the unaccented syllable (and a shwa sound at that)? If there are any linguists reading this, I’d love to know the answer. Little things like this are just an unnecessary distraction.
The thing is, Ward has good ideas but her execution has been pretty ordinary. If someone would just tell her to tighten up her prose and add a little more depth to her storytelling, this series would still be good. But because either no one is telling her this, or they’re not giving her enough time to make the best books she can, I’m starting to resent being invested in this series.
Yay or nay?
I know many readers love to call the BDB “book crack”, but after buying the hardcover release I’m starting to lose my sense of humour. For that price, I expect the product to be polished and diluted to its purest, most pleasurable form. Lover Avenged is cut with unresolved plot points, inconsistent world building and lacklustre characters. Despite that, I’m almost sure I’ll be buying the next book as soon as I can. Addiction is a horrible thing.
AUSTRALIA: Booktopia | Dymocks | Ever After | Fishpond | Galaxy | Intrigue | Rendezvous | Romance Direct | Romantic Reflections | Siren | The Nile | More
EBOOKS: Books On Board | Dymocks | eBooks.com | Fictionwise | Kindle
WORLDWIDE: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Book Depository | Borders