Let’s get one thing straight, shall we?
I bought this anthology for the novella by Ava Gray. I make no secret of the fact that I fan girl over anything Ann Aguirre/Ava Gray writes.
So. Now that that’s in the open, I’m going to review each of the stories separately and then give a rating to the overall anthology based on that.
Bleeding Heart by Michelle Rowen
This was my second favorite story of the anthology. Rowen introduces the reader to her “Nightshade” series in “Bleeding Heart.” The events of this novella take place after her first book, but I was able to follow along without any real confusion.
“Bleeding Heart” is the story of Jill, a human infused with Nightshade — a poison that can kill vampires who feed on her, but that can also kill her if it stays in her bloodstream too long. Unfortunately, there is no cure once the serum is injected, so Jill and Declan — her dhampyre bodyguard — are on a mission to find someone who can remove the Nightshade from Jill’s system and save her life.
Now, this story was really interesting to me, which surprised me because vampire stories tend to bore me nowadays. I think what really surprised me was the relationship between Declan and Jill. It’s very clear from the beginning that they have an intense attraction for one another, but Declan has taken a serum of his own — one that curbs his emotions to the point that sex never crosses his mind.
It’s a clear source of frustration for both of them, and it’s fun to read their different reactions to the “I want you and can’t have you” storyline.
This story, while very low on the sizzle and sex, is very high on action and adventure. There’s a mad scientist, zombie-like vampires and a race to stay alive. And while this novella doesn’t necessarily have the HEA ending one would expect from a romance, it’s a great story and it makes me want to read more in this series.
Skin & Bone by Ava Gray
Ah, the whole reason I bought the anthology was for this novella, set in Gray’s “Skin” series. This story follows Silas, a body guard we met in book two (“Skin Tight”), who is hiding out in Ecuador until an earthquake lands him the unlikely companion of school teacher Juneau Bright.
I think the story works well as a stand-alone, but I’d definitely recommend reading the “Skin” series to get a better feel of the world Gray has created. This isn’t your average paranormal; rather than focus on a creature (vampire, werewolf, etc), Gray’s stories take on a very X-Men like quality — the paranormals are all humans with a super power.
“Skin & Bone” follows Silas and Juneau as they make their way out of Ecuador and back into the US, while remaining hidden from those hunting Silas. Silas is a bit of a gentle giant in a lot of ways. He’s got a deadly power, but he feels remorse at the things he’s done in his past. Juneau, on the other hand, is definitely a free spirit. She enjoys travelling and there are several references to the fact that she’s yet to settle down — much to the chagrin of her mother.
These two are thrust together during an traumatic event (a big earthquake), and the natural progression of two people trekking it on foot through Central America would be to hook up. However, what sets this story apart is how Gray’s characters handle the emotional bond they form in their travels. I think it was all done very realistic and smart. This isn’t just a case of “We’re together forever.” It was more of a case of “We’ve bonded, yes, but is it real?”
Gray also introduces new characters, like Mockingbird and Tanager. I’ll be honest, once Tanager entered the story, she kind of stole the show for me. Her character was dynamic and smart alecky, and she kind of overpowered Junaeu in the few scenes they shared together. I look forward to reading her story (which Ann has told me via Twitter is book four in the series, “Skin Dive.”)
Still, “Skin & Bone” is great addition to the “Skin” series; I’m very eager to read more.
Angel-Claimed by Jory Strong
When I discovered that “Angel-Claimed” would be a story featuring a djinn, I was very excited. It’s rare to find stories with djinn, and so I was really looking forward to this story by new-to-me author, Jory Strong.
The story opens with Saija, a human working for a powerful vampire family. When her charge goes missing, Saija is sent to find her. In searching, she comes across Addai, a handsome angel who claims she was his wife in another life.
In all honesty, this is my least favorite of the stories in the anthology. The world building, while at times really intricate and fascinating, just did not work for a short story/novella. There’s a dark fantasy feel mixed with a bit of post apocalypticness — in this world, the paranormal community is dominant. Still, as intriguing as the world building was, it came across as jarring and confusing. The terms angel and djinn where used so interchangeably, that I’m still not sure if they are the same thing or different. This was more of a story about an angel (white, fluffy wings and all) than it was about a dark genie.
One of the things I didn’t care much for was the use of magic. It seemed to be taken for granted. This story is set in the same world as another one of Strong’s books (“Ghostland”), so maybe the magic use is more clearly explained there, but it was too convenient for me to see Addai blink on some pants or wish them into his home…and yet, when searching for Saija’s missing charge, they travel by boat.
The other thing that didn’t work for me was Addai. He’s been searching for his lost love (Saija) and when he is finally reunited with her, he’s so possessive and domineering that the whole story was a major turn off. There was bondage galore as he continuously forced Saija to submit to his will. At one point, I thought Saija had turned the tables when she says something along the lines of, “And if I don’t submit?” — but a paragraph later she’s doing exactly what her ange/djinn husband is telling her to do.
While I’m not offended by a little bondage here and there, I didn’t like Addai’s arrogance or how willingly Saija submitted to him. I like my alpha men with a bit a gentle streak and my women with strong backbones. Addai and Saija’s relationship almost felt abusive in nature.
Primal Kiss by Lora Leigh
Lora Leigh’s story is probably the reason most people will buy this anthology. She’s apparently the “big name” (though for me, it was Gray); I confess, I’ve never read anything by Leigh prior to “Primal Kiss”.
But even without former knowledge of her “Breeds” series, this story read really well as stand alone. Leigh expertly wove in tidbits about her series/world without taking away from the story itself.
“Primal Kiss” is all about deceptive appearances. Kita is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy man who is kind of in hiding from the Breeds due to the work he and his brother did. She’s know allowed to leave her father’s house, and her father has even hired a bodyguard/babysitter for her in the form of Creed.
Creed, however, is not who he seems. He’s really a lion shifter undercover, working to get information that Kita’s father possesses. He’s been living with Kita for a full year, and in that year he’s developed a strong attraction to her that he’s never acted on.
At first glance, Kita seems to be a spoiled daddy’s girl, but throughout the story we see that she just wants a little bit of freedom from her constricting life. When she manages to slip away from Creed to a hidden home in Tennessee, she’s surprised with Creed finds her almost immediately.
But instead of whisking her back home, Creed suggests they remain in the house for a few days as a sort of vacation. What he doesn’t tell Kita, however, is that he (and other Breeds) are allowing her father to believe her kidnapped in hopes of getting access to the information they seek.
Naturally, while they’re confined in the home, their attraction comes to a head…literally.
OK. I’ve never read any of the Breeds’ books before, but the “mating barb” —- WTF.
That was a little TMI for me, and though it’s definitely unique…can I just say I would not be having sex with a hot shifter if I knew he had a mating barb. (If you haven’t read the series, it’s explained in this story — but I’m not going to be the one to tell you about it)
The sex in this story is explicit; “Primal Kiss” reads more like an erotica than a romance. There are literally two chapters that are 98% nothing-but-sex.
Leigh kind of strings you along in this story. You think there’s going to be some action, and then she pulls away, saving all the excitement and action for the very end. I get the feeling that if you follow the Breeds’ series, something (I don’t know what) happens in this story that furthers whatever arc she has going in those books — so, if you read Breeds, don’t miss this story (of course, I could be wrong).
Overall Anthology Rating:
Three stars. With three solid stories out of four, “Primal” is definitely worth the read. Do yourself a favor, though. Skip or skim through “Angel-Claimed”.