One of the things I love about the way romance has evolved in the last fifteen years or so is the proliferation of subgenres. I love that you can now get romance flavored with suspense, fantasy, science fiction, time travel, history, humor, paranormal, and most combinations thereof. These days romance can be light and funny or dark and gritty; it might be on another planet or an alternate reality. The “sensuality level,” in industry terms, has gone to major extremes on the erotic end, while sweet and chaste romances are still readily available (and the inspirational romance subgenre is gaining ground).
All that said… right now? The biggest segments by far are in paranormal/urban fantasy and Regency historical. So it’s nice to see a book that forges into an under-represented subgenre; ie, romantic high fantasy*. The world-building here is fairly basic – the premise is that certain stones are the magical keys to portals to an alternate universe. Most of the action takes place in our own world and the alternate one is a basic society of forest-dwellers (white hats), demons (black hats) and dragons (gray hats).
All this is interesting enough; the world has a nicely exotic flavor, and leaves room for some intriguing future plot points, but it’s the characters that make this book really shine. If your biggest problem with Sleeping Beauty is that the princess, well, sleeps through most of the good stuff, enter Rowan: I mean, who doesn’t love a blood-drinking, fire-breathing, pole-dancing demi-goddess? She has an attitude to match, but who can blame her? I promise you, no matter how many romances you’ve read, you’ve never met a heroine quite like her before.
If you’re looking for a new spin on a dragon-slaying hero, Castle gives us Gabriel, who wears fur and claws rather than shining armor. He’s an Alpha Hero born to a Beta role, with a perfectly capable older brother (subject of the first book). As the author writing a second book in a series, Castle has a similar problem. In my opinion, she solves both of them brilliantly (tho I won’t tell you how) and in the process, strikes a chord with anyone who sometimes feels like they somehow just don’t belong in the here or the now.
I even liked the anti-hero. I probably liked him too much too early on, but that’s all I can say without spoiling.
I have one small nit-pick in that Gabriel's voice sounds too American to me. Now, there are a million ways to do dialect badly, so all in all, it's better to err on the side of less. But I suspect that Gabriel's pack is set in the Highlands because romance readers find Highlanders appealing.... and a big part of that is that lovely brogue...and kilts, of course, can't forget the kilts...
*stares off into space*
Uh... where was I? Oh yeah, voicing.... Similarly, Rowan sometimes goes for the one-liner that made me laugh but lacked authenticity for her character.
Castle gives us dark magic and wizards, shapeshifters and witches, demons and vampires, dragons of uncertain evil, and a cast of minor characters with major potential. The plot kicks along nicely: some of the twists were really good. One or two were maybe foreshadowed a bit too heavily for the reader to be too surprised, but still pleasing. I can’t say much about the series development because I haven’t read the first book yet, but I’ll say that it feels like there was plenty of substance that wasn’t revealed in the first book, and lots of possible directions to go from here.
*I may have made that up. But I think it's accurate.