Comfort reads have not quite done the trick, so I went for over-the-top-crazy-addictive-sauce this time: the Immortals After Dark series, by Kresley Cole.
It’s been over seven years since I read A Hunger Like No Other, the first novel in the series, and while I pretty much devoured it in one greedy gulp, it would be almost five years before I read No Rest for the Wicked–as I mentioned in that review, I have issues with the series.
The thing is, once I accepted that the things that bother me are part of the world building, and basically shrugged them off, I pretty much read nothing but Immortals After Dark for a couple of weeks back then.
It seems to be working this time around too.
Reader beware: these books are relentlessly heteronormative; they all involve the dreaded “fated mates” trope, and they all have graphic sex, graphic language, and quite a bit of gore and violence. Also, if you fall for the world and the author’s voice, it’s likely you’ll find yourself reading the whole series (there are sixteen stories out so far, with the next one coming out some time next year).
Proceed at your own risk.
Oh, and, this review? It be long, yo.
Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night, by Kresley Cole
This is the fourth story set in the Immortals After Dark world, all of which overlap in the time line of the series.¹ A reader can consume any of these four stories as stand alones, but she will miss a lot of the world building, and will likely have a lot of questions about incidents mentioned in passing by any number of the many secondary characters. This is not a problem if you like the author’s voice, and if sequel bait is your thing.
The protagonists of Wicked Deeds on a Winter Night are: Bowen MacRieve, yet another member of the Lykae clan, who is introduced in A Hunger Like No Other; and Mariketa, a member of a fairly disreputable coven of witches from New Orleans, whom we meet in No Rest for the Wicked, at the assembly to begin the Talisman’s Hie (imagine the love child of The Amazing Race and Survivor, only with a lot more treachery, and a(n un)healthy dose of violence and gore).
Here, have a blurb:
Her breathless kiss haunts him…
Bowen MacRieve of the Lykae clan was nearly destroyed when he lost the one woman meant for him. The ruthless warrior grew even colder, never taking another to his bed–until a smolder encounter with his enemy, Mariketa the Awaited, awakens his deepest desires. When sinister forces unite against her, the Highlander finds himself using all his strength and skill to keep her alive.
His slow, hot touch is irresistible…
Temporarily stripped of her powers, Mari is forced to take refuge with her sworn adversary. It’s rumored that no one can tempt Bowen’s hardened heart, but soon passion burns between them. Though a future together is impossible, she fears he has no intention of letting her go.
No deed is too wicked for her seduction…
If they defeat the evil that surrounds them, can Mari deny Bowen when he demands her body and soul–or will she risk everything for her fierce protector?
One of the strengths of the series is that Ms Cole takes a number of fairly well known, popular, paranormal myths, and constructs a fairly complex culture–a world within a world, if you will–for each of them. So, the Lykae are werewolves, which of course means changing into their lupine form during the full moon, being short tempered and, well, earthy, as well as incredibly strong.
In this world, werewolves are also: immortal, highly curious, intensely loyal, and possess an internal guiding force known as The Instinct, which guides each individual towards fulfillment and happiness–most often in the form of their one and only mate.
The witches’ backstory involves the different types of magick they are able to master; a hierarchy of covens, and within each Witch House; rules, prophecies, etc. They are also immortal, though how that manifests in each depends on their parentage–there’s a secondary character, for example, who had a fully mortal father, and thus, she’s hundreds of years old, and looks ‘every single day’ of her age.
As a rule, though, the immortals of the Lore ‘freeze’ into their immortality at the peak of their youth–when they are strongest, healthiest, most agile. Usually, as you might have guessed, in their mid-twenties (for females) to mid-thirties (for males).³
Mariketa is twenty three, and just starting the process of becoming immortal. For several reasons, this is a delicate time for anyone, but more so for her, for a couple of reasons. One, she’s destined to possess, and command, all five types of witch magicks. Second, it’s foretold that ‘an immortal male’ will steal her away for his mate–which would rob her coven of both the prestige and strength, not to mention the income, of counting her among its members.
Bowen, on the other hand, is twelve hundred years old, give or take a few, and has spent almost two hundred of those looking for ways to bring back his mate. Or, second choice, to go back in time to prevent her death. For which he feels responsible, because reasons. And then there is the little matter of his family’s history with witches… (Yeah, this is one of those times for which the phrase, “it’s…complicated” was coined.)
Quick aside: I appreciate that the author flips the age and experience of the couples in these books. In “The Warlord Wants Forever,” the novella that sets up the series, Myst is a couple of thousand years old, while Nikolai is a mere three hundred. In A Hunger Like No Other, Lachlain is almost two thousand years old, while Emmaline is not yet eighty. In No Rest For The Wicked, Kaderin is also a couple thousand years old, while Sebastian is just a few years younger than Nikolai. And in this one, while Bowen is so very much older, and experienced in warfare and politics, Mariketa is very much a young woman with all sorts of agency–not only sexual, mind. So while the age and experience differential matter in the relationship, they are explored differently in each case.
Make no mistake, though, the males will get their mates, and they will stop at pretty much nothing, to reach that goal. So even though Mariketa will become The Most Powerful Witch Evah™ (just as soon as she stops blowing things up almost every time she uses her magick, as she has a small power management issue), Bowen will blackmail her, trick her, and outright lie (to her, himself, and everyone else around), in order to determine whether or not she is, indeed, his mate. (In this world, reincarnation is not a theoretical thing, but a proven if rare fact.)
Yes, absolutely, there are issues of consent here. The seduction is not forced in the way it is in, say, Claiming the Courtesan, but, short of actual physical force, the male protagonists in this series will use every trick in the book, dirty or not, to get it on with the female main character.
There is also over the top violence and a lot of gore. Some of it is explained away as par for the course; after all, unless they kill one another, all the immortals in the Lore could conceivably live forever, while reproducing with gusto. And, unless they suffer specific wounds (decapitation or burning by immortal fyre–yes, spelled like that, because magicks), immortals just endure mayhem and maiming, and heal; so extreme violence is not supposed to be all that extreme within the context of the IAD world.
At any rate, Bowen and Mariketa have to navigate a number of internal and external conflicts in order to reach their HEA–which, I’m happy to say, is guaranteed. (Granted, it’s guaranteed by the very essence of the ‘fated mates’ trope, which irks a number of readers as it limits, if not eliminates outright, free will. But hey, for those of us who need the reassurance that ‘ever after’ truly means ‘forever’ *raising both hands eagerly like Hermione in Potions class* each pairing on the series will leave you pretty damn satisfied.)
Some of these conflicts are wholly external: traditionally, Lykae mistrust witches, for they are mercenaries, both by nature and inclination, so their loyalty is essentially for sale at any given time. For their part, witches see Lykae as little more than somewhat intelligent, if backward, animals, while considering themselves insulated from most of the Lore’s weaknesses and conflicts.
Spoiler: no one is that insulated during an Accession.
Hint: the famous Accession makes for strange bedfellows indeed. (Literally.)
As for the internal conflicts, both Mariketa and Bowen have reasons to be wary of the powerful attraction between them.
In Bowen’s case, family legend has it that a witch was directly responsible for the death of five of his six uncles (uh, yeah, Lykae do like to reproduce), and he is profoundly uncomfortable with power he cannot see, or defend against. He is also predisposed to doubt the truth of his feelings for Mariketa, not only because he had already found his male many centuries earlier, but because at this point in the story, she has already cursed him, quite drastically, at least once. If she herself can’t be sure her magick hasn’t overridden The Instinct, how can he? A couple millennia of prejudice, plus first hand, and very negative ,experience, are not that easy to overcome.
I like that Bowen grew up quite a bit in the course of the story. He would do something pretty shitty–hello, trapping a mortal for over three weeks with incubi?–then he would be forced to examine his own behaviour and weigh it against its impact on Mariketa.
Spoiler: Bowen gradually becomes aware that his needs and wishes are not more important than hers. Respect, he learns it.
For her part, Mariketa has abandonment/trust issues, given that, first her father, and, a couple of years later her mother, basically washed their hands off her. Then there’s the whole “awaited” prophecy pressure, complicated by her spectacular, and so far consistent, failure to control her power. And she’s in the first stages of immortality, when everything is exaggerated and intensified by her transition.
Plus, lest we forget, she has just come out of three weeks of mental and physical torture, which were a direct result of Bowen’s actions during the Hie.
Oh yeah, hijinks ensue, left, right and center.
Spoiler: Mariketa actually does not grow as much as Bowen by the end because, as she herself thinks at one point, she’s pretty fucking nifty, thank you very much, despite some spots on her record.
It’s all very entertaining, actually, once you accept that the secondary characters won’t really be fleshed out–only just enough to perk interest in their upcoming book. Cade, Rydstrom, I’m looking at you. Or rather, I’m looking at Dark Desires After Dark, and Kiss of a Demon King. Also, entire groups of immortals are characterized, explicitly, as two-dimensional cartoon versions of themselves. All the witches are drunken, feckless, promiscuous females. All the Valkyrie are violent, shallow, temper-tantrum throwing immortal teenagers. And so on, and so forth.
The good bits, for me: the sexual tension, and the sex scenes, are off the charts hot. The whole powerful and overbearing protective alpha male thing in fiction ticks all my good-tingle boxes, and I really like that the ‘happily ever after’ truly means FOREVER HAPPY. Also, the females rescue themselves, and the males, almost as often as the males do the rescuing. This is rare, and the need for more of this parity in fiction cannot ever be overstated.
The problematic bits: yeah, those overbearing alpha males would get my knee in their groin (at the very least) if I met them in the flesh. Also, where are the non-binary gendered people in this world? Hell, they don’t even have to be immortal, I’ll take the stray LGBTQIA human, at this point. (No luck there so far.) And yes, the female characters are powerful in varied and interesting ways, but in the end the male’s will (“you are MINE!”) prevails. The violence is exquisitely graphic, and unless you wholeheartedly accept these characters immortality, it can be off putting. Which has its own set of problems, along with the two-dimensional yet very large, cast of secondary characters.
One has to either accept that this is, basically, the prose version of a comic book (i.e., all the blood is red ink–or ketchup, if you’d rather not waste good ink). Which means being always aware in the back of one’s mind that this is fiction–much more so, that is, than with fiction where one can lose herself in the story. Which, in turn, means not caring as much nor as deeply for these people–which makes it a lot harder for me as a reader, personally, and even more so as romance reader, to give two fucks about the story.
Or, just go along with destruction, violence, torture, and death as if these things just aren’t as important as, say, a pimple on one’s ass.
Which, in turn, brings me back to: this series is…problematic.
I can and do enjoy these stories, but I have to consciously turn off the part of my brain that recoils at how little life is appreciated in the series. (Which, interestingly, I can do a lot more effectively while reading than when watching a movie or tv show (Man of Steel, anyone?)) (Also, oh, boy, when I get to Lothario in these reviews…)
In conclusion, and despite all the caveats, Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night gets a 7.75 out of ten from me.
~ * ~
¹ The reason given for this synchronicity of shenanigans is that The Accession, a periodic supernatural conflict, is just about to happen, and that often, right before one of these starts, a number of weird things² start to happen to the creatures of The Lore (aka, the immortals in question). Starting with the fifth, Dark Deeds at Night’s Edge, some events in two or maybe three books at a time may overlap, but the stories are not quite as intertwined/simultaneous as with the first four.
² Or rather, weirder things, because the entire world is full of weird–in a good way, once you suspend your disbelief enough. (You may have to outright fire it, in fact.)
³ I’m using the female/male coding instead of women/men here, because that’s how the IAD world is constructed, though I have feelings about this. (I should write about this.)