Friday, August 5, 2011

The Trouble With Labels: A Fallen Angels Double Review

Classifying books can be difficult. Some books fit really neatly into one section, one genre, one sub-genre. Others could easily be labeled under multiple genres depending on the point of view of the person doing the labeling. The most common example that I encounter is the paranormal romance vs. urban fantasy debate.

To me "paranormal romance" implies a book that contains fantasy elements, in which the central plot involves the relationship between the two protagonists. "Urban fantasy" is a book that contains fantasy elements in a contemporary setting, and may or may not have some kind of romantic undertones. To me it's all about the main plot, and whether or not "romance" is the main point. Sure, I've encountered one or two books that fit both classifications equally, but more often than not I can place them in one or the other. The problem is, my classification often doesn't line up with the publishers and bookstores. Rachel Vincent's Shifter books are always put in the romance section, although to my mind they aren't that romantic. Same goes with Karen Marie Moning's Fever series. The last time I was in Barnes and Noble I saw Jeaniene Frost's Night Huntress book in both the romance and the fantasy section (couldn't they just flip a coin?).

You would think that since I read both romance and fantasy with equal pleasure, the classification issues wouldn't bother me.The problem is the labels create expectations. If I buy something labeled as romance from the romance section, it's because I'm in the mood for a love story. If I buy an urban fantasy, it's because I'm in the mood for action. Having my expectations fall apart midway through a book damages my opinion of that story. That's not fair to me as a reader, and it isn't really fair to the book itself.

In my opinion J.R. Ward's books, particularly the Fallen Angels series, are victims of mislabeling. I'm not really sure who's responsible for the problem--author, publisher, marketing team, all of the above--but they are marketed as romance, and I just don't find them particularly romantic. It isn't that there's anything wrong with them (although they have their issues). It's that I keep waiting for the big, heart warming romance and I'm left cold. So, with all of that said, here are my reviews of the first two Fallen Angels books.

Book One: As is typical of Ward, the point of view jump around a lot. We meet Jim, a 40-year-old ex-assassin construction worker who, following a near death experience, is charged with saving seven souls from sin and damnation. The first of these souls is the leading man of the book, Vin. Vin is a very wealthy man who is basically always unsatisfied with what he has and greedily seeking more. Vin's world is turned upside down when he meets Marie-Terese, a prostitute who is desperate for a normal life. They pretty much immediately and inexplicably fall in love (another typical theme for Ward). However, they are both in danger as Vin's greedy past and Marie-Terese's less than pleasant current circumstances catch up to them. Jim must help them find there way out of danger and to each other.

The romantic moments in this book are surprisingly touching. If you can suspend disbelief and assume love at first sight, that is. There's no build-up, just instant knock out attraction followed quickly by "the L word". I actually enjoyed this aspect of the book, because it made their love seem urgent and fated. I had some trouble liking both characters at first, because they just aren't that easy to relate to. But Ward quickly explains why they are what and who they are, so I was able to start to sympathize with them. Similarly Jim takes some time to warm up to, but you like him by the end. Most importantly, I can't say I was ever bored by this book.

Having said that, there were a few not so good things about this book. I felt like it changed points of view a little too often, even cutting into romantic moments to tell us what Jim is up to. While he's vital to the plot, he's not the romantic lead and in my opinion he got just a little more air time than was necessary. Also, there is a stalker subplot that made almost no sense and could probably have been left out entirely. Meanwhile, we are given a lot of background on how Marie-Terese ended up where she was, and in the end those background circumstances pretty much remain the same--i.e. the abusive scary ex-husband is still out there to pose the same threat as before. Loose threads like that, as well as Vin's special ability, are left to hang so the reader must guess and assume (or perhaps they will be tied up in future books). Overall there was a little to much "Buy The Next Book To Find Out" going on at the end of the story--it doesn't function as a stand alone at all. 3 stars.

Book 2:(Contains Spoilers From Book One) The war for human souls rages on. Jim is in charge of guiding each soul (with the help of some angel warriors). He's never certain which soul might be next. He's working against a very powerful and terrifying demon, named Devina, who makes it a hobby to collect and torture human souls. Jim believes that his old military buddy, Isaac, is going to be Devina's next target. Isaac, meanwhile, is trying to hide from his old life as an assassin when he's busted for illegal cage fighting. Grier, his attorney, is desperate to help him whether he wants her assistance or not. The plot had its interesting points and its drawn out points, but overall it was passable. The themes and settings are definitely getting darker as the series progresses, which I enjoy. This book is definitely an improvement on Covet, which was full of plot holes and loose ends.

Jim Heron is a very cool character, and I found myself relating to him and cheering him on. He seems like an average guy, but he has a shady past and a lot of personal demons in addition to the flesh and blood ones being thrown his way. If I continue reading the series it will probably be to see how Jim fairs over anything else. Grier was a moderately likeable character. Supposedly she's very intelligent but her actions don't demonstrate much logic. She has a lot of heart and she's very willful. She's literally haunted by a tragic past. I found Isaac extremely intriguing but he was underutilized. He's sexy and dangerous, but still oddly gentlemanly and honorable. I feel like he could of and should of gotten an entire book from his point of view alone, but of course that would have been useless to the demon/angel plot of this series. As for their relationship, there is definitely chemistry but as stated above its underdeveloped. It needed a few more scenes with just Isaac and Grier to really be touching or believable.

Stylistically, this book is much like Wards others--the conversational tone, the frequent changes in point of view, scenes that don't really seem relevant to the plot, and the odd slang that doesn't quite fit. If these sort of things bothers you, be prepared to be bothered some more. For myself, I just power through it and try to ignore it. It does always knock her books down half a star in my mind though, so I have to make note of it.

Overall, rating this as a dark urban fantasy I give it 3.5 stars, but 2.5 if I'm forced to call it paranormal romance.

Such is my opinion of this series so far. I intend to read Envy when it comes out, but I'm not sure what to expect from it. I'm left wishing that The Powers That Be who are responsible for these books would get their ducks in a row and figure out what the series is actually about.

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