My retrospective of the Black Dagger Brotherhood (BDB) series continues with a review of the second book, Lover Eternal, which features the story of the Brother Rhage and his human love interest Mary Luce. I began reading this series out of sequence starting with this book and recall being intrigued enough with J.R. Ward’s take on vampire lore, the close relationship and camaraderie between the Brothers and the fusion of paranormal romance with darker urban fantasy elements to back track and read Dark Lover (Book 1) and the rest, as they say, is history. In Lover Eternal, Ms. Ward begins to hit her stride with this series.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Rhage is first introduced in Dark Lover in which, he has one of the more prominent secondary character roles. He is big, blond, beautiful and as the strongest fighter among the vampire warriors, deadly. But like all of his brethren he is also cursed. As punishment for killing one of her precious birds, The Scribe Virgin (the vampire deity) has saddled Rhage with two centuries worth of aversion therapy in the form of a ferocious dragon that lives inside of him. Rhage is in constant fear of when his inner beast will be unleashed because he is a danger to everyone around him. The only means by which he can keep himself level is through sex. He has a lot of it and his sexual prowess has given him quite the reputation within vampire society.
Mary Luce is a survivor of many hardships. She lost her father at a very young age and more recently her mother to a long and debilitating illness during which Mary was her primary caregiver. Following her mother’s death Mary was also hit with a life-threatening curse of her own. She was diagnosed with leukaemia and barely survived the treatments but beat the disease into remission. Her strength is once again being tested because her leukaemia is back. Mary is unwittingly thrown into the vampire world when she starts dating Rhage and by association is placed in danger and comes to rely on him for protection. Although Mary lost her faith in miracles years ago and is not looking for love, she can’t resist her attraction to Rhage or his determination to make Mary his.
Lover Eternal takes place in October of 2006 (BDB year one) a few months following events in Dark Lover. The story is narrated in the third person from a multi-character perspective. In addition to the main narration which alternates between Rhage and Mary, we also gain insight into the overall continuing BDB story arc through the perspectives of Butch, the human cop who is taken in by the Brotherhood in Dark Lover; Bella, a female vampire of the aristocracy who is Mary’s neighbour and friend; the main Lesser character Mr. Ormand (Mr. O); and John Matthew (JM) a young male who befriends Mary and like her has also had a difficult life as he is mute and alone in the world.
The romance story between Rhage and Mary begins at the Brotherhood mansion when, at Bella’s urging, Mary accompanies JM as his sign language interpreter to meet the Brothers under the premise of martial arts training. Bella suspects that JM is a pre-transitioned vampire of the warrior sub-species and will need the help of the Brotherhood in order to survive his transition, but Mary has no knowledge that Bella is a vampire, or that they even exist. Rhage is recovering from a visit by his inner beast and stumbles upon Mary in the corridor of the manse. He is immediately attracted to her and in particular to her soothing voice.
In keeping with the male-centric focus of this series, the author well-nuances the many facets of Rhage, presenting him not only as Hollywood beautiful, but also focussing on his inner strength and determination, compassion and vulnerabilities. I have always gotten a kick out of the character of Rhage who is highly entertaining not only in this book but throughout the series. Unlike the more brooding and darker nature of many of the Brothers, Rhage exudes a sense of fun and often comes across like a kid in a candy store. He has no filter between his brain and his mouth and as he puts it often “pops shit” without thinking, inevitably getting himself into trouble. He also has a great sense of humour, quick on the come back with one-line quips, and a great capacity for compassion. Rhage is not just a pretty face and much of his easy-going attitude is a ruse behind which he hides his fear of his inner beast, his abhorrence of his dependence on indiscriminate sex and his deep-seated desire to be with someone who cares about him and not his outward beauty.
Mary is one of the better-written female characters in this series and as with Rhage, the many facets of this character are explored by the author. Portrayed as independent, headstrong and non-judgemental, her previous work with autistic children has given Mary insight – that it takes all kinds to make up the world. With this view she is not too ruffled in learning that Rhage is a vampire, or that a vampire race exists. The author also well-nuances Mary’s insecurities about herself and her circumstances thoughtfully portraying Mary’s loss of faith and her fears and worries surrounding her illness.
Mary’s refusal to hope dictates how she reacts to Rhage’s advances, and this is the catalyst for much of the relationship dynamic between the two. This dynamic can be characterised as a push me pull you dance throughout a good part of the story. Despite her strong attraction to him, Mary is afraid to believe that a gorgeous male like Rhage would be interested in someone such as herself – a self-described “plain Jane” who is sick and likely dying. True to the intensity of the vampire warrior bonding, Rhage comes on to Mary like a freight train refusing to take no for an answer despite her continuous resistance. One of my favourite scenes in Lover Eternal is of Rhage and Mary’s first date, after Rhage coerces Bella into setting it up. There is much tension, sexual and other and the author well-captures Rhage’s unabashed honesty and determination where Mary is concerned and Mary’s insecurities and awkwardness when it comes to Rhage. Mary’s rebuffs finally succeed however, and she and Rhage briefly separate. But their separation is fleeting and their reunion provides for one of the more poignant scenes in the book.
There are other complicating factors in their relationship, one of which is Rhage’s fear that he will hurt Mary during sex and in particular once he realises that his inner beast is also in love with her. While I found this particular relationship twist to be somewhat cheesy, one of the funniest scenes in the book is of Butch and Vishous chaining Rhage to the bed so that he can “safely” have sex with Mary. The fact that Mary is human causes problems for Rhage with King Wrath and the Brotherhood, but Rhage is unwavering in his love and is willing to endure anything to keep Mary with him. Finally, Mary’s inability to sustain Rhage with her human blood forces them to reluctantly accept that Rhage must feed from another female. While these obstacles converge to provide additional relationship angst, the spectre of Mary’s illness continuously looms. But, with some divine intervention, Rhage is willing to sacrifice everything, even his own happiness, to keep her alive.
In addition to the main romance, the author continues to develop several of the secondary characters and their stories laying the groundwork for future books. The most prominent of which is the introduction of JM as the author begins to slowly unveil the mystery of the cliff-hanger in Dark Lover through the on-page birth of this character. JM is introduced to the reader as alone in the world, born in a public bathroom stall and raised in an orphanage. He is mute, cannot eat and is quite skinny and frail for a young man in his early twenties. But in his dreams JM is a big and powerful warrior that fights an unknown enemy. The Brother Tohr and his shellan (wife) Wellsie take in JM, and it is through them that he learns of the existence of the vampire race and that he is one himself, possibly of the warrior sub-species and nearing his transition. JM’s is one of the richest and best-developed character perspectives in Lover Eternal and throughout the series as a whole. He is also the character through which the author advances the world building by providing the reader with insight as to the physiological conditions of the pre-transitioned vampire male. JM’s inner dialogue describing his lonely existence, squalid living conditions, his physical pain and weakness, the dangers that he’s faced and his gratitude at being found and accepted by Tohr and Wellsie as part of their family pull on the reader’s heartstrings. I immediately fell in love with this character and his story quickly became one of my favourites in this series.
Another prominent secondary plot is Bella’s immediate attraction to Zsadist, which marks the beginnings of their love story. First introduced in Dark Lover, Zsadist is the most unpredictable and scariest of the Brothers. Although Bella’s a member of the vampire aristocracy, which is quite restrictive of its females, she is quite forward and there is almost a sense of privilege that emanates from this character. In Lover Eternal the author begins to tease out the character of Zsadist, providing the reader with glimpses into his painful past and his complicated relationship with his twin Phury. Zsadist’s violent reaction to Bella’s advances also begins to scratch the surface of the complexities of this character and begins to lay the groundwork for his romance story with Bella.
Lover Eternal also sheds light on Butch’s continuing story. Butch is now living with Vishous in the Pit (the mansion’s gate house), is quickly becoming buddies with several of the Brothers, including Rhage, and to quote Vishous has developed a “jones for clothes” enjoying the benefits ot the Brotherhood’s ample liquidity who are keeping him in designer labels. As Butch continues to nurse his wounds and pine for Marissa who refuses to see him, it is his developing closeness with his roommate Vishous that caught my attention as the two are becoming inseparable. There is a sense of mutual reciprocity and natural ease to their relationship that is emerging on the written page, and is captured through their exhanges. Butch and Vishous also provide for much of the comic relief in Lover Eternal, whether it’s in respect of Butch’s initiation to Rhage’s beast, or as previously mentioned their chaining Rhage to the bed.
There is much on-page action and violence in Lover Eternal as a result of the Lessers, the enemy of the Brotherhood and arch threat to the survival of the vampire race. The prominent role of the Lessers continues to infuse the series with its darker urban fantasy elements. Through the perspective of Mr. O we learn more about the dynamics of the Lessening Society and that recruits are increasingly of the criminal and socio-path element of the human world. The Lessers have recently become a more ominous threat to vampires as they have shifted their strategy from going directly after the Brotherhood to abducting civilians and torturing them for information on the Brothers. The Lesser storyline provides for the key climax in the book sending the Brotherhood, in particular Zsadist, into a tailspin.
Overall I found the Rhage-Mary romance story touching and sweet, despite a few over the top moments. As with Dark Lover, the author strikes a balance between the happily-ever-after and the secondary storylines in Lover Eternal to deliver a tightly written and often poignant romance, with some well-interspersed humorous moments. Ms. Ward also well advances the overall BDB arc, easily laying the foundation for the next book in the series. Although I felt that Rhage and Mary’s story was wrapped up a little too quickly, overall Lover Eternal provides for a highly engaging romance escape. But it was my interest in the character of JM and his unfolding story, coupled with the excellent cliff-hanger and the prospects of a Zsadist-Bella pairing, and of course the close relationships within the Brotherhood, in particular the Butch-Vishous relationship, that most captured my attention and heightened my overall anticipation for the next book.
Lover Eternal by J.R. Ward is available globally through a multitude of bookseller outlets. In North America it is available at Amazon Canada and US, Indigo/Chapters (Canada) and Barnes and Noble (US).