Dates From Hell, by Kim Harrison, Lynsay Sands, Kelley Armstrong and Lori Handeland (Avon, 2006)

It seems like everyone’s got a war story inspired by their days serving in the front lines of the hell called dating. Now, four authors well-known for their explorations of the crossroads of supernatural and romance turn their attentions to those war stories. In four very distinct stories, they explore just how bad, or weird, it can be when your date isn’t even human….

Dates From Hell is a collection of four novellas. While I’m not always the most eager to dive into the paranormal romance genre (for every really good offering, such as Cathy Adams and C.T. Clamp’s Hunter’s Moon, or Laura Anne Gilman’s Staying Dead, there seem to be half a dozen of the more generic girl-meets-vampire-or-werewolf books), I was immediately attracted to this one by the presence of Kim Harrison, whose Rachel Morgan books (such as Dead Witch Walking) have fast become some of my favorite urban fantasies. I came for the Kim Harrison, and I stayed to read the rest, none of whom I was more than passingly familiar with.

The first story is Kim Harrison’s own “Undead in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Serving as a prequel to Dead Witch Walking, it stars living vampire Ivy Tamwood when she was still working the homicide division of Inderland Security, before she got a transfer and met Rachel Morgan. (For those not up on the series: Inderland Security equals FBI, only for supernaturals, which are mostly out in the public.) As Ivy investigates a string of nasty murders, she finds herself torn between the dangerous attractions of two very different vampires. One, Kisten, is just a friend of sorts. The other, Art, is her superior at work. If Ivy remains true to herself and her morals, she risks defying Art, who holds the power of life, death, and promotion above her. If she gives in… well, Ivy Tamwood doesn’t like to surrender to anyone. But will these distractions ruin her chance at finding a killer? One thing’s for certain: her career will never be the same again.

It was interesting to see things from Ivy’s point of view for the first time in the series. Until now, we’ve only gotten input from Rachel’s perspective, and where vampires are concerned, Rachel tends to be somewhat biased, and not unfairly so. Finally getting Ivy’s side of things helps us to understand the character, and where she was coming from when she first entered Rachel’s life later on. It’s also great getting to see more of Kisten, whose bad boy attitude has kept things interesting in his appearances throughout the series. And given how the story ends, one can certainly predict long-reaching consequences, sure to resurface sooner or later in the books. This story is unusual in this particular quartet, given that it quite obviously fits into a larger setting, and serves to flesh out the characters of a particular series. It’s also a bit darker, more intense, and less of a “date” than its companions. But for all that, it’s still my favorite of the four.

“The Claire Switch Project” is Lynsay Sands’ offering. After a beautiful-yet-brilliant scientist, Claire Beckett, is exposed to an experimental molecular destabilizer, she discovers a new ability to shapeshift. Now, she can become anyone or anything she can imagine, so long as she has a proper frame of reference. This proves convenient, since it’s time for her high school reunion, and her best friend Jill is without a date. That’s how Claire gets conned into attending the reunion. Twice. The first time as herself, with Jill’s brother Kyle (who doesn’t know about her new power.) The second, as famous movie star Brad Cruise, escorting Jill. And thus begins a classic sitcom style comedy of chaotic proportions. I mean it. This is old-school Shakespearean transgender multiple-identity slapstick, right down to the bathroom quick changes, the flimsy excuses, the getting stuck in the wrong place with the wrong person, and so on. In the end, will Claire find true love? Or will she be stuck as a half-man, half-woman mess? You be the judge.

Amusing, yet somewhat shallow, “The Claire Switch Project” certainly suffices as a romantic comedy, but the sad truth is that the plot is overly familiar and fairly predictable, much like its thematic predecessors. It’s a solid work by Sands, but her full-length novels are much better.

Kelley Armstrong gives us “Chaotic,” featuring a half-demon reporter who works for a tabloid newspaper as a cover for her true work as a secret agent for an interracial council, doing her part to keep the supernatural creatures of the world out of the public eye. One night, while at a disastrous dinner party, she stumbles across a werewolf jewel thief, and her world is turned upside-down. Now she’s on the run, with a man she can’t trust, while the one she used to work for has turned against her unexpectedly. Conflicting loyalties and deadly agendas will make this a night she’ll never forget.

I’ll confess that I haven’t read Armstrong’s Women of the Underworld series, to which this story seems related. However, based on the strength of this offering, and the talent I see here, I’ll likely try those books soon. This is a good, fast-paced adventure that definitely lives up to its potential. It provides an ending, but leaves things open enough to revisit these characters later on, thus avoiding the “happily ever after” trap which the previous story fell into. I thoroughly enjoyed “Chaotic.”

Finally, Lori Handeland serves up “Dead Man Dating.” Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to start dating again. Take Kit Morelli, for instance. Her first date in months, and just as she finds herself inexplicably getting hot and heavy with her companion in an alleyway, along comes a random guy who shoots him in the head. When Kit opens her eyes, her date has vanished. Then she ends up kidnapped back to her own apartment by the scary random guy, a man called Chavez. It seems he’s a demon hunter, and Kit’s date was some sort of demon… and it all goes downhill from there. Now Kit’s caught between the dangerously sexy, yet unpredictable demon hunter on one side, and a demon absolutely determined to possess her on the other. And all because she’s the rarest of Manhattan commodities: a virgin. How can she get out of this mess? Well, a few things do come to mind…

“Dead Man Dating” is a lot of fun, though it skews much more into the romance side of the paranormal romance equation, with the heroes quite obviously heading towards a certain ending point. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the main characters have chemistry together, and the plot is fairly solid under the circumstances. I’m strongly tempted to check out more of Handeland’s work to see if she’s stronger in a novel format. I certainly wouldn’t be adverse to seeing these characters again.

All in all, Dates From Hell is a good collection with plenty to offer. The strong points clearly outweigh the weak ones, and it’ll appeal to urban fantasy fans as well as paranormal romance fans. I consider the Harrison story worth the price of admission alone, but for those who demand more for their money, this collection does deliver.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>