Hotter Than Hell, by Jackie Kessler (Zebra, 2008)

For centuries, the incubus Duanuan has seduced women, killing them and claiming their souls for the realm of Lust, down in Hell. He’s damned (literally) good at what he does, and he knows it. But when his boss, the great god Pan, ruler of Lust, calls him in for a meeting, Duanuan knows it can’t be good. It’s never a good idea to get the attention of one’s ‘coworkers’ in a job like this. It seems Pan has plans for Duanuan: seduce one very specific woman, a soul otherwise destined for Heaven, and get a promotion to Pan’s second … or suffer horribly for a very long time. With the clock ticking and his eternal future at stake, Duanuan gets to work, studying Virginia Reed. She’s a widow still mourning her lost husband, not in the mood for any of Duan’s charms, and uitterly resistant to his magic. This is going to be the seduction of his career. But can he pull it off in between mysterious, unprovoked attacks from other Hellish denizens? And can Duan get past his own undying lust for a former coworker, Jessie Harris, once known as Jezebel the succubus, long enough to deal with Virginia properly? When Duan starts developing actual *gasp* feelings for Virginia, it seems that his career may just be jumping the rails once and for all. He’ll have to make some hard decisions, and rethink the way he does things if he wants to succeed, but will he taint and corrupt an innocent woman’s soul in the process? It’s a Hell of a job…

The third book in the Hell on Earth series, Hotter Than Hell breaks from the tradition of the first two by focusing on previously-supporting character and perennial bad boy, Duanuan (pronounced just like you might think, Don Juan. Yeah. Him.) Jackie Kessler takes a lot of bold risks in this book, choosing to focus on a protagonist who really is a nasty piece of work. He’s arrogant, smarmy, cheesy, overconfident, sexist, and slippier than a snake oil salesman. He’s a stalker whose entire existence resolves around finding people to seduce, kill, and drag down to Hell, and when he’s not turning his supernaturally-enhanced charms upon mortals, he’s lusting for Jessie “Jezebel” Harris, who’s become mortal and settled down with her cop lover after the events of Hell’s Belles and The Road To Hell. Duanuan is a demon, unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed, and he spends most of the book lying to his target/love interest with intent to damn and kill. Yes, it’s safe to say that he sparks quite a reaction. Because he’s got his fine points, buried deep with, and over time, we get to see them come out as circumstances cause him to change and adapt and make hard choices and moral decisions. He’s not a hero by any real standards; even at the end, he’s still an anti-hero, shaped by his surroundings and driven by his very nature. So it’s obvious that any story featuring a character like this is going to raise some interesting questions. Do we dare root for someone like him? Let’s go out on a limb and say sure. Duanuan’s bound to have his fans.

So getting past the issue of the protagonist, we come to the plot. Incubus stalks innocent woman, charms her, gets to know her, is affected by her, and deals with job-related politics and strife in the process. It’s fast-paced, especially since Pan keeps moving up the deadline, and we alternate between supernatural action, fascinating character interaction, and some sizzling seduction throughout the course of several days. I will say that I honestly didn’t see the ending coming. It’s not what you’d expect from a romance, and I refuse to spoil it any more than that.

Jackie Kessler delivers some blistering hot moments along the way, through the eyes of her infernal protagonist, who clearly has an eye for beauty and sensuality. It hits that fine line between erotic and pornographic at times, and dances carefully along the edge, making for some hot times for Duanuan and Virginia as she slowly gives in to his appeal. Extra points for Virginia being depicted as a real woman, one with extra curves and a bit more weight than the stereotypical stick-figure romance heroine. Kessler really puts a lot of energy into the spicy content, appropriate given the premise, and it pays off. It’s not full-blown erotic romance or whatever they call the porn-with-a-plot these days, but it’s still, well, hotter than Hell.

Maybe this isn’t for everyone. The main character may be hard for some people to swallow, and it doesn’t have the easy, pat ending of most romances, and it doesn’t really qualify as mainstream urban fantasy. It’s billed as paranormal romance, but the author herself describes it as dark paranormal, which can be an awkward niche. But if you want a book featuring a protagonist in desperate need of some moral improvement, with a fast-paced plot, supernatural intrigue, and hot scenes, Hotter Than Hell is definitely a strong contender. You can bet I’ll be interested to see what Kessler does next.

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