March 17, 2008 - Issue #297

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

From Time, with Love

Dawn's Awakening, the most recent of Lora Leigh's Breeds books, is my first romance DIK for the year, and it's the first full-length erotic romance I've ever granted DIK status. There are lots of reasons for this. Parts of the book seem topical when you think of them in conjunction with the science in the news. Others are classic romance issues, characters and combinations of characters. But the fact that my first romance DIK is a full-length erotic romance and a fantasy got me thinking about what fascinates us about these kinds of stories.

Early this year I read The Science of Romance: Why We Need Love To Survive, the cover story in Time magazine for January 28th. The article explored the science of attraction in terms of evolutionary biology. It went far deeper than the typical "men are biologically inclined to sow their seed widely" and "women have a biological predisposition to look for a good provider" that we've all read before. Even so, some of the findings were not new to me, but some were, and the fact that the piece was presented so concisely led me to save it for future use in an ATBF column. And then, after reading Dawn's Awakening, Lora Leigh's new Breeds erotic romance, I began to think about the two in conjunction with each other.

As I read the Time article, I realized that some of the strongest fantasy aspects of the series had their basis in the science of human attraction as regards smell and taste. Of course, this attraction is taken to the nth degree, which makes sense since one half of each couple is a human enhanced by feline jungle or canine - either lupine or coyote - genes.

I never expected to follow the Breeds because after reading the first book in the series, Tempting the Beast, a few years ago, I concluded it wasn't for me. Beyond some Brava and Secrets anthologies, I'd read no truly hard-core erotic romances, and the more explicit sexuality combined with the biology of the Breeds was like going to Iran without speaking a word of Farsi. And then there was that whole "barb" thing, a part of a male Breed's penis that extends during intercourse with his mate - and only his mate - essentially "locking" in place as it presses into the female's G-spot. But at the most basic level, I just wasn't yet ready to read about a race of people created to be a genetically enhanced fighting force, presumably to take over the world, by an evil group called The Council.

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A year or so later, though, I re-read that first book, and found something in it that led me to follow the series. Yes, there's a fair amount of repetition among the books, but I've found that Leigh can write with surprising poignancy at times. If you don't like the author - or haven't read part of the series - Dawn's Awakening would not be the place to start. Some of the sexual stuff that Leigh is known for, including anal sex, and threesomes that can cross family lines aren't in existence here (the former can be found in some Breeds stories, but not the latter), but the worldbuilding, while not complex, requires the reader to have some knowledge of the series' mythology.

So how do the two come together?

It's in the Science

As with many paranormal series, whether they feature Carpathians, vampires, or werewolves, the concept of life-mates comes into play with the Breeds. And early in the Time article, an evolutionary psychologist argues that as a species, humans have adapted to choose mates while simultaneously fulfilling the desires of those mates. And one of the most "primal" of those desires is the scent of a possible partner. There's not a real difference between a bad smell and a good one, but all animals, and that includes humans, learn to place a judgment on those scents that, early on our evolution, helped us survive. Without the smell attached to rotted fish or meat, for instance, our ancestors would not have avoided tainted food. On the other hand, our sense memory associates the scent of warmly baked bread with comfort and sustenance. It's not just food, though, that emits scent; people do as well, in the form of pheromones, and those are evolutionary as well.

Women, for example, actually smell different when they are ovulating and apparently this changes their behavior as well as the behavior of those around them. A study highlighted in the article showed that ovulating strippers earn significantly higher amounts of money in tips than those who are not mid-cycle. And in other work conducted by Martie Hasleton, a U.C.L.A. psychologist, women reported that when they're ovulating, their partners behave differently. They are more jealous but more attentive.

According to the article, scent enables men and women to narrow their choice of potential partners - and kissing plays into this. Among the genes that control the immune system are those that influence tissue-rejection. These genes are known by the acronym MHC. If a man and a woman who have similar MHC conceive a child, the risk increases that the womb will expel the fetus. On the other hand, a couple with varying MHC means a greater likelihood that a baby will be carried to term.

This Kiss, This Kiss

Hasleton also states that MHC has an impact in addition to smell. The compound exists in saliva, which she theorizes is a partial explanation for kissing - the deep, soulful, it's-time-for-sex kissing. She makes a strong argument for kissing as a "taste test." I think this is a wonderful way to look at kissing. We've all certainly had great kisses, and crummy ones, and this gives a scientific rationale for it. Not that love should be reduced to science, but it's interesting. And, of course, what romance novel is complete without some fabulous kissing between the hero and heroine? But having "good chemistry" is more than simply a phrase. What Leigh does in her Breeds series is to take that one step further with a "mating hormone" her couples share.

In this series (the first books and stories were published by Ellora's Cave, while the past few have been published by Berkley), the vast majority of Breeds live with other Breeds because they are widely hunted by those who originally created them - the Council - as well as assorted others who fear the unknown. A Breed knows who his or her mate is by smell, and by taste, and when they kiss their mate, a special, wonderful- tasting hormone is released that transfers to the mate. This only occurs with true mates, and at that point, it's a done deal - they are bonded for life. The partners must be intimate, and intimate often, to lessen the effects of "mating heat," in which the hormone builds up to almost painful levels. The effects of this heat are stronger for the female partner than the male, regardless of which partner is genetically enhanced. It becomes painful for the woman to even be touched by another person during this period. Moreover, a Breed can only conceive with their mate; they are otherwise sterile, something the evil Council scientists never determined, which led to incredible sexual torture in the labs as they tried to force conception.

In various labs around the world, Council scientists and strongmen performed hideous experiments on their captives. The Breeds' reproductive systems stymied the scientists, leading to rape of the females and extensive staying power for the males. Over time some of the Breeds escaped, and eventually, secret agents connected to the U.S. government began to raid the labs to free the remainder. Although some of the Council's members and scientists have been captured, the organization's tentacles are long and deep, and all Breeds remain in danger of capture, further experimentation, or death until the Council's remaining members have been neutralized. What's worse, even though the Breeds have been given rights, Council propaganda plays into the fear and ignorance of the general population, many of whom believe these genetically enhanced people are not human, do not have souls, and should not have civil rights. Though the Council's plans for world domination through the creation of their mega-fighting force is no longer a secret, its remaining members will not give up.

The heroine of Dawn's Awakening is a "cougar Breed" who was routinely raped in the labs until her rescue ten years earlier. Among those involved in Dawn's rescue was Seth Lawrence, a former Special Ops soldier who has spent his adult life atoning for his father's involvement with the Council. He and Dawn shared a kiss early on and realized they were mates, but the horrors of what Dawn endured caused the Breed leadership to convince Seth that she could not handle a relationship. Seth was so fearful of hurting Dawn, or scaring her beyond her tolerance, that even though they had shared the hormone, he walked away from her. Both still suffer the consequence of that, and what's worse, Dawn was never told why Seth walked away. So not only has she suffered more of the effects of mating withdrawal, she's felt rejected for a decade.

Seth is involved in some high level business dealings that involve the Breeds, and Dawn is often assigned to protect him. Though he loves Dawn, he has not been celibate during the intervening decade. We're not long into the book, though, when she senses Seth's "girifriend" is ovulating, with plans to become pregnant by him. Seth, who has long realized he'll never love another woman, has settled on the ideal of marrying this other woman because they move in the same social circles. But Dawn's instincts kick in to claim her mate, and they share a kiss...and a good deal more. The mating heat re-ignites, but the other woman practically beats the door down to stop the encounter from continuing. Not long thereafter, the 18-year-old daughter of another Breed who is known for her psychic skills, tells him that Dawn is awakening, and that he needs to be there for her. He doesn't understand, but her emphatically repeating that "Dawn is awakening" sends him into her room, where she's suffering from another torturous nightmare. As he wakes her, they start to go at it again, but Seth is so fearful that he will frighten Dawn and remind her of what she endured, that he stops himself.

He's wrong, of course, and it takes that slip of a girl to, more angrily this time, tell him to be there for Dawn's awakening. And then he gets it...unless Seth moves to her side as her mate, she will never be whole.

I debated long and hard about whether to grant this book DIK status. It's scary for me to be up front about my love of an erotic romance, particularly one involving Breeds, what with their mating hormones, those funky barbs, and that Lora Leigh's brand of erotic romance is pretty far out there. And yet, I kept going back to certain evocative scenes in the book, which involved some heavy themes, and because of that, decided to be a grown-up about it.

The Metrosexual Alpha Hero Or The Beta Alpha

When Seth finally gets with the program and goes to Dawn, she is showering. In he walks, in all his naked glory, holding a bar of soap he'd had made with her in mind. As he soaps her up and down, he informs her that throughout the years, he's collected probably two dozen specially created bars of soap for her. This one smells like the dawn; another, that he had made in Russia, smells like a snow-covered forest. But it's not just soap...he's bought her more than a handful of panties over the years, and would love to buy her even more.

And then there's his great taste in clothes. As a member of a paramilitary force, Dawn is at home in fatigues; when she and Seth become a couple, he clothes her in a similar fashion to Roarke's involvement in Eve's attire. Now, both Seth and Roarke are alpha males, but they exhibit some major beta tendencies not only because of their nurturing characters as far as their mates are concerned, but in their metrosexual ways. While my own husband has a great eye for color and likes to shop, the world is filled with men who don't know how to dress themselves, let alone the woman in their life, and would probably wash with Cascade if that's all that was handy.

Currently I'm on an In Death binge, having read five additional books in the series over the past couple of weeks. What's always struck me about Roarke is now intuitive he is about Eve's state of mind. Yes, he may shove a painblocker down her throat and offer to let her beat him up, but he's almost feminine in his caretaking of Eve. While Seth doesn't operate with that high a level of intuition - and indeed, his nurturing is more male and action-oriented - once he and Dawn truly bond, he too is keenly aware of what she needs, and how to best help her through her struggles. What is so appealing about both of these men is the combination of their strength and tenderness. Both are incredibly self-assured leaders, but they will stop on a dime if their mates need them for anything, and as they do so, intuitively adjust their manner according to what their women need. Add that with their love of fine clothing and ability to dress their fashion-impaired women, i think they'd be totally, completely, and utterly perfect if they knew how to use a Chi. <g>

God

Remember Edward G. Robinson in Exodus, sneering, "Where's your God now, Moses?" When Dawn was in captivity in the labs, she was repeatedly told the Breeds were outside God's pervue, that they were soulless creatures undeserving of God's love. Dawn internalized these horrible statements. In her nightmares she begs God to save her, but when she is awake, she refuses to even think that about a higher being in connection with herself. Even though she was helpless at the time, she believes that her inability to help save those even smaller than she while in the labs means that God abandoned her...if he ever was inclined to be there for her anyway. It isn't until a pivotal scene that Seth uses her defeated logic to prove God's love for her.

I'm what is known as a secular Jew. I identify myself as a Jew, but do not actively practice my faith. I'm not actually convinced of God's existence - it depends on which way the wind is blowing. And yet of the scenes I've come back to time and time again in this book, the scene leading up to that moment when Seth convinces Dawn that God loves her, as well as that moment itself, are the most powerful. A discussion of God in an erotic romance surprised me; it astonished me that it was such a powerful discussion.

After being attacked during the night while on Seth's property, Dawn feels the need to de-stress, and for her, fighting it out with a sparring partner (like Eve does with a droid), is the solution. Because of Dawn's history, her sparring partners know never to pin her to the mat for longer than a three-second count, but when Seth spars with her at this time, he uses the opportunity for some hands-on therapy, and to force her to confront some deep-seated issues.

Dawn is masterful at avoiding her emotions. She cracks wise...or beats the hell out of somebody instead. Unless she is asleep and in the throes of a nightmare, she never cries. While they are sparring, Seth asks her, "Is that what you do, Dawn? Fight because you can't cry?" He sees the tears trapped inside and will do anything to help her release her anguish. So he taunts her: "You fight to get rid of the pain. You hurt yourself, you let others bruise you, and you deliver as much pain as you can, don't you, Dawn?" He realizes he's starting to get through to her, and delivers the coup de gras by asking, "Does it take the pain away?" And then, in an almost casual tone, "Does it make the memories subside?"

His questions become even more pointed as she fights him more strongly. Next he asks, "Is this what fighting others gives you? Is that it, Dawn? They won't force you to remember? Because you can't let it go yourself." By this point, Seth has her pinned to the mat, for well over three seconds, and it all boils over. Dawn is forced to confront her worst fears, and, wide awake, as she remembers the worst of what she faced, she begs in a child's voice for God to save her. When she realizes what she's saying, she totally falls apart and Seth brings her back by showing her that her rescue from the labs was proof of God, and proof of Gods love. He implores her to understand that God gave her strength, sent someone to save her, and eventually brought them together. He says, "God sent him to you. And God sent me to you. And you to me. And God helped you hide those memories. He gave you escape. He heard you, baby. He heard you."

All the tears that Dawn withheld for a decade come pouring out...and she's not alone. By the time Dawn begged for God's protection in that child's voice, Seth lost control of his emotions. Instead, he wrapped himself around her and they cried together. This, finally, is Dawn's awakening; the memories she's kept inside for so long resurface and he's there, as he is supposed to be.

Men Who Cry

A recent ATBF on groveling heroes included a criticism by some readers that they think heroes who grovel are being emasculated. Even though Seth is not groveling in this scene, he does cry...buckets, so I asked on the ATBF Forum whether readers might be more likely to conclude that a hero who cries during a grovel was being emasculated, and surprisingly, the answer for some was yes. Beyond that, the idea of a man crying in a romance made some readers uncomfortable.

As Dawn remembers the pain of the child within her, Seth cries for her, for the physical and emotional pain she's endured, which hurts him because of his love for her. This is not simply "watery eyes," he gathers her up in his arms and cries all over her, and shortly thereafter, after he carries her to their bedroom, she scents his pain, but also sees his grief in his eyes. She realizes that in forcing her to deal with her past, and to absorb as much of her pain as he could, he showed his true devotion to her...that his love was unconditional, and that he would never leave her alone to it.

But more, she sees the effect of her anguish on him. His crying have turned his gray eyes nearly black with emotion. This man, remember, was in Special Ops, trained to withstand torture, yet when Dawn experiences pain, it brings him down. That's powerful.

Seth has no problem expressing his emotions with Dawn, unlike Simon Blackwell, the hero of The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell, one of my favorite romances from last year, which also features a moment during which the hero cries. Whereas tears come naturally as a result of Seth's experiencing Dawn's pain, Simon cries when he realizes that his refusal to fully open his emotions to the heroine are the cause of her pain. This is a less enthusiastic crying scene, and it's not nearly as intense, but it's a necessary moment, and in both books, the strength of these men was not diminished by their crying. In Seth's case, he actually seemed all the more strong, and where Simon was concerned, his connection to humanity was joyously reaffirmed as a result of his tears.

He Loves Her Purr

Something that great heroes share is their love for those aspects of their heroines that might be a problem for other men. Roarke, for instance, loves Eve's ferocity and brusque nature. And rather than finding it disconcerting that Dawn purrs her pleasure when with Seth, he revels in it, and in her cougar nature. These things are akin to my husband telling me he loves my curly hair even though it's generally a nest of frizz. Or my friend's husband telling her he prefers her smallish breasts by arguing, "Anything more than a handful is a waste." I don't know about you, but for me it's a fantasy fulfilled to have my husband love about me what I find unlovable about myself, and I think this is a pretty wide-spread, deeply felt fantasy.

A hero who loves something the heroine finds unlovable about herself is one thing, but what about those heroes who come to love something about a heroine that he previously found distasteful? The first title that comes to mind is from a romance I read very early on, by Lisa Kleypas - Then Came You - but it's a theme that appears in many of the romances I've loved since then. Think about all those gorgeous heroes who found themselves madly in love with plain women, or heroes with a strong need for order who end up loving a woman who spills some item of foodstuffs on him during their daily tea. What makes these heroes extra lovable is not that they accept these imperfect women...it's that they adore them all the more. And when these imperfections are part of a heroine's torment, as happens with Dawn, that lovability quotient shoots up yet again.

How Does She Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time?

Dawn is among the most tormented heroines I've ever read; it's a wonder she can walk and chew gum at the same time, what with the unrequited mating heat, the inability to cry, and, oh yeah, that fear that she has no soul. It's rare when an author creates a tormented heroine. This year I've read a number of them, including the heroine from Mary Balogh's trad Regency, Christmas Bride, and, of course, J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas. Leigh and Robb's heroine, though, are quite different from Balogh's. Eve and Dawn fight for those unable to fight for themselves, and tend to deny their femininity. Balogh's heroine, on the other hand, is an intensely feminine woman, seemingly selfish and mean-spirited. She was previously the villain in an earlier book by Balogh and behaves as badly as many tortured heroes do through much of her own story.

Authors write tortured heroes more often than tortured heroines. Occasionally both characters are tortured - both Anne Stuart and J.D. Robb come to mind as successfully walking this tightrope - but from what I've read in too many other romances, this is not as easy to pull off as it sounds. Many authors who try to accomplish this fail, and instead of an uplifting romance, their heroes and heroines drown in an sea of negativity. And when just the heroine is tormented, there's a tendency for authors to compensate by creating heroes who are impossibly light, and too good to be true.

I've often said that alpha needs alpha; that an alpha character needs an equally strong partner or else the balance of power is impossibly weighed. I think this is true in an internal sense as well; a tormented heroine needs to be a strong heroine or she'd be a mess. But with a tormented and strong heroine, vulnerability also needs to exist at just the right levels. It's the same with tortured heroes, who often come off as asses instead of empathetic characters.

Seth is the perfect complement to Dawn. Both are complex characters, physically strong and mentally tough, and well able to defend themselves and others. Seth loves Dawn's mouthiness and sarcasm, marvels at her strength, and finds a way to help her deal with impossible memories. It's clear that in this book Dawn is the troubled character, but Seth is not "easy" either; he's arrogant, wants to do things his way, and his fear of hurting Dawn for all those years contributed to her pain. But once the author begins to bring them together, the healing begins and is wonderful to experience as a reader.

As for the erotic component of this erotic romance, the love scenes are extremely explicit, more than a little unbelievable (okay...I get that male Breeds have immense staying power and are like sexual Energizer Bunnies, but so are the mates to female Breeds), but not gratuitous. The sexuality of the Breeds, the mating heat, and the torture in Dawn's sexual history lend the love scenes between the twosome an intensity and import that fits the story. The boinking is not just for boinking's sake, and there's not too much of it for the book. That's something rare, IMHO, for an erotic romance.

I didn't write about Dawn's Awakening to convince you to try it; I know it will not work for many of you, and I've learned a valuable lesson about using this column to extol the virtues of a book too greatly. Instead, I want to use it as a jumping off point for the issues I raised throughout the column, on the science of romance, the importance of scent and of the kiss in a romance novel, the beta alpha - or is that the alpha beta? - the nurturing hero, religion in romance, men who cry, heroes who love their heroines' difficult qualities, and the tormented heroine.

 

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

 

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