by Jackie Kessler, fantasy (2007)
Kensington, $15.00, ISBN 0-8217-8102-9
One of the first things that runs through my head as I am turning the first dozen or so pages of Jackie Kessler's debut paranormal/dark fantasy story Hell's Belles is, "I like this." Then, when our heroine Jezebel uses the Shield Against Evil, "Oh dear, I think Ms Kessler just outed herself as a Dungeons and Dragons gamer. What's next? A +3 dagger of stealth?" And finally, "I'm sure she will be getting some interesting emails from Angry Christian Fundamentalists soon."
Make no mistake, Hell's Belles is the first book in a planned series featuring our heroine Jezebel. On paper, this sounds like a familiar series: a wise-cracking heroine entangled with demons and other creepy-crawlies in some scary urban setting with plenty of sex and raunch to spice things up. "Not another Laurell K Hamilton bandwagon hopper!" I may hear some of you out there cry in dismay as you hold up a giant crucifix to ward off the evil of badly-written rushed-to-printers books. Hell's Belles however is more than that. You see, this story is set in Hell as much as in our world.
When the story begins, Jackie Kessler's Hell is ruled by Lucifer on behalf of God. The Devil has been away for a long time doing who-knows-what. Hell is populated by creatures representing one of the seven sins, with these creatures happily facilitating humans in their dark deeds in those sins that they represent until they get to drag the human's soul with them to Hell. Each division has a quota to fill so it's quite hard work out there in the world hustling for human souls.
Jezebel represents Lust. She was a succubus - complete with fur and horns and all - and she answers to, appropriately enough, Lillith. If you know your Christian theology 101, you'll know why I say it's appropriate, heh. You may also recognize the name Asmodei. Ms Kessler's Hell is a mix of actual biblical references and pure Planescape-like fantasy setting. At any rate, Jessie is now human thanks to a spell cast by a witch and she's on the run from her former colleagues and bosses. I won't go into the reasons because that would be a spoiler. Hell's Belles is the story of Jessie's attempts to be human.
Jessie may be human - one without a soul, that is - but she retains much of her succubus nature. As a result, she is a very sexual creature. As she becomes attracted to a man named Paul Hamilton, Jessie reigns triumphant as the newest stripper in a New York club called Belles. However, with the forces of Hell on hot pursuit, some of these include her friends and lovers, Jessie will find her life on Earth to be most interesting indeed.
Paul is a nonentity in this story; there are hints of issues involving death of a fiancée in his past but he is barely developed as a character here. This is clearly more of Jessie's story than a love story between her and Paul. Readers expecting a conventional romance may not like the fact that while Jessie is attracted to and eventually sleeps with Paul, she is still enough of a succubus to enjoy teasing and toying the clients in Belle and she also has a sexual relationship with Daunuan, an incubus friend who, naturally, also comes with benefits. Don't worry, Jessie isn't seized by ardeur. She's a succubus, after all, and Jessie's scenes with Daun are simultaneously playful and sometimes even heartfelt yet humorous. These scenes also serve a purpose in highlighting the relationship between those two that went all the way back.
If you are looking for a sexy paranormal action-adventure series with a female lead, you may be in for a good time with Hell's Belles. The world-building of Hell is fantastic and most intriguing indeed, especially when towards the end of this book when Ms Kessler hints that things are not always black and white when it comes to good and evil. In Ms Kessler's Hell, the inhabitants are evil, but at the same time there are close friendships like that between Jessie and Daun and an Erinyes called Meg. While I have my doubts at first about Jessie doing some stupid things like using Jezebel as her stage name at Belles, Jessie's realization that she is developing human conscience and even an ability to love is very nicely done, culminating in a pretty sweet gesture of sacrifice on her part.
Characterization is not particularly deep in this story although it is enough to keep me interested in wanting more of Jessie's story. In fact, I am hoping that Ms Kessler will avoid the trap MaryJanice Davidson fell into with her Undead series. Hopefully Jessie will develop as a character in future books instead of becoming increasingly one-dimensional and bitterly sarcastic in future books. For this book alone, Jessie is a pretty well-drawn character as someone who don't view sex and love as ordinary people would. She's likable and has a pretty good wit. I find her far more interesting in the company of her old friends from Hell than when she's with Paul, although Paul arouses some vulnerabilities in her that gives me a glimpse of a different side of the tough lusty heroine.
It is hard to rate this book as a standalone book because it is part of a series and therefore many aspects of the story are left dangling with plenty of room for development and expansion in future books in this series. The storyarc that gets completed in this book is Jessie's emigration to our world. The best I can do is to say that I really like Jessie. She's a succubus - a real one, not some fake coy misunderstood "I'm really not a slut, I'm actually a good girl!" type - and even when she's human, she still retains much of her old nature and makes no apologies for it while she gradually learns to feel human emotions. Heaven help me, I think I'm a little in love with Lucifer. It's irrational, he's only in the story for a while, but there you go. Daun is cute, Paul needs to be expanded as a character (no, I'm not talking about his +9 Healing Rod of Steel), Meg too. I also want Hecate to show up since she's such an underappreciated Greek goddess compared to the overrated Athena and Aphrodite. How can anyone not love a goddess with three aspects that lurk at crossroads at night with a pack of angry hell hounds? Oh, and Lillith needs to show up more to deliver some royal smackdown on everybody.
I am really impatient for the next book in the series. I'm also hoping that Ms Kessler will address the issue of two women that look alike running around the place in one of those future books, by the way. I heartily recommend that Ms Kessler posts those emails from those Angry Christian Fundamentalists on her website or blog to ease my pain of waiting until the next book comes out. At any rate, I can only conclude that as an introduction to a series, Hell's Belles has succeeded and more in its task. I want more. I need more. I'm going to Hell and I'm loving every minute of it. Hell's Belles? Hell, yes!
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