Blood Lust
by Zoe Winters, fantasy (2010)
IncuBooks, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-9-8194360-2


You may have seen Zoe Winters around online, championing the indie scene and occasionally locking horns with folks who believe that the indie self-publishing scene is built on quicksand. Blood Lust is the author's debut print book, a collection of three linked short stories that are also available separately in digital form.

These stories are set in an alternate Earth where werecreatures, witches, sorcerers, and what not co-exist, sometimes not happily. The setting may sound familiar, but Zoe Winters doesn't let her readers relax their guard that easily. Her stories are not erotic paranormal romps despite what the cover may lead you to think; instead, there is a noticeable dark and even sinister undercurrent underneath the humor in these stories.

In Kept, we have a sorcerer, Dayne Wickham, who is responsible for the slaughter of many of our heroine Greta's people. He doesn't get too worked up over this, though, mostly because he believes that he did what he did in self-defense back then. In fact, he doesn't particularly care when Greta shows up at his doorstep, begging for his protection. As far as he's concerned, the werecats of Cary Town, especially their leader Simon, can go hang given his unhappy history with Simon. Greta needs his protection because her people intend to sacrifice her to their gods. But even as she becomes attracted to Dayne, she isn't sure whether she can trust him.

This story is a well-paced read, but I personally feel that it is a better fantasy story than a romance. The romance is not as well-developed as I'd have liked, since the trust issues between Dayne and Greta will need more pages than the number present in this short story to be resolved credibly. But the build-up to the confrontation with Simon is fantastic, and by the time this story ends, I'm surprised to realize just how short this story is. It sure felt like a much longer story while I was reading it!

Incidentally, this short story is available to read for free at the author's website. It's a good way to give this book a trial run because the other two stories have similar narrative style. If you like what you read in Kept, there is a high chance you may like the next two stories too.

Next up is Claimed, which takes off from where Kept ends, although we have a different main couple here. I don't want to spoil the previous story too much, so let me just say here that the vampire, Anthony Burgess, assisted Greta and Dayne in the denouement in the previous story. In the process, he nearly kills Greta's human friend Charlotte "Charlee" Devin when he loses control of his lust for her. When he comes to his senses, he is horrified by what he has done. Unable to think of anything else to do, he wipes her mind clean of her memory of the event. Even then, he once again overdoes things as poor Charlee comes to with no memory of her past at all. Eventually, Greta and Dayne realize that they have to place Charlee in Anthony's care even as they all try to pretend to be humans for Charlee's sake.

Oh boy, Anthony, oh Anthony. He is a vampire with fangs and all, and Ms Winters is really brave to make this fellow behave exactly like a vampire in a landscape full of sensitive walking sparkles and angst-ridden vegetarian emo bloodsuckers. Ms Winters even has Anthony thinking at one point:

Even in today's age, women still trusted beautiful monsters because they couldn't believe anything evil could ever be wrapped up so pretty.

Anthony's initial attitude toward Charlee is that she is only human and therefore he shouldn't have to bear that much responsibility for his actions. Still, I have to laugh when Charlee, despite being amnesiac, still manages to get him all worked up. Charlee may be amnesiac here, but she is no nitwit. She is aware of her surroundings, catching on when something doesn't seem right, but given that she is not aware of the existence of woo-woo people, I can't blame her for not coming to the right conclusions. It's also her bad luck to be caught between Anthony and his chief rival Linus as the two of them duke it out on who has the biggest vampire pee-pee in town.

Claimed is a very readable story, but it features a very unbalanced relationship, with Anthony holding all the power in this one. He can even read her thoughts when she does not even know what he had done to her - if that isn't a power imbalance, I don't know what is. Therefore, some readers may not like how Anthony contemplates killing Charlee even as she remains oblivious to who he really is or what he has done to her.

There was no known way to return a memory. So he was back to killing her. Perhaps he could convince Dayne and Greta it had been a mercy killing, or that Linus had gotten to her. They'd known Linus was a risk. It was the entire reason Anthony had brought her to his penthouse.

She was practically already dead. He felt as if he'd taken more than her memory. Except for the outburst at the store, this wasn't the sassy smart-assed Charlotte he adored. He couldn't restore her. His fangs itched inside his gums, begging him to finish her, to not leave a mistake sitting around, something that would fit in Linus's twisted menagerie. Or something Anthony might keep himself out of weakness.

For me, however, this story works despite my initial unease at Charlee being in such a position of weakness in this story. This is mostly because Ms Winters doesn't allow Charlee to become a victim despite her being in a weaker position in this story. She isn't some doormat letting her infatuation with a vampire to turn her into his doormat. Meanwhile, Anthony's defense slowly cracks as he spends more time with Charlee. In other words, this isn't a vampire story where it is soul-mate love at first sight. He wants her blood, he could have killed her, and he doesn't think that he can love, but well, the stone encasing his heart eventually cracks, slowly but surely. Anthony reminds me of the bad boys from Anne Stuart back in her glory days, and Charlee holds her own well against him. I'm not sure that I believe in the romantic possibilities of these two, but I like this story.

Finally, there is Mated. Jane Tanner seems to be, as Greta puts it, a vampire groupie since she is a human that hangs around vampires and lets them treat her as their plaything. She is born with the ability to detect vampires just by looking at them, but it seems to me that she also has an ability to attach herself to the worst of those vampires. Many of her previous vampire owners treated her badly, and her current owner, Paul, hands her off to the local werewolf alpha, Cole Riley, when Cole comes to collect a debt of $10,000. Cole takes her as payment because he knows that Paul will only pimp her out to others to pay his debt, and he doesn't want that to happen to the poor woman. But now that he is stuck with her, he's not sure what he should do with her.

Just like how Anthony has traits of a vampire that may not be pretty, Cole is a werewolf that is not whitewashed for the romance-reading masses. He is turned on by blood and the panic he can sense emanating from Jane. The full moon can drive him crazy, making it hard for him to control the beast inside. But unlike Anthony, Cole is actually a pretty nice guy. He doesn't want to hurt Jane, he doesn't like it when she's scared of him, and he goes out of his way to be kind and gentle with her. I can't help it, I adore him. As for Jane, she isn't a groupie. She is damaged inside due to a traumatic incident in her past, and her hanging around the vampires is a desperate attempt at... well, it's a case of a girl who sees terrifying monsters so often that she wants to become one of those monsters in order to stop being afraid.

Despite the fact that Mated has the least morally ambiguous hero and it also features the most conventional romance of all three stories, this is also the darkest story of the bunch as it deals with issues like abuse. Unfortunately, because of the short length of this story, Jane's transformation from victim to heroine is the least convincing aspect of this story. I like the aspect of pack politics in this story, I adore the hero, and there are some intriguing elements in this story that give the werewolf canon in this story some freshness in a genre saturated with werewolves. But I also have this impression that Mated would be a far more successful effort if the author had expanded this story considerably. That's not to say that Mated is bad - in fact, I enjoy reading this story the most - it's just that this story could have been so much better.

Both Claimed and Mated are available as separate short stories at Smashwords for $2.99 each, by the way - see here for Claimed and here for Mated.

Blood Lust is a most entertaining read with all three stories exhibiting various degrees of awesomeness. This is a pretty good example of how independently published efforts can often be as good as, if not better than, the works published by the big boys in New York.

Rating: 88


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