by Jennifer Ashley, fantasy (2010)
Leisure, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6005-1
Jennifer Ashley is definitely hustling for the crown of the Beloved Queen of the Furry La-La Darlings with Pride Mates, the first book in a new series called Shifters Unbound. She's not going to gentle, so rivals to the crown, beware.
In this one, she has created a perfect sanctuary, a ghetto for Shifters called simply Shiftertown in San Antonio. There are actually other Shiftertowns all over America, but this story focuses on the one in San Antonio. In America - and probably the rest of the civilized world - Shifters are required to wear collars imbued with Fae magic that supposedly cause them to experience intense and excruciating pain every time they experience aggressive and violent impulses. Because Shifter populations were in decline 20 years ago when the law was implemented, many decided to submit. Today, the Shifters who wear collars have mostly learned to live in peace in their designated ghettos despite various differences between Lupines, Felines, Bears, and such. They are treated as third-class citizens denied of many basic human rights, but at least in their Shiftertowns, they can live in relative peace.
Some Shifters opt to go rogue and resist wearing collars, of course, and they tend to be violent sorts that prey on collared Shifters. This is, naturally, a great excuse for all the designated heroes in this series to hold positions of authority like Guardians and what not.
Sometimes Shifters and humans cross paths, with tragic results. When one of the Shiftertown residents, Brian Smith, ends up being accused of murdering his human girlfriend, our human heroine, Kim Fraser, steps in to defend that man. An ambitious DA eager to demonstrate her abilities, she intends to help Brian, whom she believes to be innocent, go free. However, there are plenty of humans who want to make an example out of Brian, and these people don't care if a few rules are broken to ensure that Brian is found guilty. In order to discover any alibi or ally for Brian, Kim visits Shiftertown and ends up meeting the resident human-Shifter liaison person Liam Morrissey. Liam's father is the boss of Shiftertown. Liam, a Feline, knows that Kim's insistence on defending Brian is going to cause plenty of trouble, as the higher-ups have decided to sacrifice Brian in order to keep Shifter secrets from humans. But still, he can't help thinking that Kim is doing the right thing, and really, she is doing everything so right and so fine...
When I first saw Pride Mates, I assumed that this is another one of those mate-mate-mate "Ooh, I smell your underwear - you're my mate now, booyah!" stories. I couldn't be any more wrong, heh. Ms Ashley cheerfully subverts many of the overused tropes in furry romances and spins them around.
Kim is a poster girl of this sort of subversion. She is a capable lawyer who amusingly enough dares to stand up to the big bully alpha of everyone because, as she correctly points out to him, she is human and therefore, he won't dare to kill her, a lawyer in a high profile case involving a Shifter, because that would only bring the wrath of all humans on Shifters. Sometimes she seems foolhardy, but if you scratch a bit below the surface, you will find that she takes calculated risks rather than running headlong into trouble. She is devoted to - and is pretty good at - her job and the author lets her have both a career that she finds fulfillment in and love in the end. When Liam tells her that he has taken her for a mate, she's like, yeah, yeah, let's worry about that once they have solved the mess they are in. Kim also flirts and plays with Liam in the bedroom on an equal playing field with him. She wants him as bad as he wants her, and she isn't afraid to admit that.
Liam is definitely a weaker character compared to the refreshingly different Kim, mostly because he is cobbled together from furry hero stereotypes. The problem with Liam is that he spends so much time lusting after Kim, even in bizarre instances such as when he has rescued her from a feral Shifter, so much so that he comes off as someone with a permanent erection and a mind set to shag 24/7. Even so, he displays his own subversion of common tropes, especially in how he may have the tendencies of the Feline equivalent of alpha, but at the same time, he absolutely adores it when Kim dresses down his father and gives other Shifters no chance to push her around. This is one guy who is definitely not intimidated by a girlfriend who can beat up the girlfriends of his rivals, heh. Oh, but there is one thing that I find very annoying about him - his constant calling of the heroine "love" right from the start. This is a pet peeve of mine, and if it's also one of yours, be warned that Liam just won't stop with that "love" thing.
Despite the very good chemistry between the lead characters and the way I adore how Ms Ashley has subverted all the tropes related to this type of stories, I have to admit that the plot could have been handled better. Instead of letting the characters do their thing, the author often introduces in a heavy handed manner events that force the story to move along the way she intends. I find the whole thing rather contrived.
Still, there are many other things to make up for the comparatively weak plot. You can make some obvious comparisons between the Shifters in Shiftertown to some repressed and oppressed communities in the real world, and there are some clear instances when the author is using Shiftertown as her personal soapbox about things. Still, the setting is a pretty well-drawn and interesting one. The secondary characters actually have their roles to play here, so they aren't just walking bulging biceps tattooed with the phrase "Buy my book!" in this story. Of course, I find the delightful subversion of tropes most entertaining, and the chemistry between the main characters only add sizzle to the fun.
Pride Mates is too much fun to read, and for me, that is easily a good enough reason for me to give this book my two thumbs up. Don't be fooled by the title - this is definitely not a tired rehash of an alpha male melodrama.
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