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How To Make Romance Geeky – add Fire

Yes, yes, I know it’s just over, here in our part of the world, but since it’s still Valentine’s Day for our friends across the pond (Pacific, not Atlantic), here’s our traditional romantic post – a review of one of best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s latest offerings, romance novel Within the Flames.

Wait, what? A romance novel review? On a geek site?

Why not? I devoted last year’s Feb 14 post to the talented writer, and I’ve never hidden my devotion to her (evidenced in my email interview slightly over a year ago) ever since meeting her in person at SDCC 2010. Not to mention that in 2012, Marjorie’s geek cred is at an all time high, as she’s gone from writing one X-Men novel in 2005 to being the writer of Astonishing X-Men, a title which has previously featured the creative talents of Joss Whedon, Warren Ellis, and lately, Greg Pak.

And although there are no mutants in Within the Flames per se, there is a pyrokinetic. And a shape-shifter. And a gargoyle. And more witches than you had counted on. Is that geeky enough for you?

No? Okay, there’s a DRAGON shape-shifter. How’d you like it now?

The story seems simple enough – Girl is in danger. Boy is sent to protect Girl. Girl freaks out and tries to escape Boy. Boy chases and catches Girl. Girl and Boy spontaneously combust. Literally, causing such a huge explosion it almost levels a city block. Oh, by the way, all this happens in the first 75 pages.

Within the Flames is the eleventh book in the Dirk and Steele series, Marjorie’s continued dominance into publishers’ latest gold mine for this new decade – “paranormal romance”. But this is no Twilight, folks. It’s not even True Blood. Despite the Dirk and Steele series consistently being unabashedly card-carrying members of the romance genre, the male and female leads in this book (and all its predecessors) all carry with them a darkness, a trauma in their early lives that have come to define and mould them as much as their innate goodness does. Though they’re protagonists, they carry with them a deep-rooted pain that threatens, at any time, to send them over the edge of sanity. While it is love that ultimately drives them towards their goal, it is their moments of self-pity, of vengeance, their overarching fear of who they could turn into that gives them depth.

It is these humanising qualities of main characters Eddie and Lyssa that makes Within the Flames a particularly page-turning read. Right from the moment they’re introduced, you already begin to root for them, in their fiery relationship and their struggle against the malevolent antagonists.

Eddie, the pyrokinectic and former car thief, in particular, is no stranger to long-term fans, having made sporadic appearances throughout the series since his debut in Marjorie’s first novel, Tiger Eye. That being said, the Dirk and Steele novels have always been predominantly stand-alone reads, and even those discovering Eddie for the first time in this book will feel like they’ve known him forever. In the same way, Lyssa, a dragon shape-shifter and a drifter, though making her first appearance in this book, immediately captures the imagination as Marjorie introduces her character layer by layer, each facet more intruiging than the last. Did I mention she’s a DRAGON shape-shifter?

What I also appreciated was the pace of the novel which is fast and intense, like a campfire doused in gasoline. Under the deft hand of the author, this fire never really loses control, neither does it waste time mired in its own details, in stark contrast to its immediate Dirk and Steele predecessor In the Dark of Dreams. Instead, I would compare Within the Flames to 2008’s A Wild Road, both of which were truly fascinating opportunities to showcase Marjorie’s vivid and unfettered imagination. Interestingly enough, Eddie and Lyssa are supported by the main characters of A Wild Road, namely Lannes the gargoyle and Lethe the witch, so for this reader that once thought A Wild Road was her best work yet, getting to read its spiritual sequel is truly an adventure.

Now, the big question – why should YOU read it? Because it’s the kind of book both women and men can enjoy! Guys, if you’ve never even considered the genre, this is a brilliant gateway to romance novels. Ladies, if you want something more than a book where the cover features an idealised Fabio and long-haired blonde (which usually has a plot as skimpy as their clothing), this is it.

As I mentioned above, the heroine Lyssa is hardly a damsel in distress, complementing her striking good looks with being tough and independent. Despite that, like Eddie, you’ll realise you still want to look out for her, not so much to shield her from danger but to face it head on with her, at her side. Also, she’s a freakin’ DRAGON shape-shifter. Eddie, on the other hand, is a tortured soul with a heart of gold that you just want to reach out to comfort and heal. Story-wise, there are loads of action sequences, many of them violent, and the plot’s intensity just seems to keep revving up almost without a breather. When there is a lull in the rising action, it’s mostly about Lyssa and Eddie dealing with what they’ve discovered about each other. After it’s all been said and done, the sex (it IS a romance novel after all) is as hot and intense as the characters and is definitely written to appeal to everyone (though hardcore romance fanatics might find it relatively tame compared to the literary porn they devour).

I dare say Within the Flames is the best of Marjorie Liu I’ve read thus far, and I can’t wait for her run on Astonishing X-Men (starting in March) and see how her stories top this. No pressure, though!

Peter Lin

His teenage years spent nursing a giant man-crush on Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, Peter naturally found himself drawn to many other heroes who depicted strong, manly qualities, including the honour-bound warrior Worf, first Klingon in Starfleet, and the muscular rock hard abs of The Thing.

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