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Title: Seduced by Shadows (Marked Souls, Book 1)
Author: Jessa Slade (
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Page Count: 378
Publisher: Signet Eclipse Paranormal Romance

Basic Plotline: (from the back cover of the book): After an accident left her near death, sera Littlejohn is struggling to pece together her life. But when a violet-eyed stranger reveals a supernatural battle veiled in the shadows, Sera is tempted to the edge of madness by a dangerous desire. Ferris Archer takes Sera under his wing now that she is talyan, possessed by a repentant demon with hellish powers. Archer and his league of warriors have long risked their demon-shattered soul to stop darker spirits from wreaking havoc, but they've never fought beside a female talya before -- and never in all his centuries has Archer found a woman who captivates him like Sera. With the balance shifting between good and evil, passion and possession, Sera and Archer must defy the darkness and dare to embrace a love that will mark them forever.

The Positives : I have, sadly, few positives to list about this book. While it was not the worst written book, it didn't engage my interest as much as other books have. I suppose the plot, while not particularly fascinating, was at least paced well enough. I can also say it isn't a difficult or thickly written book.

The Negatives: I had fundamental issues with the basic mythology of Slade's world. First, because the penitent demons that inhabit the talya warriors are known as teshuva. The word teshuva is a word/concept that is decidedly and essentially Judiac, and to my understanding (please someone let me know if my researching on this concept and understanding of this is wrong) is that teshuva is a concept/action meaning "repentance" and entails someone seeking repentance for committing a sin by doing teshuva, and that the concept is central to many Judiac beliefs and traditions. Again, this is from what I've been able to look up and read, since I did initially recognize the word and wanted to be clear on what it's real world meaning was.

Yet the demons and the talya do not seem to draw on any other concepts from Judiasm and much of the discussion of the understanding of sin, souls, and salvation seem to come from a very Western-Christian place, as do the two protagonists. Thus, I couldn't see any reason to appropriate that word for book that otherwise lacks any trace of the religion and people it came from. While not speculating on the author's own religious and racial background and, it came across as very appropriative and a way of giving an "exotic" (scare quotes are deliberate!) name I didn't see a reason for them to have. Why not call them something more neutral? "Penitents" or something?

Worse yet, the non-penitent, evil counterparts of the teshuva were the djinn. Djinn/jinn/genie is a creature that originates in Arabic/Islamic/West Asian cultures and belief systems, (I include those because because the djinn are in the Qur'an, but they existed in pre-Islamic Arabic peoples' belief systems and in other West Asian people's belief systems). A quote from [ profile] meganbmoore in a thread at seriousfic springs to mind:

"When you take someone's culture for the "fun" and "exotic" bits and then exclude the people the culture actually belongs to? That's racist."

I was more than a little uncomfortable with this book pitting the "good" Jewish-named demons against the "bad" Arabic/Islamic/West Asian ones, all while angels (the only one of which we see is a white woman in a Christian church who is possessed by one) sitting at the top of the pile. This alone put me off the book and I confess I only finished just to see if this was ever going to be explained or justified. It wasn't, and it seemed to follow the very disgusting U.S.ian habit in literature and the media of turning Arabs, Muslims, and anyone from West Asia into ready bad guys and throw away villains.

The rest of the worldbuilding was unimpressive and undeveloped. Not much is set up beyond what's required to put Sera and Archer in peril and give them reasons to mope and talk in vague, melodramatic terms about how damaged their souls are and how salvation is unattainable. The book states that talya have been around a long time, but there's no discussion of anyone ever coming up with theories or confirming that they're really demons looking for penance, especially since these demons do not communicate with the person they possess and seem to act like a supernatural battery rather than a co-habitating creature. Either way, it didn't engage me. Especially since the author never even gets into what happens if someone decides they don't want to play along. Has anyone tried?

The characters were even more dull than the world, and for this genre, that's a very bad thing. I'm willing to forgive derivative worldbuilding and trite plots if they come with fascinating characters and a captivating romance. The male protagonist, Archer, is very exceedingly dull and full of manpain and I could probably have exchanged him for any "older/immortal man in love with a younger/newbie woman" type character from any other book and it wouldn't have changed a thing. Sera had potential, but it wasn't developed at all. Her profession and life experiences could have give her a point of view on the whole salvation thing that might've been really cool, but it didn't happen. As for their romance, it baffled me. The entire romantic storyline seemed to be based on the fact that neither of them could just have an open, honest conversation for twenty minutes. Which isn't so much a romance as a way to give me a headache as a reader. I hate that sort of plot. Especially in romances where it seems the only thing keeping the protagonists together are convenient magically aided plot points and the fact that, as the protagonists, they have to get together as part of the First Law of Romance (And Romance Subgenres).

I might have been interested in the book's villain if Corvus hadn't been both over the top and engaging the most cliched of activities: Trying to Take Over The World. The subplot about the evil drug could have had potential (again, woefully undeveloped and swept under the rug). The book's time with Corvus was like watching someone trying to write a Pinky and the Brain sketch, only in all seriousness. Frankly, having a cartoon mouse there to ask, "Yeah, but what if the chicken don't wanna ride the motorcycle, Brain?" would've improved things a lot. The occasional interludes from Corvus's point of view only made me long for a truly savvy, sharp villain with a delightfully clever plan. Oh, someone give me a competent, intelligent villain with a brilliant, original scheme! My kingdom for a decent baddie!

As for the plot, it seemed to follow the standard, pre-approved Cut-Out Paranormal Romance Plot, culminating in the expected final battle where the baddie is defeated and the character's relationship woes are righted. It's amazing how in Paranormal Romance all your love life problems can be solved in the last thirty minutes of whatever battle you're fighting. Screw couple's therapy, man, go fight some demons and make melodramatic declarations about "you're the other half of my soul!". Apparently that can fix anything. *nods*.

The book also had other smaller, background issues that annoyed me. For instance, the "flashing violet eyes" of the talya warriors (which were always there to give some sort of emphasis on how dangerous and mystical they were when they got grumpy or something). My eyes didn't flash, but they did roll repeated. I wish someone would put a moratorium on flashing eyes in the paranormal romance genre. It's ridiculous and it's always blue or violet or green or gray (eye colors heavily associated with - but not exclusive to - white people, FWIW). If you need someone to have battery powered eyeballs to show us your character's emotions, you may have engaged in the wrong profession.

And the book could've used a bit more copyediting. The character of Ecco became "Echo" several times throughout.

CoC Score: 2/10. A very low score, not just for the appropriation issues, either. Archer's past as the son of a plantation owner and slave holder was handled obnoxiously in every conversation in which came up. Which is to say that the utter horror of U.S. slavery and the legacy that even now still raises some human beings up at the expensive of others was basically used as a device to give Archer manpain. For example:

"What have you tried to forget?" Her words, soft but relentless, stalked him. "What did you lose - or whom - that made you afraid to ever lose again? The farm? Your father?"

"Frederick." The answer burst out against his will, startled like the bird into flight, never mind what was revealed to the hunter.

Sera was silent.

"A friend. A boyhood friend." He raised his head to glare at her. "A house slave boy my age. For a few summers, we had a secret fort in the lowlands. Sometimes he did my lessons on the sly while I ran wild. all i had to do in return was chop wood for him."

The swirl of green, brown, and violet in her gaze reminded him not so much of bright honeysuckle now as an orchid deep in labyrinthine swamps he and Frederick had explored, rot turned to exotic flowers in the gloom.

"My father found out Frederick's mother had taught him to read. He sold them in town, since what point having field hand who could read, and sent me away to school up north, since what good an heir who chopped wood." He clamped his teeth closed on the urge to tell her how, even then, his father had rubbed at the pains in his chest when working the cotton, and how the rumors of war bubbled like foul swamp gases from the white fields. "When I returned, the bayou had been drained to make way for more crops. And I found out Frederick had tried to run. He was caught about twenty miles from my school and taken back. somewhere along the way, they beat him to death."

He fell silent, and the violent in her eyes faded "That's why you hold yourself apart from the other talyan? As penance? But you weren't responsible for Frederick's running, or his death."

He raked her with a scathing glance. "I know that."

"If you won't risk the pain of losing, you'll never know the joy of holding, either." (Slade, p. 313-314)

Which is doubly disgusting after you've read this passage:

The scorn in his voice raised her hackles even as something else in her withered. "A few of those, at least, are worth saving. Which is more than I can say about giving up your life and soul for a slaver's ill-fated cotton farm."

He went utterly still.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. Why was she fighting him? what was the point? "That was a hateful thing to say."

"You've been doing more research than I realized." He took a step back. "Hateful but true. My father owned slaves. I would have if I'd managed to keep the farm if the South had won the war. And you're right; it was a stupid thing to sacrifice my soul when the battle I was fighting was already lost. Which is why I won't let you make yourself bait." (Slade, 266)

So, the unwise part wasn't going to war to preserve a white supremacist economic system sustained through uncountable suffering and degradation and deprivation of millions of human beings - rapes, tortures, kidnappings, beatings, families shredded, cultures erased and to sell your soul to try to keep your piece of it as a beneficiary of this massive evil. Oh no, the unwise thing was to do all that when victory wasn't feasible. Because if it'd been a couple of years earlier when Confederate victory still looked viable, then it would've been totally cool and not at all problematic.

I have zero tolerance for such shenanigans, hence the low score. Invoking a real life event/historical period as a way to curry the reader's favor (or at least the readers who aren't on the other side of that historical event and on going legacy, whatever it may be) for a character who benefits from that thing is a deal breaker for me and if I hadn't been so near the end, I would've just stopped and been done with this book.

While such an incident would've left a mark on Archer, there are major issues in focusing on his emotions, and having him center his account on his own pain without so much as a pause to account for Frederick's side of the story or any attempt to re-center Frederick in his own lived experiences, especially when he did most of the suffering in this tragic tale. There's no reflection of whether Frederick was really Archer's friend or if he regarded Archer as the master's son, as someone he had to be nice to, as perhaps even a means to secure his safety and maybe freedom later down the road, or in how Frederick and his family would've felt, how his mother would have felt having her child sold off, what it meant that he was taught to read at all and that his mother and he were evidently striving very hard for that. The fact that his mother could teach him at all and did is a story in and of itself that should be told.

And the fact that I've done more exploration of Frederick in this paragraph than Archer does in the whole book concerning someone he said was a "friend" says just about everything.

Compounding the White Man's Tears (hey, white men can have Tears, too. Just like White Women!) is that Sera doesn't even pause to say, "Oh, wow, poor Frederick!". She merely absolves Archer of responsibility, at which I laugh because fuck yes, he does bear responsibility, and then speak of Frederick running as something that needs taking responsibility for rather than it being the rightful, courageous if ill-fated efforts of a person who's basic human rights were being denied - violently so - by those around him.

The book (and Sera) seem to want to absolve Archer because he wasn't an adult and didn't "own" the plantation or the slaves. But to anyone who knows the history, it's beyond belief to absolve this man or to but I find it completely beyond belief that Archer, as his father's heir apparent, would not have had a hand in the day-to-day running of the farm, that he would not have been given an education on how to manage slaves (and by manage, one means buy, sell, breed, and keep captive), that he would have been totally innocent, just sitting by while his father was a cruel, horrible monster. I imagine his father would have taken him to slave auctions, taught him how to patrol with other white owners for runaway slaves. As he got older, especially before he went to war, I imagine he would've been given more responsibility for managing harvest and plantings - thus responsibility for ordering slaves to do things and being involved in punishing those who did not obey or tried to run away.

There's no evidence that Archer tried to help this so called friend escape or even said, "hey, you're my friend, when I'm in charge, I'll set you free!" or did anything but take advantage of an enslaved child who didn't really have the option of saying that he didn't want to hang out or play with Archer and then cry about his own hurt when that friend suffered for his association with Archer. Especially since I imagine that Archer's father finding out about Frederick's literacy (and his mother's) probably was not coincidental at all.

In addition, Slade's book imagines a startlingly un-diverse Chicago and band of talya. Apparently these demons want penance, they just mostly want it in the bodies of white men. I think some of the background talya that don't even get speaking parts may have been CoC (for instance, the character of Haji), but the main speaking parts all go to white people.

Gender Score: 4/10. The book states that Sera is the first female talya in centuries, though I wouldn't expect a book like this to get into whether there have been any non-binary talya or talya who were assigned male at birth but were trans women. There's no satisfying explanation given or even hinted at for why these demons looking to repent by throwing themselves into a battle against unending evil would only inhabit the bodies of (ostensibly) cis men. I can only posit that having demon possessed warrior chicks and warrior non-binaries running around would ruin the whole band of Abercrombie Models with faux-"tribal" tattoos vibe. Plus, it would fuck with the "One Special Girl" trope, which is weirdly misogynist on it's own because it makes a woman special just by virtue of her being the only woman there, so that she can bask alone in the radiant light of all that male attention. Which has the effect of further valuing the male gaze and men's opinions of someone while devaluing other women that are not the Designated Special Girl. In this book, not only is Sera Archer's love interest, but other talya hit on her or treat her like a little sister.

Nor was I tickled with the constant reminder that Sera will never be as powerful as Archer. From the first chapters, it's made clear that even with a demon, Archer's the truly strong one here:

"You'll be good," he growled. "If you survive. But you'll not be better than me." (Slade, 56)

Gee, I know always love a man that let's me know I'll be second best to him. [/sarcasm]

GLBT Score: 0/10. Save a "I'm not like that, dude" moment from one of the secondary talya when they discuss that there haven't been any female talya for centuries, there are no queer or trans or non-binary characters or situations or topics discussed. The tone of it rankled to me, mostly because it seemed like an auctorial insertion of "hey, now, just because it's been all hot guys all the time with no lady folk around for centuries, don't go thinking any of them would be like that. Don't panic, heterosexual readers, everything is nice and straight here!"

Ablism Score: 4/10. Sera Littlejohn starts out being a person with disabilities in this book, dealing with chronic pain issues after a car accident. It edged towards Bitter Cripple trope, though I can see how one would argue otherwise. I don't think PWD should always be shown as heroically carrying on, always smiling and happy and inspirational, but something in the book just didn't feel nuanced enough. I was also uncomfortable with insta-healing that the teshuva imparted, because it's so common in SF/F. Especially romance (because the hot hero could never fall for a disabled woman, it wouldn't be properly sexy!) Frankly, if the story had been about Sera as a PWD becoming part of the talya an not getting insta-healed, and perhaps finding acceptance and a place where her needs are accommodated and she's empowered with the talya, I would've eaten it up with a big spoon. But, that's the rules of Paranormal Romance. Only sexy people can hook up and disabled people just aren't sexy.

Plus, the book used the word "crazies" (or the singular "crazy") to describe people, and as we know, this gives me cause for some serious side eye-age.

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