Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Power Games... RNFF Review of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series

In a recent post on the Popular Romance Project web site, Jayashree Kamble discusses the rise of paranormal romances featuring heroes who are part human and part animal. As the construction of dominant masculinity popularized in 1950s-80's Harlequins and 70s-90s single-title romances has become less culturally acceptable (or, perhaps, simply less desirable) to many women raised in the wake of second-wave feminism, the alpha-hero who once dominated contemporary and historical romance has become, if not an endangered species, at least a far less commonly sighted beast. But he has found a safe haven in the subgenre of paranormal romance, a development that gives Kamble pause. "It is no grievous fault to desire a passionate hero," Kamble argues, "but when that translates into animality (and a dismissal of men who do not care to be animals), it is time to reassess the desire."

An early shape-shifter: Jupiter as bull abducts Europa
Just as I'm wary of critics who would dismiss the entire romance genre, I'm also suspicious of those who would reject a subgenre without looking at individual books within it. Do all paranormal romances that feature beast-men return readers to a male dominant/female submissive paradigm? Or are there differences between titles, and between authors? Do some books endorse female submission to the alpha male, while others espouse a more equitable relationship between hero and heroine?

Ilona Andrews' Magic series (Magic Bites, Magic Burns, Magic Strikes, Magic Bleeds, and Magic Slays) provides at least one example of a man-beast story which doesn't glorify the alpha male at the expense of any woman. Urban fantasy novels, the Magic books focus on action and suspense in an Atlanta transformed by repeated periodic incursions of magic. But romance, in the form of the developing relationship between the novels' narrator, mercenary Kate Daniels, and Curran, the shapeshifting leader of the "Pack," serves as an underlying leitmotif.

Curran's shapeshifters,  who include not only were-wolves, but also were-jackals, were-rats, were-bears, and, in alpha-male Curran's case, were-lion, are organized strictly along the biologically-based hierarchical lines common to pack animals: a dominant alpha rules over the entire group. Such is the appeal of many a man/beast tale: the alpha-male dynamic frowned upon in more realistic fiction gets validation from its occurence in the natural world of the beast half of the man/beast.

But Andrews' Pack also includes sub-alphas, who rule over each sub-group (for example, were-jackals have their own alpha, whom they obey, but who owes allegiance to Curran). Kate believes Curran "wasn't in charge because he was the smartest or the most popular; he ruled because of those three hundred and thirty-seven [shape-changers in Atlanta] he was unquestionably the strongest. He was in charge by right of might; that is, he had yet to meet anyone who could kick his ass" (Bites 52). Curran is called "alpha," "Your Majesty," or, most often, "The Beast Lord." Though Kate learns through the course of the series that there's a lot more to Curran than just physical strength, if you're looking for egalitarian political structures in your romance reading, you're not going to find them in Andrews' alternate Atlanta.

Leader of the Pack
But if political structures in the Pack are regressive, gender relations prove far more nuanced. The pack contains both male and female shape-shifters, and most sub-groups in the pack are lead by both a male and a female alpha. The alphas are generally mated (i.e., married or in a long-term-relationship) couples; the only exception to the male/female couples are a male-male alpha pairing, a welcome, unobtrusive nod to homosexual romance. Female as well as male shape-shifters fight and kill, and protecting the children of the pack seems a primary shape-shifter goal, no matter what gender one is (not surprisingly, given the action-based nature of the genre, little actual child-care is depicted in the novels).

Kate Daniels, the novels' heroine, is not a member of the Pack. But she proves herself the equal of any of its members, including its alpha leader. Readers are first introduced to Kate as she easily dispatches a vampire with a single toss of her knife. No damsel in need of rescuing, Kate is more than capable of saving not only herself, but also the denizens of Atlanta, whether they be human, shape-shifter, or even, when absolutely necessary, necromancer. She's also a rebel, a woman who hates authority with a capital H. Kate works as a freelance mercenary, unable or unwilling to be subject to the rules and regulations of any of the several institutions designed to do what she is best at: subduing magical threats and creatures. Looking for the embodiment of "kick-ass heroine"? Kate Daniels easily fits the bill.

As the series of Magic books unfurls, Kate and Curran engage in a cat and cat game, each trying to assert dominance over the other, each resisting the other's attempts to do the same. Curran assumes his usual tactics—intimidate via a mere show of his overpowering lion form—will lead to Kate's submission. Kate, in contrast, resists through wisecrack, using her anger (and fear) at being expected to be submissive to drive her ever-sarcastic mouth. For example, at their first meeting, she thinks:

     Where was he? I scanned the building, peering into the gloom. Moonlight filtered through the gaps in the walls, creating a mirage of twilight and complete darkness. I knew he was watching me. Enjoying himself.
      Diplomacy was never my strong suit and my patience had run dry. I crouched and called out, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty." (Bites 54).

Though Curran initially tries to intimidate Kate through word and appearance, and even through physical force, over the course of the series he learns that mere displays of power won't impress or subdue her. For she has power of her own, power different than his, perhaps even stronger than his in many ways. And she will never agree to subject her power to his.

Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles
But Curran can verbally spar with the best of them, and the insulting back-and-forthing between hero and heroine as each asserts her or his will in the face of one equally as strong gradually shifts to bantering designed to signal knowledge of the other, and even affection. My favorite bickering motif occurs when Curran teases Kate whenever he has to "rescue" her, when in fact all that's usually necessary is to take her to the infirmary after each battle she fights and wins. In the grand tradition of verbally-duelling detective couples like Nick and Nora Charles, The Avengers' John Steed and Emma Peel, and Moonlighting's Maddie Hayes and David Addison, Kate and Curran trade verbal ripostes between bouts of fighting the bad guys (and girls, and disgusting demonic creatures), and over the course of four books, gradually learn to trust each other and open themselves to vulnerability.

In an intriguing exploration of power, Kate and Curran also learn the dangers of their alpha-ness. Though were-wolf Derek, who becomes Kate's friend, protests her budding romance with a human doctor by arguing that "You're harder than he is.... The man's supposed to be harder. So he can protect," his real objection is that "He will never tell you no" (149, 150). But the head of any social hierarchy needs to have someone to stand up to him or her; otherwise, power becomes absolute, sliding from alpha-ness to despotism. Kate seems to be the only one who will stand up to Curran, who will disobey his orders, who will fight him, both physically and intellectually. And if she wants any kind of romantic relationship with Curran, Kate needs to recognize the need to compromise, to listen when he protests her plans, agreeing with him when she can see the reasonableness of his objections, proceeding if those objections simply wish to keep her safe from harm.

In Andrews' world, an alpha male doesn't need a submissive mate. He needs a woman with as much alpha-ness as he has. In Kate Daniels, alpha Curran meets his alpha-match.

What other man/beast romances explore the dynamics between two strong protagonists without forcing a heroine to cede her power?

Ilona Andrews, Magic Bites. New York: Ace Books, 2007.
      Magic Burns (2008)
    Magic Strikes (2009)
    Magic Bleeds (2011)
    Magic Slays (2012)



Photo/Illustration credits
• Titian, Rape of Europa (1562). Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
• Wolves sparring for dominance. Courtesy of Marty Sloane.
• Alpha lion. Courtesy of Christian Sperka.
• Myrna Loy and William Powell. Courtesy of Megan Walsh Gerard.

Next time on RNFF: Cheers for meta-fictive romance


  1. I agree that the man-beast novel doesn't necessarily conform and reproduce the male/dominate-female/submissive paradigm. Happily, you are suggesting books that I have not read. I, too, have noticed a trend where the Alpha needs a female as Alpha as he is. Truly, alphas are a mated pair, not a lone wolf on the top of the pack. This pack reality actually informed my own novel. Glad to see a more comprehensive look at the sub genre.

  2. JW:

    What other books (besides your own -- PRIDE MATES?) would you say are a part of this trend? I'm always on the look-out for new fantasy romances...

    -- Jackie

  3. I don't know any, but I'm surprised there aren't way more novels where the dynamic is a shapeshifer, were-creature or beast-man who is actively tamed and controlled by his female lover who, being human, rational and therefore powerful; rather than the man, wild, animalistic and in need of domestication. Whatever happened to the Circe-dynamic? Are romance writers not interested in that possibility?

  4. Perhaps early feminist retellings of the beauty and the beast story, which often focused on the woman needing to become open to the wild, beastly side of herself (i.e., her sexuality), have shaped the course of beast tales since? "Domestication" in this light is a negative, not a positive, force...

  5. Hi,
    Sorry to dredge up an old post, but if you're still interested in recommendations, try The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. The first book is called Soulless. The genre is a combination of steampunk and urban fantasy. To quote the jacket description: "SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking."

  6. I think people who are looking for a good vampire romance should read the night huntress series. My friend told me I should read it and once I read the first book I got hooked on the series

  7. I'm pretty late to this post too, but I love Mercy Thompson, there's a jane yellowrock which is actually meh, but still when you have nothing else to read. There's anne bishop's black jewels books, elder races, dragon kin, the phoenix pack series. There are so many paranormal shapeshifting romances which depict the heroine to be as alpha as the male. Its the main reason I'm attracted to paranormal romances so much.

    1. Hi, Sana. Thanks for the recommendations! I am definitely going to check out the dragon kin books!