Title: Virgin (Awakenings #1)
Author: Jessica Freely
Publisher: Loose Id
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance.
Length: 73 pages
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
A guest review by Jenre
Joam is a varnal, a shape-shifter endowed with otherworldly sexual powers, but his talents go untapped because he fears the beast within himself — not to mention he can’t let anyone know he’s gay. Working a dirty job for slave wages, Joam is unaware that his boss at the auto shop, Higgs, has his own reasons for keeping him a virgin. Higgs is part of a cabal of evil sorcerers who control the tiny, isolated town of Beulah, and they’ve made a deal with Gregor Walsh, a powerful varnal from the big city who needs a special sacrifice for an arcane ritual.
The last thing hustler Blake ever wanted to do was discover that Walsh, the most dangerous pimp in the city, is secretly a varnal. Now, Blake is running for his life. When his car breaks down outside of Beulah, he finds more than just a mechanic in Joam. Blake has done it all, but when it comes to making love with a varnal, he’s a total virgin. It doesn’t stop him, or Joam, from enjoying the experience to the fullest.
But when Higgs and Walsh discover that their pristine sacrifice has been deflowered, there’s hell to pay.
This paranormal shape-shifter romance begins really well. In two separate sections we are introduced to our teenage heroes. Nineteen year old Blake has been making his living on the streets for years after being thrown out of his home for being gay. Now though, after witnessing the local crime boss shift into a creature which sucked the life out of one of his whore friends, Blake is on the run. He’s got nothing except a small amount of cash and the clothes he’s wearing – tight demin shorts, red cut off T shirt and red books scream the words ‘gay hooker’ to any one he may come across. He’s travelling across country at high speed when his truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere and Blake’s only hope is in the form of a hick town on the horizon. Joam lives in the hick town, Beulah, where he works as a mechanic for Higgs, an abusive man who took Joam in after his mother was killed. Joam is part native American and generally despised in the town which is all but run by three men, one of whom is Higgs. Joam’s greatest secret is that he is gay and he fantasises about a fictional man dressed in a red t-shirt, demin shorts and red boots. Imagine his surprise when his fantasy man turns up at the shop asking for his help.
As I’ve said, I really liked this opening. It was a bit corny the way that Blake turned out to be Joam’s fantasy man, but I could go with that idea. I also liked the way that the two men tentatively interact, leading to a beautifully tender sex scene. However, after that scene everything went downhill rapidly as what started as an exciting, well written story about the budding relationship between a virgin and a whore, turned into a paranormal peopled with unbelievable stereotypes, oddly described creatures which had sex with humans, heaps of co-incidences and an all round confusing mix of different types of paranormal occurrences.
It turns out that Joam is a varnal, just like the local crime boss that sparked Blake’s flight from the city. A varnal is described as follows:
Lean-bodied and long-legged, with a deep chest and pointed ears, the thing resembled a large greyhound. But the eyes bespoke a keen intelligence, and the front paws were long and delicate, almost like hands.
As far as I can work out, varnals are creatures who look like dogs with human hands who gain energy from sucking the sexual passion from people. They do this by essentially causing a human to become sexually aroused and then sucking the energy from them, sometimes until they are dead. This is all well and good but I have to admit I’m not fond of shifted sex and the scene where Joam in his shifted form gives Blake a blow job made me feel a bit queasy. I also couldn’t understand whether varnals had any other uses other than sexual predators. It’s never very clear how Joam happened to be a varnal, how varnals came into being or why, when they seem to be basically aggressive creatures, Joam is placid and an all round ‘good guy’. This confusion with the world building created more questions than answered them and I was left feeling a bit flummoxed by the end of the book.
The other part which didn’t work was in the characters of the three evil sorcerers who, despite their powers, didn’t seem to have a brain cell between them. Their magic was easily overcome and they were painted as far too much ‘the bad guys’ with little or no subtlety to their characterisations. Alongside this was the character of Gregor Walsh who wanted Joam to be a virgin so he could absorb his power. Yet again I didn’t feel that this part of the plot was explained very well and Gregor seemed only to be there to add a climactic action sequence. This coupled with the coincidence that the man Blake was running from was the same man who was after Joam made the whole last section rather cartoonish and lacking in any tension. Despite the build up with both Blake and Joam being captured and possibly sacrificed to Gregor, the way that they escaped was so easily done that it spoiled that build up from before.
So whilst the start of the book had great potential, good characterisation in both Blake and Joam and the build up to an interesting romance, in my opinion the book was let down by sloppiness in the world building and falling into the trap of stereotyping the bad guys. What a shame, especially as the author’s prose is good and the book clipped along at a fast pace. There’s another book in this Awakenings series called Instinct and I think I shall read that book because I liked the written style, plus the author does show some promise but I can’t say I can wholeheartedly recommend Virgin which will be of interest to fans of the author and perhaps those who like shifter books.