Dark Defender by Alexis Morgan
(Pocket, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-4165-2037-6
This book was an unexpected treat – like getting the last chocolate in the box and finding out it was exactly the one you wanted all along.

It’s set in an alternate reality that is all the more compelling because of the deceptive simplicity of the story-telling, the spare but powerful world-building and, most of all, a strong hero and heroine I could cheer for, and who struggled to achieve goals I cared about. Sounds simple when I put it like that, doesn’t it? If only more writers would heed Ms. Morgan’s example.

When Brenna Nichols sees her father die in a car bomb explosion, she at first assumes that the well-known judge was killed by a criminal with a grudge. That belief is shaken when the tragedy brings Blake Trahern back into her life after twelve years. Her father brought the adolescent Blake home to live, directing the young troublemaker away from a life of crime, and the younger Brenna naturally had a crush on him. He left town right after graduating from high school, however, and hasn’t been heard from since.

He’s there when she awakens in the hospital, though, and for some reason seems to think it is his responsibility to protect her and find out who murdered her father. Brenna is skeptical and not entirely cooperative, until Blake is finally forced to tell her the whole truth. Judge Nichols took Blake in because he recognized him as a Paladin – a genetic combination of human and Other. Others are beings from a parallel dimension who attack our reality through fault lines that open periodically. Paladins’ genetic makeup makes them extremely strong and intelligent, and gives them the ability to quickly recover from physical wounds, even revive after they’ve been ‘killed,’ although at considerable cost to their sanity.

The Paladins are the sword-wielding warriors who guard the fault lines and repel the Others when they attack, although occasionally Others slip through. Judge Nichols, unbeknownst to Brenna, was a Regent, a member of the cabal that oversaw and guided Paladin activities, and Blake believes the judge was killed because he discovered a traitor among them.

Ms. Morgan, to my enormous delight, starts her story (literally with a bang) right on page one. She tells us exactly what we need to know about the people and the situation when we need to know it – and isn’t afraid to keep us guessing when that would make the experience more fun.

Blake, while a fairly typical alpha, is nicely drawn and never falls into cliché territory. His character growth is accomplished slowly but inexorably during the book as he realizes that he might not be stronger alone, as he’d always assumed.

Brenna was the kind of heroine I’m always happy to see – one who lives up to her billing as a strong, smart woman. Yes, she makes mistakes, but they are always firmly in character and strengthen our view of her as a multi-dimensional person. It enhanced the physical side of the romance immeasurably that Brenna was Blake’s equal in bed. In the world of pain and killing that she’s stumbled into, she’s out of her depth, struggling with the reality of her father’s duplicity and the violent nature of Blake’s occupation. In the bedroom, though, she’s not afraid to be as demanding as her assertive mate. If Blake were ever tempted to put her on a pedestal, she’d simply refuse to stay put.

The pace is brisk, the writing effortless and the suspense plot keeps everything moving, enhancing the character development and the romance. Blake and Brenna’s relationship starts off simmering and ends up sizzling, but there was no doubt in my mind that these two were going to make a great partnership.

I should also be sure to tell you that this book stands beautifully on its own. I was aware that I was reading a book in a series, but never felt as though I’d missed anything crucial to this story by not having read the previous one. As it happens, though, since Ms. Morgan has proved herself such an adept storyteller I’ll be looking for both the last book and the next one.

-- Judi McKee

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