Tour’s Books Blog

April 22, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Undercover by Lauren Dane

Lauren Dane is one of the better authors out there doing erotic romance.  In my opinion, she’s far better than the popular Lora Leigh whose motto is “If you love me, you’ll let me fuck you in the ass.”  (Those butt plugs are unisex and I know just where I’d shove them.)  Dane’s a very good storyteller, creative, witty, and capable of drawing original characters and plots and breathing life into her tales.  Her Witches Knot series is a really good urban fantasy series and I loved Enforcer, the first book of Cascadia Wolves and Tri-Mates was very good too.  Strangely, she’s one of those authors who seems to do her best work in the early books of a series and then slacks off.  It’s like she gets tired of her characters or runs out of ideas.  Certainly the Cascadia Wolves had the weakest books as the series went on and the one book that needed to be a standout was Cade’s story, Standoff, and that was average plus it turned a previously well liked character into a person I didn’t like.  Witches Knot faltered off and on after the third book, the exception being Thrice United, which was very good.

Dane has used domination and submission in several of her books to varying degrees with and without ménage.  In Undercover, a futuristic novel, she uses D/s and ménage in combination.  (Why is it, regardless of when or where, males always are into the same kink?)  I have said before, I am just not into the whole BDSM mindset.  Even though Dane never carries her D/s to the extremes of many authors, and does treat her heroines with greater respect for their intelligence and independence, it’s still a hurdle for me.  It makes me feel all snarky and snarky is not a good look for a groundhog.  With that admission in mind – here we go.

Undercover is set in set once upon a time, somewhere in space – not Earth’s future.   (Know how you can tell?  They all say “Gods damn it!”  See, sure sign it’s space ………. or an alternate world or maybe a paranormal/urban fantasy.  Take my word for it, this one is sex in space.)  Lieutenant Sera Ayers of the Federation Military Corps has been summoned by her commanding officer, Subcommander Yeager, for new orders – not with the team she’s worked so hard to get.

Pissed off and ready for a fight she gets more than she bargained for when Commander Ash Walker, her lover and ‘master’ ten years ago, is there – as her new boss.  She greets him as he deserves – “Fuck you,” she snarls, landing a solid right hook to his jaw. (Two thumbs up for Sera.)

Ten years ago Ash Walker taught Sera how to surrender and be his submissive.  An interpreter for the diplomatic corps, after the break up with Ash, she moved to the military corps.  The Federation is dominated by the Ranked Families, old extended business/blood lines that effectively run the Federation and employee the vast majority of the people outside the military.  The Federation is trying to keep the Imperialists (Fascists) from winning control of anymore of the outer systems.  The war has been going on for many years and it’s the ordinary people that have been doing the bulk of the fighting and dying.   Both Ash and his partner Paracommander Brandt Pela are both from high Ranking Families.

Sera has rebuilt her life and wants nothing to do Ash Walker, but Ash isn’t giving her any options.  She’s forced to report to her new quarters where Ash and Brandt live.  A confrontation after dinner in their quarters when Ash collars Sera with his hands has Ash on the floor with Sera’s boot on his throat.  Brandt just manages to get her to calm down so he can speak with her, but he realizes she’s just barely holding it together.  There’s a problem on Nondal, a patriarchal world where females are ‘owned’ by males as concubines or wives, and concubines have more freedom.  They need her to pose as the concubine because she speaks Nondalese and can do the upper class accent.  (Why are these world’s never Matriarchal with the guys as sexual submissives?)   The Nondalese are a paranoid and insular people.  Sera agrees, but she will only pose as Brant’s concubine, not Ash’s.  Then she’s hit with the last bit of information – Brandt is the brother of the woman Ash married.  Her break up with Ash happened after professed his love for Sera then the next day offered her a contract as his mistress with her own apartment near the new house where he and his wife would live.

After Sera sends them away, Brandt and Ash realize this might be too much (Ya think?), but Ash wants Sera back – and he wants Brandt too, the three of them together.  Brandt and Ash have a longstanding sexual relationship and switch back and forth on the dominant role.  Ash wants Sera and knows he made a huge mistake with her.  He broke more than her heart, he broke trust, and that will take a great deal to overcome.

Sera gets help from her brother to gather more information that seems to point to the Families profiting from the wars on the frontiers, especially the Stander Family.  As she pieces all the reports and her brother’s research together, she realizes that this is indeed a job that has to be done and one she is best qualified for.  She reconciles herself to what must do and manages to make peace with it – at least as far as Brandt is concerned.

As the story progresses, the three struggle to begin functioning as they will be expected to on Nondal.  Since Sera will be posing as Brandt’s concubine, this includes growing used to his touch – among other things.  Sera even gets hair extensions, semi-permanent makeup and body sculpting to look more like a true Nondal concubine.  Her real problem isn’t getting into the role of sexual submissive, it’s can she get back out when the mission is done?  She’s very deeply attracted to Brandt and she already knows what Ash can do to her – she might still love him, but doesn’t trust him and wants to avoid it getting hurt by him again.

Dane does a balancing act here between Sera the military officer and Sera/Sela the sexual submissive.  The relationship that Brandt builds with her is more than cover, it’s what he wants for real.  Ash wants to get back with her and a run in with his ex-wife, Kira, on Nondal gives him the chance to reestablish his bond with her and to start the relationship as a permanent ménage.

Sera picks up all kind of useful information from Delia and Rina, concubines to another of the Family males and a Nondalese official.  At a party, attended only by the men and the concubines and mistresses it becomes apparent there is a group of people from the Families selling information to the Imperialists.  Information continues to come from Rina, the Nondalese’s official concubine, who is very astute and frightened at how deep her man is getting into a very dangerous area.  It starts to explain the odd presence of so many Families on this world.

A search of their cottage the next day means they’re under suspicion and in danger.  They spend a few hours on the transport ship before going back to their new quarters – to find Kira already there waiting for them with the news Giles Stander has been murdered.

Time to leave for real, but Kira insists on seeing Rina to see if she wants or needs help before departing Nondal.  Ash’s and Brandt’s high-handed reaction has her pissed, and she goes anyway – with them acting as reluctant escorts.  Rina is grateful and gives her a decorative hair comb as a parting gift, but refuses to leave.  After they’re on the ship returning to their home base, Sera shows them the microchip that Rina gave her hidden in the hair comb.

A little more digging and research on the way back to Borran, their base planet, gives them a better picture.  Once back in their military quarters, they quickly separate to go to their families.  Sera needs her brother’s help to crack the encrypted chip and get more banking information on the key suspects – in slightly less than legal ways.  Brandt has gotten his father, himself a military veteran, to agree to approve a marriage to Sera, an unranked female.  This is nearly unheard of, but will grant Sera the protection of his Rank and respectability.  When Brandt and Ash return to their quarters on Borran, finding Sera gone to her brother’s, Brandt tells Ash of his intention to marry Sera.  Ash is distraught and fears he will be shut out of the relationship.  Brandt convinces him that they can make it work and suggests Ash take Sela as an official mistress (they have contracts and everything) after the wedding.

They immediately go to Sanctu to find and convince Sera to marry and sign the contract as mistress, which they promptly do in the equivalent of a Las Vegas wedding (no Elvis sightings), then celebrate in the usual style.  The next day they go to arrest the traitors with the help of soldiers from Ash’s commanding officer.  Sera gets injured saving the life of Ash’s father – who is remarkably ungrateful and demands that Ash make another marriage.  His father relents and realizes this scandal might have a silver lining with an unranked female now connected to their Family.

Overall, Undercover was a good read, but it had some conspicuous deficits.  The settings and most of the rather sketchy secondary characters never felt real.  This made the whole story seem less vibrant.  Setting a scene in a futuristic tale using worlds that must be created with no frame of reference for the reader takes far more skill than just sketching in a setting in New Orleans as she did for Witches Knot.  No, you don’t have to create Middle Earth or Ring World or even Dreampark, but you do need to dress the stage with more than a few curtain panels labeled ‘com room’, spacecraft’ and ‘Nondal’.  In many ways, it’s harder to pull off a futuristic book than urban fantasies like Witches Knot or Cascadia.  Those stories use existing locations – it’s Earth, maybe a little different with Cascadia, but still completely familiar to the reader.  Futuristics that are not derived from Earth history are abstracts to the reader who has no knowledge of the place and people.  The context becomes the sole responsibility of the author.  New Orleans is real and we all have a sense of how the city feels, smells, the atmosphere, culture, rhythm of life, even how people interact and why.  Beyond the bit about concubines and dress, nearly as I can tell Nondal as a lot like a big Nieman-Marcus plopped on Rodeo Drive with restrictions like an Arab nation on females alone.  The interstellar craft was just – hell, I don’t know, a ship of some size that somehow moves through portals – though what they are remains a mystery – to get from world to world.  We never even met the crew – who could have been the damn Keebler elves for all I know.

Then there’s the issue with Kira and some of the important minor players – especially those left off-stage till the end, like Ash’s uncle and younger brother.  The whole motivation sits there and isn’t even a scent in the air till the last 10 pages.  Kira come off like a classic spoiled, self-centered rich girl and nothing more.  As an important character in the past and present of the heroes and heroine she should be a solid presence, yet she’s – what?  Aside from her hair color and body type and a boatload of spite and pettiness, she’s another piece of wallpaper.  Perry barely even makes that level, yet he is very significant to the treason plot.  Rina, the concubine that befriends Sera/Sela, gains some depth, as does Delia, yet neither is as significant as Perry and his father, Ash’s uncle.

As with all of Dane’s books, there is a real story here and it’s an interesting one, but not her best work.  Undercover isn’t like Enforcer, Triad, Thrice United or Tri-Mates where the story and the relationship have nearly equal weight.  In Undercover the tension among the three leads on the romance part was well executed and felt right, but the sense of urgency and involvement with their assignment to find the traitors just drifted in the background instead of sharing center stage.  Since the two elements are actually tied together, this was a lost opportunity for building both the characters and the traitor storyline into a much more intense plot.  For those who want to read about nothing except a relationship with lots of sex and some kink, that will be a plus.  For me, especially given Dane’s considerable storytelling skills, it was disappointing.  Undercover could have been a real barn burner of a book rather than a good, but not exceptional erotic romance.

I genuinely liked Sera, Ash and Brandt and enjoyed their story, even if I do have problems understanding D/s, it never really bothered me much here.  Sera is smart, strong and independent and doesn’t roll over for Ash and Brandt like some simpering wimp.  Both men must exert considerable emotional energy get and keep the relationship working and convince Sera to make this arrangement permanent.  In the end, Sera does have the pleasure of seeing the snobs caught in the web of their own making.  The sex is hot and the D/s elements didn’t overwhelm the love part till it felt twisted, as it so often does to me in BDSM stories.  (I often feel like I should bathe my brain on Clorox® after some of those.) There is far more sex here than in her previous books.  Sometimes it felt like the sex was thrown in because there simply hadn’t been any for awhile, so let’s add some here.  The established relationship between Ash and Brandt is very well done, quite believable and adds depth to  the story.  I just wish Dane had expended more time and effort developing the surrounding story which would have taken the book up several notches.

My Grade: C+ to B- (3.7*) NOTE:  Amazon rates this books at 4.5*

Who would enjoy this book:  Fans of Dane’s books might find the plot a shade slighter than her best, but will enjoy her characters.  Fans of Lara Santiago and Kaitlyn O’Connor.  My rating would be XXX.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Relentless by Lauren Dane is her second futuristic novel in the Known Universe series and sequel to Undercover. I’d love to say she knocked it out of the park, but once again, the world building, did her in. […]

    Pingback by Relentless by Lauren Dane (erotic romance) « Tour’s Books Blog — June 26, 2009 @ 7:21 pm | Reply

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