Wild Kingdom!

Vampires are practically passé at this point. The ubiquity of Twilight and its brethren means that one can hardly look at a pale-faced man without suspecting him of being more interested in blood than babes, bites than bikinis. But in truth the world of paranormal heroes is wide and various. When’s the last time you looked at a broad-shouldered man and wondered if he was really a stegosaurus? Or tipped off a friend that her missing boyfriend just might be spending his free time circling trees as an eagle? Welcome to the realm of romances in which the hero’s anti-self is not obviously sexy: the ultimate Beauty and the Beast stories. Rather than coding sexy (as, arguably, vampires do), these heroes are, shall we say, biologically challenged.

Virgina Kantra eschews vampires for selkies, men on land and seals in the water. The selkies (Children of the Sea) live in continuous battle with demons (Children of Fire). In Kantra’s Sea Fever, Dylan Hunter has been ordered by the prince of the selkies to find out why demons are so interested in an island called World’s End. Dylan heads there, only to meet Regina Barone, a single mom stuck in a dead-end job working in her mother’s restaurant. Of course, Regina is snatched by a demon?and saved by Dylan. The only glitch in this classic plot is that, as Regina puts it, she’d been saved by “a giant seal.” It’s all very well if the Beast is tall, dark and wearing a tux, like the best vampires, but what if he’s an “aqua man,” as a sarcastic demon puts it? What if the Beast in question isn’t inherently sexy — in short, if his beastly qualities aren’t heroic? To put it another way, tall, dark and toothy easily translates into tall, dark and handsome — but in Kantra’s novels the author must fight to keep the reader from envisioning the plump, lazy seals of Animal Kingdom.

Of course, the key to the classic Beauty and Beast story is that the Beast needs Beauty more than she needs him. He’s trapped without her, stuck in a furry skin and a moldy old castle. Kantra brilliantly captures this central paradigm in Sea Fever: Dylan melts your heart by telling Regina that she doesn’t need him, only to add “But I need you.” Kantra does the same in her new novel, Sea Lord. The prince of the selkies, Conn ap Llyr, despairs because the Children of the Sea are dying out, getting caught in nets or rejecting their human forms and retreating into the water for good. A repeating vision leads him to a human, Lucy Hunter. On the face of it, Lucy isn’t going to be much help. Her mother was a selkie; her father is a drunk. She seems to have no powers of her own, but once Conn kidnaps her and takes her to his sanctuary?things change. Lucy not only has selkie gifts, but she wields a brand of magic so powerful that the world literally changes around her. Sea Lord is a classic kidnapping love story, but the twist that gives Lucy all the power adds a delicious spin to the archetypal plot.

Lisa Hendrix’s Immortal Warrior borrows the fairy tale story of the husband who turns into a bird during the day (I seem to remember that hero being a swan; an eagle is certainly less effeminate). Ivar Graycloak is a Viking warrior cursed by a sorceress to live as an eagle by day and a man by night. When he finds himself married to Lady Alaida, a tough, beautiful and logically-minded woman, he’s in trouble. For one thing, after their wedding night he refuses to sleep with her, terrified that he’ll impregnate her with a winged baby. Poor Alaida finds herself lusting after a man who appears all too ready to dismiss marital pleasures. As in Kantra’s novel, the form which the hero takes is not obviously sexy. While I love watching an eagle drift on a current, the bird definitely doesn’t code alpha. But Hendrix transforms feathery to fantastic by weaving her plot around Alaida’s power to save Ivar. Like Lucy, Lady Alaida turns out to have a few magical gifts of her own. But it is her love, not her powers, that will break the sorceress’s spell. Hendrix’s Immortal Outlaw publishes next month and promises to be just as romantic; the hero, one of Ivar’s friends, spends his days as a lion.

Nina Bangs’s Eternal Craving goes to the opposite extreme. If Conn’s and Ivar’s animal shapes don’t imply “tall, dark, and dangerous,” Al’s animal double does — with an emphasis on dangerous. Al was scooped up and brought to the present as part of a group of ultimate warriors. Not to beat about the bush, in the old country he was an allosaurus. As the heroine, Jenny Maloy, describes him, “his face had a primal savagery that would send most women searching for a cozy cave.” The key to this novel is Bangs’s terrific sense of humor: Al is matched up with Jenna, who spends her time writing for tabloids. But as she laments, given that no one ever believed her alien abduction stories, how could they possibly believe what was happening to her now?

My dinosaur education is limited to Jurassic Park, so I had trouble remembering what an allosaurus looked like. Never mind that; Bangs has done her homework and it turns out that once transformed, Al has a massive head, S-shaped neck and short arms that ended in claws. I can’t say this T-Rexish form sounds seductive to me, but Bangs works with it: “those eyes were like nothing she’d ever seen, a window to a time before history, when death walked the Earth in its most elemental form.” In short: flat-out dangerous. This is a novel that veers wildly between upending romantic clichés and reveling in the Beauty meets Beast convention. Jenny’s love doesn’t result in Al shedding his allosaurus shape, but in his learning about human emotion; she literally teaches him to love. Bangs does a great job of creating a world in which savage beasts come alive in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, laying waste to some Turners, and biting the heads off various evil creatures. But the core of the story is Jenny’s courage, as she looks past the crazy dinosaur body and takes Al’s heart.

Christine Feehan is, of course, a master of the B&B story. In Burning Wild, she turns from her usual vampire fare to the story of a leopard-shifting billionaire, Jake Bannaconni. After an accident that takes the life of his estranged girlfriend, he hires Emma Reynolds as a nanny for his child, triggering the familiar governess plot. Yet Jake is a beast in more ways than one. The survivor of brutal child abuse, he sees himself as “a child shaped and molded into a monster.” Jake has the same trouble Al does with his animal nature: he’s not entirely in control. During a fit of anger, for example, he’s liable to feel a wave of fur slide down his back. But if Jenna is accepting of Al’s biological drawbacks due to a career spent making up wild stories, Emma is unsurprised by Jake’s leopard because she’s hiding a furry predisposition of her own. Emma learns to control her own leopard, but the story is really about how she tames Jake’s beast — or perhaps, more accurately, how she teaches the beast to tame himself.

In each of these novels, Beauty tames the Beast by falling in love with him, fur, fangs, feathers and all. The authors revel in their imaginative worlds, creating absorbing, if incredible, stories in which love triumphs over biology itself. If you’d like to discuss the Wild Kingdom of paranormal heroes, please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she’ll be joined by Virginia Kantra and Nina Bangs. You can check out Eloisa’s past columns in the Archives. And if you’d like a peek at Eloisa’s own romances, please visit her website at www.eloisajames.com.

And finally, Barnes & Noble has a new romance expert! Check out Michelle Buonfiglio’s posts on romance, which will be up every Tuesday in the Unabashedly Bookish blog — don’t miss them!