Forbidden Magic
by Cheyenne McCray
(St. Martin’s, $6.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-312-93761-X
Although Forbidden Magic has some significant strengths, I wouldn’t say it’s a romance. The author has created a complex alternate reality with lots of sex – and there’s as much emphasis on skanky villain sex as there is on hero/heroine sex – so perhaps we’ll call it ‘fantasy erotica.’

Silver Ashcroft is a witch with the white D’Anu coven in San Francisco, but covertly practices gray magic to assist the ultra-secret Paranormal Special Forces. The objective of the PSF is to stop “illegal paranormal activities like ritual sacrifice and the use of magic to destroy property or steal expensive items.” Silver faces banishment if her use of forbidden gray magic is discovered.

Recently Silver and the PSF have discovered the Balorites, a “whole new breed” of warlocks who “intend to rule the underground magic world and ultimately take political power for themselves” using blood magic, “the blackest of all black magic.”

While rescuing a child kidnapped by the warlocks, Silver is surprised by “one of the most gorgeous men she’d ever seen” who sees through her invisibility glamour and speaks directly in her mind. Hawk is a winged D’Danann warrior, sent from Otherworld in response to Silver’s summoning spell. Hawk whisks the child to safety, but while Silver is entrapping the remaining warlocks she is nearly captured herself by the charismatic and powerful Darkwolf, who urges her to explore the seductive power of dark magic. It seems that the Balorites need powerful converts from the witch community to help them summon the Fomorii, evil beasts who will help them achieve world domination.

The first thing I should say is that Ms. McCray has created an enormously complex and vivid world, in which she has left no nook or cranny unexplored. It’s an impressive achievement, and one that is executed with complete integrity.

Having said that, however, the complexity of this world is also one of the book’s weaknesses. There is a huge cast of characters from a wide variety of races (Witches, Elves, D’Danann, Fomorii, Basiliks, Elementals, Balorites, etc.) and the story loses focus, particularly in the first half, every time the author stops to explain something about each character and the history of his or her race.

Momentum starts to build in the second half of the book, only to stall as a different kind of pattern develops. Good and evil come together and battle to a standstill with lots of casualties on both sides, then everybody goes home and has sex. Then there’s another battle, then more sex, and so on.

While I’m a fan of steamy romance, I found the sex in this book lacking in emotional context. The plethora of bad-guy sex seemed to exist so the author could describe the kind of encounters that are out of bounds for a romance hero and heroine (anal, multiple partners, domination, whipping, even a suggestion of lesbian activity). It was cold and more than a little mechanical.

Hawk and Silver also have lots of sex, but I found it difficult to believe in the love story precisely because they spent their time together either battling bad guys or screwing each other’s brains out. We get lots of information about what’s happening in their underwear but not enough about what’s happening in their hearts.

Complexity of characterization also suffers under the complexity of the world-building. Silver is a stereotyped feisty heroine who believes she knows better than everyone else in spite of lots of evidence to the contrary. Hawk is a hunky widower who’s sworn he’ll Never Love Again, and who’s supposed to be devoted to his small daughter, but goes to a tavern for dinner and drinks with a buddy instead of going home to see her.

The ending of the book is abrupt and leaves lots of loose ends, presumably To Be Continued. To be satisfying, there really needed to be a much bigger payoff – 400 pages is way too long for a prologue.

Ms. McCray has created an amazing world, but a good fantasy is about what happens in the fantasy world, not just a description of what the world looks like. And a good romance is about the joining of souls, not body parts.

-- Judi McKee

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