Heart of the Dragon

Playing With Fire
by Gena Showalter
(HQN, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-373-77129-0
“Earth, Wind & Fire aren’t just a band anymore” says the back cover blurb on Playing With Fire, which I kept moving to the bottom of my reading pile because it gave every indication of being the worst combination since “The Producers” brought us musical theater and Nazis – a chick lit paranormal. Ugh. Next time a Gena Showalter book shows up in my pile, it will definitely stay at the bottom, but only in a saving-the-good-stuff-for-last” way.

Belle Jamison is the anti-chick lit heroine. She does not have fabulous clothes and shoes or an interesting career. Shopping is not her hobby; Manolo Blahnik means nada to her. She lives in an efficiency apartment in Atlanta (but has no drawl, praise the gods), and is on about her 20th minimum wage service industry job since high school. She doesn’t tend to hold jobs for long (particularly those jobs that require that you kiss ass rather than kick ass – you know, service industry jobs), and even when she has one job she’s looking to get an additional one. Belle is the sole support of her father, currently a resident in an assisted living center where someone can monitor his heart medications and there is a convenient black market supply of Viagra.

Her wage-slave gig as a barista ends abruptly when she doesn’t show up for a week because she is sicker than a dog, so weak and disoriented that she doesn’t even realize that a whole week has gone by. She is informed of this passage of time by the hottie who is at her bedside when she awakens, discussing her over his walkie-talkie as the “subject,” as in, “Subject has stopped writhing and her skin is no longer tinted green.” Whoa, that sounds attractive. Poor Belle hadn’t just been sick. She’d been dosed with a formula that has given her superpowers – control over the earth’s elements (thus the “earth, wind and fire”). Belle has no conscious control over these powers, but the tall, dark and hot (in a semi-feral way) man by her bed is prepared to “neutralize” her regardless. This is Rome Matthews, an agent of Paranormal Studies and Investigations (PSI), but instead of killing her, he takes her into hiding to help her gain control over her powers. While he tutors her, they go on the lam, trying simultaneously to find the scientist who created the formula (and, Belle hopes, an antidote), to avoid the bad-guy paranormal agents who will want to imprison Belle for “experimentation purposes,” and to evade Rome’s boss, whose orders Rome is conveniently ignoring.

Even with all that danger, there’s still plenty of time for Belle and Rome to explore their intense attraction to one another, but their progressively hotter make-out sessions are repeatedly brought to a halt when Belle gets really hot – as in flames start jumping out of her fingers. Not having control over one’s superpowers apparently plays havoc with one’s love life. To gain control of the elements, she will need to get control over her emotions. But even before she was doped up, gaining control of her emotions was what she needed to do to gain control of her life. Her checkered past in the service industry wasn’t due to lack of skill; more like lack of appropriate attitude.

It is clear that Rome has undergone some sort of superpower mutation himself, but he’s not telling. He also has some kind of plans for Belle, but, again, he’s not telling. In fact, there is a lot that Rome doesn’t tell, and that’s easy to get away with because the story is told by Belle in first-person. Benefits – Belle’s got a great voice. Funny, self-deprecating, snarky, and not just a little potty-mouthed. Downsides? None, really. In fact, the reader doesn’t miss much from anyone’s POV because two of the secondary characters are super empaths, always detecting what others are feeling and then telling on them.

What else can you say about a non-chick lit paranormal? It’s all just ridiculous and you totally don’t care. It’s silly, sure, but it’s also sweet, steamy, and some other “s” word I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe just satisfying. Put Playing With Fire in your “to read” pile – wherever you put the good stuff.

--Laura Scott

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