It seems to me that J.R. Ward readers fall into two categories. There are the one-timers, those who make a valiant attempt based on all the hype only to set the book aside, unable to get past the rather ridiculous names, even more ridiculous slang, and shameless product name-dropping. Then there are those of us who, while not blind to the series’ many flaws, are drawn to it time and again for its literary sugar-high of over-the-top characterizations and unique worldbuilding.
Yet even among her fans, Lover Unleashed has garnered a surprising amount of criticism. Much of this disgruntlement is attributed to the fact that her latest release seems rather disjointed, includes too many points of view, and lacks the emotional depth of some of her earlier efforts. Others dislike the female protagonist, Payne, and claim that there is no heat in the romance she shares with Manny. Despite the many critiques, I was ecstatic to finally get my hands on a copy last week and eagerly consumed the nearly 500-page behemoth over the course of an afternoon. As always, J.R. Ward provided me with literary escapism. And, while I can definitely see where the critics are coming from, I honestly don’t know what has them so upset. Lover Unleashed is another solid effort from the Warden, giving us the sizzle we all crave and bringing back the characters we’ve grown to love.
It’s true, LU isn’t the best example of the depth of feeling that Ward has been able to achieve in the past (for that, just look to fan favorite Lover Awakened or my own personal favorite, Lover Mine). Yet, it is by no means on level with her worst, which is rather unanimously considered to be Phury’s story. At that point, many feared that Ward was abandoning her paranormal romance focus and heading into urban fantasy to focus on her worldbuilding. Luckily, she proved the doubters wrong with Lover Avenged, once again ramping up the emotional intensity and character depth. And while LU isn’t quite up to par emotionally compared to her last two releases, neither is it a regression. Rather, it is a necessary transitional book. Most would agree that Vishous’s story felt somewhat incomplete at the conclusion of Lover Unbound. There was still so much to mine with the V-Butch dynamic, and Ward must have realized this as well, for LU is for all intents and purposes Lover Unbound’s sequel. Yes, Payne is billed as the protag, and yes she is on the cover. But, while it was nice to witness her HEA, her story ultimately served as a catalyst to get us back to Vishous and Jane, who proved that their story had a lot left to tell. I for one am impressed with how Ward dealt with the V and Butch storyline; I was expecting it to be somehow slightly more explicit, and was actually pleased with how it played out.
Rounding out the book’s transitional quality was the introduction of Xcor and his gang of Brother-esque vamps. While I’m not completely sold on Xcor yet, I see a lot of potential for character growth and trust in Ward to win me over. Among some of the other criticisms I’ve heard are those complaining that, for all of her supposedly wicked fighting skills, Payne is quite the emotional weakling (pray, I cannot deny that this is a correct interpretation). Still, considering the hardcore personality that was Xhex in the last book, I actually didn’t mind that Payne wasn’t the ultimate warrior female. Her strength combined with femininity was a take that hasn’t quite been shown in BDB females before, so I appreciated that Ward tried to write against expectations.
And honestly, to respond to all of the haters, let’s face it; how much of your disappointment was really rooted in the fact that there was no Quay? Over the past few books, Ward has cemented a fanship for these two male characters that quite possibly rivals that for any of the previous books’ protagonist couples. Considering all of the revelations in Lover Mine, the dearth of Quay development in LU likely annoyed many readers. Yet, to them I say, give the Warden time. She has already promised us that their story will be told, and I for one would prefer that story to be given primary focus. So for now, I will wait, and be as patient as I can be. And eagerly count the days until Tohr’s story is released, with maybe a smidgen of hope for some Quay action.