Review: Lover Reborn by J.R. Ward

Verily, I do believe this was a letdown.

Before I get started on one of the several ensuing rants, let me preface this review by stating that the Black Dagger Brotherhood series remains one of my favorite of the genre. I still anticipate the next book as soon as I’ve finished the last, and I run out to the bookstore to buy it as soon as I can. Considering the fact that my taste for paranormal fiction in general has been waning of late, it’s a testament to the strength of the characters Ward creates that my loyalty to her books remains steadfast. Truly, had this been a book by any other author, I might have been persuaded to rate it more highly, but knowing what the Warden is capable of, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Lover Reborn just didn’t capture me the way most of the previous books have.

Lover Reborn by J.R. Ward

While a large portion of Ward’s fan base was disappointed with her last effort, Lover Unleashed, I actually enjoyed Payne’s story far more than I thought I would. Setting aside grievances such as the fact that we hadn’t gotten to know the protagonists that well in previous books and the ever-annoying instalove, Ward managed to convince me of Payne and Manny’s feelings.

Unfortunately, where reading early negative reviews made my ultimate reaction to Lover Unleashed a pleasant surprise, I fear the inverse affected my reading experience for Lover Reborn. A glowing rating on Goodreads and reviews praising the book as Ward getting back to form had my anticipations pretty darn high going into this one, but I should have known better. For one thing, while I’m sure I’m in the minority with this opinion, I’ve never really warmed up to Tohr. Despite having known the Brother since the very beginning, I’ve never gotten a grasp on his personality as I have the other Brothers, and that which I did see I never clicked with. Even before losing his Shellan early in the series, his persona seemed somewhat bland in comparison to the other dynamic characters residing at the Brotherhood mansion; after Wellsie died, his absence from the next several books and ghostly presence in the last few did little to further endear me to him, despite feeling sorry for the trials he’s been forced to endure.

Lover Reborn did little to change my opinion of Tohr, and rather effectively sealed the deal that the most I will feel toward his character is ambivalence. This is generous, considering the fact that I could go so far as to say he struck me as a petulant, selfish scoundrel throughout many parts of the book, and I don’t think he did nearly enough to deserve having those epithets erased from his character description. While I can only guess at the pain and misery attendant with losing a mate and a child, Tohr’s interactions with John throughout previous books and No’One in this book left much to be desired from the once compassionate Brother who served as a pillar of strength for those he loved. The way he treats No’One in particular is inexcusable; I don’t care whether it was his idea to start with, because the manner in which he proceeded to deal with her was callous and shallow and made me yearn for the days when Ward’s main romance had my stomach twisted in knots from happiness rather than disgust.

That being said, I shake my head at Ward’s insistence that this was the right time to allow Tohr’s story to progress and, necessarily, to have him move on from Wellsie’s death. Though the series is going onto double digits now, looking back over the chronology of the series, most of the events have taken place over the course of two to three years, by my calculations. This is set against the backdrop of a series of characters who have already lived for centuries, which leads me to wonder how it could be that all of these characters who have searched for their mates for so very long could all be fortunate enough to have found them in such a short window of time. Fifteen months is no time at all in the real world to expect someone to have moved on from a grief so great, so it makes no sense to me for Tohr’s brothers to pressure him to do the same in a timeframe that, for them, should be no more than the blink of an eye. Crafting a convenient (and heretofore unheard of) plot device like the In Between didn’t help me to swallow this hefty pill, and conditioning Tohr’s relationship with No’One on helping him to save Wellsie left a bitter taste in my mouth.

While I can see how, in another time and place, allowing a past love to inspire a new one could be a beautiful tribute, Lover Reborn didn’t capture that sentiment. Had Ward allowed Tohr’s grieving process to play out in the sidelines of another novel, then his gradual acclimation to a life without Wellsie could have been a lovely sort of second love story, one with a bittersweet ending that would open the door to potential love in the future. Yet he wasn’t ready for this, and neither was I as the reader. I assume that we were supposed to get swept up in Tohr unknowingly falling in love with No’One in the midst of ardent self-denial, but that denial was too effective in my case, because I never saw anything beyond lust on Tohr’s part, making the ultimate love declaration too abrupt and hollow to save the five-hundred pages that had gone before.

What makes this lost potential more disappointing is the fact that I actually didn’t mind No’One. Granted, this isn’t a ringing endorsement of her character, but based on Ward’s past depictions of members of the Chosen and Glymera, I was expecting yet another weak-willed, subservient woman whose sole purpose was to please any male within twenty feet of the vicinity. While No’One did occasionally lapse in into the “verily” and “mayhaps” mould, she was by far the most headstrong of all such female characters we’ve been introduced to. I had little trouble believing that her martyr-like tendencies developed not out of the anachronistic trappings of her caste, but rather from a self-imposed punishment for the pains in her past. I warmed to her enough to respect her decisions, yet for someone whose convictions have led her to forsake her family, her friends, her name, her very existence, I could not understand how she so easily allowed Tohr to strip her of the trappings that she’s clung to for centuries. Ward lets us inside her head, but never to analyze her own emotions, an odd choice considering the fact that she was a protagonist.

That being said, what saved this book for me were the side stories, which probably didn’t comprise more than a sixth of the overall book, yet that shined far more brightly than the main storyline. First, might I say, thank the Scribe Virgin for Xhex. She’s long been my favorite female character in the series (and one of my favorites overall), and I’m so glad Ward hasn’t sacrificed her character development for the sake of allowing the overarching plot to progress in whatever fashion Ward is deadset upon. That’s not to say that I particularly enjoyed watching Xhex and John’s relationship strained so soon after mating, but it was believable and completely in keeping with their characters. Even in the midst of a marital crisis, their scenes were ten times as passionate as any of Tohr and No’One’s encounters, which does much to recommend what has turned out to be one of my top relationships in the series. I would have liked to witness first-hand Xhex and No’One forge the tentative bonds of a mother-daughter relationship rather than being relegated to gleaming knowledge from the sidelines, but I’m glad Ward went there nonetheless as Xhex has long needed some validation, no matter how self-sufficient she claims to be.

I’m still not sure I’m all behind the Band of Brothers storyline (though it’s a marked improvement from the Lesser chapters that proliferated in earlier novels), yet I’m warming to Throe and am open to the possibility of saying the same for Xcor. I don’t particularly like him much yet, and the fact that both of them seem fixated on Layla does little to convince me of either character’s worth or sanity, yet I can see Ward developing these three relationships in an interesting way in future novels. At least it gives her a few more characters to play with, since she seems to be running out at the moment. One big exception to that is Lassiter, whom I’ve never felt strongly about in the past, but I’m happy to say has secured a firm place in my heart after the events of this book. I’m glad to hear he has his own story in the works, though I hope it takes place in the Black Dagger world as opposed to the Fallen Angel series.

Of course, the main reason I read this book wound up occupying perhaps twenty pages in total, yet they were definitely worth it. In unison, all Qhuay lovers rejoice, because their time has indeed come, and while I am quite frankly furious with some of the choices Ward made in this novel that will have enormous ramifications in their story, I’m willing to forgive her at the moment because nothing can eclipse my joy over the fact that the next full novel will finally see these two friends fight for the relationship that has been a long time coming. Qhuinn’s character development was lovely to watch in this book, as he’s finally grown into the man he was always meant to be. My only tears came during one very important scene regarding his character, and the significance it has for the future is so very much deserved. While it’s still painful to watch Blay and Saxton together, I do hope that Ward has something special for Sax waiting in the wings, because honestly, that man is a saint not only to put up with what he has, but to voluntarily become the instrument that will allow this couple to grasp their future together.

I could wax poetic about my unhealthily high expectations for the next book, or about my fears that Ward won’t be able to overcome some of the awful decisions she’s made regarding their relationship so far, or about how much I wish Layla had remained a pretty little scribble of an idea on a margin of a page of Ward’s notebook rather than a presence that will likely pollute close to a third of the upcoming novel. For now, I’ll simply say that for fans of the Brothers, this book is a necessary step, if not the backslide that was Lover Enshrined, yet it doesn’t approach Ward’s best work. Still, it’s better than most of its peers, and portends great things for the future of the series.

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