Lions and Tigers and...Heroes? Oh My!

The Greek gods have always struck me as a reliable gauge of male fantasy life. Jupiter makes love to as many women as efficiently as he can (the rain of gold coins by which he visited Danae is a classic), zapping enemies with lightning bolts in his spare time. Yet despite the fact that it is male gods whose urges get so exuberantly depicted, I?ve started wondering whether perhaps female writers were the ones to create the myths in the first place. The thought that Ovid and his fellow mythologists may really have been women occurred to me after reading a recent crop of paranormal romance novels in which the sexiest heroes give Jupiter a run for his money, transforming not into faintly effeminate swans, as Jupiter did to abduct Leda, but into predatory, powerful felines.

Christina Dodd?s Darkness Chosen series pivots around a bargain struck between the devil and a brutal Russian warrior, giving him and his descendants the ability to take the shape of a predator. Dodd?s series follows a branch of the modern family as they try to break the agreement by domesticating their predatory selves. In Dodd?s third novel in the series, Into the Shadow, Adrik Wilder (a.k.a. Warlord) uses his panther shape to lead a brutal gang of mountain pirates -- until he falls in love with Karen Sonnet. A panther?s seduction is more direct than roses or chocolate; Adrik whisks Karen off to his secret camp and chains her to the bed with some golden cuffs he happens to have around. He seduces rather than rapes, but the erotic drive of these scenes has to do with possession and conquest.

The key to these novels is that the hero?s animal nature allows him to act like a caveman throwback without being politically incorrect. Jove?s rape mythologies are out of style -- but these novels flirt with the fantasy while avoiding the stigma. Catmen turn out to be so seductive they have no need for force, a dream that lurks, of course, behind Ovid?s sleek swan as well. Dodd?s book turns the myth on its head when her hero is himself imprisoned and fights to keep his pride and dignity, just as the heroine did in her golden handcuffs. He finally learns to conquer his panther self and swears never again to hold his lover against her will: "She enjoyed the begging. She enjoyed it even more because she knew -- she knew -- that although he meant what he said, he?d had to fight his own possessive nature to make that promise."

In the last book in the series, Into the Flame (forthcoming in August), Dodd brings together a renegade Russian branch of the family (now mutating into birds and rodents), the irritable, blue-eyed Satan himself, the Wilder's only daughter, and a mysterious cop/cougar. Once again the romance at the heart is about a dance on the wild side. Years ago, after seeing the cop (Doug Black) turn cougar, Firebird Wilder fled, but now she comes to him for help. Like Warlord, Black must learn to control his inner cat: "Damn her for ripping his control away. She deserved the demon she had unloosed." Luckily Firebird is match for any cougar. As each heroine in this series tames her lover?s wild side, she magically turns up one of the icons needed to release the family from their devil?s bargain. Dodd links the heroine?s ability to tame an animalistic male with anti-Satanic virtue, a powerful mix that quells the shadow of a rape fantasy.

Nalini Singh?s DarkRiver series engages in more elaborate world-building: three types of entities -- changelings, humans, and psys (roughly, psychics) -- live side-by-side. Clay Bennett is a powerful leopard changeling who thinks that his childhood friend Talin died long ago until she, like Firebird, reappears and asks him for help. Singh weaves a complex, dark, but fascinating tale of two people whose magical heritage both damages and enhances their abilities. As with Dodd?s novels, the hero and his inner cat are described as separate entities: "The animal wanted out, wanted control." The severed point-of-view allows the reader to see the hero as intriguingly untamed -- but also civilized.

The authors carve a fine line between unacceptable male conduct and passion. The fact that large cats mate for life is a helpful tool, as it explains their overprotectiveness: "Mates were forever," Singh writes. "No leopard mated twice. Even if their mate died." This "mating" absolves the hero of being scarily domineering: "These predators loved with a wild fury, but they were also darkly possessive, crossing the boundary into what humans might term obsession. But for a leopard male, it was simply part of his nature." And as with Dodd?s novels, Talin is the only person who can stop Clay from "going rogue," merging fully into his predator nature.

Christine Warren?s magical present is set in a Las Vegas in which changelings and humans live in relative harmony. The heroine, Kitty, visits her father?s "pride" for the first time, encountering his leonine second-in-command, Max. Having no epic battle at stake, Warren is free to have more fun with the idea of a lion/man: "He pressed his skin against her like a cat begging to be stroked." In fact, all these heroes do some purring during sex play. They spend a good deal of time boasting about their sense of smell, they seem to enjoy licking (ahem), and they are often described as "pouncing." But cute wordplay in Warren?s novel doesn?t inhibit the same fantasy: "The beast inside him?sprang free with a muffled growl, turning on her and herding her backward into the shadows of tan alley at the side of the building.? It made a prison of its arms, a barricade of its body, and with a rumble of hunger and domination, it dropped its head to feed." The hunger, I hasten to add, is carnal rather than carnivorous. At the novel?s end, Warren, just like Singh?s Clay, loses control of his "beast," and Kitty reins him in just in time.

Perhaps the most original world building is found in Kathryne Kennedy?s Enchanting the Lady. Kennedy establishes a parallel 18th-century England in which magic determines rank. Since Felicity Seymour appears to have no magical powers, she is about to lose the duchy she ought to inherit, along with her chance of marriage. Only a "were-lion," Sir Terence Blackwell, smells magic around her and realizes that she is no squib, to borrow J. K. Rowling?s term. Interestingly, Sir Terence is of lower rank, since a changeling nature establishes lower caste. Kennedy foregrounds a delicate question arising from the negative connotations of "animalistic" and "brutish." Yet like the other novels, the drawbacks of having a beast within are more than compensated by the hero?s enthralling otherness, not to mention Felicity?s ability to tame her mate.

Ovid understood that metamorphosis is ultimately about power. Jupiter didn?t flaunt his ability to shape-shift; he chose a swan because a god that powerful doesn?t need claws and teeth. Here the "beast inside" metaphor allows readers to rejoice in a politically incorrect focus on male power and possessiveness, without turning the heroes into creeps. At the same time, the shape-shifting males learn an Ovidian lesson: they don?t need to flaunt claws in order to be strong. A man in control is far sexier than a beast on the loose, and each heroine draws a line in the sand that demarcates sexy from sadistic and teaches her personal changeling to honor love over power -- a lesson, incidentally, that Jupiter could have benefited from.

If you?d like to discuss heroes with whiskers, leonine or the regular kind, please join Eloisa, with her guests Christina Dodd and Nalini Singh, in the Romantic Reads book club.

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

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