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Dante's Girl (Kayla Steele) by Natasha Rhodes
Review by Juliet McKenna
Solaris Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 184416666X
Date: March, 2007 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Solaris dips a toe into the lucrative supernatural thriller market, launching their title to take on Laurel K. Hamilton, Kim Harrision, Kelly Armstrong and the plethora of other authors riding currently riding this bandwagon.

"Kayla Steele is a woman with a problem. First of all, she's trying to hold down her job at the perfume counter of a large department store, whilst staying on top of her pile of mounting bills. As if that wasn't enough, she's also on a mission to learn the Dark Arts so that she can avenge the death of her boyfriend and bring down the cabal of supernatural entities that is stalking the streets of LA...

Dante's Girl is a dark, sexy, adventure-filled novel that explores the supernatural underbelly of life in contemporary LA – and the issues faced by a girl who really just wants to spend some quality time with her dead boyfriend."

According to the author’s biography, Natasha Rhodes lives in LA and is the British-born author of various film novelisations as well as a couple of film-based original novels. This is an interesting route to publication and in no sense a soft option according to conversations I’ve had with writers doing this kind of licensed work. With tight guidelines and rigid deadlines, it can be a rigorous training ground where those writers who succeed swiftly learn practical skills and a solid commercial awareness. All these things are soon apparent in this LA-set vampire versus werewolf action-thriller.

Kayla Steele is an appealing, sexy heroine who could feature in the opening scenes of any number of movies as she dresses to kill, for a date where she expects her boyfriend to propose. Karrel has his mind on other things. He’s out with his militaristic team of heavily-armed, black-clad enforcers. A hostage’s life is at stake as they pursue werewolves and vampires through the night. So far, so Hollywood, and yes, this is a solidly commercial read, but it’s soon apparent the story and the writing go well beyond merely ticking the boxes of currently popular formula.

For one thing, Karrel’s dead by the end of the first chapter, not the usual fate of action heroes. Then Kayla finds herself pursued, and not by the usual suspects preying on unaccompanied girls in bars. She’s too bright to deny the evidence of her own eyes but entirely believably, she’s left floundering for an explanation. Looking for one, she gets herself into more trouble but most emphatically not because she’s some stupid studio blonde. She’s a brunette, and besides, as her troubles mount, she proves time and again that she can think fast and keep moving amid all the uproar. Thus she develops into a credible heroine who the reader can make a solid connection with, even as she gets drafted into the Hunters who have been Karrel’s life and death. These techno-heavy shadow warriors could have stepped out of any number of stories but again, Natasha Rhodes’ writing brings a freshness to the idea, at the same time cheerfully acknowledging precursors like Joss Whedon’s Initiative.

If Kayla knows she’s dealing with vampires and werewolves now, she still doesn’t know why. Wondering just what the rival monsters are up to unites the reader and Kayla all the way through the book. There’s misdirection aplenty, as different characters, good and bad, work towards their various objectives with incomplete or inaccurate information, juggling alliances and betrayal. Readers need to stay alert to piece these puzzles together but crucially, the questions keep the pages turning rather than bogging the plot down. Even the minor characters are brought to life with vivid writing that similarly keeps the pace moving swiftly along. And, as the pieces of the puzzle come together, those minor characters frequently turn out to be more than mere model/actor/wannabees. Natasha Rhodes proves very deft with the smoke and mirrors.

All this is set in an atmospheric vision of LA that echoes the work of Michael Mann and many others in film and TV. Such writing could only come from someone who lives there, who knows the city intimately but who nevertheless retains the clear-sighted detachment of the incomer. And another thing that marks this book out is the way the city is far more than merely a backdrop. Los Angeles is all about dreams, illusions, desires and the lengths people, will go to in order to achieve their ambitions. Natasha Rhodes evidently brought her astute observer’s eye to her own encounters with the movie business and all this is skilfully woven into the plot. What’s happening could only happen in a city where cops reach for their filming-permit schedule before they reach for a gun, when they see an armed and bloodied werewolf running down a busy street.

This is only one instance of the wry, often dark humour that’s another thread woven through the story. If someone’s wearing shades at night, does that mean he’s a vampire or just an actor? Someone with a taste for wearing unrelieved black might simply be in a band. Jokes are a recurrent motif in the current wave of post-Buffy fiction, and again Natasha Rhodes shows pleasing originality as she works within this framework. When a werewolf comments he likes his women like his coffee, brace yourself for the pay-off.

Sex and violence are similarly features of this new genre and always distinguish the writers to watch. Also-rans sling gore around for shock value and indulge themselves with graphic sex scenes that serve no real purpose beyond adding some dubious erotic charge. Natasha Rhodes proves to be a writer who conveys the reality of death and danger in her descriptions to really engage the reader. Better yet, she can use the thrills of fights, chases and gunfire to enhance both character and plot. She does this equally effectively when the good guys or the villains get up close and personal. When Kayla is tempted to seek comfort in another’s arms, we learn more about her character and about her relationship with Karrel than we might have done in ten pages detailing their date. The vampire Cyan X’s approach to sex tells us far more about her truly evil nature than her besotted lover realises. Natasha Rhodes is a sufficiently confident writer to know that’s far more important than lascivious anatomical concentration on who’s doing what to whom.

The story ends with an explosive movie-style finale that arises perfectly logically from the story yet still manages to startle, right up to the last page. The book closes on a resolution that’s satisfying and at the same time, unapologetically temporary, in the way that real life so rarely has neatly wrapped up endings. This brings its own satisfaction as it implies the stage is set for what should be an equally entertaining sequel.

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