Twenty year old Malaise “Mala” LaCroix is the descendant of a plantation owner and his beautiful slave, and the women in her family have been called “witches” and practitioners of hoodoo for decades. The young woman wants to leave all of it behind her and become a police officer in her sleepy little Louisiana town. When Mala finds the body of a young woman floating in the bayou behind her house her abilities get jump started, and she’ll have to accept what she is to survive the vengeful spirit using her to solve the murder. The investigation draws her closer to local playboy, Landry Prince, and Mala also must face the powerful sexual attraction that flames between them even as they both suspect the other could be a killer.
Dark Paradise was marketed to me as romance, so I was surprised that the story focuses much more on Mala’s spiritual awakening and solving Lainey’s murder. In fact I think it’s an injustice to call the book a romance at all because it’s much more a tale of coming of age/growth and suspense with sexual elements. I can’t personally call the sexual portions of the plot romantic because I never got enough from Mala or Landry to explain why they were drawn to each other beyond intense physical attraction. In fact the opening chapters reveal that Mala considers Landry more of a creepy stalker than someone she wants to spend time with! Given her crush on police deputy George Dubois I expected something to flare with him and carry Mala to her grand plan to become a police officer. Truthfully the romance/sex angel was the most disappointing portion of the story because I never believed in the bond between Mala and Landry; amazing hormones do not a good relationship make. There also is no HEA in this book, so traditional romance readers may want to steer clear when looking for warm fuzzies. The remainder of Dark Paradise intrigued me enough that I didn’t feel entirely cheated though.
When I realized that Mala was a woman of colour I was happily shaken to the core because I was getting a female, non-white protagonist in a non-victim role. Horrible things happen to Mala, but she never acts like she deserves them or should resign herself to them. She also has no shame about feeling attracted to two white men, George and Landry, even when some of the racists in her small community expect it of her. I didn’t agree with all of her decisions, but Mala is a ball busting young woman who can take care of herself even as she fights her burgeoning abilities tooth and nail.
The mystery of Lainey’s death and her strange haunting of Mala also mostly worked well in the book although I felt that it was tied together too quickly at the end. I don’t understand why none of the perpetrators argued their involvement more thoroughly, but it seems obvious that Lainey’s case was a catalyst for Mala coming into her supernatural abilities rather than standing alone. Dark Paradise doesn’t delve too deeply into the LaCroix hoodoo roots beyond seeing spirits and the introduction of Mala’s not-entirely human great-aunt, Dahlia. The exact nature of Dahlia’s ties to the other side should be explored more deeply in the next installment though given that Mala will study under her. For this book it is mainly important to understand that a. Dahlia is extremely powerful in magic b. she’s become something beyond human due to her dabbling with darker magics. I am interested to see how it develops as Mala studies the hoodoo arts as an apprentice.
Overall, I found the mystery, paranormal, and growth aspects of Dark Paradise intriguing, and I enjoyed the basic story. Landry and Mala’s relationship needs to grow more to sell me on it, but if the series is continuing they have time. It’s not really romance, but it’s a good read all the same, and if you’ve ever wanted a tale of a woman of colour coming into her own in the Louisiana bayous this is the book for you!
4 Tangled Crawfish Traps in a Gator Swamp out of 5
Dark Paradise will be available on July 1, 2014 via Forever (Grand Central Publishing).