The Leopard King by Ann Aguirre

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Roo. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Paranormal Romance category.

The summary:

Proud. Imperious. Impassioned.

Until three years ago, those words applied to Dominic Asher, the leader of Ash Valley. His family has ruled the feline branch of the Animari for hundreds of years, guiding the pride through perilous times. Unspeakable loss drove him into seclusion, a feral beast nobody can tame. Now he’s wrecked, a leopard king in exile, and he wants nothing more than to die.

Fierce. Loyal. Determined.

Fortunately for Dom, those words still apply to Pru Bristow, his dead mate’s best friend. She’s had her heart broken too, but she never quits. With the conclave approaching, alliances with the Pine Ridge pack and Burnt Amber clans on the verge of collapse, she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to drag their leader back, before his second can start a war.

At best theirs seems like a desperate alliance, but when their mate bond turns hot and fierce, there’s no end to the questions and the doubts. Neither of them expects to fall in love. But sometimes people don’t know what they’re looking for until they find it.

Here is Roo’s review:

So, while I’d like to start this review off by describing why I loved this book – and I did love this book – I instead feel the need to begin with a content warning for self harm and some suicidal ideation. There’s no indication of this in the book’s description and the first mention happens only a few pages in. I found it abrupt, but it wasn’t so unsettling that it turned my opinion on the rest of the book. However, other people have different thresholds and it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into.

The heroine, Pru, is a Latent Animari. She can’t shape shift into her cat form and is therefore seen as inferior by some members of their society. She self harms at three points early in the novel in an effort to trigger her shift, though there are certainly feelings of worthlessness and desperation that push her to such extremes. Aguirre sets up a background for all of this and continues Pru’s internalized need to prove herself capable/worthwhile through the rest of the plot, so it feels more like a meaningful character trait rather than a gratuitous means of making the story “dark.”

Now our hero, Dom, has some figurative demons of his own, as he blames himself for his wife’s death three years previous and, in his grief, has isolated himself. Pru, who happens to have been Dom’s wife’s best friend, goes to find Dom and bring him back to their community. She does this – in part – by promising to be his mate, setting up a catnippy friends-to-lovers/marriage-of-convenience trope combo, with an added sprinkling of guilt over the dead wife/best friend and a secondary plot of political intrigue to keep the drama high.

This part of the story is handled well. Much of the relationship drama occurred due to miscommunication or misunderstanding. However, rather than one Big Misunderstanding, Pru and Dom’s troubles are smaller, more spread out, and therefore much more believable. They both need to figure out how to be in a relationship with each other, which takes some time and they have missteps. But one of the best parts of this novel is that our hero and heroine actually talk through their misunderstandings. They speak up when they’re hurt, they recognize that they’ve made mistakes, they apologize. It just seems So. Damn. Healthy. I loved it.

On top of their ability to communicate well together, Pru and Dom worked really well together in their roles as head of their community. The more occupational side of their partnership made the book for me. They strategize together, they on take complementary diplomatic roles, they see that the other may need help and they do what they can to make it better. Dom frequently has the “I have to do everything myself to prove I’m a strong/worthy leader” kind of mindset. And there are so many times where he goes to do something and someone says “Oh, yeah, Pru already did that.” And rather than feeling like she’s showing him up or trying to take over his position, Dom is just thankful and sometimes awed. I awwed.

That is just one of the ways the story avoided the tendency toward strict heteronormative roles that I’ve seen in so many other romances and that seem particularly prevalent in a lot of the shapeshifter romances I’ve read. Pru’s role as the clan leader’s mate makes her a leader in her own right and she takes on the same duties that Dom faces. However, she was already a teacher (a more traditionally “feminine” career) and she plans on continuing in that position once the political intrigue subsides. Aguirre neither boxes Pru in to the mother/caretaker role nor claims that the only way for Pru to be “strong” is to adopt traditionally “masculine” roles or characteristics.

Then there is Dom, who may have some Alpha qualities, but never slides into the Alphahole side of the spectrum. He wants to be in charge and have control over his situation. There are times that he’d rather just fight his way out of an argument (don’t worry, he’s generally good about controlling that impulse). He definitely wants to protect Pru by stopping her from doing anything dangerous, but he acknowledges that that would be wrong and doesn’t actually do it. He even says “You can’t live in a cage, just to ease my mind.” I fell so hard. On the one hand, I feel like all of this should be more of a norm, but it also isn’t seen enough, so I’m gonna give it a shout out.

Of course, I did have a few problems – small and large – with the novel that I should point out. I generally enjoyed the writing, though I did notice that there were  what I’d call “$100 words” thrown into the text, even when doing so occasionally muddled with the flow of the writing.

For example: “So she smiled and accepted the praise with a quiet face that hid her byzantine reaction.” Now I’m generally pretty good at using context clues to figure out a word I don’t know, but “byzantine” was one that I actually had to stop and look up. Even knowing the definition – “characterized by deviousness or underhanded procedure” according to my Kindle – it didn’t seem to make sense in the sentence. Not a big deal, but noticeable and sometimes off-putting.

Also off-putting: “sex typhoon.” Why?

A larger issue involves an instance in which Pru and Dom fail to communicate well. There is one time that they have sex and Dom worries about whether he really got Pru’s full consent. Before you find out that Dom feels this way, you do have Pru “sending the silent message that it wasn’t too much or too far” so you at least know that she’s ok with it. But it’s unclear if Dom got the “silent message” since the next morning he is “sick to his stomach” and “not entirely sure he would’ve heard or stopped even if she’d asked him to.” He acknowledges that this is really not ok AND THEN HE NEVER TALKS WITH HER ABOUT IT. What? That seems to be an important thing to get out in the open. They spend so much time talking and figuring out their relationship that this really stuck out. It’s the one major issue that brought the grade down some for me.

Even with those few issues and the dark beginning, I really enjoyed The Leopard King. I plan on revisiting it and kinda wish I could forget it so that I could read it for the first time again. Fair warning: while Pru and Dom’s romantic plot is wrapped up, there are a few cliffhangers in the secondary political intrigue plot that tie the series together. I didn’t have a problem with it as I fully intend to buy the second novel, but there may still be some waiting as the four other planned sequels aren’t out yet. So if you’re looking for a solid paranormal romance featuring a surprisingly healthy relationship born out of what is essentially a marriage of convenience, then read this. Pretty please.

This book is available from:
The Leopard King by Ann Aguirre

September 28, 2016

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