Zsadist is the most feared member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. His horribly scarred visage and the tattoos that mark him as having been a blood slave make him frightening to look at, and there are rumors within the vampire community of him committing terrible deeds. Even the other members of the Brotherhood tend to avoid him. Zsadist was held as a slave for a century, during which time numerous atrocities of torture and abuse were committed against him. In the century since his twin brother, Phury, rescued him, Zsadist has lived his life in emotional torment, more dead than alive. He could not bear to touch or be touched, and anger was his constant companion, until the day that he met Bella, a beautiful female vampire and a member of the aristocracy. There was an instant attraction between them, but because of his painful past, Zsadist does not believe himself worthy of any female much less one of her rank. Nevertheless, when she was kidnapped by a lesser, one of the slayers who are mortal enemies of the vampires, he put every ounce of his energy into finding her.
Bella has spent six weeks in the hands of Mr. O, who believes himself to be in love with her. He alternates between keeping her trapped in a hole in the ground and taking her out to sadistically torment her. Bella is very intelligent, and eventually learned to play his psychotic game, sometimes able to get the upper hand. O had brought other vampires to the holding center to be tortured for information about the Brotherhood and had also captured a male for Bella to feed from. Using her wits, Bella was able to help the male escape, but in retaliation for her insolence, O nearly beat her to death. With duties calling him elsewhere, he reluctantly left her in the hole. As soon as the male had escaped, he immediately contacted the Brotherhood, to tell them of Bella's whereabouts. Barely waiting for sunset, Zsadist set out after Bella and bravely rescued her, taking her back to his room at the Brotherhood's mansion.
Zsadist has never been know to exhibit any compassion or gentleness, but treats an unconscious Bella with a surprising tenderness and protectiveness that shocks his brothers. In spite of this, a misunderstanding causes the brothers to remove her from his care. Bella had spent many hours of her captivity fantasizing about Zsadist rescuing her. She can't bear to be alone in the guest room after her ordeal, and finds that there is no one she wishes to be her companion more than Zsadist. Bella stubbornly returns to his room, but now that she is conscious, Zsadist doesn't quite know what to do. As she gently but persistently tries to get closer to him, he awkwardly tries to offer comfort. Their ensuing relationship becomes a powerful journey of emotional awakening and self-discovery for Zsadist, but the realization of their love will not be easy. As the past continues to haunt Zsadist, he is prepared to sacrifice his heart's desire, believing it is the best thing he could ever do for Bella, and O continues to obsessively hunt the female, who he now believes to be his wife.
Lover Awakened is an amazing story that takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride from start to finish. It is, in my opinion, the best of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series so far. I loved the way that the author took a character who was described by his own twin brother as not merely broken, but ruined, and carefully put him back together piece by piece. This was a powerful story of redemption and unselfish love at it's finest. While I often get emotionally invested in the stories I read, it is rare that a story makes me cry, but Lover Awakened had me tearing up several times. I simply found it to be incredibly moving. The plot was tight and the characterizations were multi-layered and complex. The last hundred pages or so of the book had me reeling from all the plot twists and turns, but greatly appreciative of J. R. Ward's intelligent use of them. Just as I was beginning to be unsure whether I liked the path the story was taking, she would change something and make me smile or sigh at the sheer perfection of it. One of the reasons I appreciate the romance genre so much is the happily-ever-after endings. I don't think I could have asked for a happier ending for Zsadist and Bella, and I felt that no one could have been more deserving of that happy ending than they were, especially Zsadist.
I absolutely love a good tortured hero, and I can't think of very many romantic heroes who could be characterized as more tortured than Zsadist. I found him to be a very sympathetic character who exhibited a touching vulnerability even when he was just a secondary character in the earlier novels. He showed a tremendous strength of will to have survived all that he did, and yet the abuse had left him as little more than a shell, emotionally dead and harboring many fears and dysfunctions. I felt that all of his reactions to Bella and his feelings for her were very believably written. I loved the way that Ms. Ward took Zsadist through a recovery process step by step, building on each breakthrough one at a time. It was much like watching a butterfly emerge from it's cocoon. After going through a tremendous struggle, there is nothing left but sheer beauty. One thing that has always impressed me about the Black Dagger Brotherhood series is it's heroes. They are hardened, lethal warriors on the outside, but when they are bonded with their females, they become tender and passionate on the inside. They also always honor, cherish and respect their females. In spite of his hang-ups, Zsadist was no different. I adored his protective nature towards Bella, and most of all his selfless love that caused him to set aside his own fears and insecurities to place her needs above his own. I found this to be a heady brew of swoon-worthy story-telling at it's best.
I thought Bella was a wonderful heroine. She, like Zsadist, also showed great strength and intelligence in surviving her captivity at the hands of the lesser. She later displayed tremendous courage, as well as how a female can be as protective of her mate as a male can be. I thought that Bella proved that she could be nearly as tough as the Brotherhood, while still being kind and caring. She was gentle with Zsadist, helping him to overcome the pain of the past while freely giving him her love and passion. I also found her boldness to be admirable. She never seemed to be afraid to say the things that needed to be said or do the things that needed to be done, yet this boldness carried a stark honesty and humility about it. She didn't come through as being ill-tempered or superior, but simply as one who was telling the truth in a straightforward way, often saying things that Zsadist really needed to hear even though he didn't initially believe them. That's not to say that Bella was perfect. At times she became angry and frustrated, and I have to say that I was a bit surprised by a plot twist decision that she made near the end of the book. However, that decision opened the door for Zsadist to make even more positive changes in his life.
As with the previous novels in the series, Ms. Ward has done a wonderful job of creating an intriguing world full of secondary characters that make the reader want to continue the series to find out what happens next. I was particularly impressed with Zsadist's twin brother Phury. His unwavering devotion to Zsadist, while perhaps emotionally unhealthy at times, was incredibly touching nonetheless. Phury would literally do anything for Zsadist, and over the years, despite episodes of doubt, was really the only one who believed that there was still something good left inside of him. I think that because of their special twins connection, Phury has also been living half a life for a great many years. I will be anxiously waiting to read his story and hope that he gets as happy an ending as Zsadist did. I was pleased with the continued development of John's character and will be looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. I found the tentative friendship between Zsadist and John to be endearing, and hope that there will be a continued building of that friendship as well. There were also a couple of surprising cliffhangers that I will be eagerly anticipating a resolution for, one involving Tohr and the other involving a totally unexpected plot twist surrounding Butch and Vishous.
I have to give Ms. Ward kudos for really bringing her characters to life in a truly believable way. Even though this is a mythical, fantasy story, it is so vividly rendered as to make me feel that these vampires could actually exist in our world. I found the story to be incredibly compelling and difficult to put down. I do wish though that the trauma that Bella experienced at the hands of the lesser had been explored more fully, but since Zsadist was such an incredibly complex character, I can understand that there probably just wasn't enough space to go into detail with this. I was also bothered by the author's use of the word "love" to describe The Mistress's "feelings" toward Zsadist and Mr. O's "feelings" toward Bella. Their actions were just so evil, sadistic and obsessive that I had a hard time stomaching "love" in the same sentence. A last minor annoyance was Ms. Ward's altering of common English words, usually using the letter "h", to create new words that describe the vampire rituals and traditions. Unlike some readers, I am not bothered by this alteration in the vampire names, as I've always felt that exotic creatures are deserving of exotic names. I just felt that in the other context, the usual English words would have sufficed, or perhaps she could have been a bit more creative with those words. I would also warn sensitive readers that this book contains strong language and violence, including sexual abuse and it's intense psychological aftermath. Overall though, I found this book to be a truly exciting, action-packed, and very romantic read that has earned a place on my keeper shelf, which is surprising even to me, who up until a month or so ago had never even read a paranormal romance. Lover Awakened is the third book in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. It is preceded by Dark Lover and Lover Eternal, and is followed by Lover Revealed, Lover Unbound, and Lover Enshrined with Lover Avenged due to be released next year. There is also a companion book to the series, The Black Dagger Brotherhood: An Insider's Guide, which contains a new novella featuring Zsadist and Bella. J. R. Ward also writes contemporary romances under the name Jessica Bird.
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