Mary Luce is a plain woman who has suffered a great deal of hardships in her life and is now preparing herself to battle for her life itself against a relapse of leukemia. Mary lives a rather mundane existence, and is alone in the world except for her best friend and neighbor, Bella, who unbeknownst to her is a vampire. To help give back to the community, Mary volunteers at the Suicide Prevention Hotline, where she often receives calls from an individual who will never talk to her. One evening after work, she receives a visit from her mystery caller, John Matthew, who appears to be nothing more than a scrawny teenager who is mute. Bella comes to visit as well, and is drawn to a unique bracelet that John Matthew is wearing. She recognizes the characters on the bracelet as the vampire language and the name they spell as that of a warrior. Realizing that John Matthew is a vampire who has not yet gone through his transition, and who apparently doesn't know anything of his heritage, Bella immediately contacts the Black Dagger Brotherhood. A car is sent for Bella and John Matthew the next evening to bring them to the Brotherhood's training center, and since John Matthew cannot speak and Mary knows sign language, she is allowed to come along. While waiting at the center, Mary almost literally runs into the most gorgeous man she has ever seen.
Rhage is the strongest fighter and most physically beautiful member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, but he carries a curse which causes him to turn into a hideous dragon-like beast that emerges when he is upset or in pain. It becomes a threat to anyone who might be nearby. Every time he transitions into the beast, Rhage experiences severe pain and near blindness afterward. He is still suffering the aftereffects of a transition when he discovers Mary in the hallway of the center. Knowing only that someone is there who doesn't belong, Rhage's warrior instincts kick in, and he has Mary pinned against the wall in an instant. He realizes she is a woman when he catches her scent, which he immediately finds intoxicating. Once Mary overcomes the start Rhage had given her long enough to speak, he also finds her voice to be strangely calming and comforting to both his body and soul. He simply cannot get enough of her, and continues to pin her to the wall, breathing in her scent and begging her to talk to him. Mary finds this turn of events both frightening and oddly arousing, but their liaison is cut short when another member of the Brotherhood comes to interview John Matthew. Before, Mary is sent home, her memory is wiped clean of the events of the evening, and she has no recollection of her encounter with the handsome stranger.
Mary may have forgotten Rhage, but he simply cannot forget her. When the brothers decide that a reconnaissance mission is needed to check her out, Rhage immediately volunteers. Over the years, it has been common knowledge to the brothers that Rhage has a voracious sexual appetite, as it is one of only two ways that he can keep the beast in check, with the other being fighting. What they don't know though, is that all the casual sex has left Rhage feeling hollow and empty, and all he really wants is to find one special woman. They think that his eagerness to take the mission is only about sex, and he is finally given permission to see Mary with orders to wipe her memory again when he is finished with her. Rhage talks Bella into setting him up on a blind date with Mary, and when they meet, Mary is shocked that a man as gorgeous as Rhage would even be interested in someone as plain has her. She nearly bolts from their date, but Rhage talks her into staying for dinner. As soon as they eat though, Mary leaves, as she has been embarrassed nearly the entire evening by other women in the restaurant staring at them. When Rhage follows and gives her a goodnight kiss, he senses that the beast may be trying to emerge. He quickly runs off without wiping her memories, but he knows there was another reason he couldn't do it besides needing to protect her from the beast. He sensed something special in her and knowing that he must see her again, wants her to remember him. Yet, love between a vampire and a human may be all but impossible. Rhage has already defied the Brotherhood by not following orders and knows that he would do it again to be with Mary. He also believes the beast is a threat to Mary, the evil slayers known as the lessers are hot on their trail, and all the while the clock is ticking on Mary's life.
Lover Eternal is only the second paranormal vampire romance I have read, and the second in J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series. It's predecessor, Dark Lover, tended to focus a lot on world-building and character development with the romance aspect being at least equal, but not necessarily the main focus. Lover Eternal differs in that it is much more focused on the romance and relationship of the hero and heroine. I really liked this, as I felt it gives the reader a much better feel for the main characters than in Dark Lover. During the early part of the book, there were some truly memorable and swoon-worthy romantic scenes such as Rhage taking Mary on a “normal” date; them “holding the moon in the palm of their hands”; or Rhage feeding Mary from his hand to honor her, because he was so honored by her cooking a meal for him. In addition, it's always a nice twist to have the hero fall in love at first sight while the heroine takes a little longer, and it was different to have a main character who is suffering from a terminal illness. I like the loving possessiveness that the vampire males have toward their mates, and Rhage was no exception. I also love the bond of oneness between the members of the Brotherhood, and how when one is honored or dishonored, they all are. Still, their love and devotion for one another, never supersedes their love and devotion to their mates. I have thus far found the overall story of Lover Eternal and the Black Dagger Brotherhood series in general to be a unique and intriguing one which at times can be difficult to put down.
While there was much to enjoy about Lover Eternal, there were also some things that bothered me about the story. My primary issue was that Ms. Ward seems to have a penchant for torturing both the hero and the heroine in these books. While I have no problem with deep emotional conflicts and in fact enjoy a good story that delves into these areas, I felt like the conflict in Lover Eternal was overdone to the point of being rather depressing at times and really lacking in lightness or humor. From the very beginning of the story, there were already multiple major conflicts for the protagonists to overcome to find their happy ending, such as the vampire/human relationship, the lessers, Rhage's beast, Mary's leukemia, and reduced self-esteem on both their parts. These conflicts alone would have been enough to fill several stories, but then the author introduced a multi-dimensional sexual conflict caused by the beast, which added more fuel to the fire. Ultimately, in my opinion, having so many sub-plots did a disservice to both the characters and the story. Also, I felt like some of the conflicts were simply glossed over and magically disappeared, because there just wasn't enough space left to cover them. In my opinion, the story would have been stronger and better if only a couple of major conflicts had been present and explored in more depth, as sometimes less is simply more. Still for as many plot points as there were in the story, most were at least wrapped up, with only a few minor questions that I felt were left open to speculation. One other thing that bothered me a bit were some allusions to BDSM. Rhage and Mary's first major love scene was initiated rather roughly, and I felt that it was inconsistent with their previously tender and deeply romantic relationship and wasn't really my cup of tea. Overall though, the couple of scenes involving the hero and heroine engaging in this type of behavior were relatively mild and handled well, so I probably wouldn't have given it much thought except that they were placed side-by-side in the same story with evil characters engaging in similar, though of course much more menacing and violent behavior, with unwilling characters. This all just left me with an unsettled feeling that a line was being blurred. I'm also not much of a fan of the Scribe Virgin, the vampire's goddess figure, as she is too overbearing for my taste. She also seems to have little more to do than further torment the brothers, even though she claims to love them, which is something I just didn't get.
I found the characterizations of the hero and heroine in the story to be quite good. Overall, I thought they were both generally likable and relateable. Most of the time Rhage is a rather dreamy but flawed sort of hero, which is usually my favorite kind. He reminds me of beauty and the beast all wrapped up in one package with his drop-dead gorgeous looks on the outside, and the hideous dragon beast that shares his body on the inside, coming out to wreak havoc whenever Rhage is really upset or in pain. I found Rhage's self-loathing over his numerous, casual, sexual conquests because of the beast to be very touching, as was his desire to find just one special woman with whom he could spend the rest of his life. Although he possessed tremendous physical strength, Rhage showed a beautiful emotional vulnerability, and he was a gentle, tender and passionate lover with a truly romantic side, Also, his completely selfless love for Mary which led him to make a desperate bargain for her life was at once both heart wrenching and heartwarming. At the beginning of the book, I related to Mary extremely well. She is a rather plain-looking woman who has experienced a great deal of hardships and loneliness in her life, and is somewhat lacking in self-esteem, so at first, she finds it difficult to believe that someone as physically beautiful as Rhage could possibly be interested in her. Rhage could be very persistent and persuasive though, and eventually was able to convince her. Mary was a very strong and independent woman, and while there is much to be said for those characteristics, about half-way through the book, she began to push Rhage away because of her desire for independence. At this point she started to frustrate me, because I have a hard time relating to a heroine who seems about to toss aside a lovely relationship with a hero who wants nothing more than to be by her side, pampering her and loving her unconditionally. Thankfully, her lapse didn't last too long, and she came to her senses fairly quickly. Occasionally Mary stood out, such as when she used her counseling skills to get into Zsadist's head or when she tamed the beast, but sometimes she was simply rather bland. In the end though, she showed her big heart by loving Rhage fully and without reservation, beast and all, and it was their overall romantic relationship that really worked for me.
The secondary characters in the story were very well-done too. The author continued to add details to the lives of the other members of the Brotherhood, building them into even more intriguing characters. I think the most details were added to Zsadist's character, all of which created a picture of a sympathetic and severely wounded individual who has been living life in an emotional dead-zone, but is beginning to be awakened by the possibilities of love. There were several scenes involving Zsadist which I found extremely touching. Readers are introduced to Bella, a female vampire, who is bold but kind and gentle and is best friends with Mary. Bella developed an almost immediate attraction to Zsadist in spite of his horribly scarred body. Her attraction was due in part to his bad-boy image and her desire to escape a rather mundane life, but after a private encounter with him, she realized very quickly that there was much more beneath the surface that she wanted to get to know. Unfortunately, Bella's part in the story had a cliff-hanger ending, but it is resolved in the next book, Lover Awakened, in which she and Zsadist become the heroine and hero. The author also introduces John Matthew, a young mute vampire who has not yet gone through the transition, and who is alone and unaware of his heritage until he is found and taken in by one of the members of the Brotherhood. He is also another highly sympathetic character, though unlike Zsadist is more outwardly gentle. I look forward to seeing more of him in future stories in the series. Though it would have been nice to see more of them, readers are also given a few brief glimpses of Wrath and Beth, the hero and heroine of the first book, Dark Lover.
While the plot of Lover Eternal could have been tighter by reducing conflicts and shoring up details, I found it to be generally interesting with lots of potential for future story. Ms. Ward has definitely drawn me into the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. When she gets scenes “right” for me they are spot on, and when she doesn't quite get them “right” for me, they can be disappointing, but not necessarily a deal breaker. If an author can interest me in a story to the point that I can overlook perceived weaknesses and still want to continue, they have passed at least one big hurdle. I liked the first two books of the series well enough that I intend to continue, and I was so thoroughly intrigued by Zsadist and Bella that I actually look forward to reading their story soon. While the violence level in Lover Eternal was somewhat less than was seen in Dark Lover, it was still present, and I should warn sensitive readers that there is also strong language. As mentioned earlier, Dark Lover precedes Lover Eternal in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. The remaining books are Lover Awakened, Lover Revealed, Lover Unbound, and Lover Enshrined. Also, The Black Dagger Brotherhood: An Insider's Guide, a companion book to the series was just released and book seven, Lover Avenged, is due out next spring. J. R. Ward also writes contemporary romance under the name Jessica Bird.
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