The third novel in Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, Lover Awakened, is to date my favorite in this series. Zsadist, while a vampire warrior in the Brotherhood throughout the series, is the least interactive character until this installment and quite frankly, the most sinister. Ward unveils his dark, disturbing past layer by layer throughout the book and this reader found Zsadist eerily dangerous, deeply contemplative, and wonderfully complex. Ward's description of his form and physique happen to be what I find most attractive in a male and that certainly furthered my interest in this character.
Zsadist is introduced to Bella, also a vampire, in the previous book in this series shortly before she is kidnapped and held prisoner by an extremely bizarre Lesser. She immediately desires this warrior and is not deterred by his convincing attempts to frighten her away. He shares an attraction to her, but has no interest in any intimate or close relationship, a direct result of the abuse and torture he endured as a blood slave. After her abduction, Zsadist is unresting in his search for her safe return and intent on the brutal punishment of her kidnapper. Once Bella is rescued and brought to the Brotherhood's compound, she is unrelenting in her pursuit to claim Zsadist as her mate.
The refreshing turnabout in this novel is the sexual awakening of the male lead. Usually in this genre, some fair girl/woman, either virginal, sexually inexperienced/unfulfilled, or somehow traumatized encounters her destiny in the shape of a demi-god who introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh in the most skillful manner, bringing her to earth shattering arousal and passion, which leaves her finding herself anew because of his uber-competence and adoring her man evermore. Ward shuffles the perspective in Lover Awakened and it is Zsadist who must come to terms with the aftermath of the above mentioned "ills" and allow another to awaken in him passion and emotion formerly unknown. In short, he is the hesitant and inhibited. I admit, this point of view may not appeal to all, but I thought it "off the beaten path", so to speak, and therefore satisfactory. In addition, Ward pulls it off in this broad's mind in part because his reaction is wholly different than any of the female characters I have thus encountered, and in part because overcoming internal adversity is ugly business (very ugly business with Zsadist), but when accomplished, praiseworthy.
Bella's strong attraction to Zsadist was great, but I couldn't help feeling she was manipulative instead of committed. She wanted what she wanted (which is a part of us all), but it came across as self-centered and spoiled. One example was her ability to internalize Zsadist's every resistance to reflect upon her possible lack of beauty/desirability instead of acknowledging his dysfunction, which by the way, was not a secret. She is finally pushed away by his over the top behavior, and rightly so, but it didn't work for me because it wasn't motivated by strength, but by defeat.
It wouldn't be a romance proper without a reunion of the love-struck couple, so I don't betray too much in praising the ending. John, a Brotherhood trainee, returns to the gym for a forgotten item and espies Zsadist working on his own training. Trying to avoid being noticed, as Zsadist's reputation as a blood-thirsty killer is legendary to the young men, he cannot help but see Bella enter and approach with the couple's infant daughter whom Zsadist gently takes and calls "Nalla", which translates "beloved". Along with John, this reader begins to think there is hope for the redemption of this man. Well.....a broad can dream, can't she?
A Doormat and Her Trainwreck (Ward's Version of Beauty and the Beast)
In the first chapter of Lover Awakened, the reader gets a description of Zsadist that includes a scar that runs the length of his face and a distorted lip. Lips are extremely sensual and usually an important part of a romance/erotic story, but already there is distortion. Not good. It just gets worse (so much worse) from there. More descriptions of him include "misshapen upper lip", "bones and lean", and references to him being "ruined, not broken." The man is a physical trainwreck, but the emotional is even worse. He refers to his penis as "it"; yes, he calls it "it". He also calls it a "dirty thing." How is this sexy at all?
The idea that he was a sex slave is supposed to help the reader understand why he sees his body like this, but all his past does is make him unattractive. Bad boys with problems can be sexy. Bad boys with problems that make them self loathing are not. In addition, he's never really been with a woman, as the reader finds out when it is explained that he's never ejaculated and doesn't even know what to do when his face is in between Bella's legs--his actual dialogue then is "How do I make you come?" Is this for real? So he's basically a self-loathing virgin. Not sexy at all. On top of all of this, he's illiterate. That just makes him the least attractive male character ever in the history of literature, equal to Quasimodo, who at least didn't present sexual problems.
Virgins don't know what to do with a woman. (Ladies, let's all remember our first times right now. Was it with a virgin? Then you know it wasn't good. Subsequent events have shown each of us just how bad sex with a virgin is. Yeah, they can be trained, but....no.) Males who have been sexually abused, god bless them, are not good in bed either. Zsadist is a two for one deal with these. The problem is that with these enormous issues, he wouldn't be much good at anything romantically, and it's simply not believable that he has any skills whatsoever that would please a woman. That he's transformed into a lovemachine who won't work for nobody but Bella is risible. Just as Moira called shenanigans concerning Mary and her ability to have incredible sex with Rhage even though she was sick in Ward's book Lover Eternal, I call the same on Lover Awakened.
The character of Bella is just as bad as Zsadist. She is so pathetically needy time and again. She continually begs him to be with her, so much so that it begins to be painful to read the dialogue. When he tries to explain that he's basically about fucking, she tells him that if rough sex is all she can have with him, then she'll take it. That's just needy and sad.
That Zsadist turns into a devoted man to his woman and their child is nice, but simply not believable. He spent 100 years as a blood slave and how many years alone, self loathing, and in the span of just under two years, he's learned to read and write (courtesy of Mary, who has to do something other than cook for Rhage and coo when he comes into the room), gained weight so he looks normal (evidence of his loathing all gone), and become the man Bella always knew he would be.
Unattractive romantic hero and heroine in combination with ridiculous plot turns equals a bad story. J.R. Ward's Lover Awakened isn't anywhere as good as even Dark Lover, Wrath's story, and doesn't hold a candle to Lover Eternal, Rhage's story. Lover Awakened is about broken and needy characters who thankfully found each other. Who the hell else would want them?