Everybody has their own can’t-live-without-it series, don’t they? You know—the one which makes you squee when you hear a new book is coming out (in eighteen months or so…); the one whose new book you pre-order, and then try to pre-order twice more, because you’re afraid you forgot; the series that never goes into your To Be Read pile, because you read it as soon as you get it home from the store.
My paranormal romance series like that is Marjorie Liu’s Dirk and Steele, which I’ve loved since I first found book two, Shadow Touch, while browsing. Book 11, Within the Flames, was just released last month. The series is about a detective agency, the eponymous Dirk and Steele or, as I often describe it to friends, “it’s like the X-Men, except they’re detectives. And they’re not all mutants.” They’re not mutants, but they are misfits; they may have special powers, but their very strengths can turn them into outcasts.
As for the mutants, Liu’s universe is a roomy one, with room for all kinds under the umbrella of the Dirk and Steele agency. She features your traditional mind-readers, animal shapechangers, and clairvoyants, but there are also gargoyles. And mermen. And maybe elves.
I appreciate that Dirk and Steele is one of the few paranormal series out there that takes place internationally, with the agents traveling all over the world. For instance, the first in the series, Tiger Eye, starts out in a vividly described Beijing, and The Last Twilight takes place mostly in Zaire. Eye of Heaven shifts from Indonesia to Las Vegas. My favorite of the novels, Shadow Touch, has characters escaping through multiple countries, including Russia. True, the characters are usually fleeing through the detailed settings under threat, or destroying them with collateral damage…but that’s the way it goes with adventure tales.
Another reason I love the series is that Liu has quite a few non-white heroes and heroines. The Red Heart of Jade has an ethnically Chinese heroine, while Soul Song’s heroine Kitala Bell is African-American. Amiri, hero of The Last Twilight, is Kenyan. Blue Perrineau, hero of Eye of Heaven, is half-Afghani. Liu makes an effort that these characters be distinct, with their own specific family and cultural backgrounds. That’s more rare in genre literature than one would think, where often ethnicity is named and then abandoned.
Liu’s other non-traditional characters include a disabled heroine, Soria of The Fire King, who only has one arm; like most of Liu’s characters, however, her biggest challenges are on the inside rather than the outside. Her lost arm is the visible sign of a terrible emotional trauma that still lingers with her when her story begins. Several of her characters carry stigmata that are tied to their paranormal abilities, such as a shapeshifter who cannot return to fully human form. Then there are the gargoyles, such as the hero of The Wild Road; they have an ability to disguise their dramatic gray skin, huge wings, and horns, but it’s limited; the women who fall in love with them really do have to love them as they are.
That, I think, is what I like best about the Dirk and Steele series. It’s all about who you are inside. It’s about protecting the innocent, maybe at your own expense, maybe at the cost of your own pain. It’s about finding out that everyone is capable of love, and of finding someone to love them, no matter how monstrous you might feel yourself to be.
One of the reasons I consider this series Paranormal Romance rather than urban fantasy is because each novel is self-contained. There are ongoing references to recurring characters and overarching plotlines, but for the most part, a reader can jump in at any point. And I strongly suggest you do!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.