So, this week I tried to read vampire romance fiction, with only limited success. We traveled to visit friends out of town, and I left some books behind at my friend's house - she very nicely couriered them back to me (I have awesome friends), but I have not had time to read the romance she sent back.
Still, three books:
Kerrelyn Sparks - Be Still My Vampire Heart
This was not the worst book I've ever read, but it wasn't great. I think I was tripped up mostly by the formulaic aspects of the novel - the central characters have a meet-cute (involving a flasher in Central Park), the female character doesn't like the male character, she flees, he pursues, she starts to succumb, but does a flounce, so he backs off, but only a little. Then they get put in a dangerous situation, and both realize that they truly love each other, but he does something he thinks is awful, and so stonewalls, and she has to pursue. It all ends happily, with sex on a conference table in a lawyer's office. It was all shot through with the principles not communicating effectively with each other, and some sex which, frankly, wasn't that good.
I think there were two big problems here. First, the whole vampire thing. In order to make vampires "safe" as romantic heroes, Sparks makes use of a device which has gotten a fair bit of play in the genre recently - "good" vampires drinking blood substitute, with "bad" vampires insisting on maintaining their traditional eating habits. While I think this device is over used, I also think it has some potential as a rhetorical device which allows vampires to be metaphorical; revolutionaries vs reactionaries, progressives vs conservatives, etc. Sparks doesn't do that, and perhaps it's too much to expect from what is basically a pulpy novel.
The second problem is that I'm not sure what to do with the characters. The male lead is a vampire, and he's also a 500 year old Scottish Highlander - Highlanders are a common trope in romance fiction, with their kilts and well muscled thews and their brogues and such. The female lead is also Scottish, on loan from MI6 to the CIA; she's also a psychic - psychics are also a common trope in romance fiction at present, especially women. Perhaps this allows an interior dialogue which would not be possible otherwise? At any rate, Sparks doesn't really use the whole psychic thing much - a few plot points and a vital cry for help towards the end, but it doesn't play a major role in the romantic aspects of the book. The problem is, Sparks clearly wants us to take these characters seriously, and I find that I cannot. If they were obvious send-ups of the tropes, I think I could handle that, and if they had depth beyond their tropes, that would be good too, but Sparks seems to want us to take them at face value, and doesn't invest anything much beyond the face. Again, I understand that this isn't intended to be literature for the ages, but it could have been better, given the potential of the story line. Final word - unless you're seeking to complete your reading of the vampire/highlander/psychic girl/romance genre, avoid this one.
J.R. Ward - Lover Avenged
I finished Ms. Sparks' book - Ms. Ward, however, I gave up on after three or four chapters. It was just too much. Again, the vampires are not monsters, but rather a separate species, who do not need to feed on humans (instead, they have to feed on each other; opposite genders, with a strong sexual element - one wonders how non-hetero vampires deal), but, for some reason, they still do? I guess? And they're being hunted by slayers - who are slaying them because the slayers are just generically evil? Because, if the vampires are really only feeding on each other, why hunt them? You're not protecting humanity, because they aren't preying on humans. Perhaps if I had started at the beginning of the series, all of this would make sense, although Ward seemed intent on providing a fair bit of back story anyway. At any rate, there are slayers, but the slayers are not the good guys - but the vampires, at least as presented, are so unpleasant that I didn't care if they got killed by slayers. The kicker, for me, was the fact that Ward has crafted a vampire version of English to describe concepts within the vampire world. This vampire language seems to consist of adding 'h's to otherwise defenseless English words, and the concepts seem to be fairly generic concepts that exist in the non-h-enhanced English language - like ghardian, which is the word for a male vampire who guards a female vampire while the female vampire is in sehclusion. Which is sort of like seclusion, but for vampires. (The relationship is, I gather, more complex than that, but this affected neologism did not endear the book to me.) Oh, wait, also Ms. Ward uses lots of hip and with it constructions of language, using lots of hyphens, like this: "So this motherfucker up here was going down.
Yeah. So, anyway, after three or four chapters of generally unpleasant folks doing generally unpleasant things to other generally unpleasant folks, using overly cute language and more than their legally alloted supply of 'h's, I decided that my life is too short to plough through this, so I stopped.
Nancy Baker - A Terrible Beauty
I soothed my ravaged reader's soul with this - a truly delicious vampire novel. Baker is a Canadian author, she's published three novels since the mid '90s, and this is her third. Her fourth has been in process since the late '90s, which makes me sad, because she truly deserves broader recognition.
So, A Terrible Beauty is the story of Matthew, a young artist. His aged father, Simon, a noted linguist in an unnamed European city, gets a letter from an old student, Sidonie. When he was much younger, Simon worked with this student to translate some scrolls. The publication of the research made Simon into the noted figure he is at the beginning of the novel, but Simon knows that he stole Sidonie's research, and didn't attribute it. So, when he gets this letter asking him to visit Sidonie in "the North", he fears that she will reveal this secret. Matthew volunteers to take his father's place, and travels north, where he meets, and ultimately falls in love with, Sidonie. The plot isn't really that complex, but the characters are very well presented, and the description is really lovely.
So, why was this a tonic for the stuff I read earlier this week? This could easily have been a throw-away novel - it's a vampire novel, and it's a retelling of a fairy tale - Beauty and the Beast - which I have occluded to prevent spoilers. It could have been shallow, but it isn't - it's well written, with a depth of character, an attention to detail, and an emotional impact that many non-genre writers could easily make use of. It's a beautiful book, quite dark, a little sad. It's romantic, and gothic. The vampire is a monster, but also a viable focus of romance.*
Baker deserves a much wider reading audience, and you deserve to read her books. There are only three, they're bound very nicely** and this one stands alone, so you could easily read it first, and then go back for her two earlier works, which are a duo. (I may get to them next week, we'll see.)
* Of course, monster's have long been romantic leads in gothic novels - look at Wuthering Heights, for instance. It's just that, unlike other authors playing with vampires, Baker does not go out of her way to maker her vampire safe - not in the least. Sympathetic, yes, complex and misunderstood, even romantic, but not safe.
** My copy is a lovely trade paperback. Penguin Canada decided to do Baker's books in a particularly high toned print run, with cover flaps and uneven pages - this book was a tactile joy to read, in addition to all of its other myriad delights - the sort of book you want to curl up with next to a fire, perhaps - or make annotations in the margins, even; somehow, it invites this.