Disclaimer: I received a copy of this for review years ago, and Heather is one of my Goodreads friends.
After reading and enjoying Heather's other book, PRINCE OF MISERY, I was eager to leap into her repertoire to see what other vampire books she had written. I was all set to buy DREAMS FOR THE DEAD, because dat summary, but then I realized that I already had a copy of A DARK-ADAPTED EYE in my library.
A DARK-ADAPTED EYE is about the teenage Asha. She's an orphan and trapped in her home town of La Seca with her brother, Ivory, because it's under siege by vampires. Things get even more dramatic when she finds out that her brother his best friend, Les (who she has a crush on), are both vampire slayers. Things get even more dramatic when she wanders into a vampire club by accident and meets a vampire named Rade, with whom she has a strange but compelling connection that makes her feel like he's familiar...
I really wanted to like this book and I think it has a great premise. There's also a vintage feel to it, in the same way that PRINCE OF MISERY was; they feel like retro vampire novels from the 80s and 90s, when vampires were predatory and scary, and would kill you just as soon as look at you. TWILIGHT changed the status quo for vampires, and as much as I enjoy TWILIGHT, I have to say that these changes were not for the better. I miss the scary days of yore. Heather's bringing 'em back!
The problem is that parts of this book are pretty slow. Even boring. I stopped reading around page 54 the last time I attempted to start A DARK-ADAPTED EYE, and had a difficult time forcing myself to finish with this latest attempt. There's large portions where little, if nothing, is happening. Les and Crisedeys and Ivory aren't very compelling characters (and I really didn't like their names). Rade was great, but he wasn't in the book for very long, nor were many of the other vampires. The dialogue was also tedious, contrived, and didn't feel authentic at times, and I didn't care for the love interest, Les. He's one of those guys who angsts about the girl he likes and sleeps with other women because he just can't. No, Les. That is not how you have relationships. That is the exact opposite of what to do.
What kept me reading were Rade, obviously, and the club scenes and the action scenes. Heather is really good at writing horror and making it erotic. That sounds like a bad thing, but that's what people expect with vampire stories: the gothic romance of beauty and monster. Few authors are able to strike that balance and make it work, but Heather can. She's also really great at writing beautiful descriptive passages. PRINCE OF MISERY has great dialogue, too, but that's one of Heather's newer works: in DARK, a lot of it is stilted and wooden.
I'm always happy to discover new vampire novels I haven't read yet, and I'm sorry that this one was such a bust. But I'm glad I read it, too, because it shows how much Heather's style is evolving, which makes me excited for her future projects (which also hopefully involve vampires).
One of the chief complaints about the YA genre - especially the books being targeted and marketed toward young women - is that they are becoming increasingly derivative, and seem to focus only on the romance. BLACK CITY is a perfect example of that: it's a book that can be neatly summed up by asking "what happens when you smush together DIVERGENT and TWILIGHT?"
I haven't given a one-star rating in a while, and to be honest - it feels weird. It's been so long since I read a book that I thought was bad, that I forgot what the actual experience was like. The incredulity. The frustration. The boredom. What really annoyed me was how much I wanted to like BLACK CITY in the first place, because vampires are awesome, and a dystopian society involving vampires should also be awesome, because vampires and oppression. Plus, that cover. That's a cover to take home to mama.
The problem starts with the world-building. The author employs a lot of really clunky terminology, like "Darklings" for vampires, "twin-bloods" for half-breeds, "Sight" for vampiric thralls, and "the v-gene" for...a special gene that lets you 'sense' vampires, I guess. There's also different classes of vampires, with different colored hair and eyes, and some have wings, and then there's this degenerative necrosis-inducing disease that only affects vampires that's called Wrath, which makes their skin rot away. Got all that? But wait, there's more -
They call the trance-like state humans go into "Haze", which is confusing because Haze can also be sold in a bottle in drug form, and sometimes it is especially potent, which is called Golden Haze. And then there's these creatures called "Bastets" which appear to be shape-shifter leopards who have venom in their teeth. Trackers hunt the Darklings after curfew, protecting the Sentry, or the ruling government class, from Workboots (the poor) and the Legion (vampire revolutionaries). Violating the various laws that are in place to fraternize with a Darkling makes you a "race traitor."
The world all of this terms are used in isn't much clearer. I think it's supposed to be an alternate version of our world, except for some reason all of the states in the U.S. have been split into nine megastates with lame names like "Emerald State", but it's never really explained. Also, why are we a fascist, cultish dictatorship with a fascist, cultish leader? What happened? I never voted for this guy!
By the end of the book, I mostly had a handle on all the terminology, although I was still eying the world skeptically (what happened to the rest of the world? This is exactly what happened in DIVERGENT - Future Chicago went to heck in a hand basket, but was that an isolated incident? A reality TV show that the rest of the world just watched in amusement while shaking their head and going, "Oh, Chicago, you silly little cinnamon rolls, what will you think of next?") Also, why are the vampires allowing this to happen in the first place? They have literal "opium dens" for the Haze users. If their strength and their wings failed them, it wouldn't take much effort to just get all the humans hooked on Haze for a hostile takeover. But I might still have been able to enjoy the book in spite of all these plot holes and vocabulary words if it weren't for the two main characters - Ash and Natalie. Ash is a twin-blood (half-breed) and Natalie is a Sentry (ruling class). Twin-bloods don't have beating hearts for some reason (they're vestigial, I guess), but when Natalie touches him on accident - his heart actually starts beating because, and I kid you not, she's his soul mate, and your heart only beats as a twin-blood once you find the One.
They talk about how special and unique their love is before they've even really exchanged much more than a few paragraphs of conversation and by the time that they agree to go out with each other, before they've even gone on a single date, they're already ready to sacrifice all of their friendships and family ties and even their lives for each other. Even Romeo and Juliet would be side-eying these two. They're also just not very nice characters. Natalie is especially helpless, biting her lip, blushing, and staring in horror whenever something unpleasant happens. She tries to brush all of the bad things under the carpet, including the horrible acts that her mother and father have done to the vampires. Ash isn't much better. He helps get his "best friend" hooked on drugs and does some pretty sketchy things to women who aren't Natalie. It's hard to root for characters you don't like - particularly when you know that you are supposed to like those characters, and relate to them, and see yourself in them.
I do own the sequel to this book, BLACK PHOENIX, which I will be reading soon. I'd like to see if the author improves over time, and is capable of doing that lovely, lovely cover justice. There were some things in this book I didn't expect, but they were minor plot twists and overshadowed by the epically unconvincing love story. I can understand why so many reviewers were disappointed by BLACK CITY. I was, too.
Vampire novels actually used to be pretty difficult to find before TWILIGHT came out and renewed everyone's interest in vampires. I remember combing the shelves for them at various used bookstores and only coming across three in as many years of searching: PEEPS by Scott Westerfeld, MIDNIGHT PREDATOR by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and WRIT IN BLOOD by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. All three are good books, but PEEPS and MIDNIGHT are both young adult books, whereas WRIT IN BLOOD is a bloated historical epic set just before WWI. As a teenager, reading a book like that feels more like work than pleasure, especially given the lengthy details and advanced vocabulary that would make someone who aced the SAT weep.
The books follow a pretty basic formula. It's a reinterpretation of the history of the Comte of Saint-Germain, a historical figure who reputedly claimed to be 500 years old. Yarbro ran with that concept and made him a vampire instead, placing him at various points of historical interest in our timeline. We see him interact with the people in these places as a foreigner, with his lovers, his enemies, and his friends, as he attempts to grasp a political foothold without actually becoming overly involved. The last book I read in this series, THE PALACE, took place in Renaissance Italy, with the Medicis and the Borgias and the terrifying Savonarola. This book takes a total U-turn in the timeline, going back to Nero's Rome, with gladiators and emperors.
In BLOOD GAMES, Saint-Germain is living in a palazzo on the outskirts of Rome. He's well-liked by those in power because of his contributions to the venatio, the events where Roman gladiators and imprisoned victims were forced to battle wild beasts to thte death. If you're curious, you should read the Wikipedia article - I referenced it several times while reading this book just to be sure that I understood all of the vocabulary words, because I am that dedicated.
At a party held by the hedonistic Petronius, a friend to Saint-Germain, he sees an impossibly sad looking woman sitting all by herself. He learns that she is Atta Olivia Clemens, the wife of a powerful Roman senator, Cornelius Justus Silius. Be prepared to hate Justus like no other character you have ever encountered before. He makes Jeoffrey from Game of Thrones look like a member of the Brady Bunch. He sends for the most brutal gladiators under his wife's own name, forcing her to submit as they rape her while he watches before he takes a turn himself. Because if she doesn't, he says, he will call upon all his debts and disgrace her impoverished family before the eyes of Rome. When that isn't enough, he threatens to kill them, sends her slaves to fight to the death in the arena, and exiles her sickly mother to a distant estate where he destroys all her attempts to contact her daughter - he doesn't even tell Olivia when she dies.
BLOOD GAMES has all the features of the Saint-Germain series that I don't really care for - excessive descriptions of costumes, long letters written in very small cursive font, and political intrigue that wears on for just too long to be entertaining. But it's also got some new things that actually surprised me. Saint-Germaine seems a lot more impulsive and impassioned in this book. Yes, the King of the Gary Stus actually loses his temper and makes mistakes that result in the deaths of people he holds dear. At one point, he suffers grievous injuries. Since he's about six hundred years younger here than he was in the previous book, it makes sense that he'd feel younger, and he does. He's much more sexual (although still no peen action) and much more hot-tempered.
I also really enjoyed the focus on the Circus Maximus and how the gladiatorial arena was used for power, vengeance, and political ambitions, frequently in a single sweep. It felt like Yarbro did a lot of research into the games, and the participants who worked both behind the scenes and in the spotlight (either voluntarily or against their will), and considering that this book was written years before the internet was a thing, that makes the attention to detail that much more impressive and daunting. I wasn't expecting the brutality or the blood-shed, of which there is tons, and because of Olivia's barbaric treatment, there are unpleasant descriptions of rape, as well. Yarbro shows how Rome could be ahead of its time in some ways and yet utterly barbaric in other ways.
BLOOD GAMES may actually be my favorite book by her so far. I'm a sucker for Ancient Rome.
First, a disclaimer - Heather Crews is my friend, and one of my favorite people on Goodreads. As an additional caveat, she gave me an advanced copy of this years ago for review, and I'm only just now getting around to it. However, if you think that has any affect on my review of her work, you would be wrong. Friends have not been, and are still not, exempt from negative reviews. In fact, I'm apt to be a little harder on you just to make absolutely sure that I am compensating for any biases I may have.
I initially picked up PRINCE OF MISERY to satisfy the "vampire romance" category in my Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge. (I'm painfully behind, and attempting to binge-read this weekend to play catch up.) But then, as I was reading the book, we get this creepy masquerade scene - and I was thrilled, because conveniently, I also needed a book to fulfill the "a romance with a masquerade/costume party" category, as well, and that seemed like it was going to be infinitely more difficult to find a book for!
PRINCE OF MISERY starts off with a narration from Theron Vansauvage, a vampire with problems. He's vain (he would like to have rough, passionate sex with his own reflection, and often thinks of himself while, um, "feeling himself"); he's cruel (he enjoys hurting people, and feels no guilt); and he's become distanced from society and the world around him (he lives in an enchanted castle somewhere near Alaska, sequestered away from the world with the power of magic). This is because Theron is a vampire, who lives with a handful of vampire valets and all of his human slaves.
Our heroine, Iris, is a black woman with vitiligo. Theron is fascinated by her skin condition, because he has marks on his face, as well. Marks from where one of his past lovers tried to kill him. He likes the taste of Iris's blood and finds her defiance amusing. What better way to utilize that than to turn her into his own personal blood-slash-sex slave? But before he can put this dubious plan into fruition, one of his valets escapes, taking Iris with him, out of the magic curtain and back into the real world.
Heather reads a lot of vintage romances, including vintage vampire books, and you can see their influence in PRINCE OF MISERY. The vampires here are dark, brooding, and obsessive. They're not afraid to get down and dirty if that's required, and they certainly do not sparkle or attend prom. I also liked how Seth and Theron, the two main vampires in this story, have a morality that transcends that of humans - considering how long they live and that they come from another planet(!), it made sense to me that what they consider right and wrong wouldn't really jibe with what I do.
There is also dubious consent in here, as well as descriptions of rape, and of course, since it's about vampires, killing and maiming and torture. I have to give Heather props for that masquerade scene. Not only did it get me through my Halloween Reading Challenge, it was also one of the more gruesome scenes I've encountered in a paranormal fantasy novel of late. And that ending - man, that ending was brutal. I did not see that coming. Quite frankly, I didn't think she dared.
I'd recommend PRINCE OF MISERY to people who enjoy vintage vampire romance novels, particularly from the 80s and 90s. She captures the style perfectly, and it made me nostalgic for the novels I read as a young adult when I was just getting into vampires for the first time.
We're doing a Halloween 2016 Reading Challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group and one of the categories is a romance novel with blood on the cover. This proved surprisingly difficult, because while 80s and 90s vampire romance novels were content to own up to their gothic horror roots and splatter their covers with blood, modern day vampire romance novels are much more coy and more likely to feature a woman in a prom dress being coddled by a brooding heartthrob than, well, a bleeding heart.
Luckily, being the old soul that I am, I have a conveniently large horde of retro romance novels to dip into for precisely these kinds of occasions. COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE is not a romance so I'm technically cheating, but given that the summary of the book speaks of seductive caresses and the hero's intense love for his wife and child, I figured that this was going to be a case of blurred genres.
I could not have been more wrong. This is a horror novel in every sense of the word. I actually considered putting it down at one point, because it's just awful. There's incest and necrophilia, creepy vampire foreplay, and really unpleasant torture scenes that are described in gory detail although not, thankfully, put into practice. At least not in this volume - I noticed that there are sequels. Perhaps the author is saving those delightful little nuggets for laterz.
COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE is about Arkady Tsepesh, a descendant of Vlad the Impaler. He lives in England, with his English wife, Mary, who is pregnant with their unborn son. When he is summoned by his uncle, to care for him in his failing health, his return to Romania is swift. An imposing castle greets him, run by superstitious and resentful servants. Vlad is effusive when he receives the couple and seems genuinely glad for their presence but there is something creepy about him. Mary, especially, finds him off-putting, but can't exactly put her finger on why.
Things get worse as Arkady's sister, Zsusanna, begins to sicken. Various people affiliated with Vlad and his family in some tangential way disappear. One of the servants shows up wearing one of these missing men's watch fobs and rings with blood on his wrist. And, of course, Vlad continues being creepy. Arkady takes a hit as well, with powerful headaches that come and go without warning, and lapses in memory that he is unable to explain. Mary and Arkady are starting to suspect that Vlad's servants' inexplicable terror and loathing of their master are perhaps not so inexplicable, after all.
To be fair to the book, it is a faithful reimagining of Bram Stoker's original DRACULA. Like the original, this book is written in epistolary format from multiple POVs, and the build-up is slow, gradual, and atmospheric. Many retellings often just focus on Dracula, and I appreciated how this book incorporated Romanian folklore about strigoi, as well as vampires' servants and brides.
My problem with this book is that it was just too gross. A lot of the random scenes in this book felt like they were included for shock value. I'm not averse to gore and violence necessarily, but I do think it should serve some purpose. George R.R. Martin, for all his faults, can be excellent at using horrible acts correctly: to show the effects of extreme terror or loathing, or as acts of power by someone who is attempting to curry favor or fear. I did not get that same impression here.
The diary entries also did not work for me. All the characters sounded very similar - bland and disconnected. I thought the story was interesting and liked the twist at the end, but I felt like it was told in a very poor way and that the medium in which the story was delivered was a huge contributing factor in this.
As far as COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE goes, I am not a fan. I love vampire stories but I did not like this one at all and will probably not be pursuing the sequels. Oh, and yeah, I was wrong - it's not a romance. (Whatever, I'm still counting it towards the challenge.)
When reading Yarbro's work, it's hard not to compare her with Anne Rice (even though I'm sure she tires of such comparisons). Both are best known for their vampire-themed historical fiction and the series debuted remarkably close together, with The Vampire Chronicles being published in 1976 and Saint-Germain being published in 1978. (Which surprised me. For some reason I'd been under the impression that Yarbro's work came first (and this is why you should look at original publication dates and not go by what your late-80s mass paperback tells you, JSYK).)
I've read selections from both series, and I have to say that Saint-Germain is the (most consistently) better of the two. Oh, Saint-Germaine gets off to a rough start with HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, which has uneven pacing, some uncomfortable situations, and a wince-inducingly perfect hero capable of garnering a perfect score on the Gary Stu litmus test, but the series really gains strength as it goes on, and despite being over three decades old, the newer books are still good, if not better, than the earlier books.
Saint-Germain's character is based off the historical figure, The Comte of St. Germain, which is fascinating because he apparently claimed that he was 500 years old. Yarbro runs with that, making Francesco Ragoczy (Count St. Germain) a vampire who dates his origin back to the times of Ancient Rome. Like his historical counterpart, this Ragoczy also dabbles in the occult and alchemy, and Yarbro makes good use of vampire lore - he walks around in shoes filled with his native earth which protects him from the sun and allows him to cross running water; he can only be killed by fire, beheading, or crushed spine; he can create others of his kind by the sharing of blood, etc.
Each Ragoczy novel can be read as a standalone, as they jump around in the timeline and apart from sharing the same mythos, don't have a linear format. I've read books that took place during WWII, WWI, early Italian Renaissance, and mid-Italian Renaissance (she really seems to like Renaissance Italy), and the next one I have takes place in "Nero's Rome." This is a really appealing system, because I don't have to worry about series order, and I can read the books in the order I acquire them without crying over missing or skipped books. Compare that to the lunacy that is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders series, where it isn't enough to read chronologically - there's a wonky series order that matters if you want to have the correctly executed Pern experience. No thanks!
THE PALACE takes place in mid-Renaissance Italy, in the late 15th century. A Borgia is Pope, and Savonarola is stirring up Florence with his religious fervor, inducing people to make bonfires of the vanities, burning art, sculpture, and books; heading religious-inquisitions; and helping to put a stop to the courtly grace and aesthetic beauty of Medici Florence. I tell you, when they burned Boticelli's paintings, it hurt on a spiritual level. There's a great quote in here that Ragoczy says about art:
"[Destroying art]...[is] worse than killing children, because children at least can defend themselves. But art, art goes into the world unarmed, vulnerable to every quirk of fate, and it must survive only by its power to move men not to destroy it" (273).
I wouldn't call these novels romances - I wouldn't call them "horror", either, despite the tagline "a historical horror novel" on my gloriously bad edition from the 70s - but they often feature romance. Ragoczy, being a man eternal, has a couple "kept" women he's turned over the years, but they are independent and their relationships with R usually turn platonic after they become vampires as well. Ragoczy can't have sex the normal way - that is, no peen action. He does other stuff, instead, which is sometimes frustrating for his lovers, but he insists. I've read four of these books now and I'm still not 100% sure why - although I suspect it's because he has a magical peen that turns people into vampires. He has two lovers in this book: one crazy, one sane. I'll let you figure out which is which.
THE PALACE was a slow read for me. Yarbro has a tendency to describe everything, especially food and what Ragoczy is wearing. If you're a fan of historical fashion, you are going to love this book because of the clothes-porn alone. I can only imagine how many hours of research went into this book for the author to describe the ensembles in such meticulous detail, but Hollywood fashion reporters can only read this and weep in envy and awe as Yarbro fluffs these piffling details into long paragraphs with detail and flair, somehow without making it seem utterly boring, too.
The Saint-Germain series is not really light reading because there are a lot of characters and details to follow, and the history parts of the books can be dense. Also, Ragoczy likes writing letters and receiving letters a lot, so a significant portion of the book is written in epistolary format, which only adds to the challenge. That said, if you're willing to put in the effort of diving in and enjoy vampires (and history), I think you'll really appreciate this author. She clearly has a passion for her work, and I can honestly say that I have yet to find a vampire series that matches this one in scope.
Initially, I was really into CRIMSON KISS. It's the perfect fall read, a 90s story about vampires that fits perfectly into the niche pre-TWILIGHT vampire cannon. You can easily imagine a Goth adolescent curled up with this book in a pre-commercialized Starbucks while nursing a black Americano as the leaves and rain swirl past the window and Nirvana plays moodily over the speakers.
The structure of this book is very odd. It starts out in the "present" (1998), before reverting to the mid-40s. We're introduced to a teenage Meghann O'Neal, her loving Irish family, WWII war hero fiance, her hopes, her dreams. She meets a charming man named Simon Baldevar at a party who threatens to sweep her off her feet. She knows she shouldn't spend time with him because she's engaged, but can't seem to help herself. After a night spent painting the town red (pun unintended, actually), Simon declares himself in love with her and all but demands that his feelings be reciprocated.
Meghann falls for Simon, and that's when the romance ends and the nightmare begins. Oh, we already know that Simon's a vampire - but did you also know that he's a demented psychopath who likes torture, kink, and human misery? Neither did Meghann. But Simon immediately sets to weaving a web of psychological manipulation and, later, physical abuse, to trap Meghann permanently in his clutches and put her completely under his control. I was shocked at the amount of sexual and physical violence in this book, as well as how uncomfortably convincing the abusive relationship dynamic feels.
Back in the "present", Meghann is free and in a relationship with a human vampire slayer who also has a bone to pick with Simon. She has friends, a new mentor, and a Simon-sized chip on her shoulder. All of them have their own reasons for wanting Simon dead, but he's far more powerful than any of them had ever dreamed, and the cost of defeating him might be more than they can afford.
CRIMSON KISS follows the typical vampire mythos pretty straightforwardly. Dual timelines, Gothic settings, and lots of angst and existential musings create the backdrop and set the scene for CRIMSON. The execution is what causes this book to stand on its own two feet. Simon is a very bad man. The things he did shocked me, and made me sick to my stomach. He is scary. And Baker's very good at deceiving the reader so we get deceived right along with Meghann. This makes it easier to forgive when she falls for his tricks again and again, when she refuses to leave or give up her feelings for her abuser, or when she finds herself giving into him (sigh) yet again.
The other characters aren't quite as fleshed out as Meghann and Simon, but I did like Alcuin and Charles a lot. Jimmy, I liked less, but certain events at the end of the book suggest that he might meet with some interesting developments in the sequels. The evil villain and the gloom-and-doom atmosphere are what really drive this story forward, though, and Celtic folklore adds some interesting bells and whistles to the magic in this book. It really is the perfect fall read; I think this would be a great vampire book for October. It's creepy, haunting, and morbid. Plus, it's only $2.99 in the Kindle store - and so is the sequel. I mean, how do you beat that?