SLAVE TO SENSATION is a book that I've been asked to review for years. Literally years. It's the first book in an insanely popular series: when you check paranormal romance lists, the Psy-Changeling series is almost always somewhere close to the top.
I'll admit that the concept is fascinating. There are two classes of paranormal races in the book. The changelings are shape-shifters, who can change from human to animal and back (with some intermediate forms) with varying ease depending on their individual abilities. The Psy on the other hand, are psychics who pride themselves on being emotionally stoic and purely logical. They used to be more human-like, but in the mid-20th century decided to embark on a severe emotional conditioning process called the Silence that was meant to psychically beat out any sort of emotion like passion or fear or anger. If a Psy can't be conditioned, they're deemed flawed and either rehabilitated (emotionally broken) or destroyed.
Our heroine, Sascha, is one of those unconditioned Psy. She's spent her entire life trying to hide it, which is difficult because her mother is one of the key players in their ruling Council. Our hero, Lucas, is a changeling who is trying to find out who is torturing, dismembering, and killing local changelings. Intel has led the packs to believe it is a Psy, and he figures his best chance of obtaining more information is brokering a business deal with the Psy Council. Sascha is chosen by her mother to be in charge of this deal, and as soon as Lucas meets her he immediately realizes that something is off; she doesn't seem to be purely unemotional and - surprise - he's powerfully attracted to her.
I'm a sucker for paranormal romances where the various paranormal factions are at war. That was part of what made L.J. Smith's Night World series so much fun for me (honestly, I'm surprised they made Vampire Diaries into the TV show - they should have turned Night World into a teen-geared version of True Blood or Buffy). With the murders, there were so many possibilities to play up the tension between changeling and Psy. I mean, the forbidden romance trope has so much UST possibilities!
Unfortunately, SLAVE TO SENSATION fell short for me. Most of the focus is on the romance, which normally wouldn't bother me except the world-building in this book had so much potential, it felt like Singh had come up with this great idea and then tossed it aside. The concept of the Psy Net! It's brilliance! Show me more of these authoritarian Psy acting cold and brutal. Show me the changelings using their pack dominance to screw with the Psy and flaunt the rules.
Considering that the two groups are supposed to hate each other, everyone welcomes Sascha with open arms. Seriously - the women fuss over her, the children immediately like her, the other men think she's hot. Lucas even has "dream sex that's actually real sex" with her several times before they actually do the real thing, which is a trope that I really can't stand. The Psy were mostly shunted to the background, and the tense moment at the end was over far too quickly. Plus, Sascha was given these special snowflake abilities that let her have the perfect happy ending with minimal fuss.
I have some of the other Psy-Changeling, so I'll give those a try before deciding whether or not to give the rest of this series a hard pass, but this beginning book did not come even close to my expectations.
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.
Lisa Kleypas is one of the most popular historical romance authors out there, and with good reason. Her Victorian and regency stories are charming, with strong heroines and to-die-for beta and alpha heroes. But what forgotten, moss-covered tales pave the beginning of her path to success? TO THE BACK LIST!
ONLY WITH YOUR LOVE is one of Kleypas's earlier stories. First published in 1992, it's one of those "new wave" bodice ripper tales that tried to be a little less politically incorrect and rapey than their absolutely over-the-top crazy-sauce-drenched predecessors.
***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***
The heroine of our tale is the virginal Celia, who is going to New Orleans by ship to marry her husband, Phillipe Vallerand, who has waited this long to consummate the marriage. When we see them, he's about to give up all patience with that - until he's summoned by one of the crew because of pirates! Phillipe runs off, giving Celia his goodbyes and a pistol. Why a pistol? To shoot herself if the pirates invade her chambers, of course, because honor is everything.
Well, the pirates invade her chamber, but Celia doesn't have the guts to shoot herself, so she shoots one of the pirates in the guts. She's overpowered, and as the pirates are manhandling her out, she sees that Phillipe has been shot.
Meanwhile, on Pirate Island*, Captain Griffin is chilling out with his crew, and side-eying their rivals, the Legares. The two groups don't like each other, but have reached an uneasy stalemate. Griffin decides to end that stalemate when he sees the prize Legare and his men have. Griffin decides to buy her, and Legare argues with him, and then when they eventually reach a price, Dominic Legare says Griffin can't have her until his brother Andre rapes and tortures her first. They agree to fight a duel to the death for Celia, and Griffin ends up fighting someone who Legare names as his second.
Anyway, pirate honor doesn't mean much because Legare immediately tries to renege. Griffin escapes, kills Andre, and abducts Celia. After threatening to rape her a few handfuls of times, he actually does it, and Celia curses her traitorous body for liking it, says how much she hates herself, etc. Then she finds out that Griffin is related to her husband in some way, although he won't say how, and that his real name is Justin. Griffin/Justin dumps Celia off with her husband's family in New Orleans where it's revealed that Justin is actually Philippe's black sheep twin brother.
For a while, nothing really happens. Celia is with the Vallerands and mopes a lot. Then they find Justin who is all stabbed up, heal him, and lie to the authorities, saying that Justin is actually Philippe, so he doesn't get arrested for his pirate crimes. Celia angsts about her feelings, driving the family (and me) mad. Legare shows up again, wanting revenge, and claims that Philippe is actually alive and being held hostage. Celia and Justin are kidnapped, Justin is tortured, Celia is almost raped but then rescued. Legare is murdered. Philippe was actually having an affair while he was engaged to Celia, and has slept with the woman again. They decide that they weren't actually meant for each other, so Philippe marries the OW and Justin marries Celia.
The beginning of this book was more like a traditional bodice ripper, with the pirate island and the duel to the death. I didn't even really have a problem with the forced seduction because that is something that a pirate would probably do, because they lack the morals of the societies that they pillage from. What bothered me was Celia's reaction to what happened, and the way their relationship went from there. She built up Justin as this noble man, who did what he wanted and was strong and brave, but he was a pirate who raped her when she was emotionally vulnerable and then mocked and taunted her about it afterwards. It was like that was completely forgotten once it was no longer relevant to the story. I get that this story is a product of a different times, when the typical romance formula was different, but this is a perfect example of why I do not tend to like bodice rippers in the 90s: early bodice rippers were brutal, and it was usually pretty clear that the hero was not a good guy. The 90s bodice rippers tried to soften this up, but actually ended up sending some pretty uncomfortably mixed signals, because here you have a hero who rapes, but he does it because he was just so impassioned and in love he couldn't help himself? Nope! I am not buying that! I'll take the 1970s bodice ripper heroes over the 1990s bodice ripper heroes any day. They were just as full of sh*t, if you pardon my language, but at least they didn't try to sell that sh*t as chocolates and roses.
Celia is also a very unpleasant heroine. All she does is cry and mope. I also felt like the narrative really went out of its way to make her seem helpless and small, as she does not eat her food but "nibbles" it instead, and is described as skinny and child-like (several times, she's described as looking like a young boy). I did think it was an interesting touch that Celia did not speak much English and that this proved to be a difficulty for her in her exchanges with others, as that is something that was probably a big issue back then with Google Translate not being a thing, but that, too, seemed like yet another detail meant to render her dependent and helpless. I just can't help but compare her to the heroines of the Gamblers series and the Wallflowers series and come up short.
I love Lisa Kleypas, and I enjoyed this glimpse into what her early writing looked like. She has really found her voice since then, and her writing is so much more polished now. In that sense, books like these are great, because they create a compelling before and after for one of my favorite authors. However, I did not like the story - I thought it changed tone too many times, and did not find the heroine at all likable. I think this story would have been better if it had been published twenty years before, with an antihero character who actually acted like a give-no-forks pirate instead of a garden-variety douche-flower.
Reading this book was like reliving the summer after freshman year of high school. DEAD SEED was originally published as "Vampires Don't Exist" on Quizilla, a magical fairyland of badly written fanfiction and erotica that has since gone to the internet graveyard. To give you an idea of the quality of some of these fics, "waist" was frequently used interchangeably with "waste" and I distinctly recall one story where the anatomically-confused author seemed absurdly sure that rectal hymens existed.
Anyway, I read Vampires Don't Exist in its original form in 2004. Vampires were super popular back then, too, except instead of TWILIGHT fanfic, it was usually Lestat and Louis fanfic (or fanfic knock-offs), where the vampires were always French and had waist-length long hair and frilly shirts and called everyone "mon cherry" (sic). The heroine in these stories was always a virgin who shopped at Hot Topic and wasn't understood by the preps. She always had a terrible life until the day she was kidnapped by the immortal hero of these stories who would whisk her away to a life of opulently decorated mansions and dubious consent, which she would hate until the day she realized she loved this hero and inevitably developed immortality and/or supernatural powers of her own.
***WARNING: SPOILERS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF GRAPHIC CONTENT***
Vampires Don't Exist took this to the extreme with a hero who was so unabashedly psychotic that I still remembered him over ten years later. Oh, yes, Aimeric was like the Hannibal Lecter of vampires. He even had a room that he decided to upholster in human skin, and a torture room in his mansion's basement, where he would dismember people before the horrified heroine as a way to "punish" her. When I saw that this book was on Amazon, I was a little curious, because I had read the series as a young teenager and how often do we get the opportunity to reexperience the webfics of our youth? So many people inevitably end up pulling their creations and never republishing. There are countless online stories like these that I will never be able to revisit as an adult, and that makes me oddly sad....
Anyway, for $2.99 this seemed like a relatively inexpensive experiment, and I decided, "What the heck. In the immortal words of Darkwing Duck, Let's get dangerous."
Aralyn's mother and sister died in a car crash and her dad became an alcoholic after the accident and doesn't give two coin flips about her. One day, she decides to die by throwing herself over a cliff. She's rescued at the last minute - she thinks, by the human man who's standing nearby watching the sea. He's cute, and they end up kissing, but he's actually Norman Bates and after calling her a slut, starts cutting her with his knife while he attempts to rape her. She's rescued - again - and knocked out, and when she wakes up, it's in a vampire mansion...by her sister, Claire, who it turns out is a vampire.
Claire leaves and Aralyn meets two more vampires, Virgil and Morgan, who's basically Igor in vampire form. Then she meets Aimeric, the Hannibal Lecter vampire. He tries to rape her, she rebuffs him, he takes her to the torture dungeon and tortures a human (he keeps a steady supply in cages so they're always at the ready - ugh). Then he rapes her, and this pretty much happens for a while. Aralyn is defiant, people get tortured, she feels bad, and the cycle continues, with her getting tortured as well, including but not limiting waterboarding, sexual assault by him and others, and branding.
There's a subplot with another vampire called Orrin, who might want to help free Aralyn, but 3/4 of the way through the book, Aralyn decides she loves Aimeric, even after all that physical, sexual, and psychological torture, and she sees his special "room," and he impregnates her by ordering three humans to rape her while she he watches (since vampires can't get people pregnant, hence the title of this newly edited edition, DEAD SEED). As the reader works his or her way through this sadistic psychodrama of torture and misery, they can't help but wonder, will Aralyn ever manage to escape? Or will she stay with this madman of depthless depravity?
I'm not going to spoil the ending for you, because I know I have friends who are just as morbidly curious as I am and I'm 99% sure that this review will encourage them to pick up the title for themselves and see if it's really that bad (yes). Let's just say that the ending gives literal meaning to the term "deus ex machina" and if you have any suspension of disbelief left by the time you get to that point, it will be gone and you will just be like, WTF. And keep in mind that this is after the heroine discovers that vampire transformations will have her looking like a Hot Topic commercial, replete with blue streaks in her hair. Because hair extensions come with the package, I guess.
It's been so long since I read the original that I'm not sure I can really do a fair comparison between the two works. I remember the original being more graphic and messed up, and I'm not sure whether that's because I was younger and just more easily traumatized, or if the author actually cleaned up the work for publication and censored out some of the more graphic parts. I was looking at some of the other reviews for DEAD SEED and other readers have made similar claims that this book felt "toned down", so maybe it was. It's still pretty gross, though. Honestly, what was most amusing to me was how this is just such a perfect snapshot of this type of fiction of this particular time, and the "emo" culture embedded in the prose was just perfect. I could almost envision those Livejournal 100x100 web icons that we used to collect and display on our Xanga pages. It was just...SO NOSTALGIC. She even links to a MySpace page in the back as a way of contacting her. I almost cried. It was wonderful.
That said, it's pretty obvious that this is a self-published work. Characterization is inconsistent, and there are a couple of pretty glaring errors and editor could have fixed. Honestly, if someone went over this with a fine-toothed comb and tightened the characterization, this would be like a modern-day bodice ripper, only with vampires instead of pirates or what have you. I would love that, but I know a lot of people won't, and if dark fiction, rape, torture, and poorly executed Stockholm syndrome plots make you see red, steer clear. If you have time to kill, though, and want to see what the 2004 version of "new adult" fiction looks like, drop the $2.99 and indulge in some over the top craziness that was self-published before self-publishing was cool.