It helps, I guess, that the series doesn’t quite fit the ‘romantic’ label. It has strong elements of horror, suspense, fantasy and some science fiction thrown in for kicks. The tone is dark, gothic and not a little melodramatic (making a nice change from the effervescent Kresley Cole and testosterone fueled Lara Adrian).
If Angels Burn, the first in the Darkyn series, centers around Dr Alexandra Keller, a successful plastic surgeon in Chicago with the distinction of having ‘the fastest scalpel in the world.’ This earns Alex the attentions of a reclusive and mysterious New Orleans’s millionaire, Michael Cyprien. For Michael is a grotesquely disfigured vampire (vrykolakas for those of you in the know) desperately in need of Alexandra’s unique skills. When money won’t tempt Alex to New Orleans, she is snatched from the streets and taken to Michael’s underground lair, forced to perform a radical and unorthodox surgery on a man who regenerates within minutes and can only be operated upon with instruments made from copper. Appalled and fascinated, Alex reconstructs his face to its former glory and, in return, Michael almost kills her (bloodlust will do that to you). To make amends, he infects her with his blood in the faint hope that it will heal her, for Darkyn blood is poison to humans. Days later, Alex wakes up in Chicago with little memory of where she has been for the past week - and some very unusual symptoms.
From there, things only get more complicated as an angry Alex is drawn reluctantly into the dark and complex world of Michael Cyprian and the immortals known as the Darkyn.
How much do I like these books? Let me count the ways.
1. Alex. Here’s a woman who initially skates very close to the dreaded Mary Sue syndrome but somehow manages to steer clear. Alex has a successful practice in Chicago, she takes on pro-bono cases to help the poor and disfigured. Naturally, she is overly invested in her job, with little time for a personal life, although she has a causal lover who takes care of those needs when they arise. What’s great about Alex is that her profession is not something that is tacked on because the plot demands it and forgotten thereafter. On the contrary, that Alex is a physician and a scientist is an integral part of the character - it is evident in her response to Michael’s disfigurement, her reaction to her own infection and how she deals with it. The latter, particularly was an unexpected pleasure. Confronted by her imminent vampirism, Alex uses her medical knowledge to understand what is happening to her and control it. She is an active participant in the story and its progression - more so than Michael, in fact. She is - refreshingly - a skeptic. Where the Darkyn are overly superstitious (fitting for creatures of the Dark Ages) and melodramatic, she is pragmatic and logical:
[Michael] “God cursed us for our sins, and condemned us to walk the earth as demons, feeding off the blood of the living.”
[Alex] “Maybe you’re not cursed. Maybe you’re just infected with something extraordinary. Say two or even three pathogens that together altered your physiology on the molecular level. Something that made you evolve into another kind of human. If you carry that in your blood, then you can infect anyone.”
Ignoring the wacky science, Alex is a strong and unusual character. Far from being overshadowed and overwhelmed by her vampire lover, she is often in danger of eclipsing him.
2. The Darkyn. Viehl has clearly given time and thought to her vampires, providing them with a backstory steeped in the bloody history of the Crusades and an ambivalent relationship with God. On top of that, the Darkyn are a complicated lot, with tangled allegiances and entrenched customs. Michael is suzerain of the New Orleans jardin, answering to the Darkyn’s mysterious and rather creepy leader Richard Tremaine. Each Darkyn has a special scent - l’attrait - that can enthrall humans, and a psychic talent unique to each. As the series progresses, more is learnt of these talents, their physical traits and potential vulnerabilities.
3. The bad guys. These are the Brethren, a bloodthirsty lot of religious freaks (cliche!) loosely connected to the church. When I say bloodthirsty, I mean it. There is torture aplenty, and gruesome descriptions of death. The Brethren attempt to recruit Alex’s brother - a priest - into their order and John Keller’s ambivalence towards the Darkyn and the freaky Brethren is a running thread through the series.
4. Plot plot plot. There’s so much going on in these stories it’s sometimes hard to keep track. Each novel has at least one too many balls up in the air (often involving the tiresome John Keller), and what makes the stories so gripping - the frenetic pace, the tight plotting, the intriguing array of characters - is also its biggest weakness. At times, it is too much to absorb and I sometimes wished more attention was payed to the primary story.
5. The romance. Alex and Michael’s story does not end with If Angels Burn. This relationship continues to develop in the next two books, albeit taking a back-seat to the primary romance, and the struggle of these two ‘alphas’ to accommodate one another grows more fascinating as the books progress.
Moreover, no two couples are the same. Private Demon (2) has a gentle romance with two damaged protagonists whilst Dark Need (3) is darkly erotic and edgy. The change in tone and dynamics is welcome - there are no stock characters here.
I could go on. But for now it is enough to say that the Darkyn have pleased me greatly, sidestepping a whole bunch of cliches, whilst neatly subverting others. It’s particular strength lies in the depiction of its female leads (no blushing virgins, no doormats and no tstl moments to serve the plot) confident plotting, and a rapid pace that leaves me wanting more.