Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Monday, 10 December 2007

The Darkyn Novels

I’ve been rabbiting on about paranormals for a while now, my desire to read a JR Ward (US edition of Dark Lover has duly arrived) and compare it to others in the genre. In the middle of all this prattle, I’ve managed to get unexpectedly hooked on a vampire series I haven’t heard much about in blogland. It has flaws (none of the books I’ve read - three so far - come above very solid B+ grades for me) but it works and the characters manage to avoid a lot of the pitfalls I find so frustrating in romance novels.

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.


RfP said...

sidestepping a whole bunch of cliches, whilst neatly subverting others

That's good to hear. I really like how paranormal elements can cross genres and set up interesting conflict, but so many books don't live up to that potential.

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

Nice. I like it when authors re-use a good world, *without* recycling plot and relationship dynamics too.

I'd read about this series a while ago, but from the setup I couldn't tell if it was another Feehan/Kenyon rehash. At this point there are so many paranormal series out there, it's hard to guess which ones will seem "fresh". It's so great to start one and realize it's something new. I've lost patience with the Keri Arthur books--I'll try these.

Meriam said...

Hm... I worried about the whole 'sidestepping cliches' thing as I was writing it. In a way, the books are rather old fashioned, almost paying homage to a lot of old-school vampire conventions. Maybe it's the contrast with the other series I've read that makes the Darkyn seem unconventional. Viehl mentions Anne Rice in her dedication, and I think there is some conscious styling in that direction.

Having said that, she definitely has interesting characters who don't conform to romance stereo-types. One of the complaints I've heard about Ward's Brotherhood series is that the heroines are completely eclipsed by the Vampires, almost non-entities. This is certainly not the case here. There's Alex, who plays a large part in all three of the books I've read so far, but the other ladies also get to step up. Samantha (Dark Need) particularly pleased me because she's done a few things your typical heroine most certainly has not (although, in other ways, she is very typical; hates her curves and has a stalker. Sigh).

The other thing is, the stories are very tight, comparatively short for all that's going on, but it does make for a big impact.

If you do decide to pick these up, give the first one a little lee-way. I thought it was the weakest, simply because there is so much going on, so much to set-up. Alex is also at her most annoying at this point, so...

I've lost patience with the Keri Arthur books--I'll try these.

I saw some of her books in my local bookstore yesterday, as I was searching for the next Darkyn novel. I've never heard of her before. No good?

RfP said...

In a way, the books are rather old fashioned, almost paying homage to a lot of old-school vampire conventions.

I think I know what you mean. A conventional setup can be dull, but good writing can make it lively again. I'll take a chance on that. If anything, I'm more leery of the "melodrama" you mentioned. I've read a lot of that lately.

she definitely has interesting characters who don't conform to romance stereo-types.

That's the big reason I've been trying urban fantasy. Some of the paranormal romances I've read seem more adventurous in their worlds than in the central relationship. I've found a few urban fantasy series with strong female characters who really have to do some soul-searching and develop over several books. Not to say all urban fantasy has stronger female characters than paranormal romance--that's just where I'm experimenting right now.

Keri Arthur - I enjoyed the first couple of books, but I find the mid-series a bit static. The heroine dances one step forward, two steps back with several men in each book, and the last two have had similar mystery/action plots. They're still interesting, and for some reason I find paranormal Australia intriguing. (Vampires with Melbourne accents--it just makes me smile.) But I'll be more interested once something new happens.

Meriam said...

Some of the paranormal romances I've read seem more adventurous in their worlds than in the central relationship

I know what you mean. Particularly the heroes, they seem to get almost frighteningly alpha.

I've tried to find some other reviews that might provide a more rounded assessment of the series and found two on Dear Author. Jane is a fan and has reviewed books 3(grade C; I disagree) and 4 (grade B). She also says

I’ve never quite understood how your books don’t get the same attention that many of the other vampire novels in the romance genre as your world building is unique and fully realized and you have a compelling couple that makes major screen appearances in each book. It may be, perhaps, that at times the main characters in each new novel tend to take a back seat to the strong personalities of Alexandra and Michael and because it is not advertised as a series of ongoing stories about them, readers expectations are caught off guard by the number of players and plots that take place in each book that are part of a greater whole.

I don't always agree with Jane, but that's a nice summary. She's also a huge Michael and Alex fan (which, I'm not particularly, although I appreciate what she does with the characters and their relationship).

Also, there are reviews up at AAR.

Vampires with Australian accents. Mind-boggling.

Kazzy said...

Wonderful novels, I can't get enough of them. I've read each one multiple times. She can't write them quick enough for me. I love the romance, the horror, the history, and the science.

Meriam said...

I'm really looking forward to Twilight Falls. Have you heard her next one will also be her last? She's wrapping the series up, apparently, at least for the forseeable future.

Part of me respects that (I hate endless series), but another part of me is saddened, because I really like these books. Viehl is a very strong writer.