May 20 2008
Dear Ms. Cole:
As soon as I finished Dark Desires After Dusk, I went back to track rage demon Cadeon Woede’s character in Wicked Deeds on a Winter Night and Dark Needs at Night’s Edge (am I the only one who’s starting to feel these titles are blending into one long tongue twister?), curious to see if I would regard him differently now that I’ve read his whole story. Happily, the answer is no: Cade is still the swaggering, demon brew-swilling rage demon who loves his big old truck and his pay per view porn almost as much as he regrets the youthful decision that lost his brother crown and kingdom. Cade is no suave intellectual, no ethically upstanding Lore citizen. He is a blunt instrument, and one sexy demon, with, as Nix likes to point out, seriously “lickable horns.”
Holly Ashwin is one great heroine, too, a mathematics genius with serious (medicated) OCD, who remains in complete emotional and physical control through punishing rituals of cleaning, counting, swimming, and designing computer code. She possesses one of the most original excuses for remaining a virgin I think I’ve ever seen in Romance: unaware of her true nature (Valkyrie and Fury), Holly is afraid of physically hurting any sexual partner, with two somewhat tragic incidents feeding the fear. She has a long-term boyfriend — the unbelievably enabling Tim — an impending Ph.D. degree, and a limited but apparently satisfying life within very constrained physical and emotional boundaries.
Until, that is, she is taken captive by rogue demons who are convinced that she is the Vessel, a woman fated to bear the Lore’s “ultimate warrior” of either good or evil, depending on the father’s nature. Terror and anger at being restrained as a virtual offering for these demons overrides Holly’s usual cool control, initiating the transformation into her true form of Valkyrie and Fury, giving Holly both incredible strength and an incredible thirst to massacre her attackers. When Cade rescues her, he makes her believe that the sorcerer Groot might be able to reverse this frightening transition, convincing her that he will take her there. Holly is eager to return to her limited but familiar existence, even as she feels drawn to Cade’s outgoing energy.
Unbeknownst to Holly, Cade has been entrusted with the task of delivering the Vessel to the evil Groot, who has fashioned a sword with which Cade and Rydstrom can kill Omort, the virtually un-killable sorcerer who stole Rydstrom’s crown. Omort was able to steal the crown because Cade had refused to come to the castle when Rydstrom rode out into battle, preferring to stay with his foster family, hurt by his banishment to begin with and unconvinced that his presence at the royal residence would be necessary. His mistake of judgment cost him his brother’s respect, his family’s kingdom, and the lives of his foster family, who were ultimately killed by Omort’s evil minions (the virtually un-killable reanimated corpses called Revenants), and now he has one chance to make it all up. The only thing it will cost him is the female he has waited 900 years to meet and mate.
Although Cade tells himself that he can never have Holly, that the 900 years he has spent being an epic disappointment to his brother and to the rage demons will soon be over, he is so enamored of Holly, so impressed by her intellect, so fascinated by her OCD, so enraptured by the view of her behind in her favorite pencil skirts, that he cannot resist the urge to break down her defenses. Together, Cade and Holly are fabulously volatile and intense, a perfect linking of apparent opposites. Cade is incredibly focused and courageous but will never win a Nobel Prize, and Holly may very well win the Nobel but will probably never enjoy the reckless genius that makes Cade such a successful mercenary.
The incredible fun of this novel is found in the growing intimacy between Cade and Holly, and in the way their emotional meshing catalyzes their individual growth. The kind of loyalty that made Cade want to protect his foster siblings all those years ago drives his protective instincts toward Holly, as well, his need to teach her how to fight like a Valkyrie (to protect herself in his absence) and even his desire to see her let loose sexually (okay, there might be some selfishness there, too). Holly’s OCD is in full force as she finds herself without medication, immersed in a whole new universe of supernatural beings, and in the company of a male who is as disorganized as Holly is ordered. And then, of course, there is his naturally rough, earthy, chauvinistic demeanor, which serves as a persistent taunt to Holly, making her painfully aware of Cade and yet horrified at the possibility that she might lose complete control:
He hiked his broad shoulders. “My kind prefer tarts with a little more meat on their bones so they can take a demon’s lusts.”
“Tarts?” Her jaw slackened. “My God, you’re the most misogynistic man I’ve ever met. I bet you also like your tarts barefoot and pregnant.”
“Nah, I like them barefoot, on birth control, and always available in my bed.”
Dark Desires After Dusk is a road novel of staggering geographical breadth, beginning in New Orleans and ending in the Northwest Territory, as Cade and Holly venture through a series of mysterious checkpoints and partial directions, with Cade becoming more desperate about the choice he will have to make between Holly and his brother’s crown, and Holly becoming more fully Valkyrie (and thanks to a welcome meeting from “auntie Nix,” which included a brief family history and some books on the Lore and the Valkyrie, she can read about her real mother and adjust to the change) and more and more attracted to Cade.
What is refreshing about their relationship, though, is that neither is the cardboard cutout Romance ideal. Cade is incredibly strong and resourceful, but he is not a brilliant strategist. As Jane said to me during one of the conversations we had about the book, Cade doesn’t ever think about a backup plan, because he puts all his energy into the current strategy, whether or not it will be successful. So Cade doesn’t have all the answers going in to Groot’s lair, the one plan he was hatching having met with a fatal snag (and Rydstrom has been imprisoned by Groot and Omort’s sister, Sabine, so he is conveniently out of the picture). There is a great description of the difference between Rydstrom and Cade in Wicked Deeds on a Winter Night: if Rydstrom would take a scalpel to a problem to systematically cut through it, Cade would take a hammer and swing wildly. So Cade’s dilemma is real, even if we can see a way out that he has not envisioned. It is a fine line to make that myopia a property of the character and not the narrative, and for me it really works here, because Cade is so consistently brute in his orientation.
By contrast, Holly is used to being completely cerebral, sublimating and subverting her physicality through exercise and organization (she requires everything organized in groups of three), and so despite her newfound strength, she has not yet found her internal courage or coordinated that with the need she has to protect herself from the kind of harm that others wish to visit on her (as Valkyrie and as the Vessel). It is only once she makes some key discoveries about her boyfriend and about herself that she begins to embrace the part of her so long suppressed, and she is delighted to discover that she does not have to worry about her sexual instincts hurting Cade or about her OCD tendencies overtaking her sexual pleasure. At the same time, though, her neurotic need to count and control does not magically disappear, giving her just enough imperfection to be the perfect match for a similarly imperfect male like Cade. And her sexual awakening is not simply about “loosening” Holly up; it is part of a whole process in which she integrates the incredible passion she has for her intellectual work with other aspects of a healthy, high functioning life (and a rather bloodthirsty streak that comes from both the Valkyrie and Fury sides). The fact that she is a Valkyrie may give her inhuman physical strength, but it does not provide a substitute for real character growth.
Jane compared Cade to Rupert from Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, and I think that’s a very good call, because like Rupert, Cade has incredible respect for the heroine’s braininess. He may not know what she’s talking about all the time, but he is open to learning, often looking up the things he does not know. Holly, in turn, learns from Cade to recognize and trust her instincts, to live more fully in the physical present, and she gains much more independence as soon as she recognizes that a fully integrated life is not threatening. In many ways, this is a story about balance, about two characters who have embraced a certain extreme way of thinking during their life (Holly as isolated geek, Cade as ne’er do well mercenary) finding a middle ground, both with themselves and each other, without losing the core of who they are. In fact, there is a great exchange between Cade and Holly that expresses the sexual politics of the book and offers a key to the ultimate success of a relationship between these two characters. Cade has won a bet, and now Holly must watch one scene of porn, which she has never done before:
“You put it down, but you’ve never viewed it? The bra-burner’s a tad hypocritical, no?”
“Though I’ve not yet tried drinking acid, I still put it down. And don’t call me a bra-burner! There’s no need to make fun of my feminism.”
“First of all, I’m not making fun-I’m poking fun. And second of all, I’m doing it to your face.”
“What does that mean?”
“If we bandy the subject, at least you know where I stand and you get a chance to persuade me to your way of thinking. Can you say the same about the other men in your life? The yes men?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Meaning Tim.”
“He’s not as perfect as you like to think.” Naturally, Cade despised him with a deep and virulent hatred. But Cade had also gotten the feeling that Tim wasn’t the lap-dog he appeared to be.
“No, maybe he’s not perfect,” she said. “But I bet he doesn’t consider women to be tarts, who should be in a man’s bed twenty-four hours a day.”
“I was jesting about that. Mainly. Almost totally.”
“For the record, male Lorekind have higher opinions of females than human males do. The playing field’s more equal in our world.”
“Ha! I find it hard to believe that men who’ve lived for centuries-and might even be medieval-believe in equality more than a human male raised in the Madonna era.”
“The Lore is home of the Valkyrie, Furiae, Witches, and Sirenae. You underestimate females, and you find your balls nailed to the wall.”
There are many wonderful and witty exchanges in the book, including the typical clever witticisms of Nix and company, as well as Cade’s own bawdy humor in the face of Holly’s insistent innocence. The conflicts between Holly and Cade also feel authentic, as do the trust issues she has with him (after all, he is a liar by career choice). The betrayal that Cade must serve Holly in order to get Groot’s sword is real, and it is not magically undone, making the resolution one achieved through personal work and not deus ex machina.
Unlike the last two novels in the series, I flew through Dark Desires After Dusk. I would have liked to see the ending less rushed, and I wondered several times why, if Holly had access to a primer on the Lore, she did certain things and failed to question other things, especially when it came to her own fertility and to anticipating Cade’s eventual betrayal. And what should have been the climactic scene in Groot’s lair was very difficult for me to visualize at times, especially when it came to where Holly and Cade were physically at key points. Consequently, the last few chapters of the book were not as strong for me as I wanted them to be, especially since I enjoyed everything leading up to them so much. Overall, though, I think this might be my favorite book in the series to date, in large part because I found equal strength and appeal in both Cade and Holly. Because of that, I end up somewhere between a B+ and an A- for this one.