Dec 8 2011
Dear Ms. Dark,
This was an especially difficult book to grade. After much reflection, I have decided to recommend it because of the strength of the prose and what, I believe, are the very engaging middle sections of the book. However, despite the fact that Ballantine is billing this book as a paranormal romance, I think that this marketing is somewhat misleading. Although, the book plays with the tropes of both the gothic romance and the PNR, the structure of the novel is probably more akin to both literary fiction and fantasy than either of those latter genres.
Cailleach McFay, newly minted PhD, is on the job market. Her one cherished dream is to get a position at her undergraduate alma mater, NYU so that she can continue to live in New York City. Like many New Yorkers, Callie is convinced that there are still only 13 states in the Union and that New York City is at the center of both the nation and the universe. However, she decides to interview with Fairwick College in upstate New York anyway. After all, there are no guarantees when it comes to academic jobs. Fairwick is a small college town whose golden age passed with the shipping barons of the late 19th century. Now, the town is a little seedy and quite economically depressed with its past glories only visible in the grand old houses that line the streets. It is one of these houses, resting at the edges of a national forest, that convinces Callie to take the job. A grand Victorian, the home was once owned by Dahlia LaMotte, the gothic novelist but now stands empty having failed to sale several times since the death of LaMotte’s niece. From the moment Callie walks by it, the house seems to call to her, seducing her.
Such a pretty house to be deserted, I thought. The breeze sighed through the woods as if agreeing. As I got close I saw the vergeboard trim along the pointed eaves was beautifully carved with vines and trumpet-shaped flowers. Above the doorway in the pediment was a wood carving of a man’s face, a pagan god of the forest, I thought, from the pinecone wreath resting on his abundant flowing hair. I’d seen a face like it somewhere before . . . perhaps in a book on forest deities . . . The same face appeared in the stained-glass fanlight above the front door.
Startled, I realized I’d come all the way up the steps and was standing at the front door, my hand resting on the bronze door knocker, which was carved in the shape of an antlered buck. What was I thinking? Even if no one lived here it was still private property.
When Callie discovers that whoever buys the house will have exclusive access to all of Dahlia LaMotte’s papers, her decision is made. A beautiful Victorian mansion with a library and the papers of a dead novelist is a wet dream of mine, so I understood the selling point of this.
It isn’t before long that Callie discovers that Fairwick isn’t what it seems. The college is populated with stranger than usual professors, odd exchange students, and many secrets. Her house, too, is strange—as strange as the manors that populate LaMotte’s novels. It is supposedly haunted by an incubus—the very demon lover that she wrote about in her dissertation, and it is rumored that this demon was who inspired Dahlia LaMotte’s more lurid writing. It isn’t long before Callie begins to believe that the tales are true and when she begins to experience intense and very sexual dreams, the reality of both her teaching and her long distance boyfriend seem to diminish. But these aren’t the only dreams Callie experiences. She also begins to dream about a line of people fleeing their country and a man on horseback, a man she knows that her dream self is in love with. The more Callie allows the dreams of the shadow man to take over her life, the more real he seems to become. And the more real he seems to become, the more her feelings begin to morph into love. But is it possible to fall in love with a demon? A love talker, who does nothing but seduce you with sex? At one point Callie says to him, “You’ve got a lot to learn about women, pal. There’s more to love than being good in the sack.” This love plot is complicated by the other threads of the narrative which include: the mystery of the town and the college, a mystery involving a cursed student, and a mystery involving Callie’s own family history. The way in which these plots are intertwined and resolved is part of the pleasure of reading this book. I don’t want to go into too much detail about them because I don’t want to give too much away.
What I’d like to discuss in this review, instead, is what I believe might be the frustrating or difficult aspects of the book for romance readers. And also talk about my own reading experience of this book. I will try to do this without revealing any spoilers. This review, then, is going to be a little different. I’m going to give as many textual examples as I can so you can see what I mean.
I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book when I started reading it. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I liked this book when I finished it. But I kept thinking about it. And it certainly had a very strong emotional effect on me. The love story in it was disturbing and dark—which I liked. Perhaps I identified with it more than I ought to admit publically. Part of the reason I think this book was difficult was because it doesn’t adhere to the expected genre progression. The way the plot plays out is very different than what I’ve become used to as a romance reader. I had to constantly re-adjust my expectations, recognize that the book was not going to be like other romances.
I think, too, that the heroine, Callie can be a sometimes difficult character to sympathize with and this affected my enjoyment. As a romance reader, I’m used to identifying with and liking the heroine right away. When I don’t, I feel that there is something wrong with the book. I had to actively keep reading after the first chapter, reminding myself that despite the marketing, this book was doing something different than the standard paranormal. Like most Gothics, it is written in the first person. Callie as a narrator swings between being an intelligent, observant and likeable woman to being a total douche. Allow me to demonstrate what I mean by looking at the first few chapters. I think that these portions really indicate the problems with Callie’s character and also show the ways in which this book can be frustrating. I also believe that it illustrates the strengths of the book and, ultimately, why I decided to recommend it.
“So, Dr. McFay, can you tell me how you first became interested in the sex lives of demon lovers?”
The question was a bit jarring, coming as it did from a silver-chignoned matron in pearls and a pink tweed Chanel suite. But I’d gotten used to questions like these. Since I’d written the bestselling book Sex Lives of the Demon Lovers (the title adapted from my thesis, The Demon Lover in Gothic Literature: Vampires, Beasts, and Incubi), I’d been on a round of readings, lectures, and, now job interviews that focused on the sex in the title.
Okay. No. The problem with this is that not only is it inaccurate (graduate students do not have time to query their dissertations out to commercial publishing houses and/or agents, defend their dissertations, AND look for a job. The academic job application process is very intensive, competitive and exhausting), but more importantly, it doesn’t make me very sympathetic to Callie nor is the book being a bestseller in any way important to the plot that follows. It is important that Callie studies demon lovers and Gothic fiction, but totally unnecessary to any of the plot that her monograph be a bestseller. The popularity of her research is totally de trop. Granted, this may grate on me more than the average reader because I am a graduate student who studies a very similar topic. Ditto the fact that Callie not only has a bestselling book already, but:
And it wasn’t that I hadn’t had plenty of other interviews. While most new Ph.Ds had to fight for job offers, because of the publicity surrounding Sex Lives I had already had two offers (from tiny colleges in the Midwest that I’d turned down) . . .
I fucking hate you, bitch. That was my first irrational response, colored by my own professional interests. But I moved on from that. I kept soldiering on. After all, this may just reflect the fantasy of the author and while it is totally annoying and unnecessary, is it any more annoying than heroines who are introduced in the first page as most the beauteous and desirable woman in the world? With flowing red tresses, violet eyes, and slender necks? No. No, it isn’t.
Then I was rewarded for my patience with the book by this lovely description of Dahlia LaMotte, the fictional gothic author whose books create a meta-fictional frame to the story.
They had been reprinted in the sixties when authors like Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt made Gothic romance popular again. You could still find copies of those reprints—tattered paperbacks featuring nightgown-clad heroines fleeing a looming castle on their covers—on the Internet, but I hadn’t had to buy them there. I’d found them hidden behind the “good books” on my grandmother’s bookshelves, a dozen books all with the name Emmeline Stoddard written on their flyleaves, and devoured them the summer I was twelve—
Back on board with you, Callie! I know those types of books. And how many of us have had similar experiences of discovery with romance novels? I love that description. And I love the excitement that Callie feels at the idea that the house belonged to Dahlia LaMotte and the chance to read the un-edited drafts of those beloved childhood books.
But then she goes and says something douchie again.
After consuming Diana’s ample tea, I decided that although I was too full for a run, I’d better take a long walk to burn off the scones and clotted cream.
Bite me, you skinny ho with your “job offers” and your “bestselling book.” So I was annoyed again. But then I get this:
It wasn’t raining hard when I reached the inn, so I stopped on the other side of the road and peered through the hedge at Honeysuckle House. The face on the pediment seemed to look back at me. The raindrops streaming down its cheeks looked unnervingly like tears. Suddenly the rain began to fall harder. I crossed the street and sprinted up the steps to the porch, stopping to shake the rain out of my hair and off my jacket so I wouldn’t shed water all over Diana’s hooked rugs and chintz-upholstered furniture. A thump on the wooden steps behind me made me turn around, sure that someone had followed me up the steps, but no one was there. Nothing was there but the rain, falling so hard now that it looked like a gray moiré curtain that billowed and swelled in the wind. For a moment I saw a shape in the falling water—a face, as if just behind the watery veil, a face I knew, but from where? Before I could place it, the face was gone, blown away in a gust of wind. Only then did I recall where I’d seen that face. It was carved into the pediment of Honeysuckle House.
And I’m back with you, baby.
Once Callie settles into life at Fairwick College, she becomes a much more tolerable person. Her unrealistic success as an academic fades into the background as her teaching, research, and the relationship with the incubus come to the forefront of the story. In fact, Callie is much more palatable as a teacher and the bits talking about grading are funny and true. What I had to ask myself was whether I was annoyed by Callie because of the unrealistic depiction of academia or because she was a more flawed character than I am comfortable with? I realized that it was the latter, a realization which forced me to ask myself whether I would have been annoyed with similar flaws in a hero? The answer is, disturbingly, no. Callie is a snob, but that’s part of her character arc. And if her academic success—albeit unrealistic success—was given to a male character of a similar age would I have had the same knee-jerk, antagonistic reaction? No. I don’t think I would have. I am not comfortable with that reaction and it has made me think about the way I relate to female characters in books generally. I will not got into my thoughts on the matter here, but suffice it to say I had to re-evaluate my reaction to Callie and realize that my reaction to her was not necessarily a result of failed writing, but my own expectations of both my profession and what a heroine should be.
There was much that I liked about this book. The pacing is slow and the plotting surprised me. I enjoyed both of those aspects. The slow pacing coupled with the long descriptions of the town, the college, secondary characters, and the house, allowed me as a reader to inhabit the world of the book in a way I have not done in quite a long time. Moreover, the slow pacing built the tension that I expect to feel in a Gothic novel.
As an academic, I enjoyed the self-conscious awareness the book had of its place within the Gothic genre. The way that Dark uses LaMotte’s books and excerpts from those books to comment on and add to Callie’s experiences was very well done. I enjoyed the self-referential nature of those books and I could tell that Dark loves the genre as well. They were not parodies of Gothics, but loving imitations by someone who enjoyed every creak and shadow, every murderous uncle and brooding hero of a Holt novel.
The secondary characters that populate this book are not there just for show. From the freshman student, Nicky Ballard, who is suffering under a century old family curse to the vampiric Russian professors who no one ever sees, I was equally interested in the stories of these characters as I was in the main conflict between Callie and her house.
So let me recap. The strength of this book is in its pacing, which is slow, the development of the characters both primary and secondary, and the tightly woven plot. I enjoyed the meta-fictional aspects of the book, the incorporation of folklore and scholarship into the fantasy plot. I ended up coming to like the heroine who, though at times difficult to sympathize with, was complex and engaged with the world around her. She was strong intellectually not physically and that was something I appreciated because I think that paranormal romance often favors physically adept heroines but not intellectually adept heroines. That’s not to say that Callie doesn’t make some really fuckwitted mistakes in this book or that her perspective isn’t flawed (and lets not forget the wildly exaggerated and often inaccurate depiction of academia), because it is. But the more I think about Callie’s flawed perspective, the more I think this is not an accident of characterization but a part of Callie’s personality. Her snobbery is something she has to overcome in order to accept the situation she is in and make things right in the world that she has entered. I think we see the best of Callie in the way that she relates to her students, and in her desire to make things right in both the town and the community of fantastic creatures she has stumbled upon. In many ways, Callie is a very compassionate and accepting person and this is reflected in her relationships to other women and her students. Her love for the incubus is both complex and difficult. I think this is reflected in the weird way she thinks on these issues and sometimes dismisses them. It is only in the last few pages that she begins to realize the complexity of her own emotions.
WARNING: This book has a very ambiguous ending. It does not resolve. There is no HEA because, in effect, there is no real ending. The ARC I got from Netgalley gave no indication that this book would have a sequel so when I finished the book for the first time, I was left feeling betrayed. I immediately went to the Internet. The author, Juliet Dark, has no webpage although she does have a Facebook page. It was there that I learned that there is an intended sequel entitled Water Witch. I look forward to that book and I really hope that it has an ending. I would very much dislike it if the romantic relationship between Callie and her demon lover was not resolved. And I sure as hell hope it is resolved happily. However, I trust that it will be because of the way in which different elements of this book act as sign posts to that resolution occurring.
I would like to add that I would not have felt the level of betrayal I did at the unresolved ending if I had not been as emotionally invested in the characters and plot of this novel as I was.
Thus, after much reflection, thought and head-scratching, I have decided to give this book a B+ for the strength of the prose, plot and characterization as well as the emotionally rich love story. However, I want to emphasize that this book as a stand-alone is NOT a romance. Moreover, Callie as a heroine as well as the way the novel progresses might be frustrating in the extreme to readers. Neither she nor it are everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who may be interested in a slightly more literary take on the paranormal romance, this book might be for you.