Apr 28 2008
Dear Ms. Cole:
Somewhere in the middle of Dark Needs at Night’s Edge I felt that this book occupies a very important moment in the Immortals After Dark series. As Jane said previously, this is a series one can pick up at any point and not be completely confused. But for those of us who have been reading it since the beginning, the world-building is complex and multi-layered, not only with different species of immortals but with different families and other kin relationships to keep track of, and various mythologies, alliances, aversions, grudges, and other intersections among the immortals. It is a challenge to keep the reader engaged with the central story as well as giving ample attention to the world building for both novice and initiated readers. Dark Needs at Night’s Edge reminded me of how difficult that challenge can be, because the book’s main strengths and weaknesses relate to this balancing.
Conrad Wroth is a Fallen vampire, turned by his desperate brother against his will into the creature he had made a sacred vow in life to destroy. And now, in his Fallen state, eyes blood red and the memories of thousands of victims in his mind, he has succumbed to a kind of madness induced by bloodlust. With a demon’s curse hanging over him – that when he gets his most cherished dream he will also get his most horrid nightmare – and various other immortals seeking his death, Conrad is brought against his will – once again by his brothers – to an old estate where they seek to rehabilitate him with the help of a magical elixir. Chained and crazed beyond reason, Conrad soon becomes aware of another presence in the house, a beautiful young woman ghost only he can see.
Néomi Laress, burlesque dancer turned prima ballerina, has not been able to leave her estate since her violent murder 80-some years earlier. Every month her ghostly self relives her violent stabbing, and the rest of the time she tries to entertain herself by observing the intermittent tenants at Elancourt, the latest of which is the mad vampire chained to a bed and watched over carefully by his two vampire brothers, Sebastian and Nikolai, who know that if they cannot bring their brother back from his bloodlust they will have to destroy him for good. Néomi is used to being invisible to her home’s residents, to entertaining herself by stealing things with her telekinetic abilities and haunting any tenant she deems unfit for residence. But it has been a while since anyone moved in, and Néomi is starved for something to break the monotony of her lonely netherworld existence.
So when Conrad moves in, Néomi isn’t fazed by the violence he does to her home in his frenzied attempts at escape because she is too caught up in this frightening, imposing, but clearly tortured male. At first she simply watches Conrad, who, amazingly, can see Néomi but believes her to be a figment of his shattered imagination. Over the days, though, she begins to reach out to him, curious and feeling no small amount of pity for his suffering. And even though Conrad does not trust in Néomi’s existence, he cannot help but respond to her, to count on her steady presence in the house and her interest in who and what he is.
When Conrad’s brothers go missing, he is left to fend for himself, restrained by chains that are magically treated to keep him within the boundaries of the estate, and in the company of the ghostly Néomi, upon whom more and more of his rational mind focuses. Because he has not yet been blooded by his Bride (the process in which his heart pumps once against and he breathes), he cannot physically respond to Neomi’s unashamed sensuality, and Néomi cannot deliver on the promise of her blatant teasing, either, but they develop a strange camaraderie nonetheless (or perhaps because of those physical limitations):
And as he improved, they talked more and more – two people who desperately needed to. Often they hit a rhythm, a bandying back and forth, as if their thoughts were interlocking pieces. She’d told him, "When we talk, I like how our words ebb and flow. There doesn’t seem to be a need to remark on every comment, no need to clarify – it’s like we both understand that we understand each other. It’s like dancing."
She’d smiled. "Only if it’s great."
He’d given her a confident nod. "Then we would have great sex."
Lord, we would. . .
They seemed to fit in every way. Yes, he was half-mad, but as a Prohibition-era ghost with a penchant for stealing condoms, moon pies, and bras, she wasn’t exactly in touch with reality herself.
Initially it is great loneliness that brings these two together, the mutual understanding that neither really has a place in the world, at least no place they feel they have affirmatively chosen. And the fact that they cannot physically touch ironically creates more sexual tension between them, because they are forced to express so much verbally and through their emotional reactions to one another. In terms of their characters it makes their growing attraction that much sweeter, and narratively, it is a very smart way to build tension into each level of their relationship and the seeming impossibility of their ever being together on an equal plane.
Part of the tension in Conrad’s characters comes from his increasing sanity. During the times Conrad is not crazed with the nightmares that come from the memories he has ingested from his victims (along with their blood), he is becoming more and more reflective, more conscious of all he gave up for his vow to the vampire killing Kapsliga. Néomi becomes his comfort, calming him when no one else would be able to:
"You’re getting so much better," she murmured. "Soon you won’t have these nightmares."
He narrowed his gaze at her, as if just noticing she was there. "You were murdered – you remind me of the things I’ve done, of consequences," he choked out the words. "And you show me what I could have had . . . if I’d been . . . different." He grasped his head again and muttered, "You’re what’s wrong with my past. What must be missing from my future."
"Conrad, your future’s not settled. You can still have good things in your life again."
"You’re the perfect punishment for me."
"Oh." Stunned, she rose to leave.
He reached out to stay her. When he closed his big fist around air, he turned and struck the headboard with frustration. Eyes vacant, burning red, he rasped, "Did any man ever want his penance so much?"
For anyone who has read other books in this series, they will recognize this dynamic immediately: two powerful characters who are struggling to protect their vulnerabilities from each other, all the while becoming increasingly vulnerable to their mutual feelings of attachment. Although Neomi is a ghost, we never underestimate her strength; we know that this woman’s spectral endurance is a reflection of an extremely strong spirit. And Conrad, poor Conrad, has unbelievable strength and equally potent fears. These two are a natural fit, indeed, except for the small problems of his bloodlust, the demon’s curse, another demon’s pledge to kill Conrad, and Néomi’s lack of physical embodiment. Many paranormals would centralize this last conflict, making it the primary obstacle in the relationship, but not here. Thanks to Mariketa and Nix, Néomi is able to return to the physical world, an event that sets off a long chain of consequences, from Conrad’s blooding and the consummation of their relationship to hastening the crisis point in Conrad’s hunt for Tarut, the demon who cursed him.
I must confess that one of the reasons I love this series is precisely the interaction of different characters and species of immortals, and their appearance never feels gratuitous. Mariketa, Bowen, and Nix have important roles to play, as do Sebastian and Nikolai Wroth. Cade and Rydstrom have key contributions to the narrative, as well, and so their presence allows for us to become more acquainted with the brothers before Cade’s story comes out imminently, and in a way that doesn’t seem plunked into the novel. In other words, the strength of the world building and the characterization is more and more apparent with each novel. Of course, it is also more difficult to maintain with clarity, a challenge I also see in Meljean Brook’s Guardian series.
The flip side, of course, is that there needs to be ample time for the main couple’s bond to develop, something I felt was sacrificed a bit in the last book, Wicked Deeds on A Wicked Night. Here, however, Néomi and Conrad spend so much time alone that they cannot help but grow close, and so we get a lot of uninterrupted time with them. However, the very isolation also creates challenges of its own, namely that these two characters have A LOT of inner angst, and they have no one in which to confide these anxieties. Thus there is A LOT of thinking that goes on during this part of the book, and we seem privy to it all. Which made my reading experience slow for a chunk of the middle, during which I waited impatiently for something to come along and break the narrative monotony. This was by far the weakest part of the novel for me, and had the pace not shifted well before the end, my overall grade for Dark Needs At Night’s Edge would have suffered considerably, because the balance I mentioned at the beginning of my review would have been significantly askew.
Instead, the shifting pace, back and forth between the isolated drama within Néomi and Conrad’s relationship and the rest of the Lore’s complicated dynamics kept me interested. I loved, for example, how even the details are given heightened attention. When, for example, Conrad is blooded, he does not, understandably, recognize the sensations. Instead he feels like he is running over land mines, the beat of his heart a virtual explosion in his body and mind. And Neomi, when she becomes embodied, experiences a physical "hypersensitivity" that would be expected, but not necessarily illustrated for the reader. I appreciate these details because they naturalize the world of the novel and aid that necessary suspension of disbelief.
Finally, there are the women of these books, especially the pugnacious and avaricious Valkyrie and the vain and opportunistic witches, and now Néomi, whose fate I will not reveal but will say it was a satisfying and believable outcome for me. I know this has become somewhat of a refrain, but I don’t care: I love these women, because those characteristics that would be seen as flaws, weaknesses, and even unacceptable taboos in other areas of the genre are represented in these books without judgment and with significant humor. They’re bawdy and raucous and strong, not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally, too. As intensely sexy and appealing as the heroes can be, with all their sometimes clueless, brooding angst (and their tendency to the "mantrum" as Nix calls it), it is the females that really hold these books together for me, and keep me reading them. Dark Needs At Night’s Edge is an entertaining and adeptly imagined addition to a great series, and it gets a B from me.