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First Page: Vampire Origins: Project Ichorous (YA)

First Page: Vampire Origins: Project Ichorous (YA)

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Alex spent a long time preparing for this moment.

Seven years working up the courage. Two weeks crafting the proposal. Four days agonizing over the perfect ring. An hour in the garden, cutting Kristiina’s favorite flowers.

Everything had to be perfect, because that’s what she was to him.

But now that he was down on one knee, holding the diamond ring to her delicate finger, the words he’d put so much thought into evaporated from his tongue.

The horrors trapped inside his brain operated to their own rhythm, popping up when they were least expected, triggered by the most banal of memories.

The red sun sinking below the mountains was the exact shade of the blood that seeped from his father’s head; the lavender stalks he’d cut for Kristiina triggered a scent memory of his mother’s perfume the last time she hugged him.

Even the ring held poignant memories; the diamond one of the jewels entrusted to Alex moments before his family was slaughtered.

A color, a scent, a family heirloom.

Alone they were harmless, but combined they were dragging him back to the cataclysmic violence.

Alex blurted out a hurried “Marry me.” He saw Kristiina’s mouth open in reply, but he could no longer hear her voice.

He was already back there.

“Package for you,” Anna said, handing Alex a small, rectangular parcel wrapped in brown paper. “And Mama, there’s a letter here for you, too. It’s from Rasputin.”

Alex cringed. His mother might think Rasputin the most talented physician in Russia, but to Alex, who had to endure the man’s vile hemophilia treatments that included leeches, tourniquets, nasty potions, transfusions and even, on occasion, the drinking of blood, Rasputin’s name was synonymous with pain.

They were supposed to cure Alex, to stop the pain of bleeding into muscles and joints. More often than not, it was the treatments themselves that confined Alex to bed for days on end.

“You’ll die if I don’t do this,” Rasputin would say as Alex’s parents held him down.

Some days, Alex would have preferred death.

“Is everything okay?” Anna asked, watching Mama’s eyes fly across the page, and her face blanch milk-white.

But Alex had already lost interest, caring only about the package clutched in his hands.

He tore the paper, his heart galloping when he spied the treasure within; gold lettering spelling out Peter and Wendy.

A smiling boy sat on top of a dragon playing the flute, while two mermaids climbed up the dragon’s side, reaching for Peter. Along the spine of the book was a nefarious pirate with a hook for a hand.

“Take Alexei and go play,” Mama said.

Alex let out a wild whoop; glad he could get started on the book right away.

However, Anna didn’t share his glee.

At seventeen, she thought herself too mature to entertain her little brother.

Later that afternoon, when Alex wandered down to the basement, he overheard his mother ordering the servants to knock holes in the walls. He didn’t give it much thought. She often devoted to renovation projects, especially since they’d been forced to move out of the palace into such an austere villa.

Yet, a few days later, when Alex reentered the basement to hide from Anna, he discovered his mother stashing food and water inside the walls – and most puzzling of all, great piles of jewels and family heirlooms.

“Mama, what are you doing?”

“Hush, Alexei. Go back upstairs. Promise me you won’t come back down here,” she said, “and don’t tell anyone what you saw.”

Alex thought it an odd thing to ask, but nodded his head. What did he know of adult affairs?

“I promise.”

REVIEW:  The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho

REVIEW: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho

Dear Zen Cho:

Back in 2012 you sent DA a blurb about your self-published novella. I remember being intrigued by the excerpt and I meant to request it, but apparently I never did. Stupid me. But it stuck in my mind, and a few months later I bought my own copy and finally read this sparkling, original story. But when I sat down to review it, I found that you had made it exclusive to Amazon and I couldn’t review it for Dear Author. Then, a few months ago, I checked again and not only was Amazon exclusivity gone, it was also available as a free read at your website if readers didn’t want to pay for it. I strongly suggest that readers try a sample, and if they like it, buy it, because we want publishers and other authors to know how eager we are to read books of this quality and type.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen ChoGeok-Huay Yeo, AKA Jade, is a Chinese Malaysian woman living in early 1920s London. Not only has she persuaded her loving but protective parents to let her come to England for college, she is staying on and avoiding their attempts to marry her off. She supports herself, barely, by writing fashion articles for a women’s weekly and reviewing books for the Oriental Literary Review, which is edited by Ravi, a south Indian Brahmin.

Jade reviews and eviscerates the new novel by Sebastian Hardie, a well-connected Bloomsbury-set writer. Hardie is intrigued and invites Jade to a party, where he proceeds to charm her. The fact that he’s married is a minor hiccup, not least because his wife doesn’t insist on marital fidelity (she has outside interests of her own). Jade fends off Hardie for a while, but when she runs into him in Paris she gives in to his advances, as much out of curiosity as affection, with the inevitable results. But while the outcome is conventional, the story takes an unexpected turn after that.

The novella is written in the form of a diary, and consequently we see developments entirely from Jade’s POV. Her voice is dry, self-aware, and witty. There are regular reminders that we are not reading through the eyes of a standard romance heroine:

You can’t ever tell people you think you are pretty. Even if you are pretty you have to flutter and be modest. Fortunately here nobody thinks I am pretty, so my thinking I am pretty is almost an act of defiance; it makes me feel quite noble. I have that slim bending willowy figure that looks so good in a robe, and smooth shining black hair like a lacquered helmet, and a narrow face with a pointy chin and black slashes of eyebrows.

It took me a long time to realise I was pretty, because Ma and Pa never thought so. Even the fair skin they didn’t like–I’m not the right kind of fair. The Shanghainese girls on cigarette cards are like downy white peaches. I am like a dead person. This was disturbing on a child. Now I am an adult, I am like an interesting modern painting, but my parents are keen on moon-faces and perms.

They are the nicest parents, though. They always told me I was clever.

Sebastian is presented as the quintessential romance hero, down to his appearance, so it’s no wonder Jade is attracted to him:

I’d seen his picture in Vogue and so had known he was good-looking, in the style of a Romantic poet living in the Lake District. He had a long face with dark hair curling over a white forehead, and wrinkles around his eyes that made him look melancholy when solemn and sweet when he smiled. But he wasn’t at all grand.

The most surprising thing about him in person was that he struck one as being sincere. He had a very grave, intense look that, when directed at one, made one feel one ought to say something interesting to deserve it.

As the story unfolds, it’s not Hardie’s married state that renders him ineligible for hero status so much as his personality, which hews to what most romance heroes would probably be like in real life. Jade is quite willing to let him go and move on, but circumstances make that difficult.

Jade is not completely alone (she has her social-climbing aunt), but she is somewhat isolated. When she describes herself as having three friends, you believe her, and it’s not because she’s not someone you’d want to be friends with, but because someone like her doesn’t fit easily into the prevailing social environment.

I don’t want to give away the second half of the story, because it’s so much fun to watch it unfold. So I’ll just count the ways in which this is not a genre-conforming historical romance novel:

  • The heroine barely supports herself through her literary and commercial writing,  because it doesn’t pay well, but she’s good at it.
  • There is extra-marital sex and adultery, and none of it is secret.
  • The main characters cover three different ethnic/racial groups, and no one is mixed race. The non-white characters’ reasons to be in London make sense, given that this is during the heyday of the British empire.
  • The heroine contemplates having an abortion and doesn’t angst over it.

The ending is a little bit abrupt, and we don’t really get to know the hero, although I definitely believed that the hero and heroine were in love with each other, and I cautiously believed in their HEA (it won’t be easy). And the story is short, especially given all the events that transpire. I would have loved to read a longer version that developed some of the storyline more fully.

I’ve read a number of stories set in World War I and the 1920s now. This one really captures the flavor of the era, not so much through historical touchstones as through the language, relationships, and prose style. It recalls Heyer in some ways, Woodhouse in others. It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle. I’ve read the story three times now, and each time it both moves me and makes me smile. The author has written a number of SFF short stories and novellas, as well as at least one other historical short story, and I’m furiously tracking down her backlist. Grade: A-

~ Sunita

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