Hold on to your hats, readers, because you are about to get a double-barrelled review, courtesy of myself and O'Donovan. Let us know what you think about the format!
So, last month, Ms. O’Donovan talked about Lynn Viehl’s Darkyn series, and knowing how much our tastes align, I figured I needed to give them a try. So we’re gonna have a little Point-Counterpoint going on.
I think the most important thing about my experience reading these books is that I Could. Not. Stop. Reading them.
Then I came up with a whole list of reasons why I shouldn’t like them.
Except I do. I hate when 1+1 ≠ 2, which is probably why I majored in Engineering instead of Literature in college—I like it when there are Known Facts and Right Answers. With Viehl, a whole bunch of nitpicky little negatives add up to… books I can’t put down…???
Overall, I think that Viehl might just be trying to do too much for the page count she’s got going. Each book includes a new couple’s romance, an ongoing [Pretty] Good Vs. Evil battle, dissention and intrigue in the ranks of both sides (but mostly the Pretty Good side), many and varied psychic talents (shades of Piers Anthony), a continuing research project on the medical nature of vampirism, plus an ever-growing cast of secondary characters to try to keep track of. And these are not especially hefty books.
You know, I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but when I compare Viehl to, say, J.R. Ward, it's pretty obvious. Ward has a similar running theme -- although, I would argue, slightly less complex -- and her books are approximately twice as long as Viehl's. And the final chapters of Viehl's books always feel slightly like Lucy at the conveyer belt.
Hah! that's a perfect analogy. Agree that Ward's ongoing themes are simpler.
Personally, I think it would’ve been better if the “psychic gift” portion of the program was less individualized, more general. Viehl frequently forays into scenes where the point of view character is experiencing an altered consciousness and the result is generally hazy and confused. I believe that’s what she’s going for, but succeeds a leeettle too well. In the same vein (heh), one of her more deliberate and particularly annoying habits is to introduce a character with some heinous horrible secret which they angst over for far too long, taking the reader past “plot tension,” breezing by “intrigued,” generally landing with a thud somewhere near “get on with it already,” and skirting dangerously close to “I don’t even care any more (ref: John).”
I do have a pet peeve with characters who never learn from their mistakes, and there is one recurring character -- John -- who just falls from one problem into another, based entirely on his flawed world view. I'd go a step further: I wish Viehl had killed John off in the first novel, or just eliminated him altogether.
I would wholeheartedly like to see Viehl spend more pages on the relationships than with the holy war. I don’t know if her publisher has an issue with more pages, but certainly compared to other books in on the shelves next to them, she has some room to grow. The men in particular are a little two-dimensional.
I can't imagine that her editor or her publisher would take issue with more pages. But I wonder about the editing process and Viehl's unedited writing style -- does it sprawl (thus forcing an editor to suggest she tighten it up? Or is it just this taut, in which case I can say -- from experience, no less -- that it's hard to stretch out what you have to say once you've said it to your own satisfaction.
Speaking of the books sitting next to them, it’s a bit unclear to me whether these belong in the horror section or the romance section. Frankly, as is, I think horror is a better fit. More character, more about the relationships, less on the holy war, and a LOT less of the detailed torture scenes would tilt them more toward romance and put it way firmer into my unqualified “read this” category.
O’Donovan: Romance has a bigger audience and there's been such a trend (now waning, they say) toward paranormal stories that a lot of stuff that would normally be set on the fantasy or horror shelves is getting the "oh, it's by a woman, there's a love story, it's a romance" treatment, even though it might arguably fit the horror genre better than writers like Laurell K. Hamilton, frex.
The erotic scenes are another case of things not adding up for me. Or of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Or something. I once read some commentary on The Story of O postulating that the genius of Rheage’s eroticism is that it manipulates the reader into arousal layered with dismay or outright disgust, at both the violence of the written scene and his own reaction to it. Not unlike Andy Kaufmann’s approach to “performance art,” or what the rest of the world thought of as somewhat questionable comedy. In his words: “They say, 'Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he's a really funny guy.' But I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads." In other words, the audience’s reaction is part of the performance, part of the art.
Now, I don’t know if Viehl had any such lofty purpose. But I find myself thinking about it, because when I analyze the love scenes, I don’t like ‘em. But when I read them, well, I do. I totally do. Somehow. Even though it doesn’t add up.
O’Donovan: Interesting. This is the part where I go on a tangent. First: I used to own a copy of Letters to Penthouse IV -- long lost to the mists of time. Second: I recently purchased three books that were dubbed "erotica" by the mainstream romance market and thought, eh, probably there's some steamy sex and earthy language, but whatever. Um, no. The pages almost scorched my hands, in a way that LtoPIV never did. All of which is to say that I think romance editors are starting to publish a lot of stuff that pushes the market's traditional boundaries, and I wonder whether an editor whose instinct might be to ask an author to rework a sex scene would, instead, let it slide because s/he is trying to adjust to the "new" erotica trend. Still, yeah, when Nic was reading book 2, the exact text of my e-mail was: "There's also (depending on how you view such things) what is either an extremely hot or extremely disturbing sex scene that clocks in as one of the most memorable of the series. (And that's all I'll say, for fear of spoilage.)"
OK, so let me be clear: I’m OK with scorching hot. I think what I’m trying to say is that there are some scenes here that are intellectual turn-offs, but yet still, whew, very hot. Errr, that is, if “intellectual” is a word that can be applied to a love scene between two vampires.
Other things that are great and fun include the cast of characters, the mythology of Viehl’s particular vampiric universe, and the way she works familiar threads of legend and history together. There are a couple of surprises along the way that will either fill you with delight at the cleverness or cause you to sprain an eyeball with the rolling. Normally I would do some discussion of the character development, but O’Donovan covered it pretty well, and I can’t disagree. (Well, I could. But I don’t. You know what I mean.)
It’s hard to make a recommendation here. If you have a weak stomach, I’d say stay away for sure—some of the torture scenes were really not my grande latte at all. If you like the vampire genre, edgy erotica, and quirky flambouyant characters, give them a try. If you’re on the fence, give them a try—they might surprise you. Or tell you something interesting about your own reactions.
Frankly, if you've made it this far into the review, you're probably interested enough to like the series.