Friday, January 13, 2006

Hopefully, A Well-Rounded Review

As I’m sure anyone reading this already knows, because so many others have linked to it, there was a fast and furious discussion about reviews over on RTB. I’m not going to bother weighing in about what I think about Amazon reviews. I read them with a grain of salt when (which is very rarely) I ever do.

I did make a comment in the RTB article comments section about why I personally have so few one and two-star reviews/reads. This is because if a book is bad enough to warrant such a low ranking, chances are I didn’t finish reading it. In effect, the worst rating a person could get from me is more of a three-star, which means I finished the book, didn’t find it fabulous enough to keep or recall to any great degree, it didn’t suck, but it didn’t blow me away either.

However, in the interest of proving that a good review isn’t all about gushing, I’m going to give you my review of the book I finished yesterday afternoon, a book I enjoyed but didn’t think was perfect in every way. Let me know how you think I did.

Lynn Viehl’s Private Demon is the second of her Darkyn series books, the first being If Angels Burn. The world Viehl has created is one where vampire-like creatures walk the Earth if not benevolently, at least far removed from being the villains of the story as most vampire-like creatures usually are. Rather, the real villains are the monkish members of a religious order known as the Brethren of the Light, men who’ve devoted their lives to hunting down Darkyn and eradicating what they see as a scourge on the earth. The Brethren’s methods make Hitler and his crowd look like Sunday school teachers.

I really enjoyed If Angels Burn. I like Viehl’s writing style, and the story hooked me from the very beginning. The only issue I had was a particularly graphic torture scene that seemed to be put in the story more for shock value than because the story actually needed the scene. But that complaint was minor, the book earned a spot on my keeper shelf, and I was glad to get my copy of Private Demon.

Private Demon picks up a few months after IAB ended, ostensibly to follow the story of Thierry Durand, another Darkyn introduced in the first story. Thierry was captured and tortured by the Brethren, but the betrayal of his wife was the key in turning him almost completely mad. After attacking the heroine of IAB, Alexandra (the plastic surgeon who healed Thierry’s twisted body if not his tortured mind), Thierry escaped New Orleans a marked vampire and headed for Chicago, where he planned to find and extract revenge on the men who attacked one of Alex’s patients.

Once in Chicago, Thierry has a chance encounter with Jema Shaw, an antiquities expert who moonlights as a forensic evidence gatherer. Jema is a sickly woman who isn’t expected to live much beyond her 30th birthday, but something about her captures Thierry’s attention. Soon he is using his Darkyn ability to penetrate into human’s dreams in order to develop a relationship with Jema that exists only in the woman’s sleeping mind.

Meanwhile, the story follows further the relationship between IAB hero Michael and Alexandra, the woman whom he loves and turned into a Darkyn much like himself. Thierry’s son, Jamys, is involved when he travels to Chicago to search for his father. And Jema’s next door neighbor is none other than Valentin Jaus, a key Darkyn leader who has been in love with Jema pretty much since he met her when she was but a year old.

Throw in a group of racist, violent skinheads, Alexandra’s brother and ex-priest/Brethren recruit, John, Jema’s twisted mother and dubious physician, and the story pretty much races along.

The entire story presented a very complex puzzle, with all of the pieces being revealed entirely independent of how they related to the rest. In the end, plot twists come up that I never expected but served to demonstrate how it all tied together. People I thought were villains weren’t necessarily the truest bad guys.

I enjoyed how Jema was not your run-of-the-mill perfect woman. From the description of her as well as knowing she was a frail, ill woman, I got the impression that she was too skinny, too pale, and generally nothing like the buxom, robust sexpots you normally encounter in such a story. While Thierry was portrayed as slightly mad, still he was appealing in every way. Their attraction to each other made sense but not in the normal two beautiful people being perfect for each other way.

Another thing I liked was how certain aspects of IAB were finally explained, fleshing out the Darkyn universe and setting up future stories. While I find it a little disconcerting to work my brain around all of the foreign words used to describe bits of the Darkyn structure (like a leader being called a suzerain or a group or designation of Darkyn being a jardin, which is, I believe, the French word for garden), the world is becoming a complete entity.

I also appreciated how every character had his or her own voice that very much fit with the type of character he or she was. Kids from the street talked like kids from the street, people who were not native-English speakers with just the tiny difference that made it clear. Viehl has a great knack for good dialogue that reads just like it sounds and makes for very real-sounding characters. She pulls those individual dialogue styles into the internal thoughts of the POV characters, again giving each person a very distinct voice. This was key since there were so very many characters and POVs presented.

Which leads me to really my main criticism of this book. There are simply too many people and to many things going on to keep straight.

For the most part, I was able to keep track of who was doing what where and sort of why, but often I felt on the verge of becoming very confused. For example, one character, whom I remembered being introduced to, was killed, yet I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who he was or why it mattered when they found his body. I flipped back to see if I could determine his importance but gave up fairly quickly and still have no idea why he died or why I should care.

Some of the scenes where we are shown the action of villains or secondary or even tertiary characters seem kind of unnecessary. For example, we are treated to a scene in which the skinheads meet to discuss their latest act of gleeful violence. While the scene was well written, it seemed unnecessary as we are never again shown the story from that scene’s character’s POV. Same thing with one of the key leaders of the Brethren. He appears for one scene then disappears for the rest of the book. In fact, so many characters are introduced that Jema and Thierry, the key protagonists, have actually very little screen time. Often I wished the camera would remain focused on this couple when, instead, it swung to some bit players for reasons I wasn’t able to fathom. Unless these are establishing scenes for future stories, I almost wish we could have remained with a handful of key characters.

Too, it seemed that at times, everyone was either targeted to be killed or being attacked, and it wasn’t until the very end that we learned exactly who wanted to kill whom and for what reason. We had Darkyn killing Darkyn, Brethren killing Darkyn, Darkyn killing skinheads, skinheads killing get the picture. I almost needed a chart to figure out who wanted whom dead.

But, what makes this book exceptional is that despite the above issues, I still could not put it down. The pace was fast enough to keep me riveted, and I never once felt I could skip a paragraph (not that I wanted to). Every character was interesting even if I wasn’t quite sure why that character was necessary. Kind of like being at a party where every person you talk to is interesting, but you can’t help but wish you could have spent more time with the cute guy in the corner.

One issue I did have about Thierry’s motivation – and what came across, to me anyway, as a way to tie all of these seemingly unrelated people together – was Jema’s supposed connection with Alexandra’s patient, the woman who’s attackers Thierry had come to hunt down. Thierry established his bond with Jema because he believed she could help him track down the men he sought. Yet why Jema might be able to help him never became very clear to me and thus seemed a thin excuse for Thierry’s continued interest in her. Besides, after their first encounter, I had no problem believing that Thierry would seek out Jema just because of the intensity between them. I didn’t need it all to tie together the way it did.

I do have some personal nitpicks about the story’s setting, which is my hometown of Chicago. I can tell that Viehl did her homework and has researched the city, using proper street names such as Michigan Avenue. But I’m not sure she’s ever actually been here because some of her logistics don’t ring quite true. For example, Jema supposedly works in her family’s museum, which is located in downtown Chicago. Her home, Shaw House, is a giant mansion with beachfront property. In reality, all of Chicago’s beachfront property is currently park because the city founders felt it critical that the waterfront be kept for public use. If you want to find lush, gated mansions with beachfront property, you’d have to travel quite a bit to the posh northern suburbs to find them. However, I got the impression that Jema’s home and office were relatively close to each other. In actuality, her commute would have been hell, with traffic and all, taking her up and down Lake Shore Drive. Not something most Chicagoans do more than once a day. In fact, most wouldn't drive but rather take the commuter train to avoid the headaches.

Another time, the character Jamys is given a ride by a man who is heading to Fort Wayne (Indiana, I presume). If this man were driving north from the south, which I assumed since Jamys was himself coming from New Orleans, driving first to Chicago would take him substantially out of the way from the eastern edge of Indiana and makes no logistical sense unless Jamys used supernatural means to convince the man to take him there. And when he drops Jamys off near a cluster of houses by the highway that are “in walking distance of the city”, I have absolutely no idea where this could be. Chicago is huge, sprawling into suburbs that extend miles and miles south, such that any highway leading into the city is surrounded on both sides by tons and tons of houses long before you reach the city limits. Walking to the city would take days from any point so remote and rural that there is only a cluster of homes by the highway.

But these are minor details particular only to someone like me, and I’m already looking forward to the third installment of the Darkyn series, Dark Need (out in June 2006). I’m anxious to see how Viehl makes a hero out of possibly the darkest and most potentially evil of the Darkyn characters we’ve been introduced to so far. Too, I’m hoping we’ll get to see more of the characters we’ve met in the past, and that some of the mysteries that we’ve been introduced to get answered.

Despite the problem of too many threads to follow, I do recommend this book. It’s wonderfully entertaining, a true can’t-put-it-down page turner.

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