Saturday, August 31, 2013

Kill Me by Alex Owens

Kill Me by Alex Owens is a vampire story with a twist. It's the first book in the Blood Chord series, and the twist is that it's done well. I don't mean differently; this is a paranormal vampire erotica that follows the same old formula, but the writer gives it power.

This is a vampire novel that hits all the cliches that makes vampire stories so popular and then rewrites them, owns them or turns them completely on their heads. If you've ever thrown a book across the room (mentally, I could never hurt a book) because the heroine is vapid and perfect, and keeps running back to her abusive vampire owner/lover/soulmate, and been super disturbed by the power imbalance, or been exasperated by her teenage brattiness as she pretended to be independent, or hated the way that everyone hunted her out just because of her specialness, then this is a book for you. This is a writer who looked at their characters and decided to see if she could break them. And actually considered how they would react.

More of a novella, than a novel, I read it easily within a couple of hours, but for the story, it was the perfect length. Any more story would have thrown off the pacing, dragging it out needlessly, or would have been the beginning of the next story (and there is a sequel). I was expecting it to be a bit longer, was wondering about the pacing a little and then realised I was halfway through the book and had to readjust my expectations. It would have worked perfectly well as an origins short story, and that's basically what it is; Claire the Vampire's origins.But it packs in so much that this is a ridiculously long review for a short story. Admittedly, a lot of this review is pointing at irritating vampire romance tropes and laughing at them, because this story makes them look even sillier.

Okay, story summary time. Claire's an (approx?) 30 year old working mother, with an adorable daughter that she thinks the world of, and a husband that has been out of work and increasingly out of favour. She's away on business, working a music related conference and selling her company's promotional services, very effectively. Between the fact she apparently looks hotter than hell and her unsuspected empathic abilities, she's very good at her job.

And then she wanders into a music booth following an absolutely gorgeous tall, dark Italian stranger, to be handed a violin, and having it magically choose her. Said tall dark stranger, Elizabette, turns out to be a vampire who sweeps her off her feet, much to her bemusement and then,...well, date rapes her, as far as I can tell. Between the mental clouding and induced desire, Claire is in no state to give informed consent, and Bette certainly doesn't explain what she's up to. We don't actually see this; Claire wakes up with a memory gap, and turns out to be a not quite proper vampire, leaving her maker a bit confused. This leads to a dance of Claire knowing something went on, but no idea what, and the vampires going "Why aren't you trying to drink everyone's blood yet? Wait, do we have to explain this? What's going on? Wait, you - you're not a sexy single? You've got dependents? And magic powers?"

Oh yes, they meet in a stripper club, where they all get their own personal stripper in a back room, for sex and drinks. Claire spends a lot of time admiring the strippers, or being ambushed by people she knows and overwhelming empathic connections and lust, before finally joining the vampires and getting everything explained. Also? Sex.

After she finally knows what's going on, she spends most of the rest of the book... not knowing what's going on, as the other vampires take turns disappearing, seducing or creeping on her, until it finally comes to a head in a meeting that reflected her psychic dreams and she was pushed around, pushed back, was pushed around in a somewhat triggering rape-equivalent power play, and then pushed back hard and walked out of their unlives back to her daughter.

In and out of all this are a small female company of guitar designers, who include lesbian and mysteriously magical, characters. They act as both a contrast of normalcy, an insight into what Claire's life should be like, a prompt to help unsettle her sexuality, especially as she keeps running into them, and mysterious, excited assistance with her magicness from the lesbian, possibly magical, Cassandra.

And as a very domestic counterpoint, we have phone calls from her daughter and with her useless, depressed and slightly out of touch husband, in a marriage that has gone very bad, and is ending fast. That was actually really interesting; he'd obviously been deliberately oblivious to a lot of their problems, blaming her, but she also reflected it all back at him very strongly. She was clearly a very strong, rather scary, woman, and while I was completely on her side, I also felt a bit sorry for him! But we got to see how important her daughter was to her, as well as how capable and stressed she was, which helped give her character a lot of depth and made her handling of the whole vampires and sex thing a lot more believable.


The vampires

Bette is protective and clearly desires her new dependent, but is also a powerful vampire with her own issues, which is quite interesting. Usually vampires either abandon, or smother, their new vampires. The other two main vampire characters are sexy-dangerous and sexy-creep, by turns.

While our little coterie of vampires turned out to be super amazingly important, it does explain why they were travelling around with a rare and magical violin, probably looking for converts (or just bored) and why they had the resources to set Claire up to survive. I really liked the way that they all had different characters, the way that the sexy "good" ones ended up being much more complicated and motivated by some very selfish and manipulative things, yet still not being All Secretly Evil, and the bad creepy one was not flipped into "sexy evil guy who is just misunderstood" and yet still revealed indications of not being a complete creep and having a complicated past. Actually, that's a really important line that rarely gets drawn; having understandable motivations and a tragic past does not make one any less of a creep.

The power politics were actually interesting, partly because the vampires were actual people, partly because Claire didn't even get to see a lot of it, just ran around deducing stuff was off, and ending up in the middle of a power struggle. And then rather than kill each other off, they decide to even it out, rather than risk international vampire war. Which, of course, backfired on them badly, but props for trying.

Claire may have been a Special vampire, but she wasn't all powerful; she still needed blood, was weakened by sunlight, and generally had a lot of the same drawbacks as the others. Being vamped literally changed her entire life in very practical ways. It was actually a disability, one that severely affected her ability to keep a job, carry out any kind of normal life - or take care of her daughter.

Luckily for her, the vampires knew this, and had the rather clever habit of creating inheritances on the multi-million dollar scale, to help their newbies survive. Which does specifically explain one of the constant 'vampires are rich and mysterious and don't just hang out in basements' aspects. It also showed that they had an established social structure and didn't just create something Special for Claire, or go around turning people willynilly.

The vampire feeding, with the actually practical (though still suspension of disbelief, because vampires) descriptions of what the teeth coming out felt like and how to feed (never, ever I have I encountered a writer who actually thought about the sound that a vampire popping the skin would make. It's either silent or CHEW CHOMP SPLURT). It also seems to be of the orgasm inducing kind, which ties in with the sexual aspect. But it isn't always... Claire's first solo feeding experience went pretty badly, for example, and was really traumatic for the poor man she corners.


Sex Stuff

I do keep mentioning the word 'erotica' and that's for a reason. This isn't a purely sex, sex, sex book, but there's a significant chunk of it between the vampires and Claire. Sex and blood are the two vampiric fundamentals, after all, and at least one of the ways they form bonds of power and ownership and so forth.

So, firstly, she is bisexual. Very, very bisexual. Her sudden attraction to women is very sudden and appears to be entirely because of first the vampire, and then the vampirism itself. Which is fine, it's pretty rare for a 'suddenly' gay character to even have a reason and this was a pretty good one. However, she does promptly have a lot (well, twice, but it felt like a lot) of reasonably explicit man-sex. On average, her sexual encounters are half and half, but if you prefer lesbian encounters, this will be a drawback. If you don't care, then it's a plus. If this was a less well written book, I'd just write it off as F/F/M slashfic aimed at straight women.

The lesbian sex, between her and Bette, felt a little more one sided. Oh, she walked around in a constant fog of desire around Bette (and also, increasingly, around other women), and Bette's passion for her was extremely obvious, but it was a much more delicate, less explicit, affair with Bette very much in charge; although that can also be explained by the fact that Claire had never been in bed with a woman before. Actually, that's not entirely true, there was an episode of spontaneous passion. But again, still less explicit.

If 'bisexuals are sluts' is a trope that you really, really, hate then this story may annoy you. But as far as I can see, it's actually the other trope, vampires are sluts (and the main character gets All the Sex); none of the other vampires express bisexual interest, both the men and the women all chase after Claire (and female strippers, though that may also be partly a power thing, as they are easy to feed on), but neither sex ever indicate desire in, well, men.


Empowerment, Bewilderment, Trigger Warnings and Midlife Divorcee-ness

One of the things that added a lot of depth to the story was that a lot of the things Claire was doing, and the way she was reacting, could have applied to perfectly non-magical situations. Discovering her sexuality and sex drive after years in a stultifying marriage, celebrating her independence and standing up for herself, getting swept away and brainfogged by desire for a suave older woman; and all her confused reactions to being turned made sense. You don't spend the story yelling at her for being an idiot because obviously so and so is a vampire! She is a bit of an idiot occasionally, but it's because either she's not perfect, or because she's brainfogged by the vampiric desire aura.

There are definitely some of triggery, rape-like episodes. Her first night with Bette, when she's turned, feels a lot like a date rape - although it appears that the amnesia was an unexpected side effect, and she allegedly enjoyed the evening. Still squicky. Most of the feeding episodes; the strippers' consent was dubious (although they didn't seem to care there was a definite 'we're paid and have no choice' feeling, but Claire accidentally takes over the affections of one girl, showing it could easily be vampiric control), her attack on a random man was very invasive and assault-like, and the final showdown involved her being held down and forcibly bitten, in a very rape-like parallel. But they were not handwaved, or treated as sexy. They were explicitly as well as inherently problematic, Claire felt awful about the episode she was responsible for, and she even directly compared the final incident to rape.

On the empowerment aspect; I put the book down believing that Claire was a strong, independent adult woman who would capably take care of herself and her daughter, was not desperately chasing after the idea of romance and was not anyone's plaything. Most of her actions throughout the book were consistent with this, and whenever she wandered off track, or allowed others to take charge, it was because she had no choice (for example, recognised that she had no idea what was going on), or was enjoying a heady escapade and departure from her normality. I do not normally associate erotic vampire stories with 'and then she walked away and did not feel the urge to be sexy and moon over her lover(s) and never needed to contact them again'. There's also no slut shaming, which is great.


Bugbears and Caveats

A few minor editing issues; a sentence with a forgotten word or something. They did knock me out of the novel, but were rare. The sudden switch into lust and sex in the middle section of the novel is a bit startling, as everything up until that point has been safe for work, including the 'skipped' first night between Bette and Claire. If you aren't expecting it, it might be an unpleasant surprise.

Claire had All the Magic and was All Kinds of Special. I don't really see the need for her to have all the gifts (it just got a bit silly when they started listing all the things she might have). On the plus side, a lot of those gifts weren't really proven, she didn't suddenly start teleporting or lifting baseball bats with her mind or anything, they were all in the 'well, you might have this, or this, and maybe this as well! Who knows? You should keep figuring it out sometime' realm. There was a weird little bit of past history about a very, very distant ancestor that was a powerful witch, which honestly was a bit silly. After that many centuries, said ancestor must have a lot of descendants, and for the magic to suddenly show up after that long? Might as well be a new mutation as one passed down for generations without showing itself. That said, there's plenty of unknown factors involved, which may well show up in future stories.

One thing I really likes was that, not only was she decidedly amateur at using her various abilities, but it was her innate, well demonstrated, magical nature that made her Special and messed up her turning from the start. It wasn't a sign of Great Destiny, or her natural skill despite being completely untrained. Not only that, but the vampires had no real idea what had happened, and watching them panic was one of the best parts of the story, while they figured it out. It also didn't just spring into being once the vampires appeared for the sake of the story; it had always been present in her life, in a lowkey but believable way, to the extent of actually affecting her relationships and her career. Being an emotional 'sponge' makes you very vulnerable to getting swept up in your partner's feelings, for example.

Cassandra was mostly a plot device to explain the gifts and provide some context outside of the vampires. She could have been developed a bit more, but as it is, she just walked in as needed and vanished again. Leaving all these hints about how magic might work, and maybe she's a Fairy, and who knows what side she's on? All good sort of hints, and valid mystery, but too vague for this story. Although we do get to feel pretty much as Claire does!

Oh yes, and the fact that Claire was apparently gorgeous. It wasn't bad, and we never got the excruciating description of her appearance as she gazes into a mirror and laments her perfect, perfect rose petal skin and sleek as a flowing stream hair and eyes like deep pools of desire (I don't even know what she looks like, other than that she has cleavage, like 74% of all women), and it was generally handled believably, but it's a little annoying when the main character is just so pretty that everyone wants her. Actually, to be fair, the plain-yet-super-desirable trope is also annoying, and most of the vampires actually wanted her for the powerplay aspects.


Summary

This is a good, fun read with a fair bit of sex in it, if you're looking for a slightly more interesting, independent and mature female lead, and a slightly less irritating vampire story, that's more than just a bunch of stereotypes. It's a good set up for a series, and if you enjoy this book, there are more on the way, so it's worth trying it out.


You can download Kill Me as a Kindle ebook or buy the paperback on Amazon (I originally picked it up for free on Smashwords, but it is no longer available there)


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2 comments:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful review! Have a great weekend!

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    1. Aaaah! It's an author! Run away!

      (You're welcome! Thank you!)

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