Pandora's Box

The Burning

Susan Squires
2006, Vampire Romance (Regency England)
St. Martin's, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0312998554
Part of a series

Grade: B
Sensuality: Hot

This month we bring back Pandora's Box, somewhat revamped as a result of the user survey we conducted earlier in the year. Linda is now being joined by a different AAR reviewer each month, the books being discussed in PB are not [also] reviewed, and PB books are now receiving grades. We are working on a database improvement to accomodate the need for two grades per book, but until then, the two PB columnist's grades will be averaged together. Linda's grade for The Burning is a straight B; Jane Jorgenson's is a B-.

Ann Van Helsing had a gift that was more like a curse: when she touched someone, she knew their entire life story along with their emotions of anger, hate, love etc. This "gift" kept Ann isolated on her estate with her uncle, afraid to touch anyone and feared by the villagers, who thought her a witch.

Stephan Sincai is a born vampire who arrives in Cheddar Gorge searching for the "made" vampire Killkenny, whose vampire soldiers are committing murders in England. Stephan blames himself for Killkenny's deeds because at one time he had spared the life of another made vampire - Asharti - who then wreaked havoc on the world. Stephan's guilt is such that he allows himself to be emotionally blackmailed into becoming a "Harrier" - one who will hunt down to the last, all made vampires, including the very dangerous Kilkenny. In order to learn and submerge all of his emotions to become a Harrier, he submitted himself to two years of sexual torture at the hands of three female vampires who make MacBeth's witches look good. His quest takes him to England and the small town where Ann lives.

Ann finds a bleeding Stephan after a battle with a made vampire and thinking him dead, she touches him. She is immediately overwhelmed with the two thousand years of history that Stephan has lived and all of the torture he endured for the previous two years. Ann lapses into a coma and Stephan takes her back to Maitland Abbey, feeling an immediate connection to her because some of her leeches into all of the people she touches.

Stephan risks all to help Ann escape her greedy wicked cousin Erich and in turn, she frees him to rediscover his emotions as he tracks down Killkenny and his band of Vampires.

Linda: This month AAR Reviewer Jane Jorgenson joins me to discuss Susan Squires' The Burning. To my great shock, Jane, I actually liked this book - a vampire lover I am not, but I really liked Ann and Stephan.

Jane: I liked the couple quite a bit, but the book earns [only] a B- from me. It took me a while to get into the story and the romance was slow to build, but once it did I was there.

Linda: Yes, it did take a while to build but I was immediately captured by Ann's plight and difficulties living with her "gift" of being able to touch someone and know everything about her. I was also taken with Stephan, but all of the flashback torture scenes overwhelmed me after a while. But, I would give TB a solid B as I was unable to put it down after I started reading. I loved Ann and Stephan so much that I think I noticed the intrusion of the torture scenes more then perhaps I would have with a less interesting couple; I wanted to stay with this really great couple.

Jane: You're right about the flashbacks. There were far too many. I think Ms. Squires made the point fairly early on about why Stephan felt emotionally tortured and guilty and the three sisters attempts to teach him control began to feel like a hammer to my brain. I did find real suspense in what was going on with Ann and her "family". I was on the edge of my seat for a lot of her story. Her vulnerability to being labeled crazy resonated with me. Nothing could be more frightening to me then to be locked away.

Linda: Yes, I really understood her plight and the menace of her horrible cousin and the townspeople's fear of her. She is so valiant in her efforts to stay free and sane. And I totally bought into her falling in love with Stephan, even though she knew everything about him. I liked Stephan a lot - it was clear he was willing to do a lot to try and rid himself of the guilt he felt for the acts of another. But after awhile I felt like "enough already" - especially that last torture scene. I don't like it at all when one of the couple has sex with anyone else after they have met their love - even if the sex is forced. It just takes away from the romance But, I was relieved at Ann's reaction to Stephan's plight and thought her solution ingenious, although I can't go any deeper into that without revealing a spoiler. Again, I was shocked to find myself liking such a dark book...I guess it goes to show how a good writer can suck you into any kind of story.

Jane: Yes, Ms. Squires is good. This is the first I've read by her (think there are a couple others in my tbr piles somewhere) and I really thought her writing strong. The big theme of this novel is control. Ann has no control in her life and needs to find a way to take control and Stephan has learned all about controlling his emotions, but it's only when Ann helps him to let it go that he can finally come into his full potential. Interesting dynamics all of them - and all played out just as they should.

Linda: Jane, I also loved how surprised Stephan was by the strength he had when united with Ann. But, as much as I liked Stephan and understood his efforts to atone - although I think he got a lot more punishment then he could possibly have deserved - it was Ann who really made this book for me. She is a wonderful character and I couldn't help but root for her through all of her travails. I have read several of Squires books, but the standout for me is Danegeld, which was just so powerful. The lead character, a Viking, is raped in the first chapter, and watching him recover his life after this heinous act when he would rather have died was just magical.

Jane: I wish there could have been a bit more explanation for Stephan and his backstory. We're told about his relationships with Beatrix and Asharti and his actions that led to disaster. Stephan loved Beatrix, and Asharti (who was already pretty screwed up to begin with apparently) became jealous and vowed to create her own life. She went on to "make" an army of vampires and Stephan is now paying the price. In his guilt he wants to atone and the Eldest of the vampires, Rubius, knows that. Rubius is manipulative and probably pretty evil. Why doesn't Stephan see it? I get that he has guilt, but it felt overwrought. Add in the sexual torture that he underwent and it was both too much and too little. Stephan spends much of his internal life in the book brooding over the same scenes. I needed more. I would have liked a few more scenes of dialog between Stephan and Beatrix, Stephan and Asharti, and/or Stephan and Rubius. Too much telling and not enough showing.

Linda: Yes, I think more back story would have been nice, but since this is part of a series, I assumed more was given in previous books. But, part of what I did like about this book is that it was jargon lite. Part of why I have shied away from vampire stories is the elaborate worlds some of the authors build; I often feel the romance suffers due to the worldbuilding. Plus, often they give weird names to stuff and I can't keep track of what is going on. LOL But, Squires had just enough worldbuilding to set up these vampires' rules and habits without bogging down in all kinds of arcane things.

Jane: Well, I could have used a little more explanation about the rules of this world. The whole difference between "born" and "made" vampires seemed a little murky to me. Just where did Stephan come from? The explanation of how vampires came to be with the parasite from the water makes sense. In another book I read recently, the vampires were created by a parasite in the host human body. That book, Touch of Evil by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, went darker in terms of what the parasite did. Squires' has created a symbiotic relationship between the two beings that inhabit Stephan's body. That's good. But I come back to this: where did Stephan come from? He never mentions a mother or father, only the Eldest, Rubius. And how a race is to survive with so few births and the killing of any "made" vampires didn't make sense either. I do have hopes that the next book in the series will address some of these issues.

Linda: It is mentioned that he was a "born" vampire and how rare they were, but there wasn't much more information then that. I think that this lack of detail is one of the problems of writing a series for authors: you have to find a balance between giving enough info so that newbies don't feel lost; without boring readers of the entire series to death with background info they already know. I thought overall Squires did a good job of this balancing act, but I was a little confused by the relationship with the Companion - I knew it must be beneficial for both entities, even though I wasn't really sure why.

Jane: Though the vampire backstory was thin - I do applaud the author on her characterizations. I just finished another vampire romance and in that one the heroine is also innocent and good, but most of all she's to be protected. Ann is extremely vulnerable and Stephan cares about what happens to her, but he expects her to be able to take some control of her own life. Ann is an extremely gentle and generous person but that doesn't mean she isn't also intelligent and strong. That mix made her very interesting. Stephan is written equally well. No cardboard alpha vampire (sorry if I'm mixing my metaphors) here. He could sweep Ann away from it all, he's that powerful. Instead he treats her as an equal, worthy of his respect and consideration. Nicely done.

Linda: Yes, I think that the creation of likable, intelligent characters is one of Squires' real strength. You really care about what happens to this couple and I was able to picture them living happily everafter for eternity. For me the lack of an elaborate backstory with more of the vampire "rules" was a plus and while this is a dark book, it is also a book filled with hope. And Ann truly personified the stalwart heroine with a brain and common sense; this is my favorite type of heroine.

At RWA this summer Jayne Ann Krentz mentioned in a lecture to booksellers and librarians that "the alpha male is alive and well in today's romance - he is a vampire". So, for those tired of beta or gamma heroes and wanting a good old fashioned alpha guy look no farther then the plethora of Vampire novels suddenly flooding romance bookshelves.

Jane: What Ms. Squires has proven is that alpha doesn't have to mean all-knowing, all-powerful, let-me-take-control-of-your-life. Stephan is a real person, okay, he's a vampire, but he's multi-dimensional and fully-realized as a character. Though his wallowing in guilt becomes a bit much, his response to Ann is at all times attractive. Whenever Ann and Stephan were on the page together the author wowed me. When the flashbacks returned, then she lost me a bit.

Linda: I think we are in agreement on that point.

Ann and Stephan's instant attraction was believable and I could feel the wonder Stephan felt in having someone truly know him and everything he had experienced in 2000 years. I also chuckled over Squires's fun with Erich Van Helsing. His belief in the cross, garlic, and herbs to keep the vampires at bay was fun and gave me the feeling of being in on an inside joke, which I enjoyed. I also liked Stephan's explaination of how the "good" vampires stayed alive without making more vampires and suspect that the erotic dreams experienced by Stephan's "snacks" made them enjoy giving blood.

Jane: I spoke of control as a larger theme in the novel. Another is touch. How touch affects these two protagonists in good and bad ways winds through the story at all times. You talk about the erotic dreams Stephan's "snacks" had after he leaves them. Nice thought. But touch also has very negative connotations. Stephan is tormented by physical touching he endures with Rubius' three daughters. And Ann can't even bear to touch things, much less people because of her (dis)ability. As with the control issues, it's only by working together that the two are able to overcome the negative effects of touch and revel in the positive.

In terms of the sexuality in the flashbacks, is that something the author explores in all her books? I know you've mentioned the Viking in Danegeld, but is this a recurrent theme? Stephan is in effect raped by these women, though he does submit. I thought it was an interesting choice. Most romance authors who are including more eroticism in their novels are going the route of playful dominance. There is nothing playful about the dark scenes here and much as they were a little overpowering at times, I do admire the author for making them truly menacing and serious.

Linda: The rape scene in Danegeld was shocking and graphic enough that one understood the hero's desire to die, but total humiliation was his captor's goal. I definitely think strong sometimes mystical heroines are one of the author's trademarks. She also manages to take a tortured alpha hero and have him be a likable empathetic man rather then a tortured beast who lashes out at all who would dare to love them. I did grow tired of Stephan's "poor me...first loves don't last" spiel, but Ann was more then up to his whining. I tend to like stories where the couple connects and feels the wonder of the connection and the enhancement of themselves rather then the "I don't deserve you" storyline. I felt Squires kept the whining within bounds, but a little less would have been even better.

Jane: So what it comes down to is that Stephan and Ann are a powerful and romantic couple who had a somewhat uneven supporting story? I think that's where I land in my thinking. In some ways this felt like TB needs a sequel, and I don't mean a book featuring the next hero (who appeared very briefly here I think). Instead I'd like to see a book that focused almost solely on Ann and Stephan. I believe they are going to live HEA, but I wouldn't mind watching as they did so. Reminded me of how I felt about Shana Abe's book about dragons. Much drama getting the h/h together (with danger and tension) but just a couple of pages of them happily together. I would find it so interesting to observe these relationships for the first few months, never doubting they will be together, but liking the work they might put into it. Perhaps this is all a symptom of page length and publisher requirements. Not sure. But since so many novels' timelines are so compressed, why couldn't we have a few chapters of the relationship after the danger has passed? Any thoughts?

Linda: Yes, it would be wonderful if Ann and Stephan could be involved with the next story and let us see them perhaps down through the ages - after all, they spent a great deal of this story apart and coping with their own problems. I would also like to see Freya's story and wonder if she will really stand up to her father Rubius and refuse to aid in torturing any more Harriers.

Jane: I'm thinking that Freya and Kilkenny may be the hero and heroine of the next novel and that would certainly entice me. I'm already getting ready to dig through my tbr pile and see what other books I have by the author. What about you? Are you going to read the next?

Linda: Yes, I will definitely read the next and I have The Companion on my tbr pile and I think I will read it too. Squires has written several different types of books - Body Electric about Artiificial Intelligence is a favorite of mine, but no matter the sub-genre she manages to keep the romance interesting and believable. Which is a pretty neat trick when you consider the variety of stories she's written.

Jane: A Viking, an AI, and a vampire, sounds like she's versatile. I'll be looking forward to reading her some more.

Linda: Thanks for joining me this month - happy reading!

--Linda Hurst and Jane Jorgenson, for

-- Pandora's Box

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