Plot Summary (from the author’s website): If only a broken heart were all she had to deal with…
…but there are Viking ghosts, gods, werebeings, and one sexy as sin vampire on Francesca’s case. And her biggest trouble is Loki, the trickster god.
When Fran arrives at Goth-Faire to deal with him, things go from bad to worse, for her immortal ex, Benedikt, is there…with a new girlfriend.
Shapesifters, Vikings, and a town filled with deranged opera fans…it’s a good thing Fran’s no ordinary mortal…
Be Ye Warned: here there be spoilers.
My random conversation with the woman in the bookstore a couple weeks ago netted me two books. In the Company of Vampires was Book 2 of 2. (full story, and review of Book 1 of 2, here). Having gotten more than a few laughs out of the first book, and having enjoyed it as I did, I fully expected to have a similar reaction to this one. And while I was reading it, other than one major and one minor point of dissatisfaction that I will of course talk about in a bit, my expectation seemed to bear out. However, as I was lying awake in the middle of the night last night (more than a week after I finished the book, mind), a couple of thoughts struck me that, now that I’ve worked through them, make me reconsider the messages that this book delivers.
I’ll start with the good. In the Company of Vampires is the continuation of Fran and Ben’s story. Fran is now an adult, five years having passed since the events in Confessions of a Vampire’s Girlfriend. As the story opens, we learn that Fran has left the Goth Faire, completed college, gotten a job, and generally become a self-sufficient woman. Oh, and she’s also no longer in a relationship with Ben, due to the intense pressure she kept getting to “settle down with him and be his Beloved already.” Fran wanted more for herself, and wanted some time to make her way in the world, so she decided to put some distance between her and Ben (and all of the folks who wouldn’t shut up about him already). For my part, I enjoyed seeing how much Fran’s character had grown in the intervening years between the previous book and this one, and I liked that she was fundamentally committed to being a whole person in her own right, instead of surrendering her identity to a role she hadn’t chosen.
From this beginning, the story rolls along at a good clip; MacAlister’s writing is as fluid and easy to fall into as it was in the previous book. Before too long she throws an attempted kidnapping, an actual kidnapping, Ben’s new girlfriend, and the return of the Vikings from Circus of the Darned into the mix. With the interplay of the various storylines, there’s much to hold the reader’s attention, and there’s a lot of humor in this book as well. As before, I struggled to find places to stop reading, because “I want to find out what happens,” as I kept telling my husband, who would invariably want me to complete some mundane, non-vampire-related task like giving our child a bath or balancing the federal budget (not really, though I could have done it). In this regard, then, the woman I met at the bookstore was correct: this book is one helluva dose of brain candy, and if I hadn’t mulled it over after I finished reading, then I would have given it four out of five ounces of weasel gold and moved on to the next one.
But y’all, I did think about it. Even while I was reading, there were two things that bothered me. The lesser of these, which really only rose to the level of “irritating,” was the fact that someone who hadn’t read MacAlister’s earlier book about Ben and Fran would have a really hard time understanding what was going on in this one. There’s not much in the way of a story recap; specific mannerisms and occurrences which were explained in the previous book were not re-explained in this one; and without knowing the story of the main characters’ earlier relationship, the “romance” aspect of the story moves along really quickly (yes, even for a romance novel). Had I not read Confessions of a Vampire’s Girlfriend, I would not have known what these two characters saw in each other.
That problem, however, pales in comparison to the one that pissed me right off when I got to the end of the book: so, so many of these interconnected stories ARE NOT RESOLVED. It’s like the author thought “huh, well we’ve resolved the romance story, so I guess we’re done here!” and…dropped the rest. The book ends with a breezy little vignette in which Ben and Fran look adoringly at each other and laugh about how their life together will be so interesting, and well, they’d better start by figuring out how to wrap up ALL THE THINGS. Like: do the Vikings get back to Valhalla? Fran is supposed to banish Loki to make that happen–will she do that? How, now that her valknut has been destroyed? And: who was it exactly who was keeping her mother captive? And why? What about the necromancer and his victim who Fran wanted to free? And the long-lost family member who shows up for about two seconds and then we never see them again? I could go on and on AND ON, but instead I will invoke “Chekhov’s Gun:” “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” As much as I enjoy her writing, Katie MacAlister left a lot of rifles hanging on the wall in this book. I went to her website to see if there was another book in the works for this series that might tie up the loose ends, but so far I don’t see anything. So, like Amy has before, I will here note my disappointment that there isn’t a complete, standalone story in In the Company of Vampires. It might have been twice as long, but I would have read it anyway, because I thought the stories were interesting!
But now…now we get to the most problematic (in my view) of the problems with this book, the one I teased out well after I had finished reading. It’s also probably the most spoilery, so again: Be Ye Warned. The problem, in brief, is: throughout In the Company of Vampires, Fran’s relationship with Ben is marked by lack of consent, and lack of agency.
Back at the beginning of this review, I gave Fran a “rock on!” for pulling away from Ben and bucking the pressure she was getting about their relationship, in order to carve out a life for herself before making any decisions about Ben and her role as his Beloved. To my disappointment, later on in the book we find that that wasn’t really Fran’s decision at all: divine intervention, in the form of Loki the trickster god who has a bone to pick with Fran due to stuff that happened in the other book, caused Fran’s perception of others’ intentions to be incorrect, and caused her to drive a wedge between herself and practically everyone else she knew. So: far from this being a rational, informed decision based on circumstances in her life, Fran’s show of strength and independence was entirely contrived. I was not pleased at this revelation, because it suggests that Fran is not really as strong, as autonomous, as fierce a heroine as she appears to be. I, for one, think that’s a damaging message, especially since it is societal reality that women are not trusted to know what’s best for them in many areas of life (see: “your mouth is saying no, but your eyes are saying yes” and other similarly creepy crap that is passed off as “romantic” in our culture).
Beyond even this, though, is one small occurrence that is fairly buried in the text: Fran does not appear to understand what it means to be a Beloved, and to Join with her Dark One. There is no in-text explanation, and that is (from what I gather) unusual for MacAlister’s Dark Ones novels–typically, the terms of the contract (as it were) are discussed up-front, and considerable time is taken in the plot for the heroine to decide how, or whether, to proceed. Joining is a multi-step process, which culminates in the Beloved sacrificing herself (as circumstances allow, because apparently they always do; we’re not talking any weird ritual suicide stuff here, folks) for her mate. It is this act which redeems his soul. Fran? Doesn’t know this. I think I assumed Fran gained this information off-stage, in the five years between the previous book and this one, but it didn’t happen. I know it didn’t because once Ben and Fran have completed all of the Joining steps except that one, Fran is all “hey that means you’re redeemed now, right?” and Ben is all “no, that will happen soon” but DOESN’T EXPLAIN HOW OR WHY. And then after Fran does save Ben by putting herself in the line of fire, Ben’s sister is all “oh yeah he’s redeemed now because you did that.” WTF? Fran did not give informed consent to this Joining because she had no idea what it entailed. If she knew, would she have agreed to place herself in mortal danger in order to give back the soul of this man that she’s had, let’s face it, a pretty intense yet on-and-off relationship with? Would you?
The Verdict: I really wanted to like this book. It sounds as though I would probably like some of MacAlister’s other novels, in both the Dark Ones and other series, better. I will read another one, because I like the author’s style and her world-building, but now that I’ve had some time to reflect, In the Company of Vampires just doesn’t sit well with me. Ben, with some minor changes (like going “hey, here’s what you’re in for if you’re really going to be my Beloved”) is a fine hero, and Fran, when making decisions under her own power, is a fine heroine. But the problematic messaging and the sheer number of loose ends turned me off, in the final analysis. I give this book two out of five lady’s beheading axes.