In which I discuss a book I really wish I hadn’t read.
Content Warning: this post contains references to psychological trauma, gaslighting, physical abuse, and sexual assault.
I’ve never especially hated vampires. During the late 90s they became the new flavor of the month and lost any remaining potential shock value as villains or romantic interests. Although they’re overused and often annoying, I’ve never felt that the “kill it with fire” reaction was particularly justified– until now.
A book I just read has change my outlook, at least in regards to its specific fantasy world, and not for the reasons you might imagine. As far as appearance, they were your run-of-the-mill monsters.
But by the fifty percent mark, I wanted to drop napalm on the author’s entire fictional world. I wanted to nuke it from orbit. I wanted to watch every single one of these miserable creatures burn.
The book in question will remain nameless for a number of reasons. What I’m about to say will (and should) completely spoil it for potential readers. I have no interest in promoting the contents, and I don’t suggest anyone else read it. Unlike some of the really awful books I’ve reviewed, it’s not even good for a laugh.
In this book, a witch named Gwen is tasked with solving the disappearance of another of her kind by the witches’ council. Her cover during the secret investigation is to act as the new envoy to the realm’s vampires. I swiftly found myself questioning the entire premise.
The council already has official witch investigators on the scene, and they haven’t been having much luck. Why do they think someone with zero experience as an investigator who just wants to go home and knit would have more success?
There’s also the fact that the vampires aren’t in on the scheme. They’re indifferent to Gwen’s goals, and soon flat out forbid her from doing her job because it conflicts with their plans for her. And what might those be?
Apparently in this realm ‘envoy’ means something else entirely from what you might expect. An envoy is not “a diplomatic agent; an accredited messenger or representative.” It’s more like “here, take this witch. You can do whatever you want with her, just please leave us alone!”
The vampires consider humans little more than a food resource. The witches are supposed to be defending their realm from the monsters, but that battle seems to have been lost long ago. The vampires are cold (both literally and figuratively,) and incapable of feeling most human emotions. They do have monster-sized egos, though, and demand strict adherence to an antiquated social hierarchy that –surprise!– includes women being farther down the social totem pole than cattle and dung beetles.
The most envoy-like thing Gwen ever does is carry messages between the realm’s master vampire and the witches’ council. It’s completely superfluous since the vampire ambassador also carries messages between his master and the witches.
As envoy, Gwen spends a lot of time staring at the floor so as not to offend anyone and mentally reminding herself to be submissive to the monsters. She gets pushed around, hit, and threatened by every vampire she encounters until the master vampire makes her his property, at which point the lower ranking vampires are forced to treat her with slightly more respect. Harming the master’s slave is a good way to start a feud, apparently. Kind of the medieval equivalent of “Hands off muh propertay!!”
Lest you get the wrong impression though, there’s absolutely nothing beneficial about this for Gwen. She gets knocked around, bitten, and deliberately scarred by her “master.” She’s told who she can talk to, where she can go, and warned there will be grim consequences if she fails to check in when called. The master vampire demands to know where Gwen goes during the daytime and who she’s been talking to each day, threatening to kill her or keep her locked away on his estate if she doesn’t comply.
In addition to the physical abuse, there’s also a mental element. The vampires can rummage through a human’s mind, viewing and removing memories. Later on in the story the vampires come to see Gwen as a useful weapon in their internal power struggles, and order the council to find someone to train her. It’s implied that the male witch who trains Gwen has also been altering her memories, and may have done something of a sexual nature which Gwen didn’t consent to and can’t clearly remember. In essence, basically hocus pocus-assisted sexual assault.
You may be feeling pretty revolted and enraged by now– and you’re definitely not alone. The more I read, the more disgusted I became.
I initially found myself wondering why the council would send a defenseless envoy to these monsters. Aside from a pet rock that allows Gwen to step into a shadow and teleport to anywhere she can picture, they give her no means to escape the vampires or protect herself. A stereotypical good witch, Gwen is adamantly opposed to killing anything, even her abusers.
As the story progresses, Gwen discovers the ability to summon sunlight– with predictably lethal consequences. Yet she balks at using it to incinerate vampires, even when the master vampire orders her to. At first I held hope that gentle Gwen would rebel against the abuse, find her spine, and fight back. After all, she has the ability to incinerate monsters and teleport to safety, and an earth elemental friend that can heal her of the forced connection that allows the vampires to track her.
Sadly this was not that kind of book. Viewed as a Handmaid’s Tale-like allegory for the dehumanization, harassment, and abuse faced by many women, the story sort of works. Gwen is beaten and treated like property by predatory monsters. Gaslighted and manipulated to the point that she doesn’t trust her own intuition or memories, the monsters slowly crush her sense of self-worth and separate her from anyone she could call to for help– exactly like real-life abusers are wont to do.
Gwen is misled into this situation in the first place by the older, wiser witches who should have been looking out for her. They barter Gwen into a life of involuntary servitude and torture because they see it as the simplest way to protect themselves in the short term. Like people who deliberately turn a blind eye to domestic abuse, they know exactly what’s going on and have chosen the coward’s road of assisting the abuser in exchange for a bit of power and safety.
If you ignore the mythical monsters and magic, it’s a gut-wrenchingly real look at the worst kinds of abuse. However I doubt that this was the author’s intention.
There’s a halfway serviceable plot entwined with the horrors Gwen is subjected to. It’s a tale of a conniving witches’ council colluding with various vampire factions to protect themselves, enslaved witches abducting and murdering other witches at their masters’ behest, and mind games and intrigue galore. But the plot would have been much better served by a tough heroine who fought back in place of gentle Gwen, the good witch who just wants to knit.
It’s a bit like watching a marionette play put on by especially cruel children or severally mentally ill adults, except instead of being an observer you’re experiencing the cruelty as one of the puppets. It is one of the most pointlessly unpleasant books I’ve ever read.
In the end Gwen submits to the master vampire’s demands and is separated from what little support network she had. In return, she’s “rewarded” with a vacation. The preview for the next book reveals that the vacation is part of the vampire’s plan to pair her with another witch with similar abilities in order to breed more witches that he can use as weapons. And yes, that really is as vile as it sounds.
I can’t figure out where the author was going with this. If I’m supposed to wonder how much worse things can possibly get for Gwen and buy the next book, then the author is sorely mistaken. It’s a nine book series (this was book two.) Is the reader really expected to slog through seven more books this utterly repulsive to find out if Gwen eventually incinerates her monsters? Or is this one of those abuse fetish things? Either way, I feel like “kill it with fire!!!” is a wholly appropriate response.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, you can find more information at the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. You can also call the hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (1-800-799-SAFE).
HelpGuide.Org has a lot of good information and provides a list of support numbers for women and men in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, and Australia.
Take care and stay safe out there.