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Thursday, May 10, 2012


Author:  Alma Katsu
Plot Type:  Gothic Romantic Horror 
Ratings:  Violence—4-5; Sensuality—4-5; Humor1
Publisher and Titles:  Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
     The Taker (hardcover, CD audio, digital audio, e-book-9/2011; trade paperback-3/2012; mass market paperback-2/2013)
     "The Devil's Scribe" (e-story-3/2012)
     The Reckoning (hardcover, e-book, digital audio-6/2012; trade paperback-1/2013; mass market paperback-3/2013)
      "The Witch Sisters" (e-story-1/2013)
     The Descent (trade paperback, e-book, digital audio-1/2014) (FINAL)

     This post was revised and updated on 2/21/14 to include a review of The Descent, the third and FINAL novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels and the first e-story.

       NOVEL 3:  The Descent           
     Katsu finishes off her series in a mishmash of a novel that uses the plot device from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, references to evil-queen fairy tales, and lots of soap opera moments. The first ten chapters (about 1/3 of the book) are told in the first-person voice from Lanore (Lannie) McIlvrae's point of view (POV). Those chapters review the events of the previous two books and provide Lannie with an opportunity to ponder the intricacies of love, death, mortality, and immortality at great, melodramatic length

     Here, in a 2 1/2-page self-absorbed interior monologue, Lannie mulls over her problems with fidelity: "Some would say I should never have returned to Luke if this was how I felt about Adair, that it was wrong of me to go back to him if I had any doubts. But complete fidelity of the heart in a relationship is something that has always eluded me. I have often wondered how these people manage to live such straightforward lives, to keep their emotions so simple and tidy. Do they weed out life's complications as ruthlessly as they would weed a garden? Sometimes a weed turns into a beautiful flower or a helpful herb but you'll never know if you pull it too soon. Do they ever allow themselves regret for the things they've thrown away? I would ask these self-assured people which of us has the luxury of an iron-clad guarantee? Who can be 100 percent sure of one's choices in life? How do you know that your beloved will always remain the same, or that you'll never change your mind?" (p. 227) In other words, Lannie is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of woman, one who keeps all of her options open at all times, no matter who gets hurt. It's as if she believes that she has a constitutional right to be fickle. I kept wanting to tell her to grow up and admit that no matter how she rationalizes it, she cheated on Luke by not committing totally to him. Later in the same scene, Luke confronts Lannie with the truth: "You never loved me the way you loved those two. You can admit it to me now. I won't hold it against you, but I'd rather die knowing the truth. Jonathan and Adairthey were always on your mind. I could tell." Lannie's response: "My cheeks flamed. I couldn't deny it." (p. 233) Later (same scene), she asks him, "Isn't it enough to be one of my great loves?" (p. 235) If this woman owned a cell phone, she'd be posting selfies on her Facebook page all day long, accompanied by whining comments about her (self-imposed) hard-knock lifewhat a self-centered egotist!

     As the novel opens, Luke has died a painful, lingering death from cancer, and Lannie is at loose ends. The other two men in her lifeJonathan and Adairare gone. Jonathan has been dead for four years by Lannie's own hand (the incident that kicked off the first novel), and Adair has disappeared. When Lannie begins having vivid nightmares about Jonathan being tortured in the Underworld, she tracks down Adair for assistance. Adair is living on a mysterious, isolated Mediterranean island in the company of two attractive young womenhis current lovers. (They have connections with The Witch Sisters short story). The women add little to the plot and almost immediately become an annoying distraction from the story line. 

     Even though Adair has grave misgivings, he eventually agrees to send Lannie to the Underworld to help Jonathan. Lannie's Underworld adventure can be compared to Scrooge's time travel in A Christmas Carol as she steps through a series of doors into scenes from her past and, meeting people who played significant parts in her life. At various times, Lannie is also compared to fairy-tale heroines like Alice in Wonderland and Rapunzel. At one point she muses about her situation: "I'd been drawn into a fairy tale…one of those violent stories told to frighten children and make them behave. I was the prisoner of an evil queen....I had been locked away in an unassailable castle surrounded by a dark, impenetrable wood that was home to evil, ravening spirits." (p. 256)

     In each of these scenes, she continues her series of overwrought interior monologues about the true meaning of love, musing about her feelings about each of her past love interestsLuke, Jonathan, and Adairand wondering if it is possible for her to have loved all three at the same time. This section of the book moves alternately between chapters from Lannie's POV in the Underworld and Adair's POV as he stands guard over her human body in his island fortress. In Adair's chapters, he deals with his two troublesome (and tiresome) house guests and flashes back to his life as a budding young alchemist in 13th century Venice.  

     In the final two sectionsentitled "Descent" and "Ascent"we get the answers to questions that have remained unanswered throughout the series, primarily questions about Adair's origin and powers. Also answered is the question about which man Lannie will ultimately choose, although by this point, I didn't really care any more. The back-cover blurb attempts to stir up some suspense as to whom Lannie really loves, but from the beginning of this book, there is never any doubt about her choice.

     The biggest problem in this book is the unbelievable turn-around in Adair's character. If you read book 1, you will remember Adair as a cruel, manipulative sociopath whose outrageous behavior drove Lannie to imprison him for centuries behind a brick cellar wall. Now, though, Adair behaves like a mellowed-out surfer dude. He lolls around with his two female guests, greets Lannie cordially and affectionately, and muses to himself about the deep feelings of love that he has for her. The total flip-flop in Adair's character from book one to book three is preposterous. He lived for a thousand years in his book-one persona (a wanton profligate). Then, in book two, he began to soften, allowing Lannie to go off with Luke. Now, in this book, he is a mere marshmallow of a man, wallowing in his love for Lannie and allowing himself to be put in dire danger for her sake, even though she is going off to rescue her former lover. I realize that one of Katsu's themes is the exploration of the meaning of love, but  having a powerful man like Adair totally abandon a persona and a lifestyle that he has inhabited for 10 centuries for a shallow, fickle woman like Lannie is inconceivable to me.

     According to Katsu's discussion questions (listed at the end of the book), one of her themes is the exploration of what happens after we die. Katsu explores this issue through the fates of Adair's former "Companions." Unfortunately, this is a flawed approach because on a sin-severity scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the worst transgressors), Adair's people are all 10s. That means that Katsu's analysis of the afterlife is slanted towards heavy-duty, long-term sinners, not toward the bulk of the world's population, who might take a wrong step or two (or three or four) but who, for the most part, would probably fall into a sin level of 4-6 (or even lower). Luke's fate is different from the fates of Lannie's other associates, presumably because he was never a part of Adair's group, although he did commit a number of egregious sins (like helping Lannie escape after she murdered Jonathan and abandoning his wife and children so that he could be with Lannie). My conclusion is that Katsu fails in her exploration of the afterlife because she doesn't include sinners who fall in the more populous levels of the scalea group that comprises most of her readers.

     If you have been reading the trilogy, you'll want to read this novel just to see how it all ends. You'll probably be disappointed with the much-publicized story line involving the Queen of the Underworld, who plays only a tiny part in this novel. The books are being marketed as a book-club discussion series, but I can't imagine that an analysis of these selfish, unlikable characters would generate a dialogue of any depth.

     In the first book of the series, the central soul-mate relationship is an unrequited one between Lanore (Lannie) McIlvrae and Jonathan St. Andrew, both of whom were born and raised in the village of St. Andrew, Maine in the early 1800s. Lannie has always loved Jonathan, and Jonathan has always considered Lannie a friend, confidant, and sexual partnerbut never his true love. In fact, Jonathan, the eldest son of the town's richest family, spends most of his time sneaking in and out of farmhouses having affairs with married women.

      The series also follows a small band of immortals, all created and controlled by Count Adair, a mysterious Hungarian hedonist who indulges in over-the-top sexual escapades and controls his minions with alternating kindness and cruelty. Their powers include self-healing, strength, and speed. Although they live among mortals, they keep their powers hidden as they spend their time socializing and hosting orgies that lead to tragic results for any number of innocents. 

            NOVEL 1:  The Taker            
Paperback Cover Art
Hardcover Cover Art
     The story opens in St. Andrews at the present time. Dr. Luke Findley is covering the emergency room when the police bring in a murder suspecta young woman covered in blood and seemingly in deep shock. She has confessed to the police that she killed a man in the forest, so the cops go off to find the body while Luke exams her. That woman is Lannie, and she begins to tell Luke a wildly improbable story about her life experiences from her centuries-ago childhood up to the present. Eventually, she persuades Luke to help her escape to Canada. As they go on the run, Lannie finishes telling Luke her story. The book comprises three strands, each taking place at a different point in time: the Luke-Lana journey (present day), Lana's life story (mostly early 1800s), and Adair's life story (mid-1300s). The three strands alternate throughout the book.

      The author uses two points of view in this book, with Lannie telling her story in the first person, and Luke's story and Adair's story in the third person. Verb tense is a bit muddled. Both Lannie's and Adair's stories are told in the past tense, but Luke's is told in the present tense, although when he thinks about past events, it shifts to the past tense. The use of the present tense feels awkward (e.g., Luke wakes...Luke knocks...He leads her...She looks over her shoulder) instead of the usual Luke woke up...Luke knocked...He led her...She looked over her shoulder). The lack of harmony in verb tense adds to the feeling of imbalance caused by the divergence in the story lines.

     Lannie grew up in grim circumstances on a small farm in the Puritan settlement of St. Andrew, while Jonathan enjoyed a life of wealth and influence. In addition to being rich, Jonathan was also extremely handsome. Here's how Lannie describes him: "He'd grown tall, straight, and broad shouldered, as majestic as the trees on his property. His skin was as flawless as poured cream. He had straight black hair as glossy as a raven's wing and his eyes were dark and bottomless, like the deepest recess of the Allagash [River]. He was simply beautiful to look upon." (p. 22) When Lannie becomes pregnant with Jonathan's child, her family sends her off to Boston to await the birth, but she slips away and is caught up by Adair's entourage. When Adair forces Lannie to bring Jonathan into his fold, Lannie's blind love for Jonathan and her fears for his safety push her to take actions that change all of their lives forever.

     I don't want to tell you much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice it to say Lannie's enduring, and bewildering, love for the womanizing, thoughtless Jonathan causes her to make many reckless decisions, most of which land her in various levels of difficulty. But she never stops loving him, even though he makes it clear from the very beginning that he will never return her love.

     Although the world-building is fresh and inventive and the story line is compelling, for me there is one important thing missingand that is sympathetic characters. Except for a secondary character, Urza (who was captured and enslaved by Adair), not a single one of the characters is likable. Adair and his band are all selfish, cruel, sybariteseach concerned only with his or her own pleasure. They put sexual pleasure above all, and don't care at all about the disastrous effects of their adventures on the innocents they drug and drag into their depravity. Lannie, with her ridiculously adolescent, pie-in-the-sky romantic mindset, will do anything to win Jonathan's loveeven bullying one of Jonathan's conquests to commit suicide. The shallow, spoiled, self-indulgent Jonathan thinks only of his own gratification, moving from one woman to the next, even as he professes loyalty to his wife and family back home in St. Andrew. Even the families of Lannie and Jonathan are offensive. Her father is brusque and unfeeling; her brother is narrow-minded and dogmatic. Jonathan's father is concerned only with future heirs to run his business, and his mother spends her life lording her social status over her neighbors. And let's not forget Luke, who comes across as a wimpy guy who can't deal with a divorce that was just as much his fault as his wife's. He traipses off with Lannie without a second thought about his family or his responsibilities at the hospitalnot an evil man, but not heroic in any way. Although many characters in paranormal fiction are dark, most have some positive aspect to their personality, but not this group. They are all dark and bitter people through and through, and they never grow or develop in any way.

     The sex scenesof which there are manyare not presented in graphic detail, but some involve gang rape, torture, humiliation, and extreme pain. None of them involve love in any way, shape, or form. The sad sex scenes between Lannie and Jonathan are painful to read because she keeps believing that their sexual union means that he loves her while he is obviously just using her as a means of easing his sexual frustrations. Click HERE to read the first chapter.

    With the second installment of the series (the e-novella) revolving around Edgar Allan Poe, I guess that the author wants us to see this series as Poe-like, but Poe didn't just mix together a bunch of freaky profligates and let them do their thing. In the first place, Poe wrote short stories, not novels, because he believed that a literary work should be able to be read in a single sitting, and he disdained character development. The plots of his short stories are intricately devised, with all events tied to a single effect. If Poe had ever written a novel, it wouldn't be this one, with its lack of a single-focused plot and its emphasis on the joyless depravity and soulless pleasure-seeking of a group of libertines. This writing is not comparable to Poe in any way. 

            E-STORY: The Devil's Scribe           
      This story takes place 20 years after Lannie sealed Adair away behind a brick wall in the cellar of his Boston mansion. After traveling by ship from Europe, she has landed in Baltimore, eager to head for Boston so that she can be sure that Adair is still ensconced in his eternal prison. That evening, in the dining room of her hotel, Lannie meets a mysterious, heavy-drinking stranger who begs her to tell him her story. He knows she has a secret, and he's determined to learn it. 

     After Lannie shares an edited version of her horrible story about the cellar wall, she bids him good-by and they never see each other again. The mysterious man is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, and when she tells him her story, she acts as his muse. Within days, Poe writes a story that he soon shares with his reading public. Click HERE to read the original version of the story that Lannie inspired, or click HERE to read a version with hyperlinked vocabulary words. Click HERE for an audio version of Poe's story.

     This is an entertaining little novella, but it adds little to the series story arc. The only connection with book 1 is that Lannie verifies the fact that Adair is still locked away...for now, anyway.  

            NOVEL 2:  The Reckoning            
     While book 1 was a plot-driven story with lots of graphic action scenes, book 2 is essentially a book of conversations and interior monologues. In the very first scene, Lanore ("Lannie") and Luke are in London, where Lannie has anonymously donated a truckload of precious objects from her collection to the British Museum. As they peruse the exhibit, Lannie suddenly feels a "hum [that] rattled, weak but not unfamiliar, at the base of the skull...and sent shivers chattering down my back like an old engine with a forgotten purpose being started up after a long time dormant." She recognizes that feeling as coming from Adair, whom she and Jonathan bricked up in a cellar wall 200 years ago. Adair is freed from his prison when his old house is torn down and the cellar is excavated. He is, unsurprisingly, very excited at the prospect of finding and punishing Lannie for what she has done to him, but first he has to find her.

     The book is structured as a narrative that alternates among Lannie's first-person voice, Adair's third-person voice, and Luke's third-person voice, with Lannie and Adair getting the most print space. Both Lannie and Adair have a number of flashbacks, with Lannie reminiscing about her adventures over the past 200 years and Adair returning to the Middle Ages to remember how he gathered together his various spells, particularly the spell for immortality.

     Almost immediately, Adair locates his old minion, Jude, in Boston and forces him to begin tracking down Lannie and Jonathan. (Neither is at first aware that Jonathan is dead.) On the other side of the Atlantic, Lannie begins searching out other followers of Adair: first, Savva, then Alejandro, and finally Tilde. But first, she dumps Luke, telling herself that he will be safe from Adair if he goes back to his ex-wife and two daughtersas if they'd accept him after he left town with a confessed murderess. Luke, however, fancies himself in love with Lannie, so he doesn't go quietly. As the story moves along, each character tries to achieve his or her own selfish goals with no regard for the resulting collateral damage to their friends, acquaintances, minions, and/or lovers. Luke, alone, worries about someone other than himself as he anguishes first about what Adair will do to Lannie and then fears what Adair might do to his wife and daughters. All of the rest are looking out solely for themselves.

     Let's examine this "love" that Adair and Luke have for Lannie. Throughout two books, Lannie has proven to be a selfish, narcissistic woman, rationalizing away all of her bad decisions and expecting that the people she has hurt will forgive her without question. She admits that she never really considered the consequences of Adair's imprisonment on his other minions, all of whom were left in the lurch with no money and no knowledge of the location of the master who had controlled every aspect of their lives for centuries. Lannie is fully confident that they will help her hide from Adair, never realizing that they have feelings of resentmentand worsefor her. Lannie does realize that she isn't a very good person, and she believes that is the characteristic that Adair and all of his minions have in common. Here, she muses about the men in her life over the centuries: "But the most frightening realization was that all of them had loved me even though it was not in their best interests to do so, even when they knew they would suffera loss of prestige, the forfeiture of wealth, a title, or independence; separation from a respectable wifeeach had made the sacrifice in order to be with me." (p. 135) But why, I wonder, did they all love her so much? Lannie really has no redeeming qualities in her character, so why in the world are all of these men so completely taken with her? 

     Now, let's take a closer look at Luke and Adair: Luke was a respected doctor with a practice filled with people who depended on him and two daughters he has always claimed to love deeply. Here, he summarizes for Lannie what happened to him after he met her: "I thought I loved you. When you told me you needed me, I gave up everything for you...My life is a wreck. My ex-wife...[isn't] sure she can trust me with my own children...I'm a wanted man. I lost my practice, my position at the hospital." (p. 263) Luke and Lannie have only been together for a few months, but he's so in love with her that even when she leaves him stranded in London, he still wants her back. And Adairwhat can I say about his feelings for Lannie? She's the one who orchestrated his 200-year imprisonment in a tiny stone-walled cell in utter darkness, and he has spent all of that time imagining what punishments he will put her through, so I understand the depth of his rage when he first breaks out. But what I don't understand is how he canin a single moment of epiphanylose all (or most) of that rage and give himself over to an all-consuming love for her. In that moment, he somehow realizes that she is his only true love and he must have her forever. Here he muses about Lannie: "It was time to pay her back...and yet, Adair felt something tugging for consideration at the back of his mind...A plaintive voice reminded him that he missed Lanore. He still remembered how she, and she alone, could make him feel. Why this one woman? It wasn't that he lacked for choice...He was alarmed to realize that only she would satisfy his restlessness." (p. 107) Later, he rapes and kills a woman who looks like Lannie and then realizes that he loves Lannie. Here, Adair summarizes his big epiphanic moment: "[He] loved Lanore, he hated her, but he was unable to take revenge against her....His love for her was sublime, and it was also a bitter curse, running through his veins like an infection. He needed no more proof to see that he was damned, irredeemable and damned, and there was nothing he could do about it." (p. 149) 

     When Lannie has a similar epiphany and realizes that Adair, not Jonathan (and not poor Luke), is the man she has truly loved all along, I almost quit reading. Here is Lannie's big moment: "The belief I'd held most sacred in life...had been an illusion. Even if I'd had a perfect love with...the others, each had come about because, subconsciously, I'd sought to re-create what I once had with Adair. The truth of this realization fell into place like tumblers aligning in a lock. It had been Adair all this time, not Jonathan. Adair, the monster, was the one I had loved all along."  (p. 136) (Believe me, this isn't a spoiler, because both Adair and Lannie are on emotional seesaws as they go back and forth between love and hate for one another all the way to the end of the book.) None of this makes any sense to me, but, unfortunately, it is the linchpin of the plot: Adair veers sharply from rage to love and back, and Lannie tries to figure out a way to escape from him, even though she accepts the fact that she really, really loves him.

     For me, this book hits all the wrong notes: too much talk, not enough action, and too many illogical or improbable choices and behaviors by the protagonists. A prime example of superfluous, long-winded scenes that are unrelated to the plot is a 14-page description of Lannie and Jonathan's escapades in 1822 with Lord Byron and his mistress, in which they talk, have sex, and talk some more. Now, here is an example of improbability: the all-too-quick manner in which Adair adjusts to modern life. Adair is desperate to locate his two books of spells, which, after two centuries, could be anywhere in the world, if they are even still intact. But...wonder of wonders, just a few days after his arising he finds them in perfect shape and completely unsecured in a small historical museum in the Boston area. And by the way, he drives himself to the museum, managing to operate a vehicle and locate an address in a major metropolitan area that he hasn't seen since it was a much-smaller town with horse-drawn carriages and cobblestone streets. This modernization of Adair is unbelievable. Within days, he is driving up and down the east coast like he's been behind the wheel forever, and he's using a computer like a pro. 

     The major problem with this series is that it wants to be a character-driven tale, but the characters are all completely unlikable, unsympathetic, and untrustworthy. They lie, cheat, rape, betray, kill, torture, and desert their loved onesall for their own narrow purposes. No one but Luke ever takes a single action to help another person, and even he has a selfish side. Even when they claim that they want to change for the better, their only reason for that change is to help them get somethingor someonethey want. Lannie wants to get away from Adair, and she wants her true love, whoever it happens to be at the moment. Adair wants Lannieto punish her and to force her to love her. He doesn't give a second thought to the woman he rapes and kills just because she looks like Lannie. I realize that protagonists can have dark sides. For example, in Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, Jake, the titular werewolf, is very pragmatic about the fact that he must kill and eat humans on a regular basis, and he's not averse to using violence to defend himself. But we get a look inside that man; we understand why he acts as he does; and we watch him do good as well as evil. He's not all bad and he's not totally selfish in his actions. And that's the difference between a sympathetic character and a repugnant one. Unfortunately, both Lannie and Adair land on the repugnant side of the equation.

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