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Monday, June 22, 2015

Kate Baxter: LAST TRUE VAMPIRE SERIES

Author:  Kate Baxter  
Series:  LAST TRUE VAMPIRE 
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR) 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  St. Martin's
          The Last True Vampire (6/2015)
          The Warrior Vampire (12/2015)
          The Dark Vampire (5/2016)

This ongoing post was updated on 3/24/2016 to include the publisher's blurb for The Dark Vampire, the third novel in this series. That review appears at the bottom of this post, preceded by an overview of the world-building and full reviews of the first two novels.

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         
     This series is set in a typical old-school paranormal romance world with vampires beset by an ancient cult of vampire-hating zealots who hide their fanaticism behind organized religion. The series heroes live lonely lives until they meet their soul mates (aka rodstvennaya dusha). 

     The author uses the standard vampire mythology (night-walking, sun sensitive, super-strong and fast, unbelievably handsome) with just a few innovations (e.g., a secondary set of fangs on the upper jaw). "When a dhampir is made into a vampire…our hearts cease beating; the breath stalls in our chests. Blood no longer flows through our veins and we no longer need food to sustain us. But there is a hunger. A thirst for blood that must be sated. And when a vampire drinks from a living vein, our bodies awaken, resume their normal functions until the lifeblood cycles through our system...After the blood works through our systems, the vampire's body returns to dormancy until the thirst returns and the cycle starts anew." (from The Last True Vampire)


     As the series begins, only one true vampire (aka Ancient One) is left in the world: Mikhail (aka Michael) Aristov, who lives in Los Angeles. Here, Baxter introduces him to the reader: "Michael Aristov was the last of the Ancient Ones, untethered and soulless, the lone remaining carrier of the collective memory, and the sole guardian of an orphaned race. And if he didn't feed soon he would be the death of them all." (from The Last True Vampire) After this somewhat ambiguous introduction, Baxter explains, and re-explains, Michael's problematic situation. In this mythology, people with vampire blood in their veins—no matter how little—are dhampirs who form a parasitic collective that draws power from and shares their memories with Michael (and any other true vampire that may be created). Because the members of the collective continually try to draw power and strength from him and constantly send him their memories, Michael spends a lot of time physically exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed.


     Unfortunately, Baxter's explanations of the workings of the collective are murky at best, even though she tries to explain it over and over and over again throughout the first novel. Here is her first metaphorical attempt: "Every vampire had been descended from a single creature. Like a grove of aspen trees were interconnected, the blood that created them tied them to one another. And there was just enough of that ancient blood flowing through every dhampir's veins to connect them all to Michael." (from The Last True Vampire) The aspen tree metaphor is not accurate, and I discuss that problem below as part of my review of the first book.


     In this world, dhampirs need to drink blood only four times a year. Between blood meals, they eat and metabolize regular food. Although vampires cannot walk in the sun, dhampirs can. Dhampir males are sterile, but male vampires can reproduce. (No reproductive info is given about the female dhampirs.) According to Baxter's mythology, dhampirs are born from either a vampire mating or a vampire/human coupling. This explanation is problematic because there has been only a single vampire on Earth for many centuries, and he hasn't mated with anyone, so where did all of these dhampirs come from? Once again, this part of the mythology is clunky and poorly conceived, so it is unfortunate that it plays such a major role in the stories.

     A dhampir can become a true vampire only after being drained of blood and then drinking the blood of a true vampire. At that point, the person goes through a brief but painful transition and emerges with true vampiric powers. During the transition, the "soul [becomes untethered and] is sent into oblivion. It's the price that's paid for becoming stronger and developing keener senses." When a vampire connects with his true mate, she returns his soul to him and he is tethered once again. The mates have close mental and emotional connections after they exchange blood. Note: All of the explanations regarding the mythology portray the dhampir and vampire as male and the mate as female. What happens when the dhampir is female? Do the same rules apply? Those questions are not addressed in the first novel.


     The Los Angeles dhampirs live in thirteen covens that are divided by social class and belief systems. Most dhampirs want to become true vampires, but until Michael finds his mate and becomes tethered, he doesn't have the strength to transform them. One coven leader named Siobhan hates Michael and preaches against becoming a soulless vampire. She accuses Michael of forcibly attempting to turn dhampirs into vampires. Although Michael has tried to transform a few dhampirs over the past centuries, he has done so only when he had sufficient strength at the time the dhampir requested the change. Unfortunately, all of those dhampirs died during the transformation process, and Michael hasn't had enough strength to do a transformation for many, many decades.


     The major villains of the series are the Sortiari, who appear to have escaped from a Dan Brown novel. They are a cult that hides behind the skirts of the Catholic Church. To track down and kill vampires and dhampirs, they hire gangs of Scottish berserkers. The Sortiari claim to be influencers of fate. "For millennia the Sortiari have taken it upon themselves to fulfill what they believe is a divine purpose: changing the course of Fate. The supernatural community isn't their only target. Politicians, religious figures, humanitarians, criminals…Anyone or anything that goes against their agenda is a potential target." Several centuries ago, the Sortiari's berserkers killed every single true vampire in the world—at least that's what they believed. But after one of them (Gregor) stabbed Michael through the heart with a silver-tipped wooden stake, he didn't make sure that Michael was truly dead. Michael lay for a century in an underground dungeon subsisting on the blood of rats until he gained enough strength to make his escape.


                         NOVEL 1:  The Last True Vampire                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     As Michael's eyes lit on a female not twenty feet away, he knew that it was her blood that called to him and her scent that had awakened him. This female had tethered his soul and returned it to him. 

     SOUL SURVIVOR: He is the last of his race. The one true king of the vampires. Michael Aristov roams the nightclubs of L.A. after dark, haunted by his past and driven by his hunger. The last of the Ancient Ones, he alone has survived the destruction of his race at the hands of the slayers. Now he is forced to hunt and feed like a common vampire, a creature of lust. Nothing in this world can fulfill his needs...until he meets a woman who's everything he's ever wanted and more.

     SWEET SALVATION: Her name is Claire Thompson. Her blood is so sweet, so intoxicating—the smell alone draws Michael to her like a moth to the flame. Sly, sexy, and seductive, Claire seems to be the only mortal who can satisfy his craving and seal his fate...forever. Can she be trusted? From their very first kiss, the last true vampire sweeps Claire into a world in which darkness rules desire—and where falling in love is the greatest danger of all...

MY REVIEW: 
     The author has set her melodrama meter at the highest level from the beginning to the end of this stereotypical paranormal romance featuring a melancholy ancient vampire and his feisty modern-day heroine. Michael's interior monologues gush with so many overblown, angst-filled, histrionic expressions that they are frequently laughable rather than poignant.

     Basically, the plot revolves around Michael's discovery of Claire, his true mate, and her refusal to participate in his vampire soul-mate scenario. Both Siobhan and the Sortiari add to the conflict. 

     Even though Claire does run away from Michael at one point, she sticks with him long enough for a handful of graphically portrayed sex scenes, all of which play out in typical, old-school paranormal romance style. In fact, Baxter manages to include just about every clichéd paranormal romance trope that you have ever read, including the inevitable shower scene and sex-by-the-pool scene and the compulsory "Mine!" exclamations at climactic moments. Here are some more of the tired old tropes included in this novel:

    >>  the aloof, ancient, very wealthy vampire hero with a tragic past, a joyless present, and a grim future

    >>  the spunky, sassy human heroine with a tragic childhood, a heart of gold, and a few semi-magical talents that develop further as the story progresses (astonishly, she doesn't have red hair)

    >>  the mandatory TSTL actions of the heroine, which put herself and the hero in terrible danger

    >>  the cutesy activities they engage in, like playing cards (Go Fish) and cooking meals for one another—each morsel described in torturous detail

    >>  the relationship-destroying "second thought" scenes that immediately follow each of their erotic love scenes

    >>  the hero's snarky but loyal best friend and right-hand man who saved the hero's life in the past and who sacrifices his freedom for his bro

    >>  the fanatical, sociopathic, blood-thirsty human villains

    >>  the power-mad supernatural villain who hates the hero and tries to use his friend against him

     As the book opens, Michael's life is not a happy one. When he goes out to the local vampire clubs, the parasitic dhampirs follow him around, hoping that he will share his strength with them. "They saw a savior, while Michael saw himself as nothing more than a soulless creature destined to fall through time in a state of perpetual emptiness." 

     Baxter keeps trying to explain the strength-sharing and the memory-sharing parts of the mythology, but she never really nails it. Her aspen tree analogy does not represent a true comparison to the vampire collective as she portrays it. Aspen trees grow in clonal colonies, which means that each tree in a particular colony descends from a single seedling and that all of those trees are genetically identical to one another. They do not draw power or strength from the original tree; they stand on their own, generating growth from sun and rain and soil nutrients. The aspens are not parasites, but that is how Baxter's dhampirs are portrayed. Also, the dhampirs are not genetically identical to Michael. 

     Here is another problem: How can Michael even exist if all of those dhampirs have been leeching away his strength for centuries. Wouldn't they have drained and killed him by now? A related problem: Because of the weird parasitic connection between the dhampirs and Michael, they can draw strength from Michael when he has it, but they also suffer when Michael is weak and hungry, which—up until now—has been true most of the time. 

     And what about that collective memory? Why doesn't Michael use the dhampirs' memories to shore up his defenses against his enemies. If they share their minds with him, he should have access to everything they know, but the only memories Michael gets (at least the ones mentioned in the narrative) are the really bad ones from the long-ago past, never any current knowledge that would help him fight off his enemies. Baxter needs to work on the "collective" part of her mythology because huge parts of it make no sense.

     As you can tell from my review, I'm not crazy about this series, primarily because of its reliance on tired tropes, its lack of freshness and inventiveness, and its poorly constructed world-building. I will read the second novel just to see if Baxter makes any improvements, but I don't have much hope.

     To read an excerpt from The Last True Vampire, click HERE to go to the book's Amazon.com page and click on the cover art. The second novel—The Warrior Vampire—will tell the soul-mate story of Ronan and Naya.

                     NOVEL 2:  The Warrior Vampire                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     The vampire was built for sin, every inch of him tight and bulky with corded muscle. A killer, that much was apparent, and she couldn't help but wonder if his appetite for violence would rival his appetites for other…things. 

A WOMAN SEDUCED
 
     Naya Morales is no ordinary mortal. Born with a shaman's power, she has devoted her life to tracking down stolen magic-and punishing those who take it. But one fateful night, she follows the alluring call of a sensual magic that is too glorious to be true-and finds herself face to face with a stunningly handsome thief who is too magnificent to resist. 

A VAMPIRE ENSLAVED
 
     From the moment he sees her, Ronan knows Naya is his mate. Driven by a deep, almost mystical connection, he aches for her body, hungers for her blood, and swears their souls are anchored together. Naya refuses to believe the words of a vampire-or risk the wrath of her tribe. But when she tries to make Ronan her prisoner, neither chains of silver nor fires of hell can help her escape the truth: she is the one who's been captured, in The Warrior Vampire by Kate Baxter.

MY REVIEW: 
     First, I have to admit that I couldn't force myself to read this entire novel, although I did read the first 200 pagesso, more than half of the total 365 pagesand I skimmed quickly through the rest. By the end of the fourth chapter I was pretty sure of the villain's identity, and soon after that I had figured out the gist of the plot mysteries. So why didn't I finish reading the book? For several reasons:

1. Just as in the first book, Baxter's writing style is so melodramatic that it mimics 1980s bodice rippers, but with the addition of fangs and magic and blood-sucking vamps. Examples: "She cleaved to Ronan, kissing him as though she'd been starved for the contact for eternity…" ("Cleaved"…really?); "Your body is the altar at which I pray.""the sharp cut of his cheekbones made him look as though he'd been sculpted from marble." (I believe that this line appeared multiple times in the TWILIGHT series. Edward was notorious for his marble body parts.); "Fire chased through her veins…Pleasure pulsed low in her core and a deep, needy ache opened up inside of her." (This lineor something similaris standard boilerplate in romance novels. It's time for a freshening up of the descriptive language.)

2. The lead loversNaya and Ronanspend most of their time either arguing or jumping each other's bones. In the first half of the book, Naya spends a lot of time threatening to kill Ronan with her magic dagger, followed by scenes in which she lets him bite her and enjoys every second of their close bodily encounters. Meanwhile, the action part of the plot is ignored completelyfor chapters at a time. 

3. The villain at the heart of the plot is immediately apparent because of his surly attitude and his illogical behavior (and I'm not talking about the Sortiari idiots because we already know that they are the bad guys of the whole series). Baxter drops in a mini-story line about the Sortiari, but it just shrivels up and dies away.

4. Although the Bororo mythology is somewhat interesting, Baxter defies logic when she puts the tribe into a very small town and has them all living in buildings on the same city block. In such a small town, how could this much adjacent real estate suddenly be available for the tribe to take over? And why don't the locals notice that they have this patriarchal, retro cult living in their midstright in the middle of their town?

5. And that brings me to the misogynism inherent in the Bororo mythology. This is a paternalistic society in which only the men are shifters and only one or two women at a time are bruja (witches or sorcerers). Meanwhile, all of the womenmagical or notare treated like useless possessions (e.g., forced into arranged marriages, ruled by strict social restrictions, not allowed to speak for themselves). Are we to believe that this kind of a society could be kept invisible from the local population? Don't these children go to the local public school? Doesn't anyone notice how the women and girls are being treated? It's the 21st century in the U.S.A.a time period driven by social media. I just didn't buy this whole male-dominated culture as being possible in this small townnot without someone calling attention to it on a going-to-viral tweet or Facebook post.

6. Naya's job as the tribe's bruja is to go out all by herself, night after night, hunting down and battling with huge, dangerous demons. Not a single male shifter ever accompanies her, so she has absolutely no back-up until Ronan shows up. This is totally illogical. Why on earth would she be required to hunt alone? Why wouldn't a shifter or two accompany her? After all, they are huge, fierce jaguars who would be quite helpful in a fight with a demon.

7. And then there's my usual pet peeve: huge evil monsters stalking around town unseen by anyone except the hero and heroine. 

     In the slim action plot, Naya's job is to track down mapinguari. Here is Naya's explanation when Ronan asks her what a mapinguari is: "A demon…When magic infects a body that it's not meant to reside in, it corrupts the host..It's usually humans who get themselves into trouble. Trying to harness a power they can't possibly comprehend…The magic attaches itself to the host and from there it takes over. It manifests into something dark and unnatural. A creature hell-bent on destruction." Lately, Crescent City has been swarming with mapinguari, so Naya has been out hunting every night, tracking them down and killing them with her magic dagger, which sucks the magic into itself when she stabs a mapinguari. She then delivers the magic to a tribal member for safe keeping. Although she has been doing this for years, she never wonders what happens to the demon magicnot until now, that is. How convenient.

     Ronan's part of the plot is that he can't remember anything that happened to him after he arrived in Crescent City several days ago. Naya finds him dripping with magic and almost kills him, but relents at the last moment because of the magical music that he is projecting. (Being able to hear magical music is one of her bruja abilities.) Eventually, Ronan remembers that he came here in search of his sister, who was on the hunt for an ancient artifact of great power. Could the artifact have a connection with the mapinguari? And where is Ronan's sister?

     All in all, I'd have to say that I didn't like this book any more than I did the first onenot very much at all. Consequently, this is the last book in this series that I will be reviewing. In the future, I will list new books at the top of this post as they are published, and I will include the publisher's blurb for each new book on in the body of this post. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Warrior Vampire on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art..

                     NOVEL 3:  The Dark Vampire                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Jenner is a newly turned vampire who stalks the night like a wild beast of prey, hunting and feeding his appetites with a string of willing women…and always wanting more. Nothing can satisfy the aching hunger that burns inside him―until he crosses paths with a beautiful, innocent vampire who sets his soul on fire.

     Bria has never been able to escape the confines of her uncle’s home. But when the smolderingly sexy Jenner saves her―and promises to be her bodyguard―Bria is brought to a dark world of dangerous, insatiable desire. But once they feed upon each other, they expose themselves to an evil that they never saw coming…and now there’s no turning back. Will they divide and conquer―or stay together and lose it all to lust?

     Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Dark Vampire on its Amazon.com page by clicking on the cover art.

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