"Nightshade," Michelle Rowen

Pros: Interesting world and some enjoyable characters (particularly Matthias)
Cons: Stilted/awkward beginning; self-absorbed heroine; one-dimensional bad guys; annoying take on psychiatric medicine
Rating: 2 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

Jillian Conrad lived a boring, routine life—until she got caught between a scientist and a killer, and was injected with the only prototype of a serum designed to kill vampires. Her scent is an irresistible lure, drawing vampires to kill themselves by drinking from her. Now she’s a one-of-a-kind commodity, needed by the vampire hunters and feared by vampires (who of course want her dead). A half-vampire hunter named Declan has kidnapped her away to the group of scientists who had the serum created, with assurances that they’ll try to help her. The serum had never been tested before and her body is trying to reject it. In short, it’s killing her.

Declan is an emotionless killing machine, thanks to a serum that suppresses the violence of his vampiric tendencies. He’s driven by a need to kill Matthias, the king of the vampires, as Matthias is responsible for his mother’s death. Jillian annoys him with her constant questions and rebellious streak, but she also introduces him to a world of emotions he’d long thought he’d never have access to. Now he has to keep the vampires from killing her, and make sure his own people save her from dying.


 

As was the case in Michelle Rowen’s “Living in Eden” series, we see a naive and awkward young woman get swept up into a world of danger and the supernatural. She ends up inextricably linked to a man who has done terrible things, yet who can be redeemed. And also once again, she ends up with an older, more powerful, suave creature who develops a dangerous fascination with her. Many writers have certain themes they tend to work with; this particular plot structure seems to be a big one for Rowen. Unfortunately, I felt she carried it off far better in that other series than in Nightshade.

The beginning of the book felt stilted and awkward, as though Ms. Rowen was having a little trouble drawing together the situation she wanted Jillian to end up in. Where Eden’s awkwardness was endearing and mostly just embarrassing, Jillian’s is all-too-often obnoxious. She’s pushy and self-absorbed to such an extent that I had trouble understanding why all the halfway decent characters in the book seem so besotted with her. What makes it even worse is that she’s one of those faux-imperfect characters. Allow me a moment to explain. Some writers have a tendency to write too-perfect characters, but by now I think most writers realize that those characters don’t often draw the reader in so well. We need characters to be imperfect so we can identify with them. However, some writers try to get around this by giving their characters flaws that don’t ultimately act as flaws within the book. Jillian can say something terrible to someone, obsess over the fact that yeah, she really shouldn’t have said that, but whaddaya know—ultimately everyone tells her no, you were right, we were wrong. It’s like getting asked “what’s your biggest flaw?” in a job interview and answering “I work too hard.” This is even worse than the perfect heroine, because now we’re expected to believe that even when she’s being obnoxious she’s still awesome.

Oh, wait, I almost forgot about Declan. Where Darrak in the Eden books had a lot of personality and I truly enjoyed him as a character, Declan was mostly annoying. I couldn’t even really enjoy the erotic material because in those moments, due to his emotionally stunted growth he came across as childlike, which kinda squicked me.

Also in a similar vein to the “Living in Eden” books, there’s a sort of three-part gradation of good to evil. There’s the main characters, who are the complicated good guys. Then of course there’s the utterly evil menace. And finally, in the middle, an entity who is sort of evil, only with more complex interests and motivations. Unfortunately in both series the truly evil menace was allowed to be one-dimensionally nasty, as though having the one complex bad guy made it okay to not detail the other. Instead this just highlighted how flat and uninteresting the eeevil menace was.

Finally, I have to take serious issue with the presentation of psychiatric medicine here, so please forgive the rant. There’s a brief, ultimately meaningless disclaimer about how medication might work for other people, but otherwise there’s a lot of sermonizing about the anti-depressants Jillian shouldn’t have been on (and how much better she was when taken off of them), and how much better Declan would be without his serum. While it’s undoubtedly true that psychiatric meds (like ANY meds) get mis-prescribed and not everyone who takes them needs them, the way in which Jill pushes her notion that this automatically must apply to Declan really pissed me off. Particularly because his issues were specifically biochemical in nature, and in behavior much more reminiscent of bipolar disorder—which seriously, meds do a LOT of good for. I should know, I’ve been on them for more than 20 years. But here; in this case, a humor site actually does a remarkable job of explaining how bad this is. Check out the very first entry, number 6, “Garden State”, in Six Movies With Uplifting Messages That Can Kill You. By the way, ‘kill you’ is not an exaggeration—quitting a strong psychiatric medication cold turkey and without a doctor’s supervision, as Jill encourages Declan to do, can be very dangerous. This, of course, is not addressed in this book.

I rarely rant about this kind of content-based issue, but there are certain topics I feel very strongly about and this is one of them. There’s a difference between giving a character a strong and controversial opinion, and twisting the realities of how such things work to justify sermon after sermon, to the point where it becomes clear that it’s the author lecturing the reader.

 

While the “Living in Eden” novels started slowly, ultimately I really enjoyed the series. After having read Nightshade and its follow-on Bloodlust (review to come shortly), I have no interest in reading more of this particular series.

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