Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review of 'Touch the Dark' by Karen Chance, Book 1 of the Cassandra Palmer series

Though Karen Chance is quite prolific, I had not heard about her until I came across a post on Tumblr raving about her Cassandra Palmer series.  I can't say what exactly spurred me to read one of her books, but  I didn't go into it with great expectations, and so I suppose that there was nothing to let down by.

Touch the Dark, is the first book in the Cassandra Palmer series. Cassandra is a time traveling, clairvoyant, and as you might imagine, time travel lends itself to various timelines.  When a writer chooses to go down this road, the plot must be clear and easy to follow.  At times I had to go back and re read because I lost the thread of the story entirely. To give you an idea of the potential to be confused, take a look at the time line created by Chance, to help the reader follow her story.

I suppose time travel encouraged Chance to introduce historical characters in her fiction.  So far we have met Baby Face Nelson, Jack the Ripper, Vlad the Impaler, The Man in the Iron Mask and Rasputin.  Of all the historical figures mentioned, I think that Rasputin makes the most sense, as he was notably hard to kill; however, it quickly became laughable, as I found myself wondering if Chance planned on making every notable person in history a vampire.

As protagonists go, Cassandra was not prone to spunky agency, and seemed to determine to hold onto what was in her best interest, despite the pressure to choose sides in a war she wanted no part in. However, she is yet another protagonist with dead parents. I simply do not understand why urban fantasy writers cannot allow their main characters to have normal childhoods or parents. In Cassandra's case, her parents were killed when she was four years old, and she was raised by Tony, a vampire mobster - the same vampire who had her parents killed.  Tony keeps Cassandra a virtual prisoner in his home, because he wants to use her talents to his advantage. When she does finally leave him, we learn that her life on the streets was rough, but no great details are given.

No matter where Cassandra turns in this story, someone wants her for a purpose. Men continually lie and manipulate her, in order to force her to do their bidding. It turns out that Cassandra may potentially be The Pythia, the chief seer of the supernatural community - a being of immense power. You see, the old Pythia is dying and Cassandra's heritage makes her the next choice for the magic. Pritkin, the war mage sees her as unclean due to her close ties to the vampire community, and his assumption sexual is long and varied history.  Just by looking at her, he determines her to be a whore. It turns out that Cassandra is indeed a virgin, because she simply has not trusted anyone to be physically close. Throughout the story, virginity is both seen as a prize, and as something to slough off if it blocks the path to power.  The idea that a woman's virginity should mean so much, is based solely on a patriarchal construction of womanhood and female sexuality.  Fortunately, this idea does not persist to the end of the story, but to tell you more would ruin it for you.

The one female character that we do not see enough of in this story is Mei Ling.  She is the second on the vampire council and a very strong vampire in her right.  What amused me most about this character is her willingness to allow other vampires to see her as weak, and therefore fragile.  She encouraged this perception, only to exploit it by killing them viciously.  The fact that Mei Ling is both small and female encouraged me to believe that they were physically her superior to their own detriment.

Of the vampire mythos, Chance held onto the idea that vampires could not tolerate sun for long lengths of time.  They have no problem looking at religious symbols and can even consume garlic.  Unlike vampire legends of old though, they can feed off of a human without biting them and can absorb blood through their skin. Vampirism also does not enhance their appearance in anyway, though all vampires have the ability to enthrall others. Vampires are divided into categories with the various master levels having the most powers.  It turns out that if one was a strong being in life, one was likely to be a strong being in death.  They are highly organized and the birth of each new vampire, must be recorded with the vampire council.  Each vampire is beholden to their creator, and only the strongest vampires have the ability to create new ones.

The best part of this story involved the mixing of various magical elements.  There were fae, werewolves, witches, humans and of course vampires.  The larger the world, the more I am drawn in, perhaps because it takes real talent to balance such diverse characters.  While Chance made sure that the world was diverse in terms of the supernatural creatures, unfortunately, such was not the case with her human characters.  Once again, there wasn't a single GLBT person and though people of color did hold power, as in the case with Mei Ling, they were seen as disposable or as existing for the sole purpose of manipulation.

At the end of the story, Cassandra is once again alone and running for her life.  I don't understand why she made this decision, and it is perhaps the most ridiculous decision made by the protagonist in the entire book. Clearly, this was a set up for the next book in the series, but it would have been nice to see Cassandra make an assertive move, rather than always reacting to attacks against her.  Perhaps in the books to come, as she learns to control her new power, she will not be so prone to running.