Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Dark Dates, Book One of the Cassandra Bick Chronicles, by Tracey Sinclair

Cassandra is a human sensitive who knows when someone around her is not human.  She can sense the evil in them and the power.  At first her parents saw her as a precocious child but in her teenage years, when the sense became debilitating, she was approached by an earth bound angel named Cain, who tells her that what she has is truly a gift. He disappears from her life for years, only to reappear the night that her two best friends are killed, to drag her from a burning house.  Cain seeks vengeance in Cassandra's name and this separates them again for a few years.

Cassandra could have chosen to hate anything that wasn't human or otherwordly after suffering such a loss, but instead decides to view each person as an individual and so she sets up dark dates - a service which introduces humans and vampires.  Cassandra is happy and comfortable in her life, though she has been unable to re-create any friendships since the horrible day that her best friends died.  The closest she has come is Madea, her Indian and Scottish Wiccan assistant. Though they spend everyday together, once it's quitting time, they go their separate ways.

When Cain blows back into town telling her that something bad is happening and mysterious deaths are appearing in the newspaper, she refuses to leave town because she cannot afford to allow her business to flounder and has to live on a tight budget to make her mortgage payments. A mysterious vampire visits her place of business and threatens her but Cassandra still won't leave.  When her office is broken into and her files stolen, Laclos the head vampire in London demands that she find out who is doing this because all of the young vampires are now being killed thanks to the information in her files.  Demons begin attacking and though the mysterious Cain has promised to help, he never seems to be around when she needs saving.  To make matters worse, when she finally uses her sense on Cain, she learns that not only is he not human but that he is an angel.  Can Cassandra find who is killing off the vampires in London before they kill her or ruin her way of life forever?

Okay, I have to say that Sinclair has turned me into an out and out fanpoodle.  I stayed up late reading this book because I simply could not put it down.  Even as I write this, my heart is screaming don't critcise the precious, must protect the precious.  One of the things that I loved about this book was the inclusion.  Too often in urban fantasy, having a diverse supernatural world is used to cover the fact that there is little real inclusion going on but in Dark Dates, Sinclair managed to have a diverse supernatural and human cast that read as largely authentic.  

Madea and her shifter girlfriend Kate clearly have a loving relationship.  Though they help Cassandra fight evil, they make it clear that they are doing so only because they have a stake in what is going on, rather than a need to have Cassandra's back. It would have been so easy to have them become sidekicks and servants but Sinclair skillfully avoids this.  Even when Kate examines Cassandra for physical damage, she does it clinically without becoming overwrought.

In terms of GLBT inclusion there is also the bisexual Laclos.  Unlike the relationship between Kate and Madea, when this is revealed it is in a predatory manner.  When Laclos meets Cain for the first time, he is overcome with attraction and forces himself on Cain. He suggests that because Cain is centuries old that he should be open to sex between the two of them, though Cain is obviously not interested.  Laclos touches Cain sexually without permission. 
Laclos leaned in and kissed Cain full on the mouth, his eyes closing as his lips touched Cain's, his hand closing into a fist, Cain's t-shirt clenched within it.  The kiss only went on for seconds, but it felt like a very very long tme, and when Laclos pulled back his expression was transformed.  He looked almost stunned - sated and starving all at the same time, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. (page 195)
Cain has to physically threaten Laclos to get him to stop assaulting him. Cassandra of course is sexually turned on watching this, making this passage read like a cheap m/m slasher book.  If that were not enough, her jealousy kicks in because Laclos is no longer devoting his sexual desires to her and is instead fixated on Cain.  How dare he forget that she is in the room for even a single moment. This scene is a problem because it plays upon the mythos of the sexually predatory male who is attracted to the same sex, though Cain's power is used as justification for Lycalos' actions.

Unfortunately, there is also the issue of Taka - the vampire samurai. 
He was a short, squat but handsome man, his hair that enviable poker - straight jet black curtain that only Asian people ever seem to manage, tied into a loose ponytail hat hung almost to his hips.  I wondered at his dress - the ceremonial costume of an ancient Japanese warrior, a leather skirt revealing muscled caves with some sort of tunic thrown over it, and couldn't help wondering if this was for a scary badass samurai bodyguard effect, or if he was simply wearing what he always wore, and hadn't changed his dress to follow modern fashions. (page 154)
Taka is the only vampire of colour that we are introduced to and he is the only one walking around in ancient garb.  I get that Sinclair wanted to give us the idea that vampires have a difficult time keeping up with modern culture, but the idea that one would be walking around in full samurai dress outside of Halloween was ridiculous and racist to be honest.  I don't see why she couldn't have used cultural references like she did with Cain and Laclos to give us the same effect.  He was absolutely othered and had he had a larger role in this story, it would have been extremely problematic. 

Cassandra is an extremely interesting protagonist, who has no patience for male pissing contests.  She is extremely sarcastic and makes hilarious cultural references which the supernaturals don't always get because they are out of touch with the times. Though she is up against a world that she really cannot comprehend, Cassandra says, "I can't keep being helpless, Mey.  I can't be the girl who gets rescues from the bad guys all the time, the one pulled of out the burning building. I won't be that girl." (page 160) She isn't the badass like Anita Blake or Gin, but she fights on because she knows her life is at stake, using everything from a sword ineptly, to a purse, and a cast iron frying pan as a weapon. Though traditionally feminine, I loved that she balked at the idea that she should have a kitchen stocked with food should one of her lovers drop by for a booty call.

Cassandra has plenty of sex in this novel and there isn't a single moment of slut shaming.  She has sex because she wants to, though at times it is ridiculous how quickly she becomes instantly overwhelmingly horny in the presence of powerful beings, to the point of out and out distraction.  Though we are told these men are attractive, should a naked chest make you loose all train of thought?

I was however unhappy with the suggestion that rape is not a common occurrence.
Think of this.  Most men are stronger than most women.  And yet rape is a relatively rare crime - and it is almost always classed as a crime, an aberration.  Even in realms where it is commonplace, it is still considered a horror  Because it's not the way it's meant to be, and at  some level, we recognise that.  Your myths of vampiric compulsion are there to scare you, to demonise us, but really, some of us are just very, very good at seduction."  Again, that feline smile.  "Sometimes it's just easier to say the bad man made you do it than to admit you really wanted to do it yourself." (page 145)
That entire passage smacks of rape apologism to me and I further did not enjoy the comparison of mythical attacks on humans to rape.  It would have been fine if Cassandra had bothered to question Lyclos' assertions, but the silence makes it appear as though they are on agreement with his statements.

My only complaint with Cassandra is her extremely low self esteem.  Every woman that she sees, she feels inferior around.  Everyone is more beautiful, accomplished and sexy, yet she has the attention of an angel in Cain and a very old vampire in Laclos. Cassandra is always quick to compare herself to other women and declare herself lacking and this is especially true when it comes to Cain's wife the Valkyrie.

In terms of social justice, there was a lot of inclusion but not all of it was fail free.  I have most certainly seen so much worse in the genre.  Sinclair is without a doubt a brilliant writer, whose story is downright hilariously funny, filled with popculture references and intriguing. I loved the lampooning of all the sterotypical vampire memes that have become common place in the genre.  The conversation between the angel and the atheist was beyond priceless. I loved every single moment I spent reading this story and when I finally came to the end, I absolutely wanted more. I hope that even as I write this that Sinclair is writing book 2 of this series because I am anxious to read it.  This book is absolutely some of the best urban fantasy that I have read in a long time.  I highly suggest that you not only buy it, but buy one for a friend.  I promise that they'll thank you.