Friday, February 22, 2013

Oxford Blood (The Cavaliers #1) by Georgiana Derwent

 The dreaming spires of Oxford conceal a dark secret among these hallowed halls of education and tradition. The Cavaliers. Rich, influential, titled, powerful and elite club of the truly elite with a herd of hungering wannabes eager for a place. Oh, and they’re vampires.

Harriet has realised her dream, following in the footsteps of her tragically deceased cousin Stephanie, she has won a coveted place at Oxford. It’s a dream come true and opens up avenues of experience and opportunity she never imagined.

And vampires. Who are very very interested in her – and interest that becomes ever more complicated when she discovers her family history with them, a history which makes her both in demand and untouchable. As she learns more, it’s a question of how much she wants to know, how deep she wants to get and what evils she can tolerate – as well as how much she live on her own terms with the man she chooses; or will she be forced by the society rules she’s only just discovering?

There is a lot about this book that’s intriguing. The setting in a university and the feel of that is not something I’ve come across before in the genre.

I also really liked the role Harriet’s family played in her relationship with the vampires. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, which is hard but I’ll try and talk round it. While Harriet has a vampire love interest that is pushing her towards the supernatural – she even has the oh-so-classic love triangle, her family may be an even greater force and connection.

In a genre full of dead mothers, it’s interesting to see one taking such an active and powerful role in her daughter’s life. It’s a shame that that role is borderline villainous but  her mother is a complex figure and I think, despite the rather cold nature of what she does, most of it is in Harriet’s best interest in a ruthlessly practical manner. If we’re thinking long term about what is best for Harriet, then she is right, entirely right.

There were two storylines in this book. The first and primary storyline was Harriet’s acclimatisation to Oxford, settling in, and discovering the true nature of the Cavaliers. Of course, the problem is that the reader knows the true nature of the Cavaliers from the prologue, so we’re then following the protagonists discovery of answers we already know. That’s not always a bad thing – the journey itself can be interesting, but it tends to lose me and it did here. Particularly since the secondary plot after that was the love triangle between Harriet, Tom and George; I don’t like love triangles, I think the genre is stuffed full of them and they’re all rather clichéd, this didn’t engage me because I could see the way it was going from the beginning and it did. There did remain one further revelation about the greater history of the vampires (which is fascinating and has excellent roots in the Civil War and I hope that is a storyline that is developed further later) and her familial connections which I did enjoy.

The second storyline was a series of murders among the vampires – but this is very much a background event, something that could have been interesting but I repeatedly forgot about with the other dominant storyline and with a rather predictable bad guy.

There were, unfortunately, several other elements of this book that were severe hurdles to me enjoying it.

It was overly descriptive. Yes, Oxford is an extremely beautiful city full of history and beautiful architecture but there’s a limit to how often Harriet needs to say this. A book shouldn’t resemble a tourist information brochure or a university prospectus. There was just a bit too much rhapsodising and revelling in the wonders of Oxford, it got in the way and almost felt like an advert.

Also, Oxford university is a university. It’s one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It’s a place where people go to learn and where many people, especially poorer people, struggle hard to get a place. Reading this book it’s possible you may have missed that because actually learning seems to be very far down Harriet’s (and, for that matter, her cousin Stephanie’s) priority list. Stephanie openly admits to being there to snare herself a rich, titled husband. Harriet herself is all about the bars (this woman drinks booze booze and more booze. I don’t think she can ever be sober – even for a student it’s impressive. And the booze is nearly always champagne), parties and bars and parties and social events and parties and dinners and parties and it’s all about which girls are with which guys and honour of honours, who has been invited to the poshest of posh societies. Occasionally this is interspaced with university politics – who gets to be in charge of the poshest of posh societies. Education? Nah, darling who needs an education, we’re getting ourselves rich and connected husbands! This doesn’t just happen with the younger women in the family, but her mother also went to Oxford and accepted a date to the club despite already dating someone else – she’s also planning on “dating” her way to success and influence.

The only studious characters are presented as being, well, dull and very secondary. In fact, Olamide’s relationship collapses because of excess studiousness.

This dismissal of academics for the social life makes Harriet seem rather vapid, And it doesn’t help that I don’t really like her either. I find her repeated chasing of Tom despite his repeated brush offs annoying, stalkery and pretty desperate. She and her friends grouse about how rude Tom is being – but when someone continually can’t take no for an answer, I think rudeness is a pretty acceptable way of finally driving the point home. She hates and despises Kate and treats her as a massive enemy (and calls her a “bitch”) despite Kate being pretty nice to her. But Kate has the temerity to be dating Tom! How very dare she! The only time when Kate is unpleasant is towards the end of the book when Harriet and Tom are together – but, let’s face it, this is after a considerable amount of time when Tom was dating Kate and Harriet continued to leap on Tom until Tom finally dumped Kate. I think Kate has a pretty strong justification for being narked at Tom and Harriet.

And she isn’t a very sensible character. In fact, she’s downright spunky. Kate warns her off George, telling her that George has a terrible reputation for hurting girls and possibly even raping them and how there are a large number of girls with bruises and cuts who have to take several days off to recover from their time with him. So what does she do that very night? Go off with George to an isolated spot, alone, without telling anyone where she’s going. And when he bites her (an attack she rationalises with “he cut my neck with a knife”) she then downplays it and accepts his party invitation. Her throat was cut. He cut her throat. She thinks he stabbed her.  I can’t even put words to this, I think an inarticulate flail at the screen is the best I can manage.

There’s also a rather lack of depth to the full implications of what’s happening. Harriet manages to find outrage for the people who died, but considerably less for the victims George abuses. She drily remarks on the vampires as being an old boy’s club but doesn’t follow through the implications of that or the amount of power or influence they wield on the entire nation.

There are a number of minorities in this book, but in very much background roles. The most prominent PoC is Olamide who is Black and missing many stereotypes – she’s also the only really academically serious person there. And when she has a break up, Harriet does make some time to, well, drop in and leave again, but at least she acknowledges the support that Olamide has given her through her relationship up and downs in the book. There are a number of POC lurking in the background who are mainly names – and also several gay men. Wait, several “very” gay men. How one is very gay rather than slightly gay or averagely gay, I have no idea, but all of these men are very very gay indeed. Apparently. Again, they’re names of people passing in the background, not characters

Also it’s a book set in an extremely elite university, with the characters constantly buying expensive new clothes, going to expensive parties, expensive restaurants and drinking endless bottles of champagne like water – but despite Harriet being raised in a much more modest home in the north of England there is pretty much no consideration of class.

In the end, I have a book with a very nice concept and some very interesting ideas – and certainly some interesting plot hooks for later books – but with an execution I don’t care for. The writing was too descriptive for my taste, I don’t like the slowly enveloping mystery that we already know the answer to, I don’t think the two storylines were particularly well balanced and, most difficult of all, I really don’t like Harriet. To be brutally honest, if it weren’t for my connections to the setting, I would have DNFed the book. A lot of this is taste, however, so read the review and discover what I disliked rather than going simply off the fang rating. And, despite this, I will be checking book 2

 A copy of this book was provided by the author to review