LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52519-4
Historical Fantasy Romance, 2004
The jaded reader usually knew what to expect from a paranormal romance. Usually the tormented bad boy would end up being a cartoony tortured misunderstood and thoroughly defanged twit who only needs to (a) save the heroine and (b) rupture her magical Bad Boy Healing hymen to be redeemed. The heroine would be in danger as well as in some hormonal or biological phase that requires the hero to have sex with her in order to (a) save her from some Dire Prophecy or (b) make a Magic Baby that will crush some Dire Prophecy. In short, if you’re like me, you may roll up your eyes at another “dark” paranormal romance that ends up being yet another Sherrilyn Kenyon wannabe.
Lisa Cach’s Dream of Me has the necessary “love will save the day” resolution but everything else about this story is wonderfully non-formulaic. Then again, when it comes to Lisa Cach, one should always expect the unexpected and Ms Cach usually surprises in a very nice way. This story is about an incubus (the male sex demon of lore) Theron wanting to use the heroine Lucia of Moldavia to rule the world and instead falling hopelessly in love with her. However, while the hero may be a sex demon, there is nothing in this story that forces the hero and the heroine to have sex in a forced, contrived manner. There is a psychic/dreamscape element to the “courtship” between Theron and Lucia but there is no cheesy prophecy or the Heroine Must Lose Her Maidenhead or Die Now nonsense. Instead, there is a enjoyable emotional bonding between an ignorant but bright young woman and the dark demon who grows to love her.
Set in the fifteenth century in the tumultous war-torn middle Europe, in an alternate Earth where the Oneiroi, the grandchildren of Nyx the Goddess of the Night, coexist with mortals, there is an incubus named Theron who is tired of having to reside at the low rung of the Oneroi hierarchy. While he’s a sex demon, his sexual gifts are psychic in nature, not physical. He doesn’t feel desire, he only feels the desire of women reflected on him in their dreams. He doesn’t have sex with them for gratification; as an incubus, his function is to soothe the women and offer them what little sexual succor they deserve when they are asleep from a world that doesn’t offer much to women in general.
Theron wants to feel desire, he wants power, and after watching the humans have fun killing each other, he decides that he want to take over the body of the cruel Vlad Draco of Wallachia and rule the four kingdoms of Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia, and Maramures after he has helped Vlad conquer all four kingdoms. Vlad strikes a bargain with Theron. In return for Theron’s aid in manipulating events to allow Vlad to be betrothed to Lucia, a woman said to have powerful oracle skills, Vlad will allow Theron to inhabit his body for three days. Both have no intention of honoring their word. Vlad will try to get out of the bargain while Theron has no intention of leaving Vlad’s body once he takes possession of it. Caught in the middle of the two men’s games is Lucia.
Lucia’s virginity and innocence are turned into a fetish by Vlad and Theron. This can easily get ugly for me but Ms Cach skilfully evades the trap of overly romanticizing ignorance and virginity by making Lucia an intriguing heroine who wants to feel desire and who is selfish enough to want a happy life for herself. In a genre where it is common for heroines to debase themselves in cringe-inducing supreme acts of martyrdom, Lucia is a refreshing anomaly in that it is very hard to pigeonhole her as straightforward “good” or “bad”. She can be selfish and ignorant, she can be generous with her affections, but at the end of the day, she remains a princess and is conscious of her position and place. She is idealistic enough to daydream of romance and cynical enough to be petty and selfish at the same time. In short, I find her a fascinating character, especially when her ambiguous nature allows Ms Cach to explore Lucia’s bittersweet coming of age in a way that has Lucia becoming wiser but not necessarily nicer at the end of the day.
Theron is even more ambiguous than Lucia in that he doesn’t exhibit any guilt or remorse. He has no cop-out Nobody Loves Me and Two Hundred Bitches Betrayed Me in the Past backstory to force me into seeing him as misunderstood. In fact, I think the last thing the cheeky, arrogant, and unrepentant Theron wants to be seen as is misunderstood. He makes no apologies in wanting a better life (better as he sees it, of course) and using Lucia as a means of revenge when he realizes that Vlad has no intention of letting him take possession of Vlad’s body. What makes Theron so wonderful to follow is that while he is such a bad, bad boy in need of spanking, it is also very clear to me that once he’s smitten, he’d rather die than to hurt Lucia in any way. Fans of bad boy heroes (and not those whiny fake rakes that overpopulate the genre) may find Theron a classic example of naughty hunks who commit breathtakingly romantic acts of sacrifice for their loved ones. He doesn’t love hard as much as he is obsessed and at the same time, he woos, he flatters, and he offers to make love to Lucia until she expires from sensory overload. Theron is far from perfect, but because he is not human, it makes his falling in love with Lucia even more delicious to follow.
Ms Cach makes it clear that Theron is not familiar with emotions like love, desire, and friendship. She allows the reader to infer that underneath his arrogant and cocky bravado, he is actually a very lonely and very lost creature who is tentatively searching for things that he isn’t entirely sure about. The key here is showing, not telling, which makes Theron’s character so much more enjoyable than, say, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s phony “Oh, I Have Been Abused, Raped, Betrayed, Tortured, Cheated, Orphaned, Beaten, Whipped, Chained, Tried, Incarcerated, Alienated, and Emasculated So I’m Really Not Evil, Just Misunderstood, so YOU MUST LOVE ME!” tortured heroes. Ms Cach trusts me to appreciate Theron as he is, an incubus who wants to seize what he wants and is arrogant enough to assume that he can use anyone and everyone in his way to do so, and allows me to see for myself that, as Theron slowly experiences his emotional crisis, there are strengths and flaws in Theron that make him a multifaceted character for me to be fascinated with. By not whitewashing Theron’s flaws, Ms Cach creates a bad boy that resonates with me.
Dream of Me is a lovely dark fairy tale. Lucia is literally a princess trapped in a castle waiting for her Prince Charming. What makes her work though is that her sexual innocence is brought upon by magic, thanks to Vlad’s obsessive fetish with innocence in his women. Lucia is already trying to break the enchantments that force her to remain ignorant of desire when she meets Theron, a wise move on Ms Cach’s part because this means that Lucia isn’t some annoying “dingbat virgin schooled by oversexed rake” stereotype. In fact, while Lucia enters the relationship lacking knowledge where her being a pawn between Vlad and Theron is concerned, she and Theron are actually on equal standing when it comes to their relationship. He is ignorant of romantic concepts like love but well-versed in carnal concepts, she is ignorant of carnal concepts but she knows more about romantic ideals than he. And best of all, all these things are shown, not told. Ms Cach doesn’t force me to love her characters. I like an author who respects me enough not to dumb down her characters into one-dimensional virgin martyr or fake rake stereotypes.
If I do have a quibble or two, it’s how the story is resolved after Theron sacrifices himself to save Lucia, and this is quite a big quibble. I want to see some emotional resolution but all I get is some torrid love scene instead. I mean, come on! Sex is great, yes, but I want to see some drama, some heart-wrenching scenes, not some Marybeth and Tommy Getting It On scene that reeks of adolescent hormones going out of control. The payoff isn’t as good as it could have been. Another hundred or so pages would have improved matters tremendously. Also, while I’m not so hung up on etymological accuracy, I am quite distracted by the numerous modern phrases and words peppering the story. Words like “sex” have their origins from Middle English, that much is true according to my Merriam-Webster dictionary anyway, but the context they are used in are in sentences that seem to come straight from a sitcom. If I can get distracted by the narrative, I can only imagine that readers who are more fussy about these things will have a harder time than me.
Anyway, let’s end this with a few more things that I like about Dream of Me. I like the fact that this book is dark without becoming oppressive and the humor, while sometimes a little too scatological for my liking, can be laugh-out-loud funny without compromising the eerie, dark atmosphere of the tale. I really love the chilling epilogue that catches me off-guard in a really good way. It’s a damned risky epilogue that will drive some readers screaming up the wall, I’d bet, but I love it. Hey, Ms Cach, ever consider writing a story of how, you know, you-know-who ends up as you-know-what? It may be heartbreaking or just plain exhilarating, that story, but I really want to read it.
Dream of Me isn’t perfect, especially in that lousy pay-off that may work in some silly sex story but not too well for what it has until then shaped up to be. Nonetheless, for a long time and even after that silly pay-off, this one dares to be dark, morbidly funny, and sometimes, so simple in terms of story line but getting there can be quite complicated for the characters who love freely, sometimes foolishly, often obsessively, but always without caring for what the reader would think of them.
Which is, in my roundabout way of saying, fans of wonderfully ambiguous characters in a romantic story that isn’t afraid to stick its neck out and be different will most likely find this book a treat. In a time when I am finding it really hard to sit through a pile of formulaic, safe romance novels, Dream of Me is indeed a dream come true in so many ways.