LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52610-7
Fantasy Romance, 2005
Melanie Jackson’s Divine Fire is the start of a new series of dark fantasy romance, which is timely as the Wildside series is losing momentum with me. But this book comes off like two halves of good books hastily glued together! The first half is an Anne Rice-type of “this is my life” paranormal tale of the immortal Lord Byron becoming the way he is interspersed with his present day romancing of Byron biographer Brice Ashton. And then, wham! The lights literally goes out and this story mutates into a horror story involving zombies and a considerably high amount of gore. Think Laurell K Hamilton‘s early Anita Blake books, before Anita Blake mutated into a pin cushion for otherworldly penises. It is as if Ms Jackson has decided to pay tribute to those two authors and ended up bipolar in the process. This is my roundabout way of saying that the pacing of this book is seriously out of whack.
Not to give anything away as by doing so I will spoil the story, let me just say that Ms Jackson has come up with something beautiful here: she has taken the relationship between Byron and Mary Shelley and came up with a great premise: what if Mary Shelley’s famous story wasn’t borne from her nightmare but from an actual event? Involving a scientist, Dr Johann Dippel… and Lord Byron? Don’t scoff, people, because the result is a broodingly atmospheric story of a larger-than-life darkly romantic hero who oozes breathtaking romanticism from every pore of his body. When he, in his present day identity as Damien Ruthven, a book reviewer, tells Brice why he doesn’t like candlelight dinners, I could have swooned if my nerves are a little weaker. Sure, Damien has his “I’m actually a sad misunderstood hero” moments, but on the whole he doesn’t whine or mope, which is a good thing. Brice is a decent heroine in her own right, with the author carefully making sure that she remains sympathetic despite coming off like a neurotic woman. In fact, Brice is in her own right as larger-than-life as the hero in the sense that, like Damien, she allows her past to shape her entire life. And like Damien, she never whines or wallows in pathetic self-pity, which makes her a good match for Damien.
But the author never actually goes very far in developing these characters or their relationships. The characterizations of Damien and Brice go only as far as their backstory being revealed to the reader. Where the author could have explored this relationship, she instead takes the story up a notch and plunges the characters into a horror story that would shock readers who normally shy away from books by Laurell K Hamilton. Indeed, I am actually quite taken aback by the book’s abrupt switch in style and tone because I really don’t expect the story to make a figurative sudden downward acceleration down the roller coaster track at breakneck speed after the slow upward climb.
The horror aspects of the book aren’t too innovative because by that point, Brice stops being a heroine and starts being a pawn between Damien and the bad guy. Still, she holds her own capably like every level-headed and intelligent heroine should, so good for her and Ms Jackson. I should warn readers that the second half of Divine Fire is quite gruesome, and if you are the type to have sleepless nights after watching zombie movies, approach this book with caution. Me, of course I enjoy the gore as much as the romance, and I also find the canon of the story very intriguing. By the end of the book, Ms Jackson reveals that there is more to the overall story arc than Damien being a freak of (mad) science and I for one find myself impatient to learn more.
As the start of a series, Divine Fire has done its job by getting me hooked and wanting more. As a book in its own right, however, it only delivers in halves. I really enjoy the slow and romantic Gothic-like intimacy of the first half and I also enjoy the zombie-festered horror second half. But I would have enjoyed the first half twice as much if it is longer and more well-developed, just as I would have enjoyed the second half twice as much if the author has decided to make this book strictly a horror romance. There are so many fundamental things here that I love, the characters, the premise, the potential… so, even if the author’s truly horrible pacing fails to develop them fully, I’d be generous and toss this one four oogies.