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A dark personal journey with Lilith Saintcrow

One of the great things about fantasy is the sheer range of themes that can be tackled within the genre (see previous post – Would you like politics with that?)

Dark fantasy is not usually where I’d expect to find an exploration of grief and self loathing, but that’s what I found in Dead Man Rising, the second in Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine series.

(This five-book series has been around a few years, but I’m only just now working my through it…)

Dante Valentine – Danny – is a necromancer/bounty hunter in a bleak, futuristic world where those with psychic and paranormal gifts are licensed to legitimately use them in a post-Awakening society.

In the first book, Working for the Devil, Danny teamed up with the demon Japhrimel to seek revenge for the brutal death of her best friend. The pair became lovers, changing Danny at a genetic level, before Japhrimel lost his life to the Devil himself.

In Dead Man Rising, Danny’s not coping well with the loss. She’s distanced herself even further from her friends, submerging herself in the violent world of bounty hunting, and testing the bounds of her newfound skills as a part-demon.

The novel covers some pretty dark and disturbing territory, with a series of horrific killings forcing Danny to relive memories of her time at Rigger Hall – a training ground for orphaned psis, where she barely survived years of torture and abuse as a child.

There’s plenty of action as Danny faces her past, but this story is also about rage, guilt and self loathing. Danny is angry at the world (seen and unseen), but mostly, she’s angry at herself and her inability to protect those she’s loved – and lost.

The Power of her neon-lit world is fuelled by sex and violence, which she embraces with far more ease than the idea she’s worthy of love.

To be able to write from such a perspective takes a certain level of understanding.

I’m not suggesting Lilith Saintcrow has shared the same sort of experiences as her narrative character, but she definitely has empathy for Danny.

The Dante Valentine series is probably a tad darker than my usual reading fare, but I really admire Lilith Saintcrow for creating a character who’s more than just a tough chick with superpowers.

Related reviews:

Working for the Devil

Strange Angels and Betrayals

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Discovering the early work of Lilith Saintcrow

I had a pretty crap day at work today. It reminded me why I like to escape to other worlds occasionally.

Oddly enough, those other worlds are occasionally a tad violent. And yes, I don’t miss the symbolism there 🙂

One such alternate reality is that inhabited by Dante Valentine, the ass-kicking necromancer/bounty hunter creation of Lilith Saintcrow.

Late last year I read – and enjoyed – Lilith Saintcrow’s new YA series, Strange Angels (writing as Lili St Crow), which prompted me to check out her earlier work, targeted at adults.

First up is the dark fantasy Dante Valentine series. I recently finished Working for the Devil, and am now tracking down the other four books in the series.

It’s somewhat of a futuristic sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, featuring a world with advanced technology fuelled by magic. It’s dark, bleak and neon-lit, often reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s classic film Bladerunner.

Dante’s society has experienced “The Awakening”, and “ psis” – those possessing paranormal skills – now wield the power (political and mystical) within it. It’s a world of necromancers, shamans, skinlins, dirt witches, magi, and plasguns.

Dante is among the most powerful necromancers of her generation. Her life is violent and unpredictable, but it pays the bills.

Then one day, the demon Japhrimel arrives at her door and literally takes her to Hell, where the Devil makes her an offer she can’t refuse: eliminate a renegade demon or die.

Aside from the obvious issue (working for the Devil), Dante has a couple of other problems: she has a bloody history with the target demon, and she doesn’t want Japhrimel as her partner. Dante can barely trust her fellow humans, let alone a servant of Lucifer.

Aside from almost non-stop action, this first book is primarily concerned with the changing relationship dynamic between Dante and Japhrimel. Their antagonistic partnership is at turns entertaining, violent and increasingly intense. It’s far from romantic, but oddly compelling.

Dante is tough, foul-mouthed, angry and self-sufficient, but with enough vulnerability to make her sympathetic, while Japhrimel undergoes a subtle transformation as he spends more time with the necromancer.

Saintcrow sets up a complex mythology (far removed from biblical ideas of Hell and demons), and her narrative voice is strong and engaging. Working for the Devil clearly establishes these character and sets up what should hopefully be an engaging series for those of us looking for escape from the daily grind…

Lili St Crow – Strange Angels

Urban fantasy fans looking for fresh mythologies, sharp dialogue and plenty of action shouldn’t be disappointed with Lili St Crow’s debut young adult offering, Strange Angels.

Crow, who’s written a swag of adult urban fantasy series as Lilith Saintcrow, rarely misses a beat as she hurtles narrative character Dru Anderson into a world of constant danger in the first two novels of this addictive series.

The story starts off like Supernatural for chicks, with sixteen-year-old Dru moving to yet another new town as she and her father ‘hunt’ the things that go bump in the night. But it all goes bad one icy night when Dru’s Dad hunts without her and returns home a zombie.

Dru must kill her father and then go on the run from whatever killed (and then re-animated) him. There’s no doubt Dru’s tough, and skilled in using a range of weapons, but she’s still a teenage girl who is alone, grieving for her father, and increasingly aware she has no idea what she’s up against.

With fledgling supernatural gifts of her own, Dru isn’t defenceless, but she’s out of her depth. Also out of options, she reluctantly accepts help from Graves, a loner goth boy. When he’s attacked by a werwulf, he turns into a loup garou (part-werwulf), becoming part of her world whether he wants to or not.

Tracking her father’s killer, Dru clashes with Christophe, a mysterious teenager who clearly knows more about what’s going on than she does. He eventually explains Dru is being hunted by a powerful vampire, who in turn is being hunted by an organisation called the Order, an alliance of djamphir (part-vampires), werwulfs, and human hunters.

Christophe, himself a djamphir, knows things about Dru’s family and about Dru’s value to both sides. Despite the fact he saves Dru and Graves from a gruesome death on more than one occasion, both teenagers are hesitant to trust him.

Strange Angels is all about Dru discovering she’s more than just another hunter. It’s also about her growing relationship with Graves and Christophe.

In Betrayals, she’s secreted away to a school operated by the Order, where she learns more about her heritage and grows increasingly suspicious of everyone around her. She also discovers a simmering bigotry between the djamphir and werwulfs, which adds another layer of tension and depth to the cleverly constructed mythology.

While action and suspense drive this series, there’s also steadily building love triangle involving Dru, Graves and Christophe, which seems likely to come into sharper focus in the forthcoming third novel (due in 2010).

Dru might be handy with a knife and a hand gun, but she’s not so good when it comes to matters of the heart, so this is no sweet love story. Instead, it’s about the bonds she’s forging with both through battle, and her need – despite her own strengths – to have someone she can trust and rely on, in her father’s absence.

Strange Angels and Betrayals are fast-paced page-turners. But while the often graphic action is paramount, each violent confrontation either progresses the plot or strengthens the characters’ connections.

This series isn’t for readers easily unsettled by violence and horror (even if Dru’s conversational narrative provides unexpected flashes of humour), and there’s also plenty of profanity. Younger readers keen for more vampire-based love stories should probably check out Claudia Gray’s Evernight series instead.

The two novels have piqued my curiosity to check out Saintcrow’s other urban fantasy series, and I’ll be grabbing the third Strange Angels novel when it arrives on shelves in 2010.

(The Strange Angels series seems to share some mythology elements to Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series – Read actually provides a cover recommendation on Strange Angels, but not having read Read’s work, I’m not sure how similar the books are. Happy to be enlightened.)