Numerous authors are benefiting from the huge spike in vampire popularity since 2005 when Twilight broad-jumped onto the New York Times best-seller lists and took over YA fiction in one fell swoop. Carried along in the slipstream of Stephenie Meyer’s juggernaut are a variety of thriving paranormal romance or urban fantasy series featuring female protagonists involved with vampire boyfriends or lovers. Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series is typical of these. Destined for an Early Grave is the fourth book in a story arc that began in October, 2007 with Halfway to the Grave and continued with One Foot in The Grave (April 2008) and At Grave’s End (January 2009). The titles are available only in mass market paperback or Kindle editions and are being released about six months apart. Frost says on her website that she plans to do seven or eight books in this storyline, but she’s already begun a spin-off series starring secondary characters from the Night Huntress novels.
Frost’s universe and novels owe more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Twilight. The first book in the Night Huntress series introduces Catherine, or Cat, Crawford, who hunts and kills vampires out of sympathy for her mother, who hates vampires fervently. To her shock, Cat had finally learned that she is a half-vampire herself, born after her mother was tricked by a bloodsucking seducer, and her ultimate goal is to find and kill her undead father. As a rare “hybrid,” Cat has a number of extraordinary abilities, mostly related to enhanced senses, strength and agility. These don’t help her escape capture by a vampire bounty hunter, Bones, who trains her to assist him. Cat is pulled deep into a supernatural underground that includes vampires, demons, ghosts and ghouls, a government task force keeping the paranormal critters under control, elaborate inter-species politics, and a great deal of manipulative conniving. Amid all the adventure, Cat and Bones become lovers, and then “blood bond,” which is the vampire subculture’s equivalent of permanent, monogamous marriage.
Destined for an Early Grave picks up the story when Cat and Bones are recuperating from their last adventure and planning a romantic get-away to Paris. But Cat is having disturbing dreams in which she’s chased by a vampire named Gregor who keeps insisting that Cat isn’t really “married” to Bones. Cat starts to realize that a highly significant period of her past has somehow been erased from her memory, and something from that past has now returned to make some major claims on her. Soon Cat, Bones, and other members of the vampire subculture are all collaborating — more or less — to deal with Gregor’s schemes for Cat.
As the fourth book in a series with a tight story arc, Destined for an Early Grave devotes a high percentage of text to explanations of events, characters and relationships established in the previous three volumes. As I mentioned in my review of P.N. Elrod’s Dark Road Rising, authors can be faced with tricky decisions about background information when writing a tightly plotted multi-book series. Frost does a bit too much explaining, slowing her narrative down and making me impatient. But this isn’t the only reason I feel the current book lacks substance. The entire plot of Destined for an Early Grave revolves around only one real conflict: the crisis in Cat’s and Bones’ relationship precipitated by an aggressive element from her past. Cat bounces around from ally to ally and hiding place to hiding place, but very little actually happens beyond Cat’s unraveling the convoluted truth about Gregor’s claim on her, and repairing her strained relationship with Bones. In order to care enough about Cat’s personal issues to stay involved with the story, a reader has to care a lot about Cat as a character, and I found that difficult. As is often the case with these series, Cat is too much of a “Mary Sue” character. She’s stunningly beautiful, unique, gifted with special powers and abilities, maneuvers skillfully in a world of ancient immortals and god-like supernatural beings, and everyone who sees her loves and desires her (even ghosts). Her falling out with Bones leaves her with a number of alternative friends and would-be lovers with whom to take refuge, and her chief worry is that Bones will be jealous, driving them further apart.
On a more serious note, several aspects of the characters and their relationships disturbed me. While I was reading Destined for an Early Grave, I was also involved in a discussion of the Twilight Saga and whether it models an “unhealthy” or abusive dynamic for young teen couples, as many critics of Meyer’s series claim. But if Twilight’s Edward Cullen is “controlling,” he has nothing on Bones, Vlad, Gregor, and the other male antagonists in the Night Huntress world. Cat is locked up, bodily carried around, abducted, refused information, lied to, manipulated, and threatened with death, and for the most part, forgives all of it without a qualm. The only thing that distinguishes her from a ravished heroine in a bodice-ripper romance is that she’s tough, has powers and is capable of killing and beating up nasty critters, but she’s still pushed around and controlled by the men in her life (there are almost no women, besides her embittered mother). In personality, Bones constantly reminded me of Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. He seems to spend a lot of Destined for an Early Grave clenching his teeth as he rigidly suppresses his violent emotions. This is not a relationship dynamic that appeals to me, although I realize that most romance readers — and Twilight fans — have no issues with it.
Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series is easily digestible entertainment that doesn’t demand much from its readers. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Vampire: the Masquerade will find Frost’s universe comfortably familiar, and will probably enjoy her series.