A while back, I ran across Key to Conflict in a store somewhere. The idea was mildly promising, “a paramortal psychologist who can treat the mental distress of nonhumans.” It makes sense to me that paranormal (or “paramortal” as Gryphon calls it) creatures would have slightly different mental health needs. I didn’t end up reading it at that point because I was tired of vampires. Then, several months ago, Tiger brought it up randomly as a book that was more or less universally hated. I decided I had to read it. After many, many hours of grad school reading, it seemed like an amusing brain break.
“Amusing” is right, but probably not in the way the author intended.
The next several posts will contain a chapter by chapter review of the book. It will not be an unbiased one, because I can already tell you I think it’s a ridiculous book, but I figured I’d have fun with it nonetheless. I have nothing against the author, and I’ll endeavor to keep my comments limited to the text.
The first sentence introduces pretty much everything you need to know about the titular character, Gillian Key:
Gillian Key, United States Marine Corps Captain, Special Forces Operative, former flower child, wiseass extraordinaire, also known as Dr. Gillian Key, Paramortal psychologist…
Yeah. Anybody who has to call themselves “wiseass extraordinaire” earns my instant distaste. This has to be the least effective opening sentence I’ve read in a while. Gillian is lost somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, on her way to her newest client, a vampire. She starts the scene really, really irritated (a trend I sense will be pretty consistent) and notes that “some fuckwit at headquarters had deemed it less obvious for her to land in Bucharest” and drive to the country than to land in a smaller and closer airport. If “less obvious” is what she’s going for, why is that person a fuckwit for following protocol? This is not the last time our dear Gillian will express incredulity or irritation about things that should be standard procedure for someone who claims to have all this black ops/special forces experience.
“Goddess help me control my temper,” she says. Whichever goddess she’s referring to must be out to lunch, because she sure doesn’t seem to have heard this request, as we’ll see in later chapters.
There’s a lot of meta-thinking in the text, which I think is meant to bring the reader closer into Gillian’s mind. Here’s an example:
There was plenty of time even if she was a bit directionally challenged. Stop. Think. Act. Okay, fine, she’d stopped. Now she was thinking. Bully for her.
I tend to use this device sometimes myself, but sometimes, especially in this chapter, it’s over the top.
Not far in and we’re treated to an info-dump about how Gillian came to decide to be a paramortal psychologist, namely that she met a vampire who was first a bitch to her but crumbled under Gillian’s “Hold up, bitch!” and “burst into bloody tears,” which, …really? bloody tears? It’s also established that she has empathy, which I assume is some kind of magical ability.
The actual concept of a paramortal psychologist is actually pretty interesting, as is the way Gryphon describes it, treating people who “are dissatisfied with the direction their prolonged lives took them.” It’s too bad she turns out to be the worst therapist ever.
(Somewhere in here she’s taken to calling Gillian “Gill,” but only sometimes. I’m not sure why this is, and I’m not sure why she didn’t choose “Jill” or at least “Gil” to avoid a jarring reference to a fish’s body part.)
She also describes her career in the Marines. I have a fondness for writing protagonists who are current or former military in my own work, but I’m not sure why Gillian needs to be. She implies she’s continued to act in a psychologist capacity in the military, but later she’s a “field commander of a crack unit of commandos specializing in black operations: assassination and reconnaissance missions.” I can extrapolate why this unit would need a paranormal psychologist, I suppose, but it would be nice to have more information about this. She also says,
“Now she was an individual operative at present being utilized to infiltrate and report on the activities of small factions of Romanian Vampires who were potentially allied with the Vampire Lord, Dracula.”
I point out “infiltrate” and “report” in particular because, ethically, I don’t know how you can be a practicing clinical psychologist who infiltrates and reports to her superiors while maintaining professional ethics. If it seems like I’m being nitpicky here, I promise her behavior will make this so much worse later.
There’s actually some pretty good description of scenery throughout the chapter, though it gets repeated at least a couple of times.
We’re told that in addition to seeing the vampire, she’s also supposed to see a ghost in the same general region. Why, I don’t know.
Gillian finally decides to keep driving and find someone to give her directions. She finds a house, and there’s a few paragraphs describing her getting out of the car. There seems to be a lot of explanation and infodumping in between each individual action. She “flares” her empathy around…
…, searching for danger, but she doesn’t find anything.
She knocks on the door of the cottage she pulled up to and bam! a vampire answers. There’s the obligatory paragraphs of descriptions of how Edward Cullen gorgeous he is and how intimidating he is. Gillian acts unusually nervous for someone who is supposed to have military nerves of steel and experience working with dangerous supernatural people, but she tries not to show it. And yet, when he invites her in, she goes immediately inside as she notes how dangerous it is for her to do so. I’m going to give her all the benefits of the doubt and assume it’s because she’s such a badass she knows she can handle herself.
When she introduces herself, the vampire realizes she’s the therapist he’s been waiting to arrive. His name is Count Alexei Rachlav. We jump into his head instantly. It’s established that he’s 400 years old and he thinks she’s dangerous but not to him. I can smell some hideous sexual politics coming from here. She’s still acting jumpy and wants to punch him because she’s jumpy. He apologizes and requests that they start a therapy session right away.
Let me stop right here and say that the book as told us that she’s been traveling all day, that she’s stressed and tired, and she’s obviously nervous and unsettled. And he requests she relax and turn on therapist mode. But he’s going to bring her tea, so it’ll be fine!
Gillian infodumps about the dossier she received on Alexei and her purpose for being there, which is to find out whether Alexei knows anything about Dracula’s plans. She’s supposed to report her findings, but “There would be no breaking of his personal confidentiality.” I think I understand the distinction here–reporting his information but not his personal problems–but that’s still skating a mighty fine line there ethically speaking. But oh, who am I kidding, ethics don’t actually matter in a romance book unless they’re convenient.
More description of Alexei, who resembles a certain other lacy poet shirt wearing vampire you might know, only he’s huge: 6’7″. When he was born in the 1600s, he must have been looked at as a freakshow behemoth. He’s also gorgeous, of course, and completely aware of the effect he has on people (women in particular, natch). This is fine. I have no problem with vampires being irresistibly sexy. Really, what’s scarier than someone who can make you feel mindlessly sexual just by being around them? If it wasn’t indicative of vomit-worthy romance novel sexual power dynamics, it would be intriguing. The effect he has on Gillian is described in as lulzworthy a way as I’ve read in a while, her “genitalia becoming turgid and moist.” I’m pretty sure that’s the least sexy way to describe getting horny.
Her horniness and nerves can’t be making for a very effective therapy session, but Alexei, in one of several head-hopping visits, insists that she’s the pinnacle of professionalism. Again he states she’s competent and dangerous, but he could totally kill her before she made a move. He’s simultaneously acknowledging her strength and dismissing it on the basis of his own superiority, which makes him just a charmer.
Alexei has fangxiety.
I’m starting to think this universe is meant to be a little kitschy and not take itself too seriously, but if that’s what Gryphon is intending, it so doesn’t work for me. Admittedly, kitschy humor is definitely not to my taste, and it might work for someone else, but man, I rolled my eyes hard at that one. Anyway, fangxiety basically means he’s “never totally adjusted to [his] reborn state.” After 400 years. Possible, I suppose. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Gillian notes that he seems to be more depressed than anxious, after all of five minutes of speaking to him. She must be an excellent therapist. She does also say that “vampires were notoriously stubborn about changing age-old thought patterns and habits,” which seems pretty on point to me. The chapter ends, strangely, in the middle of the therapy session.
Conceptually, the chapter isn’t that bad. You have the protagonist meeting the potentially dangerous vampire and getting her first impressions. She starts assessing him and he starts assessing her. They’re not sure where they stand with each other, but sexual tension has been established. Pretty standard romance novel fare. There are even some flashes of insight that I can buy into. That, unfortunately, is about as far as my positive impressions go. Pacing-wise, it’s a complete mess. The characters’ actions and blocking are constantly interrupted with description and info-dump, and the tension that’s supposed to be there is more a product of Gillian’s weirdly jittery behavior than of any actual threat that I, as the reader, can perceive from Alexei.
I already dislike Gillian for her ill-tempered, reactionary thoughts. She claims to have empathy but doesn’t actually display any compassion for her client. Mostly the only thought she has about him is that she wants the undead D, and she wants it real bad. Again, it’s fine if, according to the established universe’s rules she’s meant to have trouble keeping her mind off sex while she’s around, but she seems almost completely consumed with “unprofessional” thoughts. Surely if she’s this expert in working with the supernatural, she’s had training in how to resist the vampire sex vibes. If not, how has she survived this long? Alexei is the more likeable character at this point, though other than “undead Romanian sex behemoth” we don’t really know much about him yet.
There are a couple concepts I find bothersome so far in this chapter.
- Sexual politics. I find gender and sex dynamics in romance novels in general are almost always abhorrent, and this book is proving to be no exception. The very presence of the male vampire transforms the (presumably) strong, independent woman turgid, moist, and harmless to him. Oh boy.
- Professional ethics. I know some of what happens later from reading previous reviews, and I can already tell you that Gillian smashes professional ethics into a million sad little pieces. Okay, I expected this, because it’s a romance novel and you can’t really have the psychologist protagonist of a romance novel not sleep with her love interest because of professional ethics, but soon, as you will see, she does everything wrong.
We’ll see how these things play out, but I’m not super hopeful.
Chapter 2 here.