a review by Evie Kendal
The House of Comarre series is best described as a near-future, gothic urban paranormal romance fantasy series. Set in 2067, the series features various otherworldly creatures shielded from human perception by a mysterious “covenant,” which is broken at the conclusion of the first book Blood Rights. The lead female character is Chrysabelle, a member of a servant class of hybrid humans bred to produce excess blood to feed their vampire owners, most of whom are wealthy members of the vampire aristocracy. The gothic elements of the series are made possible by the fact the vampire society rejects modern technology, including certain science-fictional creations such as the embedded communications chips most humans have in their necks. The series begins with Chrysabelle fleeing into the human world after her vampire patron is murdered and she is named the prime suspect. She soon meets Malkolm, a cursed and outcast vampire, and his companions Fiona, the ghost of one of his victims, and Doc, a were-leopard who is also cursed and can only shape-shift into a house cat. Throughout the series and particularly as a result of the relationship between Chrysabelle and Mal, the reader learns that the Comarré are not the meek servants the vampires have always believed, but rather have long had a plan to seize their freedom.
The series currently consists of three novels, Blood Rights, Flesh and Blood and Bad Blood, with a short story, Forbidden Blood, and book four of the series, Out for Blood, both due for release later this year. The fifth novel, Last Blood, is already scheduled for release in 2013, a significant wait for readers who only had to hold out a month between each of the first three instalments. The unusual pattern of release dates led some fans to mistakenly believe the series a trilogy, leaving them rather perturbed when the third novel ended on a cliffhanger. This review will be looking at the three books that have been released to date, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of Painter’s storytelling.
Strengths of the series
The first major strength I perceive in the series is the use of narrative voice, with multiple points of view explored throughout. The third person narrator often adopts the perspective of one of the characters, leading to a lot of humour and dramatic irony for the reader. Italics are used in the text to clearly distinguish the voices in Mal’s head, originating from the disembodied souls his curse has caused to manifest in his body and mind. Different characters also have distinct speech patterns, most evident in characters like Doc, whose vocabulary and manner of expression are uniquely recognisable. This particular use of narrative voice allows Painter to follow multiple story threads, and provides the reader insight into the feelings and opinions of the characters. This is especially useful when exploring the romantic storylines present in the narrative, which involve inter-species misunderstandings, love triangles, and a variety of other obstacles as perceived by the romantic interests.
Painter’s world-building craft is the next great success for the series, with an amazingly elaborate fictional world created to sustain the story. The near-future elements are intriguing, with mentions of an End War, the establishment of the Islamic Republic of France, and various alternative fuels and technologies. The vampire society is complex, with a detailed hierarchical system and distinct politics the reader must become familiar with. In addition there are a whole array of otherworldly creatures included in the series, each with their own powers and social structures. There is extensive use of magic and other fantasy tropes also present in the narrative, requiring the establishment of rules and regulations to govern the internal logic of such powers within the fictional world of the series.
The characters are generally quite well developed, although excessive numbers sometimes make it difficult to sustain full-bodied characterisations. There tend to be redeeming qualities even for the most vile characters of the series, rather than simply reducing them to two-dimensional villains. Information about the characters is divulged slowly, with each possessing a rich backstory for the reader to explore. While the multiple perspectives used in the story mean each character has a limited presence on the page, they are generally sufficiently interesting to hold the reader’s attention between bursts.
I was initially impressed with Painter’s treatment of disability in Blood Rights, with a powerful female character, Maris, refusing to allow her wheelchair bound existence to interfere with her mission to save her fellow Comarré, Chrysabelle (who it turns out is actually her daughter). However, a lot of the positive message is lost when Maris abandons her act and admits she is not a “cripple” after all, and was only pretending in order to protect herself. Regardless of this disappointment, Painter does provide other characters with disabilities that are interesting to study, including a species of paranormal beings that are mute and communicate entirely through sign.
The final major success I found in the House of Comarré series was the invention of the Comarré species itself. It is common for vampire paranormal romance authors to invest in a single element that is intended to distinguish their series from the countless other vampire series in circulation. The success of a series will often depend on how unique this narrative device is, with some examples including the invention of Romatech artificial blood in Kerrelyn Sparks’ Love at Stake series, the incorporation of ancient Greek and Roman mythology into Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series, the warrior dhampirs of Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, and the immortals from the city of Atlantis in Lynsay Sands’ Argeneau series, to name a few. For Painter, the Comarré hybrids represent the fantastical novum intended to capture reader interest in this new urban paranormal series, and there is a rich history constructed for these creatures. However, while the Comarré are physically and culturally unique, the vampire mythology used in the House of Comarré is fairly standard, with the usual avoidance of sunlight, crosses, fire and thresholds. The justification for the vampire society’s gothic lifestyle is also rather unconvincing, even when it is explained that modern technologies carry certain risks.
Potential flaws in the series
I have named this section potential flaws because it is actually quite difficult to fault this series. Even those elements that are lacking in the writing are often justifiable, with some even necessary to ensure reader comprehension. The excessive exposition present in the beginning of the first novel, for example, is arguably necessary to establish the context of the story. This is demonstrated by the effective summaries provided at the start of the subsequent stories, particularly aimed at explaining the series to readers unfamiliar at that point, or to refresh the memory of fans between instalments. There is also an excess of hyperbole present in the narration, with flowery language sometimes drowning out the action. However, given the gothic feel of the story, even this can be forgiven in context.
One of my major objections to the series is that although the story unfolds gradually, with each piece of the puzzle bringing the reader closer to understanding the grand scheme, there is simply not enough mystery to pique the reader’s curiosity. Facts are shared with the reader at certain intervals, but the reader does not have to work hard enough for this information and is not driven to discover the answers to many of the questions posed by the narrative. When new information is presented it doesn’t satisfy any obsessive thirst for knowledge that has been building in the reader, but rather simply provides some new element to absorb. While the narrative is very engaging and interesting, this lack of mystery detracts from the potentially addictive qualities of a fantasy narrative.
The narrative pacing is also problematic, although it is testament to Painter’s world-building craft and characterisation ability that this flaw almost goes unnoticed. For example, while the first novel is ostensibly about Chrysabelle trying to prove her innocence, it wasn’t until chapter 21 that I noticed there had been no movement on this storyline. The characters and the fictional world they inhabited had completely monopolised my attention up until this point. However, after this realisation I was acutely aware of the fact that there was never any investigation undertaken in the book, no clues ever sought, and rather than solving the crime, Chrysabelle and Mal merely listen on as a kidnapped Maris confesses to murdering Chrysabelle’s patron. The plot meanders through the majority of the book, albeit pleasantly, only resolving by lucky coincidence at the end. There are also two major characters that are mentioned at the start of Blood Rights that seem to fall off the grid until right at the end, by which time the reader barely remembers their significance. I believe part of the problem with the narrative pacing, especially in the first novel, results from the level of detail required to sustain the fictional world constructed for the series. While this world is very engaging, it is also very busy, containing Comarré, humans, vampires, demons, ghosts, were-creatures, witches, alchemists, and a whole series of different fae. With so much to explain to the reader it is no wonder the overall plot suffers. However, I could support Painter’s decision to focus on her world and characters, even at the expense of the storyline, simply because these elements are so fascinating to read about.
My final objection is of a much more serious nature, and focuses on the recurrent threat of sexual violence in the series. While there is initially some ambiguity surrounding whether or not Comarré are held as sex slaves as well as blood slaves, the violent scenes involving the demonic Castus Sanguis can only be described as disturbingly rapey. The issue I have with this is that it is not clear to the reader whether sexual violence is actually occurring in either case, and as such it is not possible to portray it with the necessary negativity to make it acceptable as a plot device. When Tatiana’s body is being “used” by the Castus Sanguis she is unwilling to defend herself, as she craves the powers these demons may bestow upon her afterwards. Thus violence against women is portrayed as something that might yield benefits to the women involved, as long as they don’t fight back. Also, while the series does interrogate sexism to a point, with the ancient vampire, Mal, coming to terms with Chrysabelle’s superior fighting ability and quick wit, there are also “punishing” kisses present in the narrative, reminiscent of the disturbingly sexist older Harlequin romance novels (for more details on this I recommend reading Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels).
The technical stuff
The books are beautifully presented, with gorgeous gothic artwork on the covers. The text font and size are reasonable, although the different font used in the header for the author’s name and book title looks a little cliché. The books are endorsed by well-established authors in the genre, thus lending credence to their originality as engaging works of fiction. There is also a glossary of terms provided at the rear of the book, however it is not particularly useful for readers unless they know it is there. While some authors include their glossaries at the beginning of their books, this carries the risk that some terms included will serve as spoilers for the plot, meanwhile including it at the end means many readers will be unaware of its presence until they finish the novel. In either case I found Painter’s glossary unnecessary, as most foreign terms are actually well explained in the body of the narrative.
It is difficult to predict the direction the series will take in the upcoming novels, however I hope to see more space devoted to developing Chrysabelle and Mal’s relationship. With crimes and curses featuring heavily in the previous instalments I expect more of the same in Out for Blood and Last Blood. As the short story, Forbidden Blood, is a prequel focused on the love life of a character that is already dead in the main series, I do not anticipate many vital plot developments here. Regardless of this the romance is still likely to be very interesting to read about, and did serve as the catalyst for many later events depicted in the series, so may yet provide some insight into the main plot. Overall I recommend the House of Comarré to any readers who like paranormal and urban fantasies, particularly romantic ones.