a review by Evie Kendal
Neferet’s Curse by PC & Kristen Castt is a novella intended to provide a backstory for the High Priestess, Neferet, who was the House of Night series protagonist Zoey Redbird’s first vampyre mentor. It is written as a series of journal entries from 1893 by the 16-year-old still-human, Emily Wheiler, beginning shortly after the death of her mother in childbirth. The journal opens with Emily witnessing her mother’s horrific death, after which she suddenly inherits all the duties of Lady of the House. Emily fears she is mad when in addition to expecting her to run the household, she believes her domineering father has become sexually attracted to her. The stifling control this patriarchal figure has over Emily, in addition to the constant threat of sexual violence evoked in the narrative, is intended to mitigate some of Neferet’s evil behaviour in the House of Night series. Unfortunately, however, it mostly follows a cliché of depicting strong women as being power-hungry and trying to overcompensate for their daddy issues.
The setting of the story is interesting and tries hard to sound authentic. There are sections, however, that are rather awkward and overdone, such as repeated mentions of “women’s hysteria.” There is also some anachronistic language used and social conventions that are depicted rather unusually. A major strength is how vampyres are casually dropped into conversation a fair way into the otherwise realist historical fiction. This captures the reader’s interest, as well as providing an opportunity to discuss Emily’s attraction to the vampyre matriarchal system.
As Emily learns to be mistress of a home and avoid her father’s predatory advances, she finds solace in her mother’s garden. She becomes more commanding and self-confident – the characteristics that draw readers to Neferet’s character at the beginning of the House of Night series. However, Emily also learns how to be conniving and manipulative, particularly when she realises the most expedient way to escape her father’s “prison” is to secure the affections of her friend, Arthur Simpton, such that he will marry her. We also get hints of the supernatural power Emily has when her laughter exerts a thrall over Arthur, compelling him to assist her. She also develops an affinity with the night, which will hold her in good stead as the leader of a vampyre school.
Spoiler alert and trigger warning
How Emily becomes Neferet is covered at the end of the story, however, what is most disturbing about this novella is the use of rape as a narrative device to explain the female character’s evil motives. After Emily succeeds in getting Arthur to propose publicly, her father brutally rapes her and Arthur abandons her for having been “clearly violated.” It is at this point she is “marked” by the Goddess Nyx and is taken to the House of Night to begin her new life as a vampyre. Her reaction to this is quoted thus:
I am not mad.
The horrible events that befell me and that are recorded in these pages did not happen because of hysteria or paranoia.
The horrible events that befell me happened because, as a young human girl, I had no control over my own life. Envious women condemned me. A weak man rejected me. A monster abused me. All because I lacked the power to affect my own fate.
…last night I killed him. He used and abused me. When he did that he had full control over me. I had to kill him to regain that control (137).
Neferet then recounts how she was advised not to pursue justice against her rapist but to just let the past die with her previous life, else risk becoming evil. This is the reason she decides to kill her father and then claim it was self-defence. As such, the novella devolves into a classic “rape revenge” narrative.
The problems with these scenes are numerous, but most importantly include the insinuation that young human girls are inherently weak and powerless, with no control over their own destiny; that people who have experienced rape can never regain a sense of control without murdering their attackers; that seeking justice for a sexual assault is the same as acting in a revengeful manner; and that this will ultimately lead the individual to become evil (the exact phrase on page 139 being: “An insatiable need for retribution and vengeance becomes a poison that will taint your life and destroy your soul”). The fact that Neferet’s sanity is at best questionable during this section only serves to make the story more disempowering for the victims of sexual assault as it suggests this is an expected outcome. Worse still, Neferet defends her killing her father by lying that he tried to rape her again, thereby feeding into myths about the untrustworthiness of women who report sexual assault.
While there is a postscript by P. C. Cast advising that anyone in such a situation seek professional counselling to heal, by this stage the damage has already been done. Though the intention of the novella was no doubt to focus on how Neferet incorrectly chooses to allow this negative event to dictate her future actions, rather than seeking help and healing, what actually ends up on paper is far more complicated and problematic. It also falls into the common trap of relying on sexual violence to provide trauma in a female character’s backstory. This is all too often seen in films and books that have female heroes or villains, as if writers think “we need to put something horrific in this character’s history to explain their motivations… I know, let’s throw a rape in there!” without considering the alternatives they would create for their male protagonists (such as the death of their family). Continually treating rape as if it is an insurmountable trauma, not to mention using it as a cheap plot device, is both potentially disempowering and insensitive.
I cannot in good conscience recommend this book in its entirety, however, for fans of the House of Night series the first two sections are worth reading. After that point I advise skipping to the postscript, as this has some useful advice.