There are lots of things I love about being an author, but one of the best is getting reviews of my books. Being human, I obviously prefer good ones, but either way, I love the feeling of knowing that someone has read something I’ve written, engaged with it and formed an opinion. It’s fascinating to see the books I’ve written through someone else’s eyes.
Between Amazon, Goodreads and various blogs, I’ve now had somewhere in the region of 40 reviews of Oxford Blood. I’ve had at least one of every star rating from 1 – 5, and readers have made all kinds of different points. Reading through some of them again however, I was struck by the way there are similar points (good and bad) that come up again and again, across the whole spectrum of reviews. Based on these, I did a minor overhaul of Oxford Blood a few months ago, and I took account of some of the recurring points when finalising Screaming Spires. When I’m finally done with the Cavaliers and ready to start a new series/standalone novel, I suspect these reviews will give me lots of food for thought in developing things that it’s too late to change mid-series.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to summarise what the average reviewer seems to have to say about Oxford Blood.
Pretty much everyone seems to like the cover in the sense of thinking it looks professionally and is aesthetically pleasing (I can’t take much credit for this beyond having the taste to pick a good designer!). There have however been several comments that it makes the book look too much like a historical novel and that either this would have put them off had someone not recommended the book to them.
Reassuringly, there seems to be near universal support for the basic idea of “Oxford University dining society whose members are secretly vampires that are controlling the country.” I suppose that’s sort of self-selecting – I guess if you didn’t like the premise, you’d never have started the book – maybe there are lots of people reading the blurb and thinking it sounds ridiculous, but I think that probably isn’t the case. I flatter myself that it’s quite an unusual premise and that anyone who likes vampires at all would be mildly intrigued. Sadly, some reviews go on to say that they thought the premise was brilliant but the execution let it down. Many others however think it was played well.
There are some reviewers who really liked the main character, Harriet, but even in otherwise very positive reviews, she seems to come in for a fair amount of abuse. These criticisms seem to fall into three categories – that she’s a bit shallow and obsessed with clothes and men, that she needs fleshing out a bit more, and perhaps most interestingly, that she seems to show very little emotion or sense of self-preservation. Several reviewers suggest that they found her a bit shallow or one-dimensional early on in the book but that she grew on them as the story progressed.
I arguably do describe Harriet’s outfits with unnecessary regularity, but they say “write the book you want to read,” and I personally like reading descriptions of glamorous clothes. On the emotions thing, I was very keen not to have a heroine who’s bursting into tears every five minutes, but perhaps I tilted a bit too far the other way. Honestly though, my first few weeks at Oxford were so surreal that I don’t think I’d have found discovering the existence of vampires to be much more of a shock to the system than any other aspect.
I was originally going to write Oxford Blood in the first person, and wrote the first two chapters this way before changing my mind. I think third person makes for a better book overall, but I think Harriet might have come across rather more sympathetically if she’d been allowed to tell her own story. I might put up one of these first person chapters up at some point to see what people think!
- Love interests and relationships
Most reviewers who liked the book at all seem to have either quite liked or really loved the romance story. I was a bit worried about going down the well-trodden love triangle route, but I guess that ultimately, things become clichés because they work.
There’s some suggestion that there’s a bit too much love at first sight going on with Tom and Harriet. It’s definitely a problem that afflicts a lot of paranormal fiction, and I think if I was starting the book from scratch, I might have allowed them to get to know each other more gradually.
That said, I think I basically do believe in love or at least very strong attraction at first sight. It’s definitely something that’s happened to me, and the interesting thing is talking to someone who you’ve felt an instant connection too and gradually realising that you genuinely do have lots of things in common and get on really well. I think the problem with the way it’s used in many books is that it’s never explained why the characters are so in lurve apart from the fact that they are both extremely physically attractive. I’ve tried to counteract that (especially since re-editing Oxford Blood) by making clear Harriet and Tom’s shared taste in music, books, politics etc.
Still, one of my favourite lines in the book is Caroline’s , “When you say he’s your soulmate, I think what you actually mean is that he’s utterly gorgeous and you’d really like to get him naked. Let’s not get too melodramatic here.”
I don’t really like the current trend for picking sides in romantic situations (as with so many things in life, I blame Twilight), but where reviewers have expressed a preference, there definitely seems to be a trend towards “Team George.” My starting point was that instead of the common good vampire/bad vampire dynamic, I wanted both vampires to be basically as bad as each other, (drinking human blood, seducing people constantly etc) but reviewers definitely seem to be thinking in terms of the bad boy/safe bet dichotomy.
I’ve tried to spell this out a bit in Screaming Spires:
“I suppose you’re right. But I met him first, and I felt something immediately. And he saved me from you that first night when you’d just have used and abused me out on the Walk.”
Harriet shuddered at the memory of that evening, a memory she usually managed to suppress.
George looked pained. “Do you really think he hasn’t done exactly the same thing to other women? He saved you because he was acting under orders from your mother. The slightest twist of roles and it could have been me saving you from him. I heard about the first time you met. What do you think he was taking you to an old hidden library for if not to have a taste of you?”
Harriet’s angry reply died on her tongue. She’d almost forgotten about that, the way Tom had charmed her on her very first day in Oxford, led her from a party to a darkened room and been utterly seductive until he’d seen her necklace and guessed who she was. When she thought about it at all, she considered it as a charming prelude to their relationship, proof that he’d liked her from the very beginning. But George’s words made a horrible sense. Of course Tom had been planning to mesmerise and bite her. That was what vampires did, and it was far too easy to think that Tom was different.”
- Mothers and Daughters
Most reviewers quite like the Adelaide storyline, appreciating the rather unusual approach of the heroine finding out that her mother was a vampire, and enjoying the parallels between Harriet’s story and Adelaide’s experiences twenty something years previously.
One comment that has come up repeatedly, however, is that people have trouble with the way Harriet is so forgiving and unquestioning of the mother who walked out on her when she was a baby. It’s a fair point, but my own mother works in a children’s home, and it’s scary how willing people often are to forgive and want to forge relationships with parents who’ve properly abused or neglected them. I think that for better or worse, there is something in human nature that makes people want to love their parents and want to make them love them back, and Harriet is just manifesting this.
Also, whilst I don’t think Adelaide is ever mesmerising Harriet as such (apart from the one scene where it’s made explicit)she naturally exudes an aura that makes people love and admire her and want to do what she says, and her daughter is far from immune.
World building, vampires and history
One or two people have issues with it, but most reviewers praise the world-building. The details of the vampires generally get positive comments, as do the historical references. Some people wanted more of both real life history and the history and lore of The Cavaliers. I’d deliberately held myself back a bit in this regard, but I relaxed for Screaming Spires and will be throwing lots of this sort of thing into Ivory Terrors. Be careful what you wish for…
Plot and Pacing
Comments on the plot inevitably run the full gamut from love to hate. One recurring theme is that the book gets better as it goes on, with many people suggesting the opening feels a bit rushed. Interestingly, in my very first draft, there were about four chapters before Harriet goes to Oxford (including a party at Adelaide’s London house, where Harriet meets Tom for the first time), but I was persuaded to cut them by an agent. On balance, I think this was the right decision, but I was possibly slightly too brutal in my approach.
There have also been some suggestions that either the different strands of the book don’t sit together entirely neatly and/or that the vampire murder plot feels a bit underplayed compared to the romance. Book Two and especially Book Three become a lot more plot heavy, which I think is quite a positive development.
Most reviewers thought Oxford was described very well, many of them saying it had wanted to make them visit the town. Beyond that, references to my descriptive prowess or otherwise manage only to prove that you can’t please everyone. Depending on who you believe, there’s too much description, not enough or it’s just right. Goldilocks would have been proud.
From looking at some of the more thoughtful reviews and talking to my Book Two beta readers, I think the issue is that some things (clothes, the town) are very thoroughly described, while other things (rooms, people’s non-clothes based appearance, what people are doing during a conversation) are under-described. I tried to even this out a bit in the re-edit and to really keep this need for balance in mind for Screaming Spires.
One comment that’s come up a lot in reviews and that completely caught me by surprise is a suggestion that the characters drink and party too much, both absolutely, and in relation to the amount of work they do.
I’d say that the drinking is a pretty realistic portrayal of my time at university, and I was far from being the worst in that respect. Most of these comments were from American reviewers, and I suspect that the issue comes from the fact that with the higher legal drinking age, for all the frat parties and fake IDs you see on film about US university life, they probably just don’t drink as regularly because it’s much harder.
Regarding the work, you can rest assured that Harriet’s studying hard. The problem is that arts subjects at Oxford have very little structured learning. You have one or two tutorials a week and inbetween, you have to read lots of books and write a 2000 word essay or two. So it’s a lot of work, but not in the obvious “now it’s time for my class, now it’s time for my lecture” kind of way.
I thought (probably correctly) that lots of scenes of Harriet reading in her room would get very dull, very fast. I was also slightly concerned that given half the chance, I’d end up filling half the book with historical analysis, so deliberately held back. The first draft of Screaming Spires was full of tutorial scenes, but I lost my nerve and cut most of them.
Interestingly, even quite bad reviews often end with “but I do want to read the next book to see what happens.” Good reviews tend to be very excited about the sequel. So I suppose that shows I’m doing something right. There haven’t yet been enough reviews of Screaming Spires to draw meaningful conclusions, but several reviewers have commented that they enjoyed it more than the first book.
You can see a good selection of the reviews here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16097723-oxford-blood It’s always good to have more though, so if you’ve read Oxford Blood and never reviewed it, please do.
If you’ve read the book, would you say this is a fair summary? And if you write, have you found any useful comments in reviews that have influenced your future writing?