Yesterday I got a rather interesting review. I find that the majority of reviews I get come from people that I’ve pro-actively approached, so it’s always a pleasant surprise to get a good one one from someone who has just randomly read the book and then decided to talk about it on their blog. https://davidjhiggins.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/oxford-blood-by-georgiana-derwent/
What I really liked about this review however it that it seemed to get a point about the book that many either miss or outright misinterpret:
“I recommend it to readers who enjoy new interpretations of the vampire myth, especially those seeking a counterpoint to the more usual humane vampire societies“
“Harriet is a strong character: at times shallow and ambitious enough to work with the Cavaliers if it might advance her interests; yet also loyal to her mortal friends, and ready to act against the Cavaliers on some issues. This makes her increasing attraction to blood-drinking tyrants more believable than that of the usual heroines of vampire romance.”
“Horrified by their hungers but drawn to their power she struggles to balance humanity with ambition.”
I’ve had several reviews over the months that complain that most of the characters in the book are unlikeable, as though I set out to make them nice and failed, when to a large degree that was a deliberate choice. I wanted the Cavaliers to be at worst villains and at best seriously flawed anti-heroes – I can’t stand soppy vampires who are basically just long-living super-attractive humans. And while Harriet is meant to be a bit more sympathetic, she’s certainly not meant to be a role model or free of personality flaws, and she definitely makes some rather dubious decisions.
Ultimately, of course, an author’s view only counts for so much, and readers are welcome to their own perspectives on the characters, but I thought it would be interesting to share mine.
In short, my vampires are power-obsessed, blood-thirsty, and generally don’t care much about humans other than as a source of blood, sex, or influence. And yes, I emphatically include George and Tom in that. I see them as having genuine feelings for Harriet, but that doesn’t magically make them good people. Plenty of real-life sadistic dictators have a wife and children that they appear to truly love, but while it reveals a spark of humanity under their darkness, it doesn’t redeem them.
In particular, I think readers tend to struggle with Tom in this context. There’s very much a culture of good vampire/bad vampire love triangles in paranormal romance, and as Tom is the slightly less bad one, people tend to assume that he is meant to be the good one and then attack him for some of the ruthless things he does as though they are out of character. Let me make this clear once and for all: Tom drinks human blood regularly by mesmerising people. He has lots of casual relationships. He’s fully involved in the Cavaliers schemes to turn some students, kill others, and control the country. He is meant to love Harriet. He is meant to have some human and redeeming qualities, but he is not meant to be a nice guy. The following exchange between George and Harriet in Screaming Spires sums it up:
“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.
Oh, and George? The scene they are reflecting on there where he takes Harriet out into the woods and forcibly bites her? That is not meant to be okay. And the fact that she then goes out with him is not meant to be a sensible decision. I would be the first to admit that if I were writing Oxford Blood from scratch today, I’d probably handle that plot arc slightly differently, as it does push credibility. But some people’s capacity for self-delusion and bad decisions should not be underestimated. And sadly, when someone is sufficiently attractive and charming, some people will forgive them far too much. I used to do pro bono work for a legal domestic violence charity, and it never ceased to amaze me what kind of treatment some people would put up with once they thought that someone loved them and they loved them back.
Incidentally, I would never write a realistic scene featuring two humans and abuse that gave even the slightest implication that it was okay for the abuser to go on to be regarded as a quasi-romantic hero – though far too many authors do. Personally, I find that the paranormal element (and to some degree, fantasy, far-futuristic and far-historical approaches) give just enough distance from similar real life scenarios to make this palatable – but I appreciate that this is an argument that people either buy or they don’t.
Funnily enough, much more than the vampires, Harriet comes in for a lot of abuse, often in otherwise really, really positive reviews. Now, I like Harriet. I like the fact that she’s ambitious. I like the fact that she’s rarely fazed by anything, and I like the fact that Oxford is an alien environment for her but that she faces it head on. She’s not meant to be a deliberately dislikeable person. But she isn’t meant to be a role model or someone who always does the right thing. She’s shallow at times, and her ambition sometimes tips over into obsession. When she likes someone (men especially) she tends to be blind to their faults, and conversely, when she gets off on the wrong foot with someone, she tends to overemphasise their faults. And sometimes, she makes incredibly silly choices – but so do most people at some point in their life.
It’s easy to assume that the author’s view is always aligned with their main character, but when I have Josh say, “Did you spend the night with the rich blond wanker or the dark haired posh twat?” or Caroline, “He stabbed you with a knife. I’m already uncomfortable that we didn’t go to the police – why would you go on a date with him?” their views are no more or less representative of mine than when Harriet opines on the wonders of the Cavaliers.
Most of the series is from Harriet’s point of view. It should not therefore be assumed that her view of the world is shared by everyone, or that her opinion of people is the right one. Katie is a case in point. Because she was initially a rival for Tom’s affections, and because she’s posh and self-possessed, Harriet thinks of her as stuck-up and something of an enemy. In-fact, baring one vicious insult when Harriet has pretty clearly stolen her boyfriend while they were out on a date there’s little to suggest that she’s anything but a reasonably pleasant person. As the series goes on, Harriet grows to realise this.
More fundamentally (and this one contains huge spoilers for the end of Oxford Blood, so read with caution) Archie basically has the good of the university and the country at heart when he tries to kill George and stop the Summer Party from taking place. He has to kill one human to do so, but killing one to save fifteen could be regarded as a ruthless but ultimately pragmatic trade-off. He is the one vampire who feels bad about killing someone to be turned, the one who tries to avoid drinking human blood, and the one who dislikes Cavalier control of the country. In a different book, told form his POV, he could almost have been the hero. But because the one person he has to kill is our heroine, he feels like the villain.
Looking ahead, I’m interested more generally in the question of whether a reader has to like the main character to enjoy the book. I’ve started vaguely planning my next novel for when Ivory Terrors, and therefore the whole Cavaliers Series, is finally finished, and I intend it to feature a full-blown anti-heroine whose actions, while starting off broadly understandable, start to verge on the evil. I am however rather concerned that people will miss the point, assume that her approach to life is meant to be unquestioningly supported and decide that my moral compass is distinctly skewed. Still, I think I’ll take my chances, and I think the lesson I’ve learnt from the Cavaliers is to really spell this sort of thing out, and not underestimate people’s ability to assume that genre conventions are in play.