Dark Angel
Meredith Ann Pierce
(reviewed by Jose)

Part of being in the book business means that I’m generally kept fairly aware of what is selling and what is not. I have to say, with some dismay, that the majority of fantasy that I see anymore is published by Luna press or TOR. For those of you unaware, Luna is a press that specializes primarily in “alternative romance.” This catch-all term describes romance that involves vampires, werewolves, space ships, and all of the other abominations that the recent Twilight and/or Harry Potter craze have infected the modern fantasy scene with.[1] The relative boom in Luna’s success over the last few years has not gone unnoticed, and major publishers have started picking up startling quantities of both “alternative romance” and young adult fiction that revolves around the same topics, if somewhat censored.

Dark Angel, oh, excuse me, DarkAngel, is very much in the style of this young adult fiction. It is a fantastic account of some young girl who becomes enraptured with a “vampyre” and all of the zany and somewhat cringe-worthy adventures this leads her on. The prose reminds me very much of a failed Patricia McKillup. There is a serious attempt to lend a certain dreamlike and airy quality to the entire story, but rather than coming off as charming and elegant, the author often falls into the trap of overly obfuscating prose and general inability to form a coherent point. And while, as I will elaborate on further, this seems to be a conscious choice of the genre as a whole, it leaves the entire thing feeling rather empty. I struggled to remember characters once they weren’t on the page, and there seems to be no attempt from Pierce to actually make sure you’re keeping track of who’s important and who’s not. (Which is because no one is, except the main character and the vampyre. Doting ahoy.) There’s not really anything of substance to the plot, and it probably can be read in a short afternoon or over a couple lunch breaks.

I’ll be the first to say that two paragraphs is completely insufficient for what attempts to be a formal conversation or commentary on a piece of “literature” [2]. This is systemic to the genre. Reviews panning the stuff struggle to walk the fine line between beating a dead horse or writing a single paragraph that implies the authors need to go take a damn creative writing class. So rather than try and walk that line, I want to try to analyze the reason that the line exists in the first place.

Vacuity tends to make things very difficult to criticize. It’s why until someone sat down and took the ninety minutes necessary to coherently ream the entirety of the Star Wars prequels, most audience goers were left with a vague sense that they had been cheated and that the movie sucked, but were hard-pressed to point at anything in particular when challenged. The key, of course, is that there is nothing to actually point at. I’m going to elaborate on three of many specific decisions [some in more detail than others] that create this effect.

1.) Self-Inserts. The bane of any good reviewer, especially one that is read by large swaths of people, is that s/he is typically under some level of pressure from his editors to avoid anything that can be construed as libel. This practically means that generally anything even resembling an ad hominem attack is flatly off the table. This is a problem.

The main character in this wonderful little pile of crap is named Aeriel. Lets run-down the check list: Aeriel is clumsy. Aeriel is constantly reminded of her much better looking and grateful mistress. Aeriel is shy. Aeriel is also, obviously, exactly what some dark vampire needs to redeem his soul, and, because of all of this, she will become the prettiest flower in the flower patch with her dark and brooding lover. [3] Here is a picture of Meredith Ann Pierce. She is not ugly, nor is she particularly attractive. She plays the harp and lives in the woods in south Florida. She went to normal schools, and enjoys normal activities. She has been a reasonably successful author, and probably isn’t that bad of a musician. In short, there is really nothing special about her. She’s altogether quite ordinary.

I remember, a long time ago, when I was first introduced to this sort of “alternative romance” drivel, I had picked up a Catherine Asaro book because it had a picture of a neat spaceship. I was not totally disappointed (it was one of her earlier books, apparently she’s gotten much much worse,) it indeed had a cool spaceship. It had lots of battles and explosions. It had quantum phasing missles slamming into space stations the size of planets and lots and lots of talk about klein bottles. It was pretty cool. [4] Unfortunately, it also had a main character who was achingly special, despite the fact that she was totally ordinary on Earth. I can distinctly remember at the ripe old age of fourteen that it was perfectly obvious, down to the way the girl was described as looking and acting, that Asaro was definitely inserting herself into the shoes of the main character.

I’m not trying to argue that Pierce is creating a fantasy for herself where she is swept off her feet by a dark and brooding lover. Rather, I’m saying that this yearning (which, to be fair, all of us kind of have) to be special or better is the creative impulse which drives the main connection within the plot. It leads to an unacceptable connection between the author and her characters. She becomes invested–unwilling to let bad things ultimately happen and tell a story–and rather gives the reader a sort of twisted bastardization of a morality play. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, the good guys get everything they want, and Aeriel is undoubtedly the primary force for redemption and butterflies and sparkles.

This makes it incredibly hard to attack the plot and conflict as anything other than absent. You can’t point at particular struggles that the characters have because they really aren’t there. The vampyre screams about how awful he is and how much he wants Aeriel to go away, and Aeriel dotes after him like a good princess.

2.) Bad Prose. At one point, Pierce describes a persons’ eyes as “mocking-merry.” What in the world is mocking-merry? Is it gleeful sadism? Is it a friendly jab? Is it hidden resentment? WHAT IN THE HELL DOES MOCKING-MERRY MEAN, AND WHY DOES IT MAKE ME SO ANGRY? [5]

3.) Superficial Othering. This is slightly more complex, so bear with me. One of the tropes, especially of “alternative romance,” is the overwhelming attempt to beat you over the head with the supernatural, or “otherliness,” of whatever it is that the author is trying to do it to. Typically this is done through small tropes that you may not even think of. Misspelling words as “vampyre” instead of “vampire,” or “magick” instead of “magic” all serve to try and disassociate the author’s creation from the other tropes that you’ve read about. Done properly, this effect can be very powerful. It allows the other to create a powerful sense of humanization and redemption–as the thing we establish as the “other” slowly comes more and more to resemble a complex individual. Done poorly, it allows the author to hide her static character behind it’s otherness, because goddamn it, it’s not human, so why does it have to act like one?

All of these combine to create a veritable moving target of literature. On one hand, there’s something disturbingly wrong with the story, but instead of being able to point to any one particular thing, all we’re left with is a vague sense of vacuity. The words seem to mean nothing, the relationships between the characters are meaningless, because the author has already made it quite clear that she is uninterested in them acting like humans. And, perhaps most damningly, the plot is already quite clear from the very second that our glorious author becomes too connected with the redemption of her characters.

Stepping back, one might think it silly to even take the time to write this review. It’s been done to death, and people have been doing it far better than I for a long time. Twilight is here to stay until something else gets big, and even then, the damage will have probably been done. I only mention this book because it was written in 1984– a veritable pioneer of the genre before it was cool.

I need a drink.

Rating: Blackburn v. Stoke, both coached by clones of Sam Allardyce.

[1] I’m not saying that these things weren’t there before. Vampire fantasy has been around for some time with authors like Brian Lumley. The difference is that vampires were definitely not all sparkles and happiness. Conversely, the books had vague tones of satanism, sadism, and a fairly heavy element either of redemption or despair. They were also often quite gory.

[2] Seriously, I’m at a loss to try and say much more about it. The story is simple and handled poorly, there are large elements of deus ex machina at work through-out the entire interaction of the primary characters, and said characters are wood cut-outs with a little bit of glitter strewn on them for good measure. Aeriel pines after her black clad DarkAngel, and he radiates ANGSSTTT like any good teenager It, ultimately, is trying to be a story of redemption, but when all you want to do is club the person that’s supposedly getting redeemed into a fine mist, it sort of loses any effect it might have.

[3] Admittedly, this is only book one of a trilogy. This does not happen in this book, but if you want me to read the other two, I’m going to have to be bribed.

[4] There were a few moments that my thirteen year old mind had just started to grasp, but I generally plowed through them with my mind off. Gratuitous space sex is the easiest type of sex to ignore.

[5] Rant aside: prose that means nothing means there’s nothing to criticize.