I'm enjoying the 'Devil's Isle' series by Chloe Neill, so it seemed like a natural step sideways to check out her original and most established series, the 'Chicagoland Vampires', especially as I have the newest pair here to review. Well, let's start at the beginning and work forward to them.
My first surprise for a series whose thirteenth book has just been published is that it's really not very old, not even by human standards. 'Some Girls Bite' was first published in 2009, which means that its heroine, Merit (she's really Caroline Evelyn Merit, but vampires here go by a single name), showed up eight years after Sookie Stackhouse and sixteen after Anita Blake. Beyond wondering why series about vampires who are legal seem to be appearing on an eight year cycle, the question can't be avoided: what can Neill bring to this concept that Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris hadn't already covered?
Well, there are a few things, but so far they boil down to unwillingness, houses and UBI, with a wild dash of pop culture. The latter betrays the roots of the book in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', because Neill writes with as much sleepover party fun as she does serious vampire lore, namedropping so many TV shows and movies that we wonder if she's looking for sponsorship, but, while the former sets the tone (with terms like 'fang hag'), it's the latter that will demonstrate what originality Neill can walk here.
I really like the first of those. Merit, who is a 28-year-old single grad student at the University of Chicago, where she studies mediaeval romantic literature, is attacked on page one and turned into a vampire on page two, but those actions are perpetrated by two different people. The original assailant is not known, as he escapes, but the latter is Ethan Sullivan, the master of Cadogan House, who turns her for no better reason than she would die otherwise. As you can imagine, this creates an awkward situation: Merit likes being alive but wonders if Ethan shouldn't have left her to die. She never gave permission to be turned, an important point that will, no doubt, resonate throughout the series.
The houses are interesting too. They're a cross between fraternities and clans, run like corporations. The U.S. has twelve of them and Cadogan House is the fourth oldest. It's only younger than Navarre House in Chicago, which is the home to three of those twelve. At the top of the each house is its master, who runs it with absolute authority, except for details that are pushed down from above, like the size of the quota of how many humans can be turned into vampires each year. Merit is part of a Cadogan batch of twelve, all the rest of whom were turned consensually.
Finally, there's what I'm interpreting as UBI, the topical concept of a universal basic income, which for vampires works rather like Indian tribes. Some house vampires certainly work for their houses, so their money could be seen as payment, but I get the impression that every vampire is paid by their house and whether they work or not is irrelevant. They all get blood delivered for free too, courtesy of a company named Blood4You. The houses apparently take care of their own.
All this is good stuff and there's a lot of it, because there was no way that this was ever intended to be a standalone volume. It's the beginning of a series and Neill spent most of it setting the stage for what is to come. New vamps like Merit are given a copy of the Canon, an encyclopaedic guidebook that explains everything they need to know about their new state and which they can read at their leisure. We don't get a copy, of course, so Neill has to tell us the important bits as we go. That's both the best and worst aspect of the book, as we learn so much in such an engaging way, but the quantity of new information swamps the plot of book one, which is threadbare and almost an afterthought.
The other real downside is how convenient everything seems to be. Merit is from a rich family, but she doesn't seem to have been chosen, either for that attack or for her turning. I won't discount that it's an overt possibility but we don't go there here. That's fine. What's not so fine is the fact that her roommate, Mallory, is a vampire expert for no apparent reason, not to mention that she's a lot more than that, even if she's unaware of it herself until she starts meeting vampires who can tell. What's more, the official in charge of dealing with supernatural creatures in Chicago (apparently the city has known about them far longer than the public) is her grandfather. She didn't know that either, but hey. Convenience is almost a character here.
I enjoyed 'Some Girls Bite' enough to not see book two as a hardship. Neill throws in all the components she needed to find: a structure to the vampire community (which doesn't copy what went before), a host of other supernatural beings (of whom I'm sure we'll see a lot more in future books), a unique situation for our leading lady (which I'm sure will resonate powerfully), the inevitable snarky comedy (which isn't bad at all) and a host of questions about this world (so many that Neill will surely take a number of books to explore them all). That's not a bad way to start a series.
What I'm hoping is that the many books inbetween this start to Neill's career and the 'Devil's Isle' books that I'm enjoying today will keep their positive aspects but gradually lose the negatives, like those crazy conveniences that pepper the plot. Without attempting to venture into spoiler territory, it's easy to see that Merit is going to be a powerful vampire indeed, as she already has a number of skills that the rest of her house don't and she's only just starting training. I have no doubt that she will become progressively more special as the series runs on and I wonder if I'm going to be OK with that. It's handled well enough here, but it's not usually a good trend and it usually goes horribly wrong at some point. Let's hope Neill realises that soon enough to avoid that fate. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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