I have scant patience with vampire romance. Forgive me the pun if I say that the genre has been done to death. It's rare to find a treatment of vampires with any original aspects. Equally unusual are vampires who are convincingly dark or who demonstrate the complexity one would expect of creatures who have lived for centuries. These days, vampires are the new rock stars. (In fact, a distressingly large number of books actually feature bands composed of the undead.) Romance vampires are trendy, sharp, sexy and as shallow as a kid's swimming pool.
Angela Cameron's vampires are an exception. In Michael, Ms. Cameron offers a vampire society with echos of the Mafia: a society based on authority, loyalty, kinship and honor, threaded with the tensions of power struggles and possible betrayal. The vampires have reached an accord promising mutual co-existence with mortals. They own the night, cavorting in their fetish clubs and feeding from willing humans seduced by their glamor, but they supposedly no longer hunt mortal prey.
The device is highly effective, and provides an intriguing background for a story of ambition, passion and devotion.
As the book opens, someone is violating the terms of the Alleanza, leaving mutilated, blood-drained corpses on the city streets. Steel-willed police detective Victoria Tyler is assigned to investigate. Her quest for the truth brings her into the sphere of Michael, second in command to the local padrone Castillo. Tori tries to resist Michael's allure, but she's irresistibly drawn to him, both carnally and spiritually. When she agrees to pose as Michael's human slave, she is plunged into a dangerous, shadowy world in which her own desires may be the most perilous risk of all.
Although the plot occasionally left me puzzled, I enjoyed Michael far more than any vampire romance I've read in a long time. Michael is a typical alpha male, but his emotions are nuanced and complex. He can be brutal or gentle, passionate or patient. He has the wisdom and insight one might hope to find in a creature more a hundred years old. In particular, he understands Tori's conflicting needs for control and for submission.
Tori is tough, self-confident and a bit cynical. She's had run-ins with vampires before and knows what she risks in seeking out Michael to help with her investigation. Unlike the stereotyped romance heroine, she can take care of herself; she is ultimately responsible for the demise of the serial killer. In fact, her biggest challenge is learning to let go, to let Michael give her pleasure and love.
Michael offers steamy, explicit sex scenes made vivid by the personal conflicts they expose and the supernatural powers they unleash. Light bondage adds an edge that contrasts nicely with the truly horrific cruelty of the less responsible vampires. Ms. Cameron manages to keep the reader aware of the fact that any vampire, even the courtly Michael, can turn into a violent, blood-thirsty monster. This ever-present hint of darkness gives the book a depth sorely lacking in most vampire romance.
The book concludes with Tori committed to her lover Michael, but leaves many challenges and questions unresolved. I see this as a virtue--most romance endings are far too tidy for my tastes. For now, Michael and Tori are blood-bonded. She is his amante, and will go live with him and his brood in the mansion vacated by the former padrone. But what will happen to Tori's job, so much a part of her identity? What about her undeniable attraction to Michael's second-in-command, Jonas? And of course there's the ultimate question, always lurking in the background in a vampire novel. Will Tori surrender her humanity in order to be with her love forever? Too many vampire books view this as a frivolous question. Heroines allow themselves to be turned without considering the consequences. Ms. Cameron does not harp on this issue, but it looms large off-stage, adding a dark taste to the predictably happy ending.
Michael is far more satisfying than the usual fare of vampire romance. Despite my prejudices, I'm afraid that I may be lured into reading the next book in the Blood and Sex series.