Sunday, July 17, 2011

Christine Feehan's Carpathians: The Good, The Bad, and The Fanged

The early books in Christine Feehan's Carpathian series are a particular guilty pleasure of mine. Why guilty? Well, because the truth is that there is a lot wrong with them thematically and stylistically. They are formulaic and repetitive, kind of anti-feminist, and in some case make no sense at all. Yet they're deserve a certain amount of mention and discussion because of their influence on the paranormal romance genre. Christine Feehan is one of the first authors that I know of to use the fated mate trope in such an unapologetic fashion, and to make it work so well. I suspect that she is responsible for the mass popularity of fated mates in the last decade, so we have her to thank for that (or blame, depending on your feelings).

Lest anyone think that I'm presenting myself as an expert on the Carpathian books, I have in fact not read every single book word for word. I read up to Dark Melody (book 12) with great dedication, and after that point I started to skim and skip, or listen to the audio version. I have yet to even open  Dark Peril, the most recent release. So my comments may or may not be relevant to the recent additions to the series.

Please keep in mind also that when I first read these I was approximately fourteen years old and chalk full of angst. I've since reread most of them at least once, but that first impression sticks in my mind the best. Onward! 

In the Beginning: The overarching premise of each book is that Carpathians (an immortal, bloodsucking, shapeshifting, and generally very powerful species) are in danger of extinction because they have very few women and children. The men must find a lifemate. If they don't, they go colorblind and lose their emotions, a condition that can only be remedied by--you guessed it--finding one's lifemate. If they don't find said female they may ultimately turn evil, or choose to commit suicide. Sound cheerful? Right off the bat we have this odd gender divide that makes no sense--only the men are subject to the harsh side effects of going solo for centuries. I really would have preferred this colorblindness curse to go both ways, or at least I would have found it equally interesting. But instead the women are set up to be the "light to a man's darkness" and the men are the pursuers. 

The women in question are most often humans with psychic abilities. These low level supernatural powers are what allow them to later be turned into Carpathians (you can't just pick up any hooker off the street, although in my opinion that would make a funny book). The men therefore have a massive advantage of power and knowledge over their women. If your a girl, and you become a Carpathian male's lifemate, you sit at home and make quilts, or if your really lucky you can be a healer. I did warn you that these books are pretty sexist. In some of the later ones (Dark Destiny, if I'm not mistaken) a few women fight the evil vamps alongside their mates, but even in those cases the man is presented as more competent.

I Just Can't Stop Reading: Again, keep in mind that when I started reading these books the fated mate thing was a new concept in my reading world. It sucked me in (pun kind of intended). Plus, Feehan has a talent for imagery. The opening scenes of Dark Prince, in which our hero visits the heroine (Raven) on her balcony in the form of a large black bird, remains one of my favorite romantic scenes of all time. 

The other thing that these books do well is this: the lifemate bond doesn't equal instant true love. It means a lot of things. The ability to share sensation, thought, and emotion, combined with intense physical need. But trust and affection still have to be built the old fashioned way: by getting to know one another and sharing lots of blood. For the most part, Feehan takes some time to actually develop the relationship. Some books are more satisfying in this regard than others, but at least the mate bond is not used as a stand in for relationship building.

The Men: I'm going to be bluntly honest about this...They all kind of blend together in my mind. Oh sure, they each have a few unique personality traits and there are a couple different professions. But the most prominent character traits are always dominant, protective, and lethal. 

My most remembered hero of the series is Jacques from Dark Desire. I have a fondness for crazy characters and Jacques is all kinds of messed up. He was tortured and buried alive, and his human mate finds him. She's a doctor, and she tries to help him. In the meantime he latches on to her mentally in order to hold onto his last scrap of sanity. The whole romance is kind of disturbing, and honestly I feel bad for the poor woman who basically go trapped into a life I would never want. But still, it has a certain beauty to it and it's certainly memorable.

The Women: I apologize for this rant, because the heroines are where Feehan really loses me. Most of the women have no prior sexual experiences, and those that do were negative. They rarely have friends or relatives to miss them, so they are basically kidnap bait. They are always less powerful than the men, no matter what unique powers they're given. They mostly end up as singers or healers. If they do want to fight, it's a BIG FREAKING DEAL. She basically needs her mate to permit her, because if he isn't cool with it he will absolutely lock her up. Fortunately some of the men aren't complete sexist asshats. Anyways...

The women are the victims of very flowery names and over the top physical descriptions. Savannah, Raven, Desari, Natalya...And they all have impossibly colored eyes, tiny waists, and flowing shampoo commercial hair.

Among our leading ladies, I've always liked Francesca the best. In  Dark Legend she is basically portrayed as an ancient Carpathian trying to live outside of their society in secret. She's artistic, has healing abilities, is clearly pretty powerful, and she has a soft heart. She rescues an abused human child, Skyler, and I found the entire story very touching.

Plot Oddities: Oh God, are these things formulaic. Read three in a row, I guarantee you'll see the pattern. Carpathian guy finds psychic woman, he gets his colors and emotions back, struggles to control himself, fights off a few bad guys, turns the lady into a Carpathian, the end. But along the way some odd stuff happens that I just have to mention.

First of all, the human to Carpathian conversion? Very painful unpleasant process with huge life altering effects. In some cases the process isn't something the women volunteer for, but something the men choose for them. Because forced seduction bordering on rape wasn't edgy enough. 

While I'm on the subject of stealing a woman's options and will: Dark Magic is easily the most disturbing romance in the series. When the heroine, Savannah, was an unborn child Gregori feeds her his blood when her mother is hurt. He does so to ensure that she will be his lifemate. Remember in Breaking Dawn when Jacob imprints on the baby, and all of the readers declared it creepy and disturbing? FYI, Christine Feehan did it first, and did it even more disturbingly if you ask me. Gregori also stalks Savannah as a wolf while she's growing up, pretending to be her pet. Eww?

I also wanted to say that Christine Feehan can't write fight scenes that hold my attention. She's great at building atmospheric settings and beautiful characters. But the fight scenes are uninspired, predictable, and go on forever

In the End: So yeah, these books are pretty bad but also strangely addictive. They have an undeniable place in the genre of vampire romance because they are the first and best examples of so many of the tropes and themes we've come to know and love. I'm not going to give them a glowing recommendation. But I will say that there's no shame in trying them, if you are at all curious. There is much to love and much to hate. Happy Reading!

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