Cupid's Kiss

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Night Fires by Karen Harbaugh
(Dell, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-553-58418-9
****
Count this reviewer among readers who just don’t understand the current fascination with vampires in romances. Intellectually I can understand that the vampire is the ultimate wounded hero – the loner who needs the love of a good woman to make him whole. However, I can never seem to get past the fact that vampires drink blood. Aren’t those romance heroines concerned about that?

So I was slightly wary when Night Fires turned up in my latest batch of review books. However, I tried to remain optimistic. After all, there’s a suitably creepy gothic building on the cover, and I adore gothics. Also, Harbaugh has offered up something a little different – it is our fair heroine who is the vampire in this tale.

Simone de la Fer was ostracized from her aristocratic family, but that does not mean she was not affected when they were murdered during the madness of the French Revolution. Simone took her revenge the only why she knew how, by killing the men who were ordered to dispose of her loved ones. However she is horrified by what she has done, and seeks penance in the church. She is also hoping that by immersing herself in all things holy she can find a cure for her “curse.” The local priest tells her she must repent for her killing, and suggests she use her gifts to help innocents escape the Terror.

Michael Corday is an English spy who has been sent to France to ferret out a man who murdered two of his comrades. His superiors also think that this same villain is spreading the madness of the revolution to other countries. Michael is wearying of his life as a spy, but agrees to this mission.

Simone has been a busy girl, and agents for the Committee of Public Safety have been busy trying to capture La Flamme. It is while she is ferreting some prisoners to a ship that she runs across Michael. He immediately comes to her aid, and the two enter into an uneasy partnership. While Michael is curious about this outlaw, he also realizes he needs connections if he is to complete his mission.

Night Fires is not a perfect book, but it has so much right about it that it’s easy to forgive a few foibles. For one thing, when was the last time you saw a romance that takes place during the French Revolution on the bookstore shelves? Not a terribly romantic period in history, but Harbaugh makes it work by writing her tale in the vein of the classic gothics of old. In fact, for a good portion of the book the romance is merely a secondary plot, with the hunt for the villains and the gothic atmosphere taking center stage.

The vampire element to this story also reads like a subplot for a good portion of the book. It’s almost incidental early on that Simone is cursed. The author writes this element with a light touch, so readers who think they “don’t do vampires” will find themselves pleasantly surprised. However, readers who want wall-to-wall vampirism may find themselves a little disappointed. That isn’t really what this story is about.

What this story is about are two lonely, damaged people, placed in an almost impossible situation, during a horrific time in French history. They warily decide that working together is for the best, and their uneasy partnership soon grows into sometime more.

Things get a little convenient during the climatic finish, but again it’s easy to forgive because Harbaugh writes with such flair. The resolution of the vampire angle was imaginative, and the action towards the end elicited a few gasps from this reviewer.

Readers who cut their chops on gothics will definitely want to give Harbaugh’s latest a look. Night Fires has an old school charm to it that made it a nice trip down memory lane. Or if you’re a reader who is just fed up with Regency England, this book is definitely worth a look. I selfishly hope that Night Fires meets with success if it will urge publishers to gamble on “less popular” or “unromantic” settings.

On the front cover Mary Jo Putney proclaims that Night Fires is “the best historical romance I’ve read in a long, long, time.” I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, but it certainly is the most imaginative one I’ve read in ages. For that alone it deserves reader attention and my strong stamp of approval.

Side note: My R sensuality rating does indicate that the love scenes are plentiful and hot – but this story also earns that rating on a violence level. The story of how Simone becomes a vampire is a little shocking, so if you’re faint at heart, consider yourself warned.

--Wendy Crutcher


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