Although this complex book about vampire-like beings has considerable power, I couldn’t help feeling that the author bit off a little more than she could chew.
In the winter of 1349, Gillian flees plague-ridden London. Exhausted, she falls asleep in the woods where two powerful beings find her. Nim Wei is a sophisticated - and apparently corrupt - female. Auriclus, the male, appears to be good-hearted if rather primitive. Both are upyr - immortal creatures who live on blood and shun the day. After arguing over which will claim her, they allow Gillian to choose between them and she chooses Auriclus.
After Auriclus makes her an upyr, Gillian goes to live with his “pack,” shapeshifters who hunt as wolves. She lives with the pack in their warren of caves for twenty years, but never feels as though she belongs - at least partly because she seems to have a telepathic skill that the others do not. When the leader insists that the time has come for Gillian to choose a familiar and become a fully-fledged member of the pack, she sneaks away, determined to find out more about humans and how to live among them.
Almost immediately, she finds and merges with a familiar - not a wolf, but a young peregrine falcon. Then, just before the falcon is ready to leave the nest, it is captured by Aimery Fitz Clare, younger half-brother to Edmund, the Baron of Bridesmere.
Huge and physically powerful as well as badly scarred from battle, Aimery lives in uneasy rapport with his brother; the two complement each other’s strengths even while they chafe at each other’s insecurities.
Gillian sees that living with Aimery as the falcon named “Princess” could offer some advantages in her desire to understand humans. She comes to him in a dream, persuading him that the falcon need not be temporarily blinded while being trained. Thus, she can take human form at night, exploring the keep while everyone is asleep. One night she accidentally discovers a hidden scrying pool and, looking into it, sees the face of Nim Wei. In a panic, she hurries back to Aimery’s chamber where Princess sleeps on her perch. She accidentally wakes Aimery who recognizes her from his dream.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that, in spite of the medieval setting and paranormal theme, this is no sword and sorcery epic. That wasn’t a problem for me - I prefer a character-driven book - but anyone expecting lots of that sort of action will not find it here.
There was, however, an extensive cast of characters. While their interactions and motivations were highly compelling, particularly the tangle of emotions linking Aimery with his brother’s family, the characters only came to life in glimpses. With such a large cast, I never felt as though I truly got to know any of them. It is to Ms. Holly’s credit that I wanted to, but that just sharpened the edge of my disappointment.
On some levels, the relationship between Aimery and Gillian was very satisfying. Both are sexually experienced, but it is only with each other that they learn how much more satisfying pleasure is when it also has an emotional component. Their sex is darker and edgier than that found in many romances, but it is Gillian and Aimery’s feelings that turn it into romance, not the way their body parts fit together.
Less satisfactory was the way the author used the unique elements of the story. The upyr seemed like a pastiche of several different mythologies with the qualities chosen to minimize the pesky challenges. Even in upyr form, Gillian had some tolerance for daylight, and when she was a falcon it didn’t affect her at all. As soon as she met Aimery, her quest for knowledge seemed to fade away, severely diluting her motivations. And the climax of the story was, I thought, predictable, not living up to the promising originality of the first half of the book.
Ms. Holly is adept at creating atmosphere and that, along with the intricate web of fascinating relationships, kept me turning pages. But, in the end, the scattered focus and the lack of a sense of completion kept the book from feeling truly satisfying.