|Cheddar Gorge, England in 1821 is a quaint hamlet, but to Ann Van Helsing her home at Maitlands Abbey is a prison. Ann has a most unusual curse. When she touches anyone, she can read all of their thoughts. They come rushing at her, and she is unable to control how much of their thoughts and desires she sees. It is the same with objects. Touching a library book might send her into shock. If she had new garments made, she would know everything about the seamstress. Therefore, she stays in her old childhood nursery, the only room where she can control her surroundings. However, her protector, Uncle Thaddeus is near death and he wants to see her taken care of. He wants her to marry her odious cousin, Erich. A thought so horrifying that Ann flees into the night to take refuge in the caves near her home.
Stephan Sincai was born a vampire and has a reputation of a rebel. However, his rebellion ultimately led to the creation of Asharti, a vampire so evil that she was creating her own army of made vampires before her demise. The Elders have Rules stating that made vampires must be dealt with, and death must be swift or it will upset the delicate balance between vampires and humans. Stephan feels guilt over his hand in creating Asharti, and goes to the powerful Rubius for training. For two years, Stephan is at the mercy of Rubius’ three daughters, who train him by means of sexual torture. He is dubbed the Harrier, and sent out into the world to kill Kilkenny, Asharti’s main disciple.
It is after an altercation with a band of made vampires that Stephan needs a place to recuperate. He goes to Ann’s secret cave to recover and passes out at her feet. Only thinking to help the bleeding man, Ann comes to his aid – and touches him. Imagine the shock when the past 2000 years of Stephan’s life comes washing over her.
Squires’ vampire novels require patience on the part of the reader, and The Burning is no different. The author takes her time setting the scene, weaving a gothic atmosphere and employing flashbacks to flesh out her characters. In this case, Stephan, out of guilt, finds himself reminiscing about Asharti, another of his pupils, Beatrix, and his training at the hands of The Daughters. None of it is essentially pretty to read about, but it certainly allows the reader to get inside Stephan’s head. His desires, his feelings, his overwhelming sense of guilt practically drip off the page.
Like Stephan, Ann is an outsider. The superstitious townspeople think she is a witch, and when the killings begin, she is the first to blame. The thought of marrying Erich is horrifying, but the idea of Stephan is not. Once she touches him, she understands him, and is intrigued. In the beginning, she accepts that physical love is impossible, as her own mother went mad, but after touching Stephan, she craves him. She is attracted to him, and desires him. However, how could their love work? Not only is he a vampire, but his incredible sense of guilt stands in the way.
The romance here takes a long time to get moving. Stephan is on a mission, and was trained to not let emotions distract him. When he begins to care for Ann, it is most unwelcome. The Daughters, and Rubius, taught him that emotions would mean failure to complete the mission. Essentially, Stephan falling in love puts his very life in danger. In turn, Ann has her own problems – and it is not until she meets Stephan in the cave (a good 100 pages into the story), that the relationship takes form. Stephan is drawn to the girl out of the need to protect her, and to discover exactly how much she knows about him after she touches him. Ann understands Stephan immediately, and because of this, their romance has the quality of love at first sight. There is not a lot of dialogue shared until the latter portion of the book, but Squires weaves a spell surrounding the characters, and the reader understands how and why they are drawn to each other.
Atmospheric is the best word to describe The Burning. It is a slow moving story most of the time, and the romance takes a while to ignite. However, Squires is a skilled storyteller, sets her scenes well, and intrigues the reader with an interesting vampire mythology. While The Burning does stand-alone, being familiar with the previous books does provide a deeper understanding. The trends in romance have swung back in the favor of paranormals, but nobody is writing them quite like Squires. She continues to successfully explore gothic undertones, while employing dark atmosphere to weave compelling character studies. The Burning is not just merely a continuation, but a realization that this is one compelling author determined to carve out a niche not only in paranormal romance, but in the romance genre as a whole.
Note: The sensuality rating is more of a reflection on Stephan’s past than on the present with Ann. While the love scenes with Ann are hot, it is the means in which The Daughters train Stephan that ultimately led to the NC-17 rating.