I love these books. I hate these books.
I don’t think another series has ever left me so conflicted. No other series has made me want to reach in and slap the shit out of both the protagonist and her love interest so hard and so often….
….and yet, I still recommend them to everyone I see. I have no idea what the Hel is wrong with me. Do I recommend them because I think they’re good, or do I recommend them in the hope that someone will feel the same way I felt upon reading the last line of the last novel? (Disappointed, angry, and wanting to smack Danny upside the head screaming “WTF HAPPENED TO YOU?!”)
You see, the Dante Valentine series by Lilith Saintcrow is probably one of the most epic cases of Badass Decay ever written.
The usual caveat: There will be MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire series, so if anyone’s thinking of reading these books (link to the omnibus on Amazon here, for my friends who have a Kobo, it’s also on their site, and most likely at any major bookstores) I’ll mark off where the spoilers start so you can close your browser and come back when you’ve had enough of reading them. This post is going to be long, so I’m going to cut it here and interested parties can read the whole thing.
Okay, so, for those of you who have never heard of the series (which, I’m assuming, means all or most of you). The Dante Valentine series is urban fantasy set in the future, in a metropolis known as Saint City. Generations ago, the United States of America was taken over by religious fundamentalists, who renamed the country the Republic of Gilead. There was a war, and once the dust had settled, everyone discovered that there were people out there who had abilities beyond those of a normal human. This event was known as the Awakening, and the
speshul snowflakes humans who possess these extraordinary abilities (which is the ability to manipulate Power–vital energy, mana, prana, you get the drift) are known as psions. Oh, and the other important thing you need to know is that the major monotheistic religions have pretty much died out since the Awakening, which means that practically every major character is Pagan. (Christians, called Christers, are mostly middle to upper class non-psions, whereas Judaism and Islam are dead and gone.) Also, everyone speaks Merican (no, seriously, that’s what the language is called), uses a device called a datband to pay for everything, and are great fans of leaving letters out of words to make it seem as if the English of the future (sorry, Merican) has changed a lot in a few centuries.
Anyways, Dante Valentine is a tough-as-nails Necromance
r (a psion who can contact the dead, and, if powerful enough, heal mortal wounds or keep a soul from escaping the body) with an abusive past and major trust issues (how many boxes on the “typical urban fantasy heroine” checklist have you checked off yet?). Imagine her surprise when she gets a call from none other than the Devil himself. He wants a rogue demon killed, and Dante, being one of the most powerful psions in the area, is perfect for the job. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that would be spoilery and beyond the scope of this section.
As far as love interests go, our leading man (demon, actually) is Japhrimel, whose way of saying hello is to point a gun at Dante’s head. Japhrimel is very old, extremely powerful, and has his own set of issues. One thing that Saintcrow does well in this series is the way in which she portrays demons. You know how sometimes an author will introduce a non-human supernatural species who are apparently very old but they all inexplicably talk and act like human teenagers? There’s none of that here. In fact, the text constantly reminds you that demons are Not Human. They don’t think like humans. They are Other with a capital O.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so basically what you have at the start of the first book are two individuals who don’t want to work together who find themselves being forced to work together (romance ensues, naturally). Dante’s world is a very fascinating (and often very dark) place, populated with different types of psions (from sedayeen, healers who are literally allergic to violence, to sexwitches, who…well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?) as well as “paranormal species” like vampires (nichtvren) and werecreatures (werecain). Dante herself is a devotee of Anubis (all necromances have a psychopomp, basically a personification of Death that helps them, well, function as necromances) and her relati0nship with her god is what sustains her throughout the series. Other important characters include Jace, her Shaman (a catch-all term for psions who have no specialty) ex-boyfriend, and Doreen, her former girlfriend/lover who was tragically killed before the events of the first book (more on her later). Something that sets Dante apart from other urban fantasy heroines is that she (gasp!) actually has friends, and FEMALE friends at that, ones that she’s actually chummy with (and not jealous). Sweet Freyr, do you know how rare it is for an urban fantasy heroine to have friends? Much less good friends? Another interesting character (and one of my favourites) is Lucas, a former nectomance who did something so bad that Death basically abandoned him, as in, he can’t die. He’s the Deathless. Oh, and in case you can’t tell by the name, he’s hispanic, er, I guess that would be Latino in the U.S. There’s another POC, Jado, who is Japanese, both are stereotyped, and I honestly can’t remember if there are any other POC in the entire series.
I would also say that the books are pretty queer friendly with some problematic elements. While Dante’s primary relationship(s) throughout the course of the series are with men, her past relationship with Doreen is what really drives the plot, characters talk about sexuality in a very Bi the Way manner and there’s no slut-shaming to speak of (for instance, Dante remarks that she hasn’t patronized any of the local brothels because she doesn’t know the area), although, much of this is very blink-and-you-miss-it. There’s also a trans* sexwitch named Polyamour, unfortunately, Dante, having impeccable social skills (which usually involve some sort of weapon) is very aggressive towards her and also makes a point of misgendering her on one occasion (everyone else uses the correct pronouns, as does Dante herself–usually).
Now we come to the bad, and trust me when I say that I wish I didn’t have to write about the bad, but in the interests of giving a fair and balanced critique of the series, write I must. (Note that I am still tip toeing around spoilers.) The action sequences are often hectic and fast-paced, which wouldn’t be a problem if the reader knew what the fuck was going on. This also crops up in descriptive text. For instance, in one of the later books, Dante describes meeting a very dangerous paranormal species, and all I got out of her word salad was that these beings had a) white wings and b) sharp teeth, oh, and they were dangerous, because Japhrimel said so. Saintcrow seems to be fond of turning tense scenes into clusterfucks, which probably made sense when she wrote them, but are less so for the average reader (IMHO). She’s also fond of introducing terms and concepts and not telling the reader what they are until much later (when the reader has probably figured it out by then). The rest of my gripes will have to go in the spoilery bit.
Overall, I was very impressed with the first book (Working for the Devil). I thought the ending (despite being bittersweet) was very fitting. The second book was also good, but not as great as the first….
….and then we came to the third book, and from there it was like watching a train speeding down the tracks heading for the inevitable wreck and you, the reader, were powerless to stop it. If you want my advice, read the first book, read the second book, then read a few pages into the third and pretend that the story ended in a mansion in
Tuscany Toscano. Please.
Okay, I’m tired of dancing around spoilers. If you don’t want to be spoiled, leave now. I’m serious.
Okay, so in the first book, Dante discovers that Doreen’s daughter is being tinkered with by the demon she’s been sent to track down (incidentally, he’s the one who killed Doreen) in order to make an androgyne (the books are unclear whether an androgyne is the only being capable of reproducing or just the only type allowed to reproduce, as Japhrimel mentions that some demons did have hedairos–male lovers, but most had hedaira because, well, pregnancy, perhaps there were once more androgynes) to remove Lucifer from power. Dante has also undergone a major change. See, when she had sex with Japhrimel, he shared a fraction of his power with her, she’s now stronger, faster, and prettier than the average human or psion, an entity demons call a hedaira.
At the end of the book, Lucifer offers Dante a trade: Doreen’s daughter for Japhrimel’s life.
Dante chooses Doreen’s daughter, and Lucifer kills Japhrimel.
Seriously, how often do we see a female protagonist, when given a choice between a relationship with a man and her connections to other women, choose other women, or in fact, choose any other option besides the man? That’s why I loved this ending, bittersweet though it was.
Oh, but don’t worry. Remember how I said that demons are basically immortal? It turns out that providing a “dormant” demon with one of its three main food groups (blood, sex, fire) will bring it back to life. In Dante’s case, she sets her apartment on fire (don’t ask) and Japhrimel (literally) rises from the ashes.
And promptly sets half the city on fire while searching for her….
Remember how I said that Dante having sex with Japhrimel resulted in him giving her a fraction of his power? It also binds their lives together. If Japhrimel dies, it’s not a big deal (Dante can just take a trip to the slaughterhouse and he’s back again) but if Dante dies, Japhrimel is condemned to live at less-than-optimal-power for the rest of his life, not to mention being regarded as a traitor by his fellow demons, hunted down, killed (or rather, dormant in perpetuity), all that fun stuff.
In fact, this bond between them (as well as Japhrimel’s Otherness) is one of the causes for one of the most aggravating aspects of the novel: the poor communication between the two protagonists. You see, Japhrimel, having lived for centuries, neglects to mention things to Dante because he doesn’t see them as important matters/trivial compared to the big picture, which leads to Dante (who has trust issues, remember?) constantly ditching Japhrimel to do her own thing, including charging into battle when Japhrimel explicitly tells her that she’s way out of her league (and he would probably know a bit about fighting demons BECAUSE HE IS ONE, DANTE! Not to mention, turns out he’s Lucifer’s assassin–hence the title of the third book: The Devil’s Right Hand).
Remember, if Dante dies, Japhrimel is fucked.
Unfortunately, the way Japhrimel handles Dante’s defiance probably looks like plain old physical abuse to the human reader. At one point (IIRC) he grabs Dante and slams her against a wall in an effort to get her to listen (don’t worry, she has a denser bone structure, so it takes a lot to hurt her). Is what he does the most appropriate response? No. Do I understand why he does it? Yes, and I can’t believe I’m saying that.
I was going to bring this up in the paragraph about things not being explained until much later, but it’s very spoilery so I’ve saved it for the spoiler section. Basically, at the start of book four (or was it five?) Dante wakes up in a dark alley, naked, alone, and with a sharp pain in her abdomen. All she remembers from before she passed out was meeting with Lucifer, you know, the main antagonist.
If you think you know where this was going, you’d be wrong. What actually happens is that Lucifer implants something in her (a worm, says the text, I think), I gather that this thing is like a ticking time bomb, but what I don’t get is why he implants it in her in the first place. I’m under the impression that he does it just to be a dick, because, you know, he’s the antagonist. It’s one of those things I’d have to read again to check, but at the time, I remember being all “Huh, what does that have to do with anything? We already know he’s an asshole. He killed Japhrimel, remember?”
But the thing I hate most about this series is Dante’s descent from kick ass chick to a weepy, hysterical victim who isn’t, in the end, the one who kills Lucifer, you know, the one who has been responsible for all the shit she’s experienced since book one? Nope, all Dante gets is a deus ex machina while fucking Lucas stabs Lucifer in the back, and not even in the front, in the back. Also, it turns out Eve might not be Doreen’s daughter after all–and this is only revealed in the final moments of the book. Seriously, we have pacing issues, Ms. Saintcrow.
You know, I’m actually not opposed to badass decay in and of itself. It can be good for a badass to become less badass, and, to be fair, Dante loses everything over the course of the series: her close friends die, her house is destroyed, she even doubts that her god is there for her anymore. She’s so completely and utterly broken that it’s amazing she’s still going by the end of the fifth book. This is what makes that final confrontation a tragedy, IMO, that she isn’t able to get any satisfaction from killing the thing that has made her life a living Hell for five books. She’s so thoroughly decayed that a man has to step up and be the badass for her. This is in such stark contrast to the ending of book one that I wonder if Saintcrow wasn’t just trolling us and the last book was ghost written.
And that is why I love the books and hate the books and don’t know how to feel about the books. I’d suggest you read them for yourself and draw your own conclusions.