HelenKay: Holiday romances usually center on heart-warming tales about finding and nurturing love. Here, holiday romance is about killing, mass murder and historical injustice. With The Midnight Work Kassandra Sims has created a vampire tale light on romance but rich in historical information. The result is a romance that is less about the holidays and less about romance, than it is about incidents that some may find more in tune with fantasy, or even horror, novels.
Sophie Aubrey is Ph.D. candidate with an impressive background in religious studies. She runs a site and chats frequently about dualistic theology and other related and obscure topics. The best part of the chats is the ongoing dialog with a stranger named Olivier. One night, Sophie invites her IM buddy to meet her at a bar. The result is a brief meet-and-greet that leads to something Sophie feels is more stalking than courting. The danger of the situation scares Sophie. In an effort to get away from Olivier, she falls and breaks her neck. Rather than pass into the afterlife, Sophie gets immortal life. One bite from Olivier at just the right time and Sophie now leads to the life of a vampire.
Turning Sophie in a vampire isn’t Olivier’s only gift. He’s carried a thousand-year-old crush on Sophie. He insists she is his true love. While he does not provide her with any information about her new life or the dangers that seems to lurk around every corner, he does vow his support. Unfortunately, Sophie is too busy turning her roommate Norah into a vampire, hunting down her other missing roommate – the one who is a witch and appears to have gone off to the land of the fairies – and putting a thrall on Paul, a man who treated Norah wrong.
And all of this takes place in the first fifty pages of the book.
The Midnight Work is not your average romance. It could be argued it is not a romance at all. Olivier and Sophie spend large portions of the book apart. Sophie acts in ways that are decidedly unheroine-like, such as enjoy the kill of an innocent taxi driver, killing a teen girl and killing in large numbers for sport and revenge. This is not a paranormal romance where the vampires need blood to survive but never kill. These folks kill. And kill. And kill.
Interspersed with the killing is travel between the current world and a fairy world. There are scenes with the undead, zombies, magic and a few that are a bit too incomprehensible to describe and even harder to accept. The book starts with a prologue that provides historical context that is handled with an obvious love and appreciation by the author. The problem is that a reader needs to share the enthusiasm for the subject to be able to follow along. Otherwise, the premise of the book, and many scenes, serve only to alienate.
The tone of the work switches from light and funny in the scenes between Norah and Sophie, to serious and macabre at other points. The differences have the tendency of dragging the reader out of the story, rather than inviting the reader in. While Olivier’s motivations are clear, his character remains aloof and peripheral throughout the book. Sophie character fluctuates depending on whether she is chatting with the girls or killing in the streets. The mix is jarring and makes Sophie both difficult to relate to and hard to like.
The Midnight Work deserves credit for not only taking on a complex historical subject, but also for doing so in a manner that lingers outside the norm. Unfortunately, the execution falters leaving a disconnect between the characters and the people who need to care about them – the readers.
Wendy: It isn’t often that a romance comes along and demands the attention of its reader. As a genre romance is guilty of spoon feeding its readership, never asking them to think for themselves, or draw their own conclusions about characters and storylines because authors conveniently tell readers exactly what to think and how to feel. It makes for an expedient shorthand when delving into a new book. There are the archetypes: He’s is a world weary millionaire playboy; She is a spunky unlucky-at-love virgin. There is the formulaic plot: Granddaddy’s will stipulates He must marry in order to save the family business and keep all the loyal employees in paychecks; She decides to lose her virginity to the very next man who speaks to her. The quantities are known and the setups play out with little variation. It is a rare author and a rarer book that shuck these expectations to daringly offer up originality.
Kassandra Sims’ debut novel The Midnight Work doesn’t neatly follow any well-trodden paths nor does it cull familiar heroine traits in an effort to build the Frankenstein’s monster of romance characters. Rather, Sims takes risks, and takes risks, and takes risks. The result is a work of imagination and creativity that very well may lose readers used to following along with only one eye open.
Sims’ protagonist, Sophie Aubery, is a thoroughly modern and deliciously flawed Ph.D. candidate who drinks to excess, smokes, lovingly calls her girlfriends Suki and Norah “bitches”, and is just a bit obsessed with pre-high Middle Ages heresy and prophesy. Her particular heretics of choice are the Cathars, a sect persecuted by the Orthodox Catholic Church for their dualist theology. It’s her interests in Cathars that leads Sophie to Olivier. What she immediately recognizes about Olivier is that he shares a voice with the man she’s dreamt of her entire life. Sophie’s dreams are not standard R.E.M. fare, but are what she suspects to be memories of a former life (or lives). Olivier and his cousin Luc are the last of the Cathars and now vampires searching the world for their re-born kindred. When Sophie slips on some ice and breaks her neck, Olivier makes her a vampire fledgling rather than lose her…again.
It isn’t long before Olivier begins to suspect that Sophie isn’t simply one them, a Cathar, but the love of his life, Phillipa, reborn. Here is where Sims is at her most subtle. That Sophie and Olivier are soul mates finding one another again is never buried under sentimentality. Olivier and Sophie face obstacles—in addition to their stubborn selves, a fairy, Ankou, who’s bent on revenge must be prevailed over—on their path to falling in love. For them it’s never a matter of “I loved you once, I automatically still love you.” Rather, each one fights to overcome their fears, their insecurities and accept that the now isn’t a continuation of the past, but a new chapter.
The story’s catalyst—Olivier turning Sophie into a vampire—seems an easy answer to a problem that could have been solved more creatively. Why vampires? Why not some other fiction voodoo that would have allowed Olivier and Luc to live for a millennia? Aside from giving Sophie and Norah an excuse for violence and providing a prolonged existence (Sophie first act as a vampire to vamp Norah), this specific mechanism fails to add anything to the story, or, in fact, blend very well with either Olivier’s and Luc’s search for other Cathars, or Sophie and Norah paying for the sins of their past lives.
The Midnight Work is a challenging book to read, one that’s subtlety can easily be lost to readers beaten down by genre heavy-handedness, while Sims’ fresh voice and willingness to create varied and multi-layered characters more than make up for an overburdened plot. From Asian-American lesbian witch Suki, to dialog that dares to sound like real people speaking, to a vampire heroine whose prey of choice is ‘tween girls, Sims repeatedly demonstrates her willingness to forgo the familiar in favor of a distinct voice and style.
HelenKay’s Question: There is a big debate in romance circles about the need for historical accuracy. Readers have been known to get more than a little crabby when romance authors cut corners or describe something readers believe is not true to the time period or setting. Here, Sims describes the historical setting in a manner that would suggest she is familiar with her subject. In general, is romance a genre that needs this much accuracy or is a genre that allows for some artistic license in this area?
Wendy’s Response: I am an easily annoyed, nit-picky reader who has tossed more than one book aside for being set in a city, state, or country the author has clearly never stepped foot in. So, I understand the particular sort of fanaticism that fuels the historical accuracy debates. But, I don’t agree with the logic behind many of the arguments. In this case, Sims’ knowledge of Catharism makes for a richer read and gives The Midnight Work a depth beyond the average vampire/multiple lives fantasy. As for the genre in general, it’s a variety of fiction that routinely relies on formula at the cost of accuracy or believability. So, why quibble over empire waist dresses and what-was-and-was-not appropriate for the ton when historical romances so often portray their heroines as beneficiaries of a feminism that did not yet exist?
HelenKay’s Final Thought: Though the voice can be witty and fun, this one won’t fill readers with a sense of romance or of holiday cheer.
Wendy’s Final Thought: The Midnight Work is not a causal read but well worth the investment for the sharp eyed reader.