The passing of Tanith Lee made me think about my own favorite genre authors from childhood. While there were a few that I liked, there’s only one whose books have really stuck with me throughout the years. It’s Meredith Ann Pierce, author of the amazing Darkangel trilogy.
I’ve hesitated mentioning this series because it’s from that most dreaded subgenre in all literature – the vampire romance. But perhaps this is the perfect time, while we’re still experiencing the aftershocks of Twilight, to talk about this young adult series that has romance, imagination, and real substance.
Every book series sets up its own rules for vampires. We learn Pierce’s first rule of vampyres when the first novel spells it “vampyre,” and the titular “Darkangel” comes flying with enormous black wings out of the sky to abduct not the heroine, but the heroine’s mistress. Aeriel, though a slave, is attached to her mistress. When she tries to get revenge, she’s abducted as well, and falls in love with her abductor. We learn the second rule of vampyres in the series – they are mesmerizingly beautiful.
When she gets to the vampyre’s magnificent castle, we learn the third rule about vampyres – they’re really, really bad. Unlike most vampire romances, which soft-pedal the vampire’s bad-boy past, Aeriel is literally surrounded by his past misdeeds. In the Darkangel series we learn that vampyres not only consume blood of their victim, but the soul as well. This is considered so horrific that, in a later novel, when a woman is about to be sacrificed to a vampyre and Aeriel is having trouble picking the lock on the chain around her ankle, the woman immediately orders Aeriel to cut off her foot. (She doesn’t. It’s not Game of Thrones.) The vampyre has kidnapped Aeriel not to be his wife, but to be his wives’ servant. The wives, one of whom is Aeriel’s former mistress, are wraiths, with no memory and little ability to feel anything but confusion and want.
The women aren’t wiped out of existence yet, because becoming a vampyre is a two-step process. Once the vampyre collects fourteen souls, his “mother,” The White Witch, will consume the souls with him, and make him a full vampyre. He doesn’t consider Aeriel a worthy bride, so she spends her days tending the wraiths, meeting creatures hiding around the castle, and learning the lay of the land.
So Aeriel is weaving clothes for the crazed husks of the women that the vampyre destroyed — and yet, she still loves him, sees good in him, and tries to please him in order to get him to like her. If this makes her seem like a cringing idiot with no self-respect, well, that’s what she is at first.
But over time, she changes. In the first book, The Darkangel, she trains herself to care for the wraith brides as people, making them comfortable and trying to revive the few memories they have of their former lives. She strikes out on her own to find a way to defeat the Darkangel and his mother. When she comes back to the castle, she still loves him — but she’s no longer concerned with making him like her, especially if earning his approval causes pain to other creatures.
The second book, A Gathering of Gargoyles, honors romantic tradition by providing Aeriel with a new suitor, who also happens to have another castle. Like most second suitors in romance, he never has a chance. And neither does the book’s storyline, which starts with Aeriel sailing off over the Dust Sea to have adventures on her own. She builds alliances and develops her skills a sorceress. She learns the history of her world.
And personally, during her travels Aeriel gets a look at other kingdoms and other vampyres, and comes to understand her (reformed) Darkangel, instead of viewing him with blind adoration. She can finally see him as a person, and not an ideal.
Aeriel grows as a character, and she grows beyond the bounds of her love interest. She still loves him. He loves her. And she gives him up (to a smug other woman, because Meredith Ann Pierce knows how to twist the knife when she wants to) to go on to a wider horizon and a longer adventure with the entourage she’s gathered around herself.
Here’s the thing about the final book. When I was a kid, I hated it. The Pearl of the Soul of the World, was Casablanca for someone who was not emotionally ready to handle Casablanca. I wanted to see the love story end happily, not to see two people find their places in the world. Now I still see the book series as Casablanca, and I’m so glad that both characters go on to a high calling, instead of forcing readers to watch Ilsa staying to tend a shabby bar and casino with Rick.
This series is a romance, but it’s not a romance with a happy ending, or a romance with a sad ending. Pierce gives you an ending that’s thrilling, and full of potential. And thus, this will be one of the few romances that stick with you.