Dark Challenge
by Christine Feehan, fantasy (2000)
LoveSpell, $5.99, ISBN 0-505-52409-0


I must confess I scratched my head over this latest Carpathian saga (for those who are now saying "Carpet - who?!!", click here for a brief introductory course). Dark Challenge is everything I would usually have fun reading, because it has all the elements of a sleazy, low-down-dirty wrapped-in-brown-paper book: really unhealthy relationships between siblings, utter subjugation of the heroine, invasive-mind control and manipulation of the heroine by the hero, the celebration of female submissiveness, and oh yeah, violence.

Then again, I also get the impression that this story doesn't know that it is orbiting out of the sweet-and-fluffy territory. The above elements are ineptly handled and even more awkwardly presented. Dark Challenge reads like an accidental dirty read instead of a deliberate one, which is why I scratch my head. Is all this unusual and definitely outside-conventional-romance-stuff intentional or accidental?

Of course, I wouldn't be boring myself with such analysis if the story is fun, but then again, there isn't much of a story in Dark Challenge, much less an interesting one.

The story is this: the ancient Carpathian, Julian Savage, is "different" from the usual Carpathians because he has a Deep Secret that is as ugly as he is whiny. But one day, before he actually go about killing himself, he saves Desari, a singer, from a bunch of human (re: inferior and disposable) vampire killers. Turns out that Desari is one of a family of long-lost super supreme Ancient race of Carpathians, and she, in receiving his blood during her death throes, is now his life-mate.

She says no, because oh, his brothers and sisters will never, ever let a stranger into their clan - they are possessive, especially the "Emotionless One" Darius. Darius and Julian fight it over Desari (such brother-sister bond is so touching, yes?), Desari frets, and that's about three-quarters of the story. The final quarter has Julian and his newfound buddies kill some stupid evil vampire. Then it's the end.

For a book that openly admits that female Carpathians are by nature submissive and revels in its unnaturally close sibling kinship as well as the hero's mind invasion and manipulation of the heroine, Dark Challenge is also paradoxically very naïve. Consider its slamming of human vampire killers targeting our heroine:

The society had very primitive notions of what made a vampire - as if avoiding daylight or feeding on blood alone rendered one soulless, evil, undead.

Uhm, okay.

Also, Julian has no qualms invading Desari's mind, despite her repeated pleas to be left alone. He keeps baiting her, toying her, irritating her, until she has no choice but to answer. It does make me uneasy, because the only emotion Desari display on her own free will is worry. Even when she laughs, she will only do so after looking at Julian and seeing a glint of humor in his eye. Julian tells her upfront she will have her freedom curtailed, her association to men other than Julian severely restricted, in short, she becomes like one of the Middle-eastern ladies, hidden in the back of the house from male guests.

I will be okay with that if the heroine gets her jollies from being treated this way. But the author keeps making her assert her independence and asking Julian to stop, stop, stop, leave her alone. It's not pretty; there seems to be no voluntary submissiveness on Desari's part to Julian.

Dark Challenge is skirting close to a very small subgenre of erotica called, simply, "mind-control", where the alpha and dominant partner would invade and manipulate the minds of his or her partner(s) into submission and performing various sex acts for this dominant person's pleasures. But it doesn't dare to take the plunge into this dark and romance-novel uncharted depths. It stands at the edge of the deep waters, as if it has just realized that by default of its plot premise, it has boxed itself into creating something... unsweet, unpretty.

Dark Challenge tries valiantly to mend the not-so-sweet aspect of the vampires. Like the naive attempts at making our vampiric hero some sort of sweet, harmless human (see the 'I'm not evil' statement above) - horribly clashing with its depiction of Julian's and Darius's savagery. It makes Desari assert her independence, thus making her utter, total capitulation to Julian only more unpleasant and hinting on involuntariness on her part. It makes the male heroes too-powerful, superhumanly powerful (all the guys here are Carpathians of all Carpathians) as if power can make Julian's stalker-behavior and Darius's possessiveness of his sister sweet and cuddly by romance standards.

Oh, I can appreciate a captive-and-submission fantasy as much as any reader, but there are just so many turnabout-faces and clumsy attempts at making such behaviors described above palatable to sweet old lady readers. I get this impression that Dark Challenge either doesn't know what it is getting into, or it knows and tries frantically to bend things into following romance novel conventions (lip service to independence, lip service to nobility even as the hero rips off a baddie's head) at the cost of its own credibility.

Just because a vampire drinks blood, he isn't evil? Oh boy. And I always thought the allure of vampires is because they are evil, seductively evil. But I guess some readers and maybe authors too want their conscience cleared by independence, humanity, et cetera. Which makes me wonder then, why the violence and Freudian party in Dark Challenge?

Rating: 52


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