The Only One
by Christine Feehan, Susan Grant, and Susan Squires; paranormal (2003)
Leisure, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5170-2

This is an anthology of pleasant surprises. The Only One boasts a futuristic fantasy (Susan Grant's The Star Queen) and two variations of vampire romance (Christine Feehan's Dark Descent and Susan Squires' Sacrilege). And here's the unexpected surprise: Christine Feehan's novella is pretty good while Susan Squires' blows me away. Susan Grant's rather formulaic futuristic is left floundering in comparison.

Christine Feehan has finally listened: she has created a heroine who has a spine, has a sense of humor, and can take care of herself while laughing at the too-serious Carpathians in Dark Descent while the hero has been toned down even more than the Carpathians in her previous books. No mind rape, no passive heroine begging to be impregnated by the vessel of Carpathia - no doubt that while I finally begin to enjoy this author's books, her fans who got hooked on the ultra-macho alpha mule heroes will grumble in discontent. Traian is yet another Carpathian who, while wandering around the place looking for his kin, encounters our heroine Joie Sanders, some sort of La Femme Nikita wannabe, when she is shot and undergoes an out-of-body experience. Of course, he recognizes that she is his mate, she is his, yadda yadda yadda, and goes chasing after her. They get plunged into an adventure involving lots of dark rooms, scary monsters, and vampire sex.

I find this novella very entertaining as a campy road trip adventure. Joie is the best heroine the author has ever written - and trust me, she's miles better than any of the spineless idiots in those full-length books, while Traian is more beta and hence more willing to listen to the heroine instead of just invading her mind with ten thousand different itacilized ways of saying Daddy Knows Best.

The novella falls apart later on when it becomes apparent that the author doesn't know when to stop the novella when the going is good. Dark Descent eventually peters into a repetitious rhythm of action sequences. The ending denouement is satisfying - if predictable - wrapping up this story very nicely. There are some loose ends, but hey, half the time I have no idea what is going on in this author's books - maybe the "loose ends" are actually satisfactory plot elements to fans more tuned in to the Carpathian canon.

While Joie never exactly becomes anything more than a damsel in distress, but at least she doesn't go down easy. And she actually makes me chuckle more than once. A Feehan heroine with wit? I'm in. If the mails I get from visitors are anything to go by, quite a number of this author's fans consider her to have jumped the shark somewhere around the last two or three books. Me, I think the party's just begun.

Let's talk about Susan Squires' Sacrilege next, even though this novella closes the anthology. The bad news is, this novella is so heavy in canon that readers may find this story very bewildering and difficult to take in at one go. The good thing is, Susan Squires' vampire romance is actually devoid of the tired "romance" formulas of your typical "child-like ballerina virgin in a big scary house with a tormented vampire" story. The heroine Magda Ravel is pretty naive at first but that's because she's not used to modern amenities, having spent some time in monastic rehabilitation after playing the villain in Sacrament. Although I hesitate to use the word "naive" to describe a bloodthirsty vampiress who wrecked havoc and mayhem in Sacrament.

Her mentor and sire Pietr has tried to rehabilitate her using some vampiric Zen thing to control her thirst. She is now released into the modern world. She hopes that she never encounters this scary Buffy the Vampire Slayer whose face she encounters on a Billboard. Her old nemesis Julien and his wife Sarah will help her adjust to the twenty-first century. However, an old enemy from Sacrament is still out to make Magda atone for her sins, and Pietr will have to step in and save her.

Sacrilege is as far from those ridiculous Amanda Ashley vampire romances as one could move away from. There are many lovely shades of ambiguities in the characters' hearts, as befit their vampiric nature. Magda's rehabilitation isn't a complete reversal to a Mary Sue type heroine as much a way to control the Companion inside from taking over completely. Here, vampires don't act like Carebears - they drink blood, they are tormented, but they never pretend to be anything but vampires. I love it. The romance isn't sunny and sweetcakes and there is no "innocence conquers vampirism" nonsense here as well. No doubt Magda and Pietr are fond of each other, but there is always a degree of ambivalence in their relationship. On bad days, they will reinforce each other's worst traits. And they love each other as much as their natures will allow? Glorious.

I'm rather annoyed by the author's attempt to do a 180 on Magda's past towards the end of the story, but thankfully, the story ends before Magda mutates into an Amanda Ashley innocent-ballerina-who-survived-abuse heroine. Unlike Sacrament, Sacrilege sees the author move away from the average bad vampire romance towards PN Elrod and Tanya Huff territory. As always with this author's books, I always sense that there is a really good book waiting to happen when Ms Squires finally let go of the romance formula contrivances she tries so hard to follow at times. In Sacrilege, she almost succeeds.

By comparison to Christine Feehan's much improved gameplay and Ms Squires' beautifully moody and Byronesque vampire melodrama, Susan Grant's The Star Queen suffers tremendously in comparison. This one isn't bad all - the story of romance/antagonism between raider Romjha B'kah and Taj Sai is pretty well written and these characters are more than decent in their own right. But the whole "male=war, female=spirit/heart/peace, love will save the day" theme common in pretty much every futuristic romance is also present here. Factor in the main characters' familiar baggages, and I get a solidly written but very predictable novella. Compared to the two novellas, Ms Grant's story seems to suffer from the very malaise Taj Sai says her people are struck with - apathy. But fans of conventional futuristic romances may find more to enjoy in this one.

Nonetheless, all three stories are very readable. Each has its own flaws, but they are all good reads in their own ways. Fans starved of paranormals may want to take a look at this one. I'm glad I did.

Rating: 88

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