Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book Review: Dunraven Road by Caroline Barnard Smith

I really wasn’t sure what to expect with Dunraven Road, the debut novel from Caroline Barnard Smith. The back cover had a very vague description that didn’t incite my interest too much, and to be honest I just expected it to be another poorly written vampire novel.

On the contrary,I found Dunraven Road to be an engaging, fast-paced story that focused on human characters addicted to a blood-like drug called “red”, featured a vampiric cult and vampires that were both menacing and entrancing. Though the novel features several flaws, overall I found it a worthwhile read and a promising debut from Smith.

Dunraven Road is about a group of friends in a small English town begin experimenting with a strange but alluring drug called red and revere a vampiric deity called Lilitu. When their arrogant leader Zach decides to build a cult around the drug and Lilitu, staging lavish parties in an abandoned church, the friends find themselves in danger of losing themselves to the sweet allure of the red…as well as losing their lives to real vampires that move undetected among the drug-crazed cult.

As Zach drowns himself in red and loses himself in his powerful new role as leader to the drug-addled cult kids and partiers, one of the original group of friends, Sapphire, who is deeply in love with him, realizes she has special psychic powers and has disturbing visions of what the vampires have planned. With the help of Paul, a lovesick artist and several “good” vampires who’ve sworn off drinking blood, can Sapphire stop the invasion of vampires before they slaughter the smorgasbord of red partiers?

Though the book might be construed as a bit generic, filled with scenes of lavish parties, seduction and beautiful vampiric creatures, it is surprisingly very engaging and lures you in with the story Smith spins. The vampires may have some stereotypical attributes (being beautiful, loving blood), but Smith blurs the lines between the vampires and the druggies addicted to red. Instead of the vampires being the humans’ implements for destruction, the humans destroy themselves with the red drug and their own blood-letting rituals. Quite a nice twist, I thought. Also, the book forgoes all the usual nonsense of garlic, stakes, sunlight, mirrors, etc. as ways to deter/kill/identify vampires. Despite their beauty, the vampires in Dunraven Road blended right in with the humans and there were several startling reveals of people actually turning out to be vampiric entities.

As for the human characters who take center stage for most of the book, unfortunately they are a rather unlikable group. Most are hopeless addicts, womanizers, cheaters, thieves, killers or doormats. Also, it takes a while for anyone to be identified as the lead character in the book. Obviously, Sapphire is the main character towards the book’s end, but I wish Smith had spent more time developing her character from the first few pages instead of wasting time describing vamp attacks on the elderly (a plot point that never really goes anywhere and remains underdeveloped) or fawning over Zach’s wicked ways. Zach is talked about so much in the beginning that it appears as if he is the lead character, but after the vampires arrive he is no longer in charge and we see he is just a pawn in their game. And even though Sapphire becomes the heroine, through most of the book she is portrayed as weak and completely at Zach’s beck and call. In fact, most of the female characters in Dunraven Road act as if they are slaves to their male counterparts…even the evil vampire Gwyneth seems to solely rely on her sexual seduction skills and looks to get what she wants. This is disappointing, particularly because the author is a woman and I expected much more strong female characters from her.

Despite the lackluster and unlikable characters, the story itself is nonetheless engaging. I like how the vampires were different and weren’t susceptible to garlic, stakes, etc. I also enjoyed how there were two different vampire lifestyles – those that drank blood and those that abstained (vegan vampires – intriguing!!). There were also several twists and turns throughout the book that kept things interesting. I thought the inclusion of the “red” drug and how it tied back to the vampires was clever and inventive.

The writing style by Smith was clean, crisp and unobtrusive. Without any awkward sentences or clunky paragraphs to trip over, reading Dunraven Road was a breeze. The story was also very quickly paced and genuinely engaging (despite the poorly developed characters) so that you wanted to keep reading. Like the characters, though, there were some parts of the story that could have used a little re-drafting. For example, with the so-called “vamp attacks” going around you would think the authorities in such a small town would notice the wild parties Zach threw in his church or at least the influx of partiers and strange people coming to the town. Yet no mention is ever made of the authorities or any townspeople suspecting anything.

Dunraven Road is a shaky debut for Caroline Barnard Smith. It lacks a likable, focal main character to root for and has several plot holes, but it is also very well-written and engaging. Still, Smith is a promising writer and I look forward to what she does next…as long as she features some strong female characters in her next work!

Dunraven Road is available through Immanion Press.

Buy it on Amazon!

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