Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey

For my final trick of reviewing vacation reads, I have for you Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey. As Harvey's a Canadian author, I was quite keen to try. I'll admit: I'm still not quite tired of the sexy vampire trope. I know it's been done and I know the vampire/horror purists out there are pretty appalled by it, but I enjoy it when done well.

Hearts at Stake has an interesting take on vampires, too. Vampires aren't out to the general population, but there are humans who know who and what they are. Most have to be made, but in some families vampirism is hereditary, and the Drake family is one of those. Solange Drake is days away from sixteen years old, the time at which she will turn from human to vampire. It's a difficult transition, and Solange is the first female vampire to be born, not made, in 900 years. This is complicated by a prophesy that a born female vampire will become queen -- and there already is a queen, Lady Natasha, who is very jealous of her power. So Solange has suitors, those unhappy with Natasha's rule and those attracted by her powerful vampire pheromones, as well as assassins from various quarters on her tail. She has seven older brothers, fiercely protective and well-trained to do it. And luckily for Solange, she also has Lucy, her human best friend, to keep her sane. This story is told in alternating viewpoints, switching chapter by chapter between Solange and Lucy, as they each work their way towards Solange's dangerous transition.

I feel like kind of a heel for saving this review for last, because while I can say I enjoyed the read, overall it didn't really work for me. It's one of those books that starts to work less for me the longer I think about it, too. There were a couple of reasons. First, and very minor, the book starts with a prologue that might as well be the first chapter. Why it isn't called the first chapter, I don't know. That kind of thing bothers me straight off the top; it seems pretentious, somehow, or disingenuous. That's quite minor, and I was prepared to ignore it.

More major is the fact that while I liked Lucy very much, I couldn't really get into Solange. She seemed bland, somehow, or hollow; not a terribly engaging character to me. I could understand Lucy's friendship with her, I could see that Solange might be an interesting and entertaining friend to have; I just felt we didn't see that much of Solange's personality other than modesty, frustration with her situation, and a weary determination to get everything over with. I think I could have liked Solange, but I didn't feel we knew her well enough even though we spent half the book in her head. This leads to the unfortunate situation of about half the book being far more engaging to me than the other, in alternating chapters.

My biggest complaint, though, is the battle scenes and what I think is a pretty clear inconsistency of character with Lucy. There is lots of action, and especially towards the end vampires die. A lot. Lucy, all through the book, has been pushing the "vampires are people too" angle, and though she is belligerent and violent (in a fun way -- that may seem counter-intuitive, but I enjoyed her personality) she's also a bit of a softy when it comes to killing things. Particularly animals, but I didn't see any indication that it didn't extend to humans. Except it really doesn't extend to vampires, despite her earlier stated attitude towards them. The vampire battles are described in a nonchalant way; Lucy doesn't seem too traumatized by any of it.

I don't think I'm explaining myself too well; what I am annoyed about is the too-common trap that fantasy and adventure novels seem to fall into, where fighting and battle is a way to generate excitement, and isn't portrayed in an even remotely realistic (or in this case, even emotionally compelling) way. The characters who previously seem compassionate and caring don't react in any sort of internally consistent way to what is described as carnage. Hearts at Stake isn't unique in this mistake, it just bothers me every time.

Anyway. Though these were some pretty major hurdles for me, they seemed to come after I'd closed the book for the last time. I did enjoy the read, largely on the strength of Lucy. I really enjoyed her interactions with Nicholas, Solange's brother, and I liked her gutsy take on things. Further, I did find the plot engaging -- I wanted to know what happened to Solange and her family, how it all worked out. What's interesting about this is that I usually think of character as a major driver for me to be invested in a plot, but in this case I don't think that's what happened. I found the plot twists and turns interesting enough on their own.

This one didn't work terribly well for me, but as far as I can tell a lot of other people have liked it very much; Kristi and the GreenBeanTeenQueen feel differently than I did, for example. It's very light, an easy read, and if you're looking for something fast, vampiric, and romantic, this would be a fine choice. It's entirely possible that young adults will respond to this better than I have, too, and be more able to sympathize with Solange especially, where I wasn't able to.

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