Embrace the Night (1995)

     by Amanda Ashley

It's time once again for one of the most enduring of Phantom subgenres: Vampire Phantom! The 1990s are really when the vampire Phantom theme took off, so look for it in many works to come. This won't even be Amanda Ashley's last vampire Phantom; "Masquerade" is coming in 2001.


Part One: One Love, One Lifetime


You know a book is Serious Literature when it's in parts as well as in chapters. Also, coming in nice and heavy on the 1986 Lloyd Webber musical lyrics right off the bat, just in case there was any doubt as to Ashley's inspiration for this piece!


Prologue:


Parts, chapters and a prologue? Now she's just spoiling us.

We open with someone named Gabriel moping around the tombstone of someone named Sara Jayne Duncan Ognibene, which introduces the idea of married women keeping their own names decades before its time and also makes sure there is no shred of suspense left to the entire first half of the book. The dates on the headstone are 1865 to 1940, which sets things in vaguely the right time period to match up with the Phantom story; Sara Jayne would be about sixteen in 1881. Gabriel's age will be irrelevant because, and I hope this spoiler doesn't ruin everything for y'all, he's a vampire.

By the second paragraph, we have already been informed that only the deceased Sarah had "brightened the darkness that dwelled in the accursed abyss of his soul." Oh, boy. We can all check Unstoppably Overdramatic Prose off on our Phantom Story bingo cards. The poet in me is also offended by the usage of the modern past tense "dwelled" instead of "dwelt" in this context, too, but it's not technically wrong.


Chapter 1:


Hey, the story's set in 1881 (via Gabriel's graveside flashback)! Huzzah! It's in England instead of France, but hell, at least it's on the right continent.

Sara Jayne is introduced here as a fresh-faced young thing of only 16 (we got the math right!), an orphan with disabled legs who is unable to get around on her own and is forced to allow the local nuns to take care of her. The idea of her disability (which began with leg braces and has progressed to total immobility in a wheelchair, so possibly some kind of muscular dystrophy or maybe the effects of polio) is an interesting one, as it provides a sort of complementary disability to the Phantom's and could have led to some interesting dynamics between the two of them, especially since being a familyless disabled woman in Victorian England would have pretty much spelled doom for Sara Jayne's chances to ever belong to any but the lowest rung of society.

 

But, of course, our dashing hero has to immediately ruin all my hopes for that by talking about things like her tears "eating at his soul like acid". Sigh. And he's already referred to himself as a "phantom" by page 5. I sense that I should probably get out my angst slicker now lest I be drowned in the coming downpour.

Unfortunately, Sara Jayne is not gearing up to be much better as a character; while she is initially frightened by the revelation that a strange man has been watching her from her veranda (I goddamn hope she's frightened, that's not going anywhere good) and that she's powerless to escape if he wants to do something nasty to her, she doesn't get a great deal of development and her actions are a sort of bewildering mix of emotional hysteria and "the plot said to do this, so I did". After a half-assed suicide attempt that Gabriel thwarts (and where, may I ask, did the disabled orphan girl possibly manage to steal an entire bottle of poison? Were the nuns just carrying some around in their pockets and taking a lot of convenient naps?), the strange possible-rapist she's never met before starts hugging her and touching up on her in her bed, and she... hugs him back and cries on him instead of calling for help. How quickly we forget our brief moments of self-preservation instinct.

 

To be totally fair to Sara Jayne, if she's depressed or desperate enough to attempt suicide, she probably isn't in a great emotional place or capable of making good decisions about strangers who are giving her desperately needed comfort. She's a lonely orphan, she lives in a world where she's pitied or looked down on for her disability and might not have a very long or painless life as a result, and someone is being nice to her in her darkest hour. Unfortunately, the book doesn't go into it much and it definitely doesn't acknowledge that even if it makes sense for Sara Jayne to turn to the only comfort available, Gabriel is still being a creeper. (Also, authors... don't use suicide as a meet-cute. I promise there are other ways to get your characters to meet each other.)

While Gabriel admitting that he's actually been stalking this sixteen-year-old for most of her life is not helping me like him very much, I actually do like the inverted angel idea that Sara Jayne comes up with; when she asks if he's an angel and "names" him Gabriel, she means it sarcastically, which keeps some of the imagery and interplay intact without descending into unbelievable treacle. Gabriel is, of course, on hand to ruin it by musing that Sara Jayne will never see Hell... unless she looks into the depths of his eyes, y'all. Gabriel. I am not nearly as worried about your cursed damnation as I am about the fact that you have been stalking a child.

There are massive truckloads of angst, tears, and soul-rending going on here, none of which I am able to take very seriously. It's not that Sara Jayne and her situation aren't tragic, or that I don't appreciate it when characters feel bad for other characters, but there's been no development; all I know about Sara Jayne is that she's pretty, she's in a wheelchair, and Gabriel likes her enough to stalk her. This does not a compelling protagonist make, and the flimsy characterization can't handle the job of supporting all this heavy angst. It's too early for a reader to identify with any of these people enough.


Chapter 2:


Oh, guys - turns out Gabriel is a vampire! SHOCKING, I KNOW. In an unforeseen plot twist, he is sexy, angsty, and tortured by his own evil monstrous nature, just like every other vampire conceived in the 1990s. His hair is also black as his soul, folks.

Sara Jayne, on the other hand, is blonde and blue-eyed as well as being very fair of skin, classic Christine coloring. You cannot escape her coloring, in fact - Gabriel feels the need to tell us how very beautifully blonde and blue-eyed she is what feels like every page - but that's fine since it provides such a subtle, deft and contrasting metaphor to Gabriel's black-as-soul swarthiness. (Is Gabriel a person of color, you ask? Don't be ridiculous, vampires are never people of color because of reasons, and those reasons are unconscious racism. His darkness is metaphorical but does not prevent him from being a white guy, which Ashley will confirm later.)

In line with most heroines that authors want us to sympathize with but on whom they are not willing to waste a lot of background ink or thought, Sara Jayne was randomly abandoned as a toddler by her mother for reasons unknown, at which point Gabriel happened to find her and took her to the orphanage to be raised. The fatherhood vibe could be nice here as a connection to Christine's loss of her father and the Phantom's ability to take advantage of it, except for the already-encroaching, creepily inappropriate sexytimes lurking around the corner. Gabriel met Sara Jayne when she was three years old. Book... please. Don't make me read about them having sex. I know you're going to, but I still hate it.

 

(There's a lot of room to write about vampire and age gaps; because they're all immortal, you can end up with characters who have human emotions but are centuries older than everyone else, so how do you deal with that? There are a lot of approaches, including deciding they become fixed in mental age/maturity when they die so that a 20-year-old is always mentally twenty, acknowledging that relationship dynamics are fucked up because vampires are evil and that's a feature, not a bug, acknowleding that relationship dynamics are fucked up and working carefully with the characters and their power dynamics to make sure you develop a believable romance... Absolutely none of them, however, are having the vampire stalk a toddler until she becomes a teenager before starting to bang her but still trying to have that be romantic and not at all problematic.)


Chapter 3:
 

It's not that I don't sympathize with Sara Jayne, but does she really have to be so clichéd that the only thing she wants to do in her life is be a dancer? The idea of the allure of the one thing you can't have is an oldie but goodie and not at all uncommon for disabled folks, I'm not saying it's not, but Ashley's doing nothing to spice the theme up or make it her own, so it feels like just yet more flat, shorthand tragedy to add to the proceedings.

After I went and praised the sarcastic take on the angel idea, Sara Jayne suddenly has an epiphany, remembers being rescued by Gabriel as a toddler (I agree, Gabriel, that is ridiculously unlikely!), and starts actually investing herself in the idea of him as a guardian angel. Sigh. There's no particularly good reason for it this, and we don't have any good characterization of Sara Jayne to fall back on. I'd say being raised by nuns might have made her more religious, but Sara Jayne really doesn't come off as the devout type in any other way over the course of the book.

Gabriel, continuing to make every paragraph worse, contributes by saying that he's an angel, all right... an angel of death. We're going to have to put up with this guy for another 200+ pages.

The creep factor when it comes to Gabriel's relationship with Sara Jayne is growing steadily. He recalls that he used to pretend that he was her father, used to buy toys for her and leave them in her room, even gave her an expensive music box (hello again, Lloyd Webber influence!) that the nuns somehow never questioned. But now, he's battling his constant lust to sex up her sweet young body in his internal monologue, which is horrifying, and you can tell both he and the author know this because they brought it up, but also, they've decided it's not a problem, so it's just going full steam ahead anyway. It's not that she's sixteen, which is old enough to get married etc. in the time period but still really freaking young compared to him, but that he's also coming from a position of power and fatherhood over her that carries an inescapable grossness factor.

It's not like Ashley couldn't have fixed this. There's no reason Gabriel had to be the one to rescue Sara Jayne as a child or have a creepy grooming father-daughter relationship with her. He could just have met her when she was an adult and fallen in love with her then. Ashley for some reason wanted him to have been grooming this kid from toddlerhood to love him so he could start sexing her up when she was a teen and there's no explanation for that other than wanting that uneven dynamic to be present.

Gabriel begins referring to Sara Jayne as "cara" or "cara mia" here, clueing us in that he is Italian in origin. This will be expanded on later.

While the readers drown in cheese, Gabriel relates a tale about "some young man" meeting "some evil vampire woman" and then finding himself "changed forever", generally with all the secrecy and subtlety of a brick (it's okay; since Sara Jayne is an airhead, it's a brick that sails right over her). Apparently he nearly died of an unspecified plague (one must assume he's probably referring to the Black Death, though it's excitingly vague) and was given the gift of eternal life to save him... except not really, because he's talking about someone in a story, not himself. Obviously. Sara Jayne is confused by the story and peeved by its poorly handled lack of an ending and Gabriel's refusal to elaborate. I don't know what he expected.

By the way, "storyteller" is a single compound word. Do not split its parts up. They will be lonely.


Chapter 4:


Good fuck, Sara Jayne thinks she's bored? This chapter is interminable. It's all watching blank ciphers pretending to be characters just waiting around for something to happen later in the chapter.

Gabriel steps up his seduction, even though he is constantly telling us in his monologue about how much he can never allow himself to sully Sara Jayne's innocence with his evil, evil penis. Considering that he starts kissing her hand (the mere touch of which, by the way, ignites a wildfire of passion within her) and buys her a book of raunchy love poetry and then reads it aloud to her, I am somewhat unconvinced by his protestations. All of this is still happening at their clandestine nightly meetings in her room, of course. Gabriel, if you really want to not be tempted by her girlish charms, have you considered not sneaking into her window in the middle of the night to say sexually charged things to her and then touch her? These things are within your power, bro.

It turns out that Gabriel lives in a nearby abandoned monastery, which is only vaguely described so I have no idea which one. It also turns out that he's mysteriously filthy rich and also owns cottages and castles all over Europe. Well, la dee da, sir. I realize that romance novel heroes are supposed to be rich so they can be more alluring for the ladies, but seriously, couldn't some of them at least have jobs? I realize that vampires in romance are also supposed to be rich, but why? He's had longer to save, sure, but he's also had longer to fritter.

Gabriel, after kissing Sara Jayne even though he keeps claiming he's not going to, starts bemoaning how he's now feeling self-loathing "for the first time in decades". Really? What the hell was that enormous lake of angst you keep dunking us all in, then? If that's your non-loathing view of yourself, I have no idea how you haven't just leaped into a thresher or something by now. At any rate, he hates his evil self SO MUCH that he decides never to come back to Sara Jayne lest he taint her further.

Not to be left out of the Bad Decision Olympics, Sara Jayne responds by just deciding to die. What? Yes, she just wills herself to die and starts dramatically wasting away while the nuns cry around her, but of course she is in no real danger because Gabriel somehow miraculously knows when she gets close to the brink of oblivion and runs to the rescue, feeding her some of his blood to keep her alive. PLOT IS HARD, YOU GUYS. MUST THINK OF REASONS FOR CHARACTERS TO INTERACT.

By the way, the process of creating a human servant (a la Dracula's Renfield) by feeding them blood is called "initiation" in this here book, which is as good a name as any for it, I suppose. Of course, Gabriel refuses to do it to Sara Jayne because it would make her his supernaturally bound slave and part of his evil evilness, but exceptions can be made for cases in which she has attempted to kill herself using nothing but angst as her weapon.

Gabriel apparently has heat-vision. Like Superman! He uses it once in the entire book, to warm up a bowl of soup for Sara Jayne in a few seconds, and then it magically disappears and is never referenced again even when it could probably be totally useful. Man, whatever folklore I've been missing out on must be awesome.

Vampire blood apparently makes you love life, because that is what Sara Jayne starts doing with a vengeance as soon as she gets up. Yay! Her angst is solved! Can't have her too sad to save Gabriel from his even more impressive sadness, after all.


Chapter 5:


And now, of course, Gabriel can hear her distant thoughts about him no matter where he is, because that is the magic of being a vampire in love. If a lot of this sounds eerily reminiscent of Cartier's 1997 novel Redemption, that's because she listed this one as one of her prime inspirations for it; the ideas of initiation, glowing eyes, evil vampire women, overwhelming angst, and even the name Gabriel/Gabriela have obviously carried over from here to there. It's like watching literature go through a cheese grater: bad literature based on other bad literature based on other bad literature until all that's left is a sad pile of grated language.

When Sara Jayne, full of contentment and happiness, announces that she thinks she might become a nun and stay on at the orphanage to take care of the children, Gabriel somehow manages to simultaneously freak out at the idea of her as a nun and panic at the idea of her asking him to take her out on a date. He's very talented. While he doesn't take her anywhere, he does sweep her into his manful arms and start waltzing around the room, holding her up as if dancing with her despite her inability to move her legs. It sounds romantic and all, but all I could think the whole time was that being suspended by arms and back that way was going to hurt a lot after a couple of seconds and that he should really put the poor girl down.

When she wants to make out, he has to flee, of course, and sprints away into the night. But he is unable to outrun his loneliness, y'all!

Ashley has a serious problem with laundry lists of things in this book, mostly, I suspect, so she can show off the fact that she did some research. Here we have a long list of ballerinas that Sara Jayne loves and wants to emulate, though of course there are no pesky specifics on how she knows them or what she admires about them to break up the dry list format.

Feeling bad for his peacing out, Gabriel takes Sara Jayne on a whirlwind evening adventure, buying her an expensive dress, smuggling her out the window and into a carriage ride, and taking her to the ballet (in his private box, kids - take note!). Not only is the fairytale sequence fairly boring, since nothing particularly interesting is going on to break up the formula except for Gabriel's neverending buckets of teary-eyed sadness, but he's continuing to be kind of dodgy about it, too. Yes, you creeper, where you suddenly got a perfect and incredibly expensive dress tailored to her exact proportions on ten minutes' notice does matter! Why do you have that perfect a conception of her physical dimensions? She's too young and starstruck to see through your flimsy evasions, but the reader isn't!

Gabriel helping dress mostly-incapable Sara Jayne is pretty strongly reminiscent of the corset-lacing scene in the 1990 Richardson/Dance film. Which had a similarly subtly intense sexual undertone, and I do not appreciate it here the way I did there.

Something that's interesting to note here is that Gabriel does sing for Sara Jayne here some, and that his voice is described as rich, powerful, and lovely in keeping with a traditional Phantom idea. He's not a virtuoso beyond compare or anything, but it's nice to see that element kept in, however peripherally; vampiric Phantoms generally leave the singing by the wayside, and Gabriel's the first I've ever seen keep it.


Chapter 6:


As she will also remind us in her later vampire work, Ashley loves powerful black stallion mountss for her vampires, even though stallions make notoriously shitty riding horses (but you can't castrate the Male Hero's horse! How would that reflect on his penis?!) and there's no plot-important reason for them to exist in the first place. In fact, the horse's entire purpose is to make me do a spit-take and have to clean my desk after discovering that its name is Necromancer. Sara Jayne (who is bright enough to realize that that is a weird name for a horse but not interested enough to pursue it) even calls it a "devil horse". Subtle.

Okay. So. I don't want to be indelicate here, but... when you are a masculine vampire and you are battling the twin desires to ravish the lady and suck up all her sweet, sweet blood, I feel like maybe deciding to have a cry while putting your head in her lap, next to all those femoral arteries and soft tissues and possible menstrual territories, might not be the best plan. All kinds of horrible visions are dancing in my head.

I feel that I may have done a poor job of communicating exactly what Ashley's prose is like in this story, so I'm going to excerpt a paragraph from page 34 for you. Don't thank me until the end:


Filled with the guilt of a thousand lifetimes, he closed his eyes, and his mind filled with an image of blood. Rivers of blood. Oceans of death. Centuries of killing, of bloodletting. Damned. The Dark Gift had given him eternal life. And eternal damnation.


Do you feel that? It's the sensation of the brain cells in which you previously stored your understanding of literature slowly liquefying and seeping out of your ears, borne on a tide of despairing remnants of sentence fragments and the neverending weepery of Gabriel's depression.

By the end of the chapter, Gabriel has given up on the idea of unselfishly letting Sara Jayne remain undestroyed by his devilish horrifying monstrousness and has decided he's just going to go ahead and "take her" anyway. I wouldn't actually mind this - at least he's owning up to his selfishness and making a character choice, right? - if he weren't so obviously about to yo-yo back in the other direction yet AGAIN.


Chapter 7:


Plot is still hard, so here's a random orphanage fire. Surprise!

Due to his magical psychic vampire link, Gabriel knows that Sara Jayne has been badly hurt and attempts to speed to her rescue, only to be impeded by... a nun. Sister Josepha, in fact, who immediately gets in his face and refuses to allow an evil creature such as himself in. Wait, do the nuns know him now? Or are they some kind of nuns who can instantly detect vampires? These nuns are more hardcore than previously suspected, though not hardcore enough that they cannot be knocked out by a vampiric punch to the brain so Gabriel can get on with it, which is a crying shame because I would be 1000% back on board if Sister Josepha had gone full badass and started whaling on this guy with her crucifix while calling the rest of the Sisters of the Benedictine Order of Vampire Asskickers for backup.

Of course, Sara Jayne's entire body has been ravaged by flame except for her beautiful face, because fires are considerate like that and anyway, we couldn't have anyone be facially ugly in this story! God forbid! Who would want to read about that?

Gabriel surmises that the best thing to do is obviously to kidnap Sara Jayne's burned, split body that is probably unbelievable agony just to exist in, never mind being moved somewhere, and hide it in his abandoned monastery, because he is a medical doctor (spoiler: he is not a medical doctor). Then, after feeding her another ton of blood (because who cares about those pesky initiation/vampirism problems!), he goes shopping for a few pages. This book is the best ever, you guys.

He's buying her some ermine now, which is obviously my first go-to when my girlfriend has been horribly burnt in the traumatic destruction of the only home she's ever known. Where do your magical, bottomless coffers come from, Gabriel? And speaking of inappropriate buying choices, he picks up several dolls for her to play with but then immediately commences staring at her "soft curves" again when he gets home. Can you folks actually hear my skin crawling across the internet?

In a cute shout-out to the original story, Sara Jayne names her doll Carlotta. Why? What does it mean? Nothing. Just go with it and appreciate that there are vague remnants of the Phantom story present in at least some form.

Apparently, Gabriel can't eat solid food or drink any liquid - except for red wine. THAT MAKES NO SENSE. WINE IS MADE OF GRAPES. ITS COLORING BEING SUPERFICIALLY SIMILAR TO BLOOD DOES NOT IN ANY WAY MEAN IT IS SIMILAR IN CONTENT OR DIGESTABILITY. YOUR RIDICULOUS RICE-INSPIRED VAMPIRE HAS MANAGED TO MAKE EVEN LESS SENSE THAN WHEN HE HAD SUPERMAN'S HEAT VISION. WHY RED WINE AND NOT WHITE WHEN THEY ARE ALMOST IDENTICAL? WHAT ABOUT JUICES? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?

 

And besides, Ashley, didn't anyone ever tell you that vampires do not drink... wine?

On a more sober and less bewildering note, however, I do applaud Ashley for not shying away from the bodily functions and realistic issues facing Sara Jayne (Gabriel has to help her relieve herself, bathe, get dressed, etc.); they're important issues for disabled folks and both Gabriel and Sara Jayne managed to handle the proceedings with believable emotion and dignity.

 

Despite all this, I have to wonder why Gabriel even has a chamberpot for her to use, though. Does he have to pee the wine back out? Does he have a digestive process for blood? Ashley, you have to answer these questions when you raise them.

Naturally, all Sara Jayne's burns are healing up nicely now thanks to her blood infusion, though she has no idea why and Gabriel spends a lot of time refusing to tell her and then leaving the room (dick move when she can't follow you, dude!).


Chapter 8:


In an overheard aside, it appears that it's just Sister Josepha who can recognize Gabriel's secret evil, as she is having trouble convincing the other nuns of what she saw. I really need this book to be about Sister Mary Josepha, Vampire Slayer. No one believes in her psychic impression of roiling evil, though (which I suppose is probably supposed to be because he isn't actually evil and Ashley wants the reader to know it. Perhaps she is sensing roiling self-pity, or perhaps she just knows that Gabriel is being super predatory and gross and is the only person in this book who doesn't think that's okay).

I suppose I should have seen this next part coming, but I didn't. You'd think I would, because in spite of the fact that it's a huge and terrible cliché, authors still do it all the time. But I somehow didn't know it was coming, so here we go: it turns out that Gabriel's blood is so magical that it even immediately and permanently heals Sara Jayne's legs so that she is no longer disabled! Because come on, dealing with something as inconvenient and unromantic as a disabled heroine for more than a few chapters would have been totally unfun, right?

One of the few things this book had going for it was the fact that its disabled heroine was loved and desired without being condescended to for her disability too much, and that the practical effects of said disability weren't glossed over and were actually dealt with a little bit sensitively. But it turns out that the disability was just there as shorthand to make us pity the heroine and sympathize with her poor plight, because oh, what a terrible thing, to be disabled! And then once that was accomplished, it was handwaved away (explanation: magic!), and the real story can now start, with a real heroine who is not disabled, because even if a sexy vampire is in devoted love with you, you can't be romantic or really empathizable if you have a disability. The overall message to the reader is that Sara Jayne wasn't really the heroine and love interest until she was no longer disabled - and of course, it's now that she'll really get the romance, as opposed to being treated as a child, too.

Oh, and it's definitely also great that she has an additional power imbalance added to her relationship with Gabriel now, where he literally magically cured her of disability and therefore she has to feel she owes him her mobility and opportunities from now on forever. That's great for a romance.

Gabriel lets us know here that he can totally turn into a bat if he wants to, but that he prefers the majestic shape of a wolf; not only is it so similar to Cartier's Marcus' little speech in her novel two years after this one that I suspect she borrowed it almost verbatim, but it's laughable in light of the fact that he never shapechanges even once over the course of the entire novel, not even in situations in which it would have been seriously hella useful.

 

At this point, the only things that make sense are that Gabriel lies about his vampire abilities a lot to impress Sara Jayne, that he can do those things but is so ghastly at problem-solving that he never does when it would be helpful, or that he is just actively terrible at being a vampire and doesn't want anyone to know.


Chapter 9:


It's just lovely that, after meditating on how the orphanage kept her alive and is run by saintly nuns and how she doesn't know how they're managing after the terrible fire, Sara Jayne blithely exclaims that the ermine Gabriel bought her could feed the entire place for a month and then doesn't... you know, do anything else about that. They both just leave the nuns and burn-victim orphans to figure that shit out themselves while they have sumptuous celebratory parties to revel in Sara Jayne's newly-working legs. How charming.

Sara Jayne, by the way, is way more nonchalant about the discovery that she can walk than she has any right to be. "Oh, hey, wow! I can walk! Look at me dance! Awesome. What's for dinner?"

It turns out that she is also Christian (though whether she is Catholic, Anglican or Protestant is not addressed) when we see her briefly explore her faith through prayer, but since this immediately and permanently vanishes for the rest of the novel, I have to assume it's just yet another frippery designed to remind us of what a pure, shining angel of goodness she is.

When she tries to find Gabriel during the day (somehow, she still DOES NOT KNOW that something fishy is going on with him despite her MAGICAL LEG REGENERATION), she is driven away from the door to his cellar resting place by a palpable sense of evil that prevents her from going any further. So I guess she can sense evil... but only in basements, not in Gabriel himself? She must not have finished her training with Sister Mary Josepha Badass.

I'd like to know if there's an upper limit on how many times we can hear about how "angelic" Sara Jayne is or how many times we can be reminded that she has beautiful blonde hair, just as a sort of yardstick with which to measure my dwindling hope. Ashley clearly wants us to see her as a redeemer figure for Gabriel the way Christine was for the Phantom (though, as is usual with vampire Phantoms, so far he hasn't actually done anything evil so much as he's whined about it, except for the child-grooming which NO ONE WILL ACKNOWLEDGE).

And now Sara Jayne has a spot at the ballet school of the Paris Opera. At age 16. On new legs. With no one ever having heard of her. There's no way that happened without Gabriel secretly murdering all the other applicants or something.


Chapter 10:


Five-year time jump! After sending her away to school and vowing for the sixty zillionth time never to see her again, Gabriel is still moping around over Sara Jayne. Five years appears to be the limit of his self-control, because he decides at that point to go visit and how she's doing (though, of course, he will not reveal himself to her! No!). He's been paying for her schooling, living quarters, and whatever extravagant ermines she wants to buy, by the way, in case anyone was wondering. I'm pretty sure at this point that maybe he actually owns Switzerland or something.

There's a random, slightly sketchy history of the Opera Garnier here, but it's not out of place in a Phantom story; in fact, it's nice to see that Ashley is paying attention to the original story's setting and incorporating it into her revamp.

And now, it's time to meet the competition: it's Raoul! His name is Maurice Delacroix now, and he's a lithe young ballet dancer who dances lead with Sara Jayne (who, by the way, is now the uncontested prima ballerina and sought all over Europe for her sublime dancing). I'm sorry, Maurice. It's not your fault you're alive and therefore somehow less desirable. Not incidentally, this is another example of a work that rewrites the timeline so as to give the Phantom a "prior claim" to Christine's affections instead of Raoul: here it's Gabriel who has known Sara Jayne since childhood and Maurice who is the latecomer, used as shorthand to tell the reader that Gabriel is the "real" true love of the story.

Since he can't approach her directly (because that would be WRONG and without this conflict the whole novel's shaky premise falls apart), Gabriel has to settle for invading Sara Jayne's dreams and date-raping her there (no, I'm not kidding, and yes, it is gross). Vampires: finding new ways to invade your privacy since Babylon. It's fine, though, because she loved it, of course, and the fact that she didn't ask for it or agree to it is ignored in service of True Love.

I'm not sure why homicidal hatred of one's rival is always supposed to be so alluring in these stories. I realize that it makes ladies feel wanted to have guys want to rip each other to shreds over them (I guess?), but when Gabriel is fantasizing about murdering Maurice all over the avenue when the latter hasn't done anything more sinister than exist and be rather nice, I'm not finding that attractive. I'm finding it a sign that nobody should date this violent monster. I'm not moved by Gabriel's powerfully possessive love; I'm moved to move away. Gabriel really doesn't need help making me not like him, either, since so far he's a big fat creeper who does nothing but whine about his personal troubles all the time. Come on, bloodsucker, step it up.

It's worth noticing, however, that Gabriel "creating" the ballerina Sara Jayne from his blood is analogous to Erik "creating" the opera singer Christine from his hypnotism; both are examples of a supernatural power granting artistry beyond normal human reach. Of course, Christine already had her own vocal cords and years of hard work to get where she was Erik couldn't also magically heal all ills with his hypnotism, but this oversight is why Ashley wrote this other book in order to rectify that, I figure.

Continuing his campaign of making himself look as unflatteringly like an asshat as possible, Gabriel, in musing about Rosalia (are we riffing on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet now, with Romeo's previous love Rosaline?), his previous love whom he accidentally caused the death of when she fell off a balcony in shock after he revealed his vampiric nature, decides that he now realizes he never truly loved her anyway. I realize you're trying to illustrate that your new love for Sara Jayne is the real true one, but what you're really illustrating to me is that you're probably going to say the same thing about her to the next girl. Also, you killed her, or at least you feel responsible for her death, but you're here thinking about how you weren't that into her anyway. On behalf of poor, dead Rosalia, fuck you, Gabriel.


Chapter 11:


In order that we more fully sympathize with the deep tragedy of his soul, it's now time for flashback fun times with Gabriel (whose real name, it turns out, is Giovanni Ognibene. SPOILER: ANYONE REMEMBER THE TOMBSTONE AT THE BEGINNING?). He's Italian, that's confirmed at least, but it's hard to stay interested when the narrative is so meandering that it sometimes wanders completely off the pages and suggests that the reader take a nap.

He was turned into a vampire by one Antonina Insenna, who, of course, is an evil black widow <insert your misogynistic slur of choice> who spends all her time turning poor, innocent gorgeous men to the dark side with her evil, evil vagina. If there's one romance novel trope I'm always glad to see alive and well, it's the idea that all women are either the angelic virginal heroine or malicious black-souled monsters. Couldn't lose that old chestnut.

Never one to let anyone, even Evil Nina, hog all the assholishness for themselves, Gabriel/Giovanni manages to keep some for himself when he meets Rosalia, falls in love, and then decides to sneak around with her and continue banging Nina until the other vampire finds out and flies into a jealous rage instead of doing the adult thing and breaking up with Nina before it came to that point. Yeah, sure, maybe she would have eaten him, but was her response going to be worse than when she caught him with the other woman? Not to mention that cheating on her with a fragile human also made it super likely that poor Rosalia was likely to get murdered by a vampiric woman scorned even if she didn't end up dying tragically of shock.

Hilariously, Nina insists on always calling Gabriel/Giovanni "cara mio". I guess everyone is only pretending to be Italian, since otherwise they would know better than to call a dude "cara" with the feminine ending instead of "caro", with the masculine ending that indicates the person who is being talked about is a dude. Unless either Gabriel is genderfluid, which ha ha if you thought that was going to happen in this book, or Nina is an even bigger asshole and misgendering him on purpose, but it's probably just bad grammar.

Back in the present day (what was the purpose of that flashback? I dunno, it only introduced Nina and she couldn't possibly be a cardboard villain waiting to be used later in the story in a totally unsurprising twist!), Gabriel is so upset by his evil ways that he stays out in the sun and gets his ass burned pretty badly before succumbing and visiting Sara Jayne anyway even though he swore not to. Sara Jayne coos a lot and cups his face, prompting me to wave my arms and loudly yell about how she has also been a burn victim and she should know better than to touch his skin.

I have no respect whatsoever for the "strength" of Gabriel's love that compels him to keep coming around and ruining Sara Jayne's life when he's sworn he won't. It's not romantic. It's selfish bullshit and an excuse to blame Sara Jayne and/or the concept of love so he can claim it's not his fault that he keeps being an asshole.


Chapter 12:


Ashley does make an interesting choice here in that she uses Gabriel's burns as a sort of proxy for a deformity; he has to wear a hood and generally tries to hide them from Sara Jayne's sight, and he's sort of stuck with them for the time being since healing them magically would be hard to explain. He joins the long tradition of burn-victim Phantoms, most of them in films, and the hood is especially reminiscent of the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film and its descendants. Of course, just like Sara Jayne's disability, this is a temporary problem and everyone knows he's going to solve it with magic later, so it's just here for the aesthetic of it all.

Gabriel decides to stay with Sara Jayne, but only on the condition that she promises to do exactly what he says without any question. Yeah. That's totally a contract you should enter into in a healthy relationship. Sara Jayne, I know you have zero chance of being able to look through this rationally because this asshole has groomed you from toddlerhood and controlled your life in every way, but I want you to look me in the eye and understand that you should run.

Why is it that vampires always have sex with the lady, thus rendering her compromised and too unvirginal to get married in this old-timey society, and then decide they can't sully her and they have to run away? Methinks the fangers protest too much.


Chapter 13:


Oh, I was just kidding about that facial scarring stuff, he's just gone and healed it now. Sara Jayne was surprised but easily pacified by vague talk of "medicines" and "it wasn't as bad as it looked". I have no idea why we're dragging this story out so long without letting her find out that he's a vampire, but it's so exhausting and credulity-stretching.

Gabriel and Maurice get into a little "fight" here, but since it's boring as shit and full of annoying macho-man cliches, I couldn't even be bothered to note specifics about it. Blah, blah, we're fighting over the woman who is our prize, blah blah, I love her more than you even though I'm not consulting her about this at all.

When Gabriel gets sexually excited, his eyes glow with blood-red flame, folks. This is not a drill!

The first sex scene between Gabriel and Sara Jayne is the shortest one ever; he popped in, then she exploded with immediate virgin orgasms (of course), and then they were done and back to the angst! Whee! Don't worry, Ashley will reason that quantity makes up for quality and fill the remainder of the text with short sex scenes that have almost no content and contribute absolutely nothing to the proceedings. If you added the content from them all together, you'd have... a couple of pages of vague foreplay. Woo!

Poor Maurice. Granted, he's motivated more than a little by jealousy at this point (unlike his girlfriend, he is aware that an incredibly rich older man paying for your entire life and creepily hanging around all the time is probably expecting to sleep with you no matter what you think), but even so he is also genuinely concerned for Sara Jayne's well-being. He has a bad feeling about Gabriel, but can't really figure out what it might mean (where's Sister Mary Blade when a guy needs her?!).


Chapter 14:


Gabriel, on page 90: 

 

'What can I do to make you smile again?' he asked indulgently. 'Shall I buy you a pretty new frock? A bauble of some kind? Your own opera house?'"

 

You can blow it up your ass, you condescending toolbag, that's what you can do.

Maurice continues to be much nicer than the guy he is obviously going to lose his girl to; despite now being sincerely scared of Gabriel and worried about Sara Jayne, he's not overly pushy and doesn't harass her about his jealousy issues. It doesn't even seem to be a deal-breaker for him when he finds out that she's slept with Gabriel (but never him). I'm going to be cranky no matter which way the ending of this book tries to slice her choosing the vampiric asshat over him, unless Ashley does some fast and impressive work sympathizing Gabriel or villainizing Maurice.

Gabriel, on the other hand, has a lovingly-described impeccable cravat. So, really, what girl could resist that?

I could like that Gabriel has apparent difficulty telling the difference between the ages of 16 and 21, in theory; it could make sense for an ancient creature like himself not to have a really firm grasp on human ages anymore. But the cultural context of predators claiming she "looked older" or "they thought she was legal" to cover their horrific behavior makes it hard to give that to him even if it would work in a vacuum, and besides, Then again,I don't know why he didn't start banging her at sixteen, then (well, yes, I do, it's because Ashley does know the difference and didn't want anyone to get mad that there was statutory rape in her book, and that should maybe be a warning sign that it didn't need to be in the book).

According to Gabriel, Sara Jayne "looks like a seraph fallen to earth".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot.


Chapter 15:


Sara Jayne asks Gabriel to move in with her after a mere week of sexytimes, which is terrifying even more than it is ridiculous, because of course she did, he's her pseudo-father-figure who used to sneak into her room all the time and is also sleeping with her now, why wouldn't they live together?

Plot is still hard, so have an attack by random muggers. Surprise!

This particular use of that tired and lazy old move is made even worse by Gabriel blithely steering them off down a dark alley even though he realizes they will probably get jumped because, hey, he's not afraid of any puny humans! Apparently he's either harboring a thinly-disguised desire to kill some people without getting in trouble for it, or else he's just astonishingly uncaring about any possible trauma Sara Jayne might undergo as a result of his behavior (she does, in fact, freak the fuck out when he starts killing people and then go sort of catatonic for a while afterward). They could have just not fucking taken the dark alley, but Gabriel couldn't have anyone reading his internal monologue thinking he was worried about weak humans, now could he? Besides, it's important he show off how manly he is by murdering some random mooks who don't matter and don't have to be thought of by the reader as actual people. Dick.

 

Especially aggravating is his belated thought that maybe he should have just given up his purse so they could move on unmolested instead of busting out the violent vampire powers - YEAH, YOU THINK, MR. RICH-AS-GOD-AND-OSTENSIBLY-GIVING-A-SHIT-ABOUT-THIS-WOMAN?

Then it's off to another round of Gabriel's angsty waffling, wherein he again agonizes over how bad he is for Sara Jayne's life (no SHIT) and how he should leave her alone but he can't, he just can't! Seriously, I can never get behind these heroes that really, truly believe that they should leave the girl for her own good but still don't. Dude, if you love her more than life, the universe and everything, and you honestly believe your presence is bad for her, then leave already. If you JUST CAN'T LEAVE HER BECAUSE YOUR SOUL WILL WITHER, then I'm not seeing that as being the inescapable power of your love as much as the inescapable power of your selfishness. The whole story convention is extremely depressing because it stands in direct opposition to the final redemption in Leroux's novel; Erik let Christine go in spite of his desire to keep her because it was what was best for her, whereas Gabriel just shrugs his shoulders and says, "Yeah, well, I could do that, but I waaaant her," and then completes his transformation into WhinerBat, the worst vampire superhero ever.

Maurice, who is still worried about this entire situation, manages to track Gabriel back to the cottage he's using as a base of operations, but when he tries to break in during the day is overcome by a vision of a skull with flaming red eyes looming over him and chasing him away. It's near to see a parallel to Raoul's encounter with the Phantom in the graveyard at Perros-Guirec in this book, even if it doesn't really make any sense and Ashley obviously can't be bothered to try to explain any of the metaphysics involved. Maurice can very clearly detect Evil radiating from Gabriel like a fog all the time, which tells me that he obviously learned his vampire-hunting skillz from the venerable Sister Mary Josepha, Our Lady of the Stake.

 

Chapter 16:


Gabriel once again gives a sanctimonious speech about how he tries never to kill people despite his evil nature (didn't you... kill a bunch of muggers... like three pages ago?). Unfortunately, he then follows that up by immediately discussing how badly he wants to kill Maurice, for no other reason than that the other man is dating the girl he hasn't seen in five years, and without even the tiniest shred of remorse, concern, or moral compunctions. Only the knowledge that Sara Jayne would be upset with him prevents him from bloodily murdering this guy. Guess sanctity of life only applies to the grey mass of humanity, not to specific people he doesn't like.

When the sheer mass of evidence starts to penetrate even Sara Jayne's dense skull and she starts asking uncomfortable questions, Gabriel punches their dinner table and roars at her that she swore not to question him. It is the opposite of endearing, and Sara Jayne apparently agrees because, in the best move she's made in the entire novel, she dumps him and runs away. Be free, Sara Jayne!

At home, she starts having creepy dreams about Gabriel being a vampire and biting her, and she keeps checking her neck for bites after she wakes up, but - and this is important - she STILL DOESN'T KNOW HE IS A VAMPIRE. They are only dreams! He's just very good at people-murdering and being mysterious and rich! I realize that the jump to "my boyfriend may be one of the walking dead" is not a normal one for anybody to make, but seriously, he's all but renting a blimp and emblazoning it across the sky.

After inviting Gabriel to live with her a mere week after the onset of sexings, Sara Jayne suddenly feels that it's "too soon" and wonders what people would say were she to move in with Maurice, who she's been dating for years. I mean, there are a lot of reasons she might not want to move in with him, since she's undergoing a lot of confusion and trauma right now, but Ashley just really wanted to point out how it is totally not True Love here by making it the same one.

Really, Gabriel? You find the idea of invading Sara Jayne's mind "repulsive" when you consider doing so, but not your earlier dream-rape, or your constant mental connection to her thoughts, or the fact that you used mind powers to put her to sleep JUST NOW? Get fucked.


Chapter 18:


In this chapter, we discover that Maurice is a fucking badass, since, in his quest to save Sara Jayne, he manages to sneak to Gabriel's house in the daytime, cover the building in garlic, salt all the thresholds with holy water and then ring the yard with crosses. He's a very enterprising young ballet dancer, you have to give him that. I'm somewhat confused by how matter-of-fact he is about the existence of vampires - this is the nineteenth century, guys, not the twelfth! - but at least he has his EvilDetecterRadar to back that up, I suppose.

Gabriel is understandably upset when he wakes up and finds that he can't leave the house, but his choices of insults for Maurice, whom he correctly assumes to be the culprit, are confusing. Why does he call him things like "pretty-faced" in a derogatory manner? Gabriel doesn't have the classic Phantom face-envy problem of being much uglier and less desirable than the Raoul character; in fact, Ashley loves to tell us how sexy, hot, gorgeous, powerfully-built, etc. Gabriel is, to the point of nausea and boredom. The only road left for "pretty-faced" to even be an insult is in suggesting that Maurice is feminine, so we can add some homophobia and transphobia to his resume of garbage.

Gabriel also feels foolish for not moving to a new place after Maurice discovered his a few weeks ago. I can only agree, since not only is that Vampire Basics 101, but he actually literally thought, "Oh, man, now I'll have to move," when he realized Maurice had been there and then for some reason NEGLECTED TO DO SO. 

Starving after a few days of being trapped in his house, Gabriel doesn't have the eldritch strength to summon Sara Jayne to him, but that's okay; she magically suddenly realizes he needs her and rushes to the rescue, even though that makes no sense and also she dumped him for being a violent terrorizer. Upon arrival, she somehow manages to realize that the crosses and garlic are keeping Gabriel confined and that he looks weird and monstrous and yet STILL DOES NOT REALIZE that he is a vampire until he actually tells her, at which point she is SHOCK and HORROR. Of course, she gets over all that nasty shock at a speed normally reserved for interstellar travel so she can selflessly offer him blood and bask in the ecstasy of him drinking from her. This is all so sad and pathetic and the book wants me to find it romantic SO much and I'm just tired.

Oh, and Gabriel's constant protestations that if he drank any from Sara Jayne he would surely drain her dry and kill her appear to have all been horseshit, since he stops of his own accord without apparent difficulty well before she's in any danger.

Sara Jayne compares the outlandishness of the idea of vampires to believing in Santa Claus, despite the fact that the jolly old elf was almost exclusively a North American phenomenon at this time and she should really be talking about Father Christmas.

After realizing for the prazillionth time that he is terrible to and for her and that she is afraid of his vampire monster powers, Gabriel runs away to his castle in Spain and leaves Sara Jayne to mope and Maurice, one assumes, to quietly and circumspectly celebrate.


Chapter 19:


Gabriel's age is mysterious. Sometimes he's "three centuries" old, at other times he says he's 350, and now he says he's exactly 384. Pick something and stick with it, Ashley.

Guys, we are only halfway through this book. What the fuck could possibly still be waiting in the wings to make this go on for another grueling 125 pages? Oh, right - how could I forget that the other half of our life Madonna/Whore Dichotomy hadn't yet come back to make her unnecessary appearance as a totally flat, pointless, and uncharacterized antagonist for useless plot prolonging?

So, yes, Nina is here (and still calling Gabriel "cara"). She turns up for no real reason and wants to have sex, he says no, they have a fight in which they both try to top the other in the not making sense department, and then she goes off to kill Sara Jayne in revenge for having been spurned. Which is good, because it gives Gabriel a reason to go back to Paris and Sara Jayne again, because plot is harrrrd.

Why does Nina keep using French endearments (other than the hilarious "cara") for Gabriel when we've so heavily established that she's Italian?


Chapter 20:


Seriously! The second Gabriel's back, he's nursing yet another constant hard-on for Maurice's murder! How DARE he want to sleep with his FIANCÉE that you DUMPED AND MOVED TO SPAIN TO AVOID! Why do authors think this is attractive in a hero?

Blah blah blah, Nina is an evil harlot that the narrative never tires of slutshaming and everyone is afraid of her, including Gabriel, who knows she is more powerful than he is because she's older. I don't care anymore. The last third of this book is like slogging through the Gobi. I no longer have the will for long chapter summaries, especially since NOTHING IS REALLY HAPPENING AT ALL.


Chapter 21:


In a brief rehearsal aside, we see the ballet mistress Madame Evonne and her baton, the description of whom probably owes quite a bit to Lloyde Webber's version of Madame Giry.

Maurice is afraid of and hates Gabriel, Gabriel wants to murder Maurice, Sara Jayne is conflicted, Nina plots evilly in the darkness. Everyone continues to be upset.

Chapter 22:


I'm really tired of Gabriel's "if you choose me over Maurice, you can never take it back! This choice defines your life forever! It is THE POINT OF NO RETURN!" routine. What, she can't dump you later if it turns out that you're an abusive shithead or she doesn't love you anymore or you wear the same socks for ten weeks in a row? Fuck you. People are allowed to make decisions more than once in their romantic careers.

Gabriel, who (as discussed earlier) is terrible at self-control, nearly kills Maurice when the latter tries to stake him in his sleep to save Sara Jayne. He decides to let him live in order that he can guard Sara Jayne during daylight hours when Gabriel himself is out of commission. Poor Maurice, who knows he's no match for an ancient undead creature, is heart-wrenchingly brave about the whole thing, but since this is not a novel where he can end up anything but shat upon, I'm just sad for him and I hope he manages to run away and get a happy ending somehow.

Nevertheless, he goes to Sara Jayne, looks her dead in the eye when she tells him the engagement's off and she wants to bang the other dude, and tells her that he loves her anyway, always will, and swears on his mother that he will protect her from the forces of darkness as best he's able. Sniff. I know Sara Jayne has so much psychological garbage to fight through that there's just no hope right now but my god, how does Ashley think people are going to read this and root for the child-grooming abusive monstrosity over the guy who says you make your own decisions and I'll support you and help you all I can?


Chapter 23:


Ashley makes a brief attempt to give Nina some depth here by dropping us randomly into her stream of consciousness so we can hear about how Gabriel is the only man she's ever loved in her long career of evil and jerkitude and how she's really doing this because of the pain of him rejecting her as well as raw vengeance, but it's too little, too late. The delivery is unemotional and clichéd, and for an idea as done to death in vampire fiction as this one, it needed a lot of spice (or at least a reasonable amount of characterization) to make it work.

 

What I really need to know is why Gabriel is the only man Nina has ever loved. He has literally no positive qualities, he does nothing but whine about his sadness, and Nina is already an immortal rich vampire, so he can't impress her with that. Nina, girl, you are looking at this all wrong.

This chapter only existed to give us one paragraph of Nina's demonic musings. I'm mad that they weren't even good musings.


Chapter 24:


Wow, it's so nice to know from Gabriel's internal monologue that him magnanimously giving Sara Jayne a choice between himself and Maurice is meaningless since he has no intention of respecting her choice if she decides to leave him and will just kidnap her and fill her full of his blood. I love it when already obviously powerless and terrorized female protagonists are also demonstrably trivialized by their male partners in a manner that I'm supposed to sigh over and agree with. Thank you for this pure and enviable romance, Ashley.

And, of course, I already whined about it but I'll reiterate for dramatic import: Gabriel is about as far from the romantic, selfless sacrifice and redemption of the original Phantom as it is possible for a character to be.

Please also note, vampire writers of the world: bloodsuckers constantly walking around smirking and sniggering at the stupid weak mortals and all the power they wield over them is not alluring or sexy or interesting. It just makes them look like a bunch of undead asshole jocks, which is basically what Gabriel is.


Chapter 25:


At least Sara Jayne does suck it up in this chapter and apologize to Maurice for stringing him along for years and then breaking their engagement and dumping him for a bloodthirsty murderer who has tried to kill him personally. I'm glad he got thrown at least one bone, although in no way is this making everyone's behavior acceptable. Again, Sara Jayne is probably so turned around by all this that I can absolutely buy her being confused and conflicted, but that's not what I'm supposed to think about her and the book is making me very grumpy.

The apology apparently sapped all of her remaining ability to make decisions, however, since despite everyone's constant warnings that she has to stay in the house and keep all the doors and windows locked and barred so Nina doesn't snap her neck, she decides she wants some fresh air and waits until both men are asleep before going out on her back porch to, I dunno, stretch and frolic. She is immediately kidnapped and if she hadn't already had such a miserable life I would kind of hope that she dies quickly so we can get the fuck out of this book.

Gabriel, who is feeling too weak to take on Nina alone and doesn't have time to hunt down some poor citizen of Paris, immediately demands Maurice's blood when he wakes up and then threatens the shit out of him when he doesn't want to cooperate in a scene that made me throw the last vestiges of my attempts to want Gabriel to survive out the window and start rooting for Maurice to murder him and ride to the rescue on his own. Goddammit, Maurice! Run! Just run! There's a nun out there who probably already has crime-fighting equipment ready to go!

But, of course, he lets Gabriel suck out a few pints because he wants the vampire to save Sara Jayne. Sigh. In this book, nobility and self-sacrifice will only get you the shit end, Maurice.

Nina, who is apparently also making decisions only based on what the author told her has to happen for the plot, sucks a lot of Sara Jayne's blood but doesn't actually hurt, kill, vampirize or otherwise do more than scare her, and additionally intentionally lets Gabriel come find her. Apparently she wants to play cat and mouse some more? I suppose that's the best explanation for "allow plot to continue because the author is out of ideas" anyone's going to come up with.


Chapter 26:


I'm glad I was already done with Gabriel, because I don't have to feel betrayed when he starts doing some seriously unforgivable shit in this chapter. Upset by Sara Jayne's kidnapping and trauma (though she is now safe at home with Maurice), he decides the best outlet for this is to go out into the city, find some poor girl who happens to look like Nina, and pretend it's her he's attacking while he descends on the terrified girl and drains her life away.

 

How is ANYONE supposed to sympathize with this guy and root for him to succeed and get what he wants? I'm SO SORRY your vampire past is coming back to haunt you and that your former lover is a jerk, but you know what? THAT DOESN'T MAKE ATTACKING A HELPLESS, INNOCENT WOMAN WHO IS UNLUCKY ENOUGH TO LOOK LIKE HER SOMEHOW MORALLY OKAY. Nor does your INCREDIBLY CREEPY INTERNAL MONOLOGUE IN WHICH YOU FANTASIZE ABOUT WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO EAT/SEX/KILL/WHATEVER NINA WHILE USING THIS POOR GIRL AS A PROXY. What the FUCK, Ashley? I have no idea what you're even doing at this point, because unless it's preparing to pull an upset in which Maurice ends up the hero (in which case, kudos to you for good camouflage and for sticking to the original story that much), all you're accomplishing is making me want your current "hero" to die a slow, roasted death in the middle of a sunlit meadow. At the last second, Gabriel reconsiders and doesn't kill the girl, and somehow this moment of magnanimity is supposed to make his incredibly shitty behavior and outlook okay. Because if you COULD have brutally murdered someone but you choose to only horrifically sexually assault them, that makes you a good person, right?

Sara Jayne I am also basically done with, mostly because she suffers from the same inconsistent-ability-to-care-about-guy-she-ostensibly-loves-in-some-form disease that so often turns up in these stories. Somehow, she is just completely unconcerned about Gabriel's escalating homicidal threats against Maurice's life (even though the dude is helping him out now and has basically accepted that Sara Jayne will never date him again - CHILL THE FUCK OUT, GABRIEL), which means she's either so deluded that she believes he wouldn't hurt Maurice, even after watching him kill other people, or she doesn't actually give a penguin's tubby damp ass about what happens to her ex.

Nina turns back up outside the window and makes some long speeches to Gabriel about love, none of which make any fucking sense whatsoever since Ashley has entirely neglected to make her an actual character or to in any way show her possessing anything resembling genuine sentiment toward him. Obviously, Gabriel feels the same way, because he tells her to get lost and she runs off swearing revenge AGAIN.

Here's a question: why the fuck doesn't Nina just, you know, wait a couple of years? She's centuries old, at least four to five of them, and she hasn't been keeping up with Gabriel anyway except for every few decades. Why doesn't she just come back in thirty, forty years tops and pick him up on the rebound? The lovely thing about human flings is that they're just going to die anyway, and since she knows Gabriel is adamantly refusing to make Sara Jayne into the undead, I don't know what she hopes to gain here except for the fiery destruction of whatever vague chances she might still have had with this guy.

The humans run out of food, so Gabriel takes them out to get something to eat, which apparently first involves a leisurely meal at a restaurant before actual grocery shopping, just to make sure the bad guys have adequate time to jump them before they get home. Somehow, Gabriel is disabled in like ten seconds flat by a bunch of holy water and crosses, even though his vampiric senses have always let him know what humans were doing around him before and he shouldn't have been able to be ambushed and overpowered so easily. Maurice gets his head beaten in and collapses and Sara Jayne is, once again, kidnapped, wailing fetchingly all the way, one assumes.

And now, some bullshit: when Maurice wakes up, Gabriel has to ask him for help to go save Sara Jayne again, which Maurice supplies, despite his bleeding head wound, by managing to get across the room and remove all the crosses and other vampire deterrents so that Gabriel is mobile again. Immediately after doing so, Gabriel's like, "Welp, need blood again, and you're the only person here, and you're about to die anyway, so I guess you're elected," and then drains Maurice dry and kills him.

BULLSHIT. BULLSHIT BULLSHIT BULLSHIT. If Maurice were laboring under a head wound that was going to kill him imminently, he'd never have woken up or been able (or necessarily even coherent) enough to get across the room and start helping Gabriel's undead ass get back into gear. If he were laboring under a head wound that was going to kill him in the next few hours without treatment, you know what? THIS IS THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. HOSPITALS WERE INVENTED ALMOST TWO MILLENNIA AGO. BULLSHIT there's nothing anyone can do, Mr. Magical Healing Blood Vampire, you can cure CEREBRAL PALSY with your blood but you can't pony up a little to save Maurice?

 

I'm not mad at poor Maurice, who is almost certainly concussed and might reasonably think he's going to die, and who is just trying to make sure Gabriel can save the woman he loves; I'm not even really mad at Gabriel, who while a horrible bastard that I hope fries in an entire vat of holy water is being exactly as awful as he always is and using a convenient excuse to finally get to murder the guy he's been trying to murder for chapters without his girlfriend getting mad at him. No, I'm mad at Ashley, who wrote this and thought it was emotional and cathartic and that the characters doing it would be good romantic leads for readers to identify with.

At least Maurice dies with dignity, which is more than I can say for this book.


Chapter 27:


Now, of course, even though these are the exact same six bad guys who trounced him a minute ago and who know he's going to be on his way to reclaim Sara Jayne, Gabriel murders them all in "under a minute". Maurice's blood must be magical. I hope Sister Mary Josepha of the Avenging Sword kills you three times, Gabriel.

 

Gabriel, in a wild attempt to throw himself at the original novel's self-sacrifice redemption idea that he has managed to shit all over so far, offers to go live with Nina and be her sex-slave indefinitely as long as she lets Sara Jayne go without hurting her (which puts Nina in the Phantom position and Gabriel in the Christine position? but is awful). The crippling loads of overwrought, angsty prose surrounding this event kill it almost as dead as poor Maurice. Sara Jayne, who is determined not to let this scene go down without being even more nonsense, has a flailing tantrum when Gabriel "abandons" her because it takes her a full five minutes to figure out that he's doing it to save her and not because he's suddenly decided he likes his ex more than her.

Sara Jayne responds by intentionally antagonizing Nina, thus jeopardizing the only thing Gabriel has ever done that might actually get her out of danger instead of into more of it. This is a good thing, though, because luckily all women are instantly turned into blithering hysterics by jealousy, so Nina's response so preoccupies her that Gabriel is able to just walk up behind her and kill her.

You don't usually see a romance novel go for KILLING OFF all the rival love interests, but HERE WE ARE.  Also, Sara Jayne just had to see Gabriel KILL his ex-girlfriend in front of her and while I'm sure there are a lot of complex emotions involved in surviving and so forth here, how is that not concerning anyone?

In case you wondered, no. We will never get to see how Sara Jayne deals with Maurice's death, what it means to her, or how she reconciles it with the fact that he was killed by Gabriel.


Chapter 28:


I swear to god, motherfucker, smile "indulgently" at her ONE MORE TIME.


Part Two: Now and Forever


OH GOD


I FORGOT THERE WERE PARTS


Chapter 1:

 

You can all have a break to go have a little bit of a cry if you need one. I did when I realized I wasn't even close to finished with this stupid book.

So we're now in modern-day Los Angeles (also the setting for Ashley's other vampiric Phantom story, incidentally) with Gabriel, who despises the modern world and all its gaucheness. Except, of course, for sexy, powerful cars - he loves those! Good to know Ashley's love for shorthand to emphasize the penis did not remain confined to horses and cravats! Seriously, this is a guy who lived through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, but the twentieth century is just TOO HARD to get used to?

Apparently, Gabriel couldn't handle the overwhelming sorrow of living without Sara Jayne after she died of natural causes (of a graceful wasting sickness, of course, nothing gross), so he took a little fifty-year nap of despair and is thus still fresh from her loss when this part of the book opens.

 

Chapter 2:


OH, LOOK, GABRIEL'S JUST FOUND A NICE BLONDE WOMAN NAMED SARAH. It. Is it worse if it's a reincarnation drama or if he's just fixating on her because of her vague resemblance to his dead girlfriend? She is able to come to the angst party because she has conveniently just lost her husband and daughter in a car crash recently, leaving her gloriously romantically unencumbered.

Dude, Sarah, you're alone in a park in L.A. (one in which there have recently been reported attacks, in fact) in the middle of the night, and this guy keeps trying to follow you home. Do not stand there and talk to him. RUN.

But her angst is too great for even common sense to penetrate, so instead she just sobs and then lets him carry her away to his house (though, to be fair, when she finally realizes she should object halfway there, he just punches her in the brain with his vampire powers to shut her up. Stay classy, Gabriel).


Chapter 3:


After dropping Sarah off in a bedroom that is creepily obviously decorated for a woman and then suggesting she get into the bath while he wanders off around the house (dude, is anyone else reminded of that scene in American Psycho? I'm just saying), Gabriel goes out to buy her some clothes and she goes ahead and just does what he told her to, on the theory that nobody with bubblebath could possibly be a dangerous rapist, I guess. He leaves them outside the door, after which my questions are threefold:

 

A) How does modern-day Sarah even recognize a dressing gown? Has she ever seen one before?

B) Where did Gabriel even get one (perfectly tailored to her, yet, and in ten minutes flat)? It's not like they're in fashion anymore!

C) It has a zipper?

In order to emphasize her narrative's finely-crafted subtlety, Ashley makes a point of making sure we know that Sarah totally notices Gabriel's chandelier. (That wasn't a euphemism, but if I ever write a Phantom erotica, it will be.)

For no apparent reason, Sarah then begins associating Gabriel with the Beast from the French fairytale, although why is a complete mystery since she came here of her own free will and he's still the hottest thing on two legs and has no apparent isolationist problems since he lives in the middle of downtown LA and mingles with people in parks. Shoehorned elements always improve your book's quality, right?

In a brief flash of unaccustomed clarity helped along by Gabriel's being a massive creeper, Sarah realizes that maybe this is a bad idea and she should run for the hills now. When she demands that he let her go, he offers to let her take his Jaguar... which she then does.

SARAH NO. What if the car has GPS or other kinds of trackers in it to help lead him straight to your house? What if he just wants to trap you in a car? What if he calls the police and tells them that you stole it? THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA. The only good thing to come out of it is Sarah's brief consideration of the idea of just stealing the Jaguar and fleeing out of town, which would honestly be a more fun story than the one we're stuck in.

It's already obnoxious enough that Gabriel's hard-on for Sarah appears to be motivated solely by her similarities to the dead Sara Jayne, but it's unfortunate that Ashley chooses to spend some time dwelling on Sarah's conflicted feelings that she might be being unfaithful to her recently-deceased husband, since it throws Gabriel into rather unflattering comparison since he apparently has no difficulty whatsoever moving on to her. (Yes, I'm sure we're heading for a revelation that Sarah is really the reincarnation of Sara Jayne or whatever so Gabriel doesn't have to feel conflicted about moving on from her, but he doesn't KNOW that.)

Oh my god. Gabriel still has a horse. It's behind the house. It's descended from the first horse and its name is also Necromancer. 

Check out page 202:


"Looking at him, she had the uncomfortable feeling that his constant wearing of black was not a fashion statement, but the color of his soul."


YES. THE COLOR OF HIS SOUL. THAT'S WHERE WE ARE IN THIS BOOK, PEOPLE.

Gabriel likes to stick to what he knows best, so even though Sarah comes back (to return his car, in theory, though secretly it's because of the flames of passion enveloping her fallopian tubes) he immediately sends her away forever in spite of his newfound yearning for her, because WOE, BLOODLUST, and DIDN'T I JUST FUCKING READ THIS BOOK? WHAT HAPPENED?


Chapter 4:


Sarah starts having flashbacks that we, the readers, know to be scenes from Sara Jayne's past. Is Gabriel sending her these things through vampiric telepathy or is she just a reincarnation? At this point in the book, does anyone care anymore?

Excuse me, Gabriel, but what the fuck do you know about Sarah's "strength of spirit"? You just met her like a week ago, and you've spent most of your time watching her cry and then contemplating eating her. You don't know jack about her spirit.

Oh, look, it turns out that she's a reincarnation after all. We know this because Gabriel suddenly knows it, even though there is no reason for this whatsoever and he just realized it out of the blue. He celebrates this revelation by shoving his face in her lap and freaking her out. Awesome.


"And he put out his hand in silent invitation.
And she stood up and placed her hand in his.
And he felt the darkness evaporate from his soul.
And she felt the loneliness in her heart take wing."


Yes, I'd agree that each polished, jewel-like sentence above clearly needs its own paragraph stop, wouldn't you? I mean, how else would we get that awesome image of darkness "evaporating" on its own?


Chapter 5:


How big is this armoire full of shit Gabriel bought for her if it contains more clothes than she has ever owned "in her entire life"? What career path is she in? Has she only owned one outfit her whole life?

Sarah pokes around the house some during the day, and naturally discovers Gabriel's sleeping vampire stuff. OH MY GOD, why are we doing the reveal of his nature AGAIN? We DID THAT already. It adds NOTHING WHATSOEVER to the story. FADE GRACEFULLY TO FUCKING BLACK, WOULD YOU, ASHLEY?

Gabriel, after registering that Sarah appears to be concerned about his undead people-killing proclivities, decides to do the gentlemanly thing and offer her a choice: she can be his willingly, or she can "choose between being my slave or my equal", referring to him forcibly initiating or vampirizing her. Yeah, maybe we're in some vague and pale way trying to emulate the grasshopper vs. scorpion conundrum here, but seriously, Sarah needs to slap his undead face and tell him shovel all this shit back where it belongs. AND YOU, GABRIEL. SO INCONSISTENT YOUR LOVE.

 

HOW IS THIS SUPPOSED TO BE ROMANTIC?

Oh, for fuck's sake, now we're quoting entire paragraphs from the first half of the novel, in case we wanted to relive their spellbinding glory. Could we finish this up soon, please? I want to treat my remaining cognitive thought processes to a nice merlot and some T.S. Eliot.


Chapter 6:


Sadly, we cannot finish it up, because for SOME REASON Ashley feels the need to drag this prolonged string of vaguely-connected scenes out as long as possible before wrapping things up. Now it's time for Sarah to insist that they start looking for a cure for vampirism, because while she is totally fine with ultimatums about being a slave to him (in fact, she thinks verbatim that she wouldn't mind being a slave as long as it was his slave! That's some fucking strength of will right there!), she is not putting up with this blood-drinking stuff, no sirree.

...wait, wait, now, hold the phone. As soon as she comes up with this idea, Gabriel is like, "Oh, yeah, I know a really ancient vampire from Europe who's rumored to have a cure, I'll call him up."

What. You know about the possibility of a cure and you never once, you know, pursued it, even though you've been in a state of constant self-loathing over your undeadness for the entire miserable span of this novel? You didn't even do it for the last incarnation of your girlfriend, instead deciding to just let her grow old and die alone while she hated your vampirism as much as you did? WHAT? WHAT? I CAN'T THINK ANYMORE. I'VE BEEN BLINDED BY WHATEVER THE OPPOSITE OF SCIENCE IS.


Chapter 7:


Oh, by the way, Sarah is now totally over that other husband she had, you know, the one that died a year ago. He was nice and all, but nothing compared to Gabriel. Gabriel being a dick about Rosalia in the first section was apparently so good that we just had to reuse the idea of "the person I loved before I actually didn't love because otherwise THIS love wouldn't be the best" again.

Oh, look, Gabriel's voice is "soft as candlelight"! Welcome back, borrowed Lloyd Webber lyrics. It's nice to see the element of him singing come back for a brief rally, though, even if it isn't explored at all.

When Sarah mentions to Gabriel that she's thinking about getting a job so she won't be bored sitting on her ass all day, he flips out and forbids it (his reasoning is, literally, that he doesn't want her out there in the world around all those other men. this man is a prize). As soon as he does, she magically abandons the notion and starts soliloquizing to the reader about how much of a rebel against feminist fad she is because she wants to be "just a housewife". My shouting key is tired, but seriously: this is awful on so many levels. Not only is she dropping her own interests in favor of Gabriel's preference without even the slightest bit of resistance or discussion (dude, there are other things she could do besides working, too - she could go to classes, get involved in the community, volunteer for charity, all kinds of things - but no, then she'd be out in the world around the men!), but she's setting the feminist struggle to allow women to work as a fad on par with wearing bell-bottoms and managing to simultaneously devalue being a housewife, too, by constantly making it clear that she thinks it's lesser but is okay with that because Her Man wants her to do it.

But, of course, it's perfectly fine with Gabriel if Sarah is out of the house shopping all day, because that's a proper lady activity.

Sarah really hangs her hat on this idea of a cure for Gabriel so that they can live a happy life together, so much so that I;m wondering why she hasn't yet thought of the possibility that restoring a dude who is over four hundred years old to mortality might, you know, cause him to instantly crumble to dust or something. Guess that's a chance she's willing to take (and, I mean, I so am, too, so I guess carry on?).

And now, vampire party time! For some reason, the ancient vampire (even older than Nina was and thus someone to be respected and feared), Quillam, traveled to L.A. to see Gabriel instead of Gabriel hauling ass to whatever crag in Romania he normally lives on, so here he is, with his two baby fledgling vampires in tow. The female one, Sydelle, exists entirely to make sure nobody has forgotten that all vampire women are jealous, conniving, evil assfaces. I would not be surprised if she had NINA 2.0 stamped on her forehead.

Oh, good, it turns out there is a cure!

 

"It consists of rare herbs and spices. They must be gathered by the light of a full moon, mixed by a white witch on All Hallow's Eve, and consumed by the vampire at dawn's first light."

 

So many things are wrong with this (not least the term "white witch", which wasn't even a term until the 1800s, whereas this cure is supposed to be ancient - and why a white witch, anyway? What, good old fashioned witches aren't good enough to come up with this magic? Gabriel is too pure and fancy for them?) that it's blindingly obvious to me, as a reader, that it's bullshit and Quillam is just trolling him, but Gabriel falls for it hook, line and sinker.


Chapter 8:


Of course, the cure usually kills the vampire who attempts it, but Gabriel's willing to do it for love. I'm sure we're supposed to think this is a noble, romantic sacrifice, but Gabriel fell off that wagon so long ago that he's in a different zip code now. He does, however, make a pretty speech about wanting to live with Sarah as a man and walk in the sunlight with her, which is reminiscent of Erik's speech about going walking on Sundays in Leroux's novel.

I'm actually pretty sure this was supposed to be a surprise twist no one saw coming because I don't think Ashley's ridiculous cure components above were actually supposed to be a clue, but it turns out that the ancient vampire and his little friends don't think it's a good idea for Gabriel to try to become human again and possibly sell out the vampiric community once he wasn't part of it anymore. At least Quillam showing up in person makes more sense now, since he's here to kill Gabriel rather than help him.

When Sydelle comes to kill Sarah (of COURSE she does, because she's an evil jealous harpy who wants Gabriel for herself), Sarah runs away and manages to flawlessly vault onto an untacked stallion in the dead of night and then jump a six-foot fence on him and gallop to safety, all without actually knowing how to ride a horse. Right. Sure she did. It was probably the influence of all the "adrenalin", which she can feel pumping through her veins but not, apparently, spell.

Of course, Gabriel manages to kill Quillam (if he could kill the SUPER ANCIENT vampire that easily, why the fuck was he worried about Nina?) and take down both Sydelle and her crony... but not before Sarah is tragically injured, woe! So, in a final moment of crowning fuck-this-I'm-going-to-bedery, he turns her into a vampire to save her life, and now they are both pleased as punch to be living happily ever after for eternity together, all other considerations about damnation and evil and drinking blood conveniently wiped away! YAY! That's right, the vampire cure was a nonsense red herring because, in case you forgot, plot is HARD.

 

PLOT IS SO HARD, EVERYONE.

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