Night Huntress: Book One—Halfway to the Grave; Book Two—One Foot in the Grave; Book Three—At Grave’s End; Book Four—Destined for an Early Grave. By Jeaniene Frost. Avon. $7.99 each.
Think of the antithesis of the innocence of the vampiric Twilight series and you will have some idea of what Jeaniene Frost has created in Night Huntress. Think of Kim Harrison’s novels of the Hollows and you will have more of an idea. But Frost’s voice is her own. Night Huntress lacks the sweetness and youth orientation of Twilight, but has an equally strong focus on romance – although it is a much earthier and more physical sort of romance than anything in Stephenie Meyer’s books. And Frost’s books have many of the intense action-adventure elements of Harrison’s, albeit without the finely honed characterizations and well-crafted view of an alternative (but not too alternative) universe. Avon calls Night Huntress “paranormal romance,” which is a pretty good description; “urban fantasy romance” is another. The books are fast-paced, often sexy, frequently violent and always page-turners, from Halfway to the Grave (originally published in 2007) to the brand-new Destined for an Early Grave.
The underlying story here is absurd even by genre conventions. Catherine Kathleen “Cat” Crawfield is a half-vampire, product of a human mother impregnated by a bloodsucker. Somehow the interbreeding resulted in an offspring, even though that is “almost unheard of,” as we learn early on. Cat’s life is focused on revenge: because of what one vampire did to her mother, Cat hunts all vampires, unhesitatingly using her physical charms (“my battle armor was a push-up bra, curled hair, and a short dress”) to lure them to places where she can destroy them. That’s all there is to it, but that’s not all there is to these books, by a long shot. Having established Cat’s provenance and giving her some motivation for vampire involvement, Frost then twists and turns Cat’s stories in a wide variety of dangerous and romantic directions. In Halfway to the Grave, Cat meets Bones, a master vampire with his own reasons for hunting down members of his own kind; learns one theory about the origin of vampires (it has to do with Cain’s actions after he killed Abel); re-encounters her first boyfriend, who barely survives the meeting; and becomes a professional rather than amateur hunter of the undead. She does this in part because Bones agrees to help her find her father – but really because she is so intensely attracted to him. They make quite a pair as the adventure plays out.
In One Foot in the Grave, Cat gets a government job. Nothing to do with paper pushing, of course – she is a special agent hunting down the undead. She has broken up with Bones (for reasons explained, not terribly convincingly, at the end of the first book), but needs to re-connect with him four years later because of an assassination plot. It’s a plot against Cat herself, and even with all she has learned from Bones, she can’t handle it alone. Nor does she really want to, it turns out. Frost shows a sly sense of humor at times in this volume, as when Bones tells Cat she has to go to a spa before they can handle part of a dangerous assignment. This is also the book in which Cat does find her father – which leads to a major decision on her part. And it is here that Frost explains the difference between vampires and ghouls, and shows how one of the latter can be created.
At Grave’s End finds Cat in still more danger (of course). And this time Bones (interchangeably called Crispin) is under threat, too. You get a hint of these characters’ relationship from something Bones says to Cat early in this third book: “Because of me, you dangled yourself out as bait to a group of murdering white slavers years ago. You had to drive a car through a house to rescue your mum – while covered in your grandparents’ blood.” Well, yes, and that’s only part of it. We also learn more of Bones’ past here, back to the 18th century, and of course it has resonance right into the present day. Also here is dialogue like this: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my night being dead dead” – but hey, profundity is far from the point in these novels. This book turns a great deal on not forgetting one’s debts or the kindnesses that other people do – a strange notion in books like these, perhaps, but the nature of the debts and kindnesses stays well in context. A particularly interesting character named Mencheres – more fully developed than most of the other vampires – is important in this book, in which Cat for a time believes Bones truly dead. Vampire rivalries, petty and intense, take a larger role here, sometimes in a deadly way and sometimes rather amusingly, as when one master vampire tells Cat that Bones is “an uppity street peasant who’s been gifted far and away over what he deserves.” Toward the end, through betrayals and tales of ruined centuries-long relationships, Cat comments that “our situation had upgraded from awful to doomed,” but eventually the prime mover of evil here is dispatched, although Cat is left thinking, “Some things shouldn’t be possible, and it was scary to know they were.”
And that leads to Destined for an Early Grave, where what should be possible is a nice Parisian vacation for Cat and Bones. This, it of course turns out, is not possible, as a dream-invading vampire named Gregor appears to terrorize Cat as she sleeps, claiming that she belongs to him rather than to Bones. At Grave’s End pulled in a large number of vampires and various other supernaturals, and Destined for an Early Grave does so, too, but this is more of a mano-a-mano book, pitting Gregor against Bones. Because these books remain focused on Cat, though, it turns out that the only way Gregor’s hold over Cat can be broken is by Cat herself. But does she want to break it? That becomes a real question. There is a strong emotional confrontation between her and Bones midway through this book – stronger than anything in the earlier novels – in which Bones reveals the depth of his feeling for Cat by enumerating all the ways in which she has always withheld her deepest, innermost being from him. It is some of Frost’s best writing, because while she is no stylist, she here taps into a level of anguish that fleshes out both Bones and, through what he says, Cat herself. Eventually, after all sorts of miscommunication and anger, Cat remarks, “I wanted so badly to believe that love could conquer all. That Bones and I could make things work based on sheer feelings alone, but life wasn’t that easy.” No, it isn’t, as it turns out that Cat is the pawn in a vampire power play that stretches over 220 years. And she is also more than the half-human-half-vampire that she has thought herself to be – and is capable, when she must, of defeating Gregor herself.
The Night Huntress series is by no means great literature, but it has a great deal to recommend it: fast pacing, some interesting characters (set against some cardboard ones), and a created world whose possibilities keep expanding as Frost pulls in new elements. Clearly, Cat’s newfound powers and status will be important in future books; and Night Huntress is about to spawn (if that’s the right word) a spinoff series featuring one of the characters from Cat’s world. Frost has the right mixture of elements for her books’ commercial success, and she pulls them together in well-crafted if scarcely elegant prose that captures readers quickly and is likely to keep them coming back for more. There’s nothing profound here, but there is much that is very effective.