After being captured by pirates off the coast of North Africa and sold into slavery, Ian Rufford spent two years as the slave of Asharti, a sadistic vampire queen, wandering the desert in search of a lost city which was home to the Old One, whose blood could make her invincible. During that time, Ian was little more than Asharti's plaything, serving her every whim through compulsion. When her mission was finally completed, Asharti had every intention of killing Ian, but she accidentally turned him with a single drop of her blood and left him for dead anyway. Although Ian had lived with the vampires, he had no idea what manner of creatures they might be. After escaping death and finally returning to civilization, he despises what he has become. In search of peace and a possible cure to his "disease," Ian returns to England aboard a ship also carrying a young woman who isn't like any other woman he had ever met before.
Half-English, half-Egyptian, Elizabeth Rochewell doesn't feel like she belongs in either world. She spent most of her life assisting her eccentric father on his archaeological expeditions in North Africa. After her father's tragic, untimely death, she would like nothing more than to continue his search for the lost city of Kivala. Unfortunately, with no chaperone at hand, it would be unthinkable for a lady to do such a thing, so Beth finds herself forced to return to England. Aboard ship, she and Ian bond over a shared love of books and chess, forming a close friendship. After Ian is injured in a pirate attack, Beth accidentally witnesses his rapid healing, which leaves her in awe and curious about his condition. Throughout the voyage, they work together to find answers to puzzle that Ian has become, but once back in England, they reluctantly part ways. Ian's "disease" and the torment he suffered at Asharti's hands make him feel unworthy of any woman, much less one so kind and gentle as Beth, but when word reaches him that Asharti is on a rampage and trying to take over the world, Ian has little choice but to go back to Africa and try to stop her. The key to defeating her lies in the lost city, and Ian knows only one person he can trust to help him find that cursed place again... Beth.
Since I hadn't heard much about Susan Squire's Companion series, I started out by reading The Gift, one of the short stories from an anthology, out of order. I enjoyed it very much, so I decided to start from the beginning. Between The Gift and now The Companion, I am very impressed with this new-to-me series. Not only is this my first historical vampire series, it also has some unique mythology and other elements. I loved the exotic North African settings, primarily the Sahara Desert and Atlas Mountain range in Algeria. I've never read any other romances set in this area, so it was a nice change of pace. The mythology was also a bit different than most vampire stories I've read, and it was fun to go back and learn how this race of vampires came to be. While the vampires in this series do exhibit many of the stereotypical characteristics of vampires (eg. super-strength, rapid healing, sensitivity to sunlight, compulsion, etc.), the way in which they are made and their origins are a little more unusual. A human cannot be changed when bitten. Instead, they must ingest the blood of a vampire to become one. Even then, they are essentially still human, but "infected" with the companion, a parasite-like creature, which lives symbiotically in their blood and upon which they can call to increase their powers. The companion came from an ancient race of beings who resemble aliens. All in all a very intriguing backstory.
I also enjoyed the fact that the vampire hero doesn't really know what he is. Ian spent two years as a slave to Asharti, an evil vampire queen. Ian knew that she drank human blood, compelled victims and such, but he never put a name to what kind of creature she was. Therefore, when he was accidentally turned by Asharti, he thought that perhaps he had been given a disease for which he could find a cure. Asharti abandoned him in the middle of the desert, and if it hadn't been for her servant, Fedeyah's kindness, Ian would have died. With Asharti being the only example of a vampire Ian knew, he despised what he had become and whole-heartedly did not want to be whatever that was. He spends a large part of the story looking for that elusive cure, while learning how to use his powers through trial and error, until he meets another vampire toward the end of the story who mentors him.
Ian is one of the most deeply tortured romance heroes I've ever read (we're talking shades of the Black Dagger Brotherhood here). On his way to North Africa to serve in the diplomatic corps, his ship was set upon by pirates. He and the other survivors were sold into slavery. During his two years as Asharti's slave, he was beaten, tortured, and repeatedly raped via compulsion in ways that were particularly cruel and sadistic, and he bears numerous scars because of it. His flashbacks to this time are heartbreaking and definitely not for the faint of heart. Between what this evil woman put him through and most of the women he knew back in England being shallow and manipulative, he doesn't really trust women at all anymore, but in Beth, he sees someone different. He is attracted to her genuineness, but it still takes a long time for him to learn to trust her. I thought his confusion over this was very beautifully rendered. Ian is also incredibly sympathetic, because he hates being a vampire. He tried to commit suicide multiple times and feels extreme guilt and shame every time he has to feed from a human to survive. I thought it was very sweet that he always compelled them to forget what he'd done and gave them happy memories afterward. I also loved the way he took tender care of Beth after accidentally feeding from her. Ian is a true gentleman in every sense of the word, even though he believes himself to be a monster. I thought this just served to highlight his humanity, which is something that Asharti wasn't able to take from him despite her cruelty. When Ian tells Beth of his ordeal, I could feel how agonizing it was for him to relive it and how ashamed he felt to tell another person about the things that happened to him. Of course, he only goes so far, sparing Beth some of the more gory details, but it was still an intense moment. Ian is now one of my all-time favorite heroes. I just wanted to wrap him up in my arms and give him lots of love like Beth did.
Elizabeth is a wonderful heroine. She is a very unusual woman for her time, something of a bluestocking I'd say. She's described as being a tiny slip of a woman, who is very short, plain of face, and has her Egyptian mother's coloring. North Africa is where she feels most at home, but the people there consider her too white, and the people in England consider her too brown. As a result, she doesn't fit well in either world. On top of that, she is essentially a scientist who spent most of her life on archaeological expeditions with her eccentric father. Beth has an adventurous spirit and a practical, organized nature. She is also incredibly intelligent and not afraid to show it. She doesn't want to marry anyone without love and most definitely desires a partner who will respect her brilliant mind and treat her as his equal. When Beth witnesses Ian's rapid healing she experienced a moment of fear of the unknown, but quickly recovered and started thinking about it logically and scientifically. He scared her more deeply when he drank her blood, but she was open-minded enough to listen to his side of the story and forgiving and kind-hearted enough to want to comfort him even though she knew he wouldn't take kindly to it at that point in their relationship. Overall, she was very intuitive of his needs throughout the story, and after she'd heard him out and knew what he was facing, she wanted nothing more than to help him in any way that she could. Beth turned out to be a brave and wonderful match for Ian.
Ian and Beth are like two peas in a pod. They're both very unusual people who don't quite feel like they have a place to belong in the world. They begin their relationship by bonding over a shared love of books (Gotta love a man who reads Jane Austen.:-)) and chess. When Ian unintentionally feeds off Beth, it's an exquisitely sensual experience for both of them. Between this and the sexual tension created by each of them seeing the other in a state of undress when trying to be of assistance after injuries, they start to develop a deeper attraction, but it still takes time for them to realize the extent of those feelings. In the meantime, the author builds a beautiful friendship between them which believably blossoms into love. When Ian finally proposes, he offers a marriage in name only, not wanting to "force" his "monstrous" self on her. I thought it was really cute the way Beth went about letting him know she'd like more on their wedding night, and the ensuing love scene was sweetly sensual, even though Ian had difficulties due to his experience with Asharti. As a result, there isn't a full consummation until the final pages, but all the character and relationship development in between and the tender, loving nature of the scene made it worth the wait.
I liked very much that the focus remained on Ian and Beth throughout the story, but there are a few key secondary players introduced. Beatrix Lisse is a centuries old vampire who becomes Ian's mentor late in the story. Aside from Beth, she is the primary person who helps him believe that being a vampire doesn't mean he's evil. She becomes the heroine of the next book of the series, The Hunger. Major Vernon Davis "Davie" Ware found Ian half-dead after he escaped his enslavement to Asharti and kept him at the military outpost where he was stationed. He knows to some extent what Ian is, and although he's rather wary, he does give Ian a chance. We find out later in the story that Davie also had an encounter with Asharti when he brings Ian a message from her and tries to get him to go back to Africa and fight her. The only person to really befriend Beth when she returns to England is Emma Fairfield who also stands up for Beth at her wedding. Davie and Emma become the hero and heroine of The Gift, the novella I previously read and enjoyed.
I have to admit to being a bit baffled by the so-so, GoodReads ratings for this book and some of the others in the Companion series. I totally fell in love with Ian and think he rivaled some of the best tortured heroes the romance genre has to offer. I adored Beth. She reminded me a lot of myself, and I would love to be her. The story offered a lot of intriguing, unique elements for the paranormal sub-genre that entranced and enticed me as a reader. The only possible detractor I came up with is that Susan Squires' writing style is rather narrative-heavy at times with lots of descriptive prose and introspection, which might not be for everyone. However, it didn't really bother me, as I like to get inside the heads of the characters and know what's going on around them. She also writes with some authentic period vernacular which might confuse some readers, but again, I thought it added to the sense of time and place and gave it flavor. For me, The Companion was a thoroughly engaging story that I was sad to see come to an end. Susan Squires has acquired a new fan, and I'm greatly looking forward to continuing with this enthralling new series.
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