Stephan Sincai is a two-thousand year old vampire who traveled to the vampire refuge of Mirso Monastery, seeking redemption for mistakes he made in the past. The Elders of the race are not pleased with him because of an experiment he conducted centuries earlier. He was attempting to prove that born and made vampires are equal, and therefore, made vampires should not be killed as has always been the Rule. Unfortunately, his experiment went awry, leaving Asharti, a crazed made vampire, terrorizing the human race and raising a vampire army to take over the world. As penance for his misdeeds, Stephan is sentenced to train with the Eldest's Daughters, learning to increase his power through emotional and sexual repression. Once deemed ready, he is christened the Harrier and sent to England to hunt down and kill all made vampires, including one who is believed to be carrying on Asharti's work. In the small village where he expects a showdown with this vampire, Stephan meets a fragile beauty who stirs emotions he thought he had mastered.
Ann Van Helsing is believed by the villagers to be a witch. In reality, she harbors a psychic gift which allows her to see the entire history of an object or person simply by touching them. Unable to bear touching anyone, she lives a rather sheltered life in the nursery room of her family's estate under the care of a benevolent uncle, her only living relative. With her uncle in poor health, he wants to see Ann married as soon as possible, and to that end, invites a distant cousin whom Ann finds distasteful to visit. To escape the stress, Ann often steals away into the countryside at night through the secret passageways of the mansion. It is on one of these forays, that Ann discovers Stephan severely injured. Unable to leave a man to die, she risks everything to touch him in order to bind his wounds. Doing so leaves her in a coma, but when she awakens, her mind is opened to a whole new world of possibilities. Knowing Stephan so intimately and experiencing his tender care and concern ignites a firestorm of emotion within her. Once she's been touched by his passion, she cannot return to her old life, but first they must defeat their enemies and Stephan's overwhelming sense of guilt before they can spend eternity in each other's arms.
Susan Squires has done it again with yet another story in the Companion series that I thoroughly enjoyed. Ms. Squires has a lyrical writing style that I find very beautiful. She also knows how to create heroes and heroines who are imperfect yet highly relatable, starring in character-driven stories in which true love and sensuous passion overcome the torments of the past. In some ways, I'm surprised I haven't heard more about this series, because I've been thoroughly entranced by it. On the other hand though, I can see why some readers possibly may not be thrilled with it. There is some repetition in character types with each of the heroes in the series so far having suffered great physical and sexual abuse at the hands of sadistic women, but then finding healing and happiness in the arms of the one woman who is perfect for him. I don't mind this overly much, because the stories are always enthralling and each of the heroines is different in her own way, as are the plots. The hero and heroine always share a tender and passionate love that is exactly what I read romance for, so I'll definitely be eagerly continuing on with the series.
Stephan is a two thousand year old vampire who was born not made. He bears a tremendous amount of guilt over things he's done in the past, not the least of which was flaunting the Rules set by the Elders by trying to prove that made vampires and born vampires are equal. Centuries ago, he took Beatrix (The Hunger), a born vampire, and Asharti, a made vampire, and tried an experiment in which he attempted to treat both as equals. However, his feelings got in the way when he fell in love with Beatrix but was unable to love Asharti in the same way. Asharti ended up leaving the shelter of Stephan's home and going on rampages, during which she tortured, killed and turned many humans into vampires in an attempt to create a vampire army to take over the world. Stephan blames himself for all the evil Asharti spread in the world and believes he is unforgivable. His only desire is to return to Mirso Monastery in the Carpathians Mountains, where he grew up, and take a vow to remain there for all eternity. Unfortunately, when he arrives, he finds anything but the refuge he was hoping for. The Eldest, Rubius, insists that Stephan atone for his mistakes by learning the control that will increase his power. Then he alone must go after the creatures Asharti made and kill them all before he will be accepted at Mirso permanently. The "training" Rubius' daughters put him through is bordering on rape. The only reason I hesitate to call it such is that Stephan initially submitted to their tutelage voluntarily, although at the time, he had no idea what he was in for. They compel him to maintain his erection for long periods of time and to prevent him from reaching orgasm, believing that bottling up his sexual energy is the way to build up his vampire powers. They basically torture him with sex to the point that it becomes nothing more than a compulsory chore in which they're using him for their own pleasure while giving him little or nothing in return. They also torture him physically when he dares to deviate from their rules. Stephan probably could have chosen to leave, but he desperately wanted to prove himself worthy of the refuge of Mirso. He truly believed this was the only way, so he suffered through the torment day in and day out, thinking that he somehow deserved it for his misdeeds. Still, at the same time, he experiences a sense of revulsion both at what the Daughters are doing to him and at the cold, soulless creature he's becoming because of it. He also feels a sense of shame when the memories assault him. When Stephan meets Ann, he tries to keep his emotions locked down, but even though he attempts to convince himself that Ann is not important, he can't help caring about her. It's simply part of his nature and something the Daughters couldn't torture out of him. Underneath it all, Stephan is an idealist who prefers peace and harmony to killing and strife. In an emotional sense, he tortures himself every bit as much as the Daughters did physically. Even in the end, he still has trouble forgiving himself and is uncertain of his worthiness of a pure, innocent woman like Ann. While some readers may think this calls into question their HEA, I appreciated it for its realism. People simply can't overcome such deep-seated emotional turmoil overnight, so leaving it as a process that Stephan will have to work through for a long time to come rang more true to me than an easy fix would have.
Ann is a really sweet young woman who looks like a small, fragile porcelain doll on the outside, but who has the courage of a lion inside. She possesses a psychic gift that allows her to see the entire history of an object or person simply by touching them. Doing so, however, causes her great distress. Her mother possessed the same ability and went mad the one and only time she had sex with her husband, which was also when Ann was conceived. Because of her gift, the people in the village believe she is a witch or possessed by an evil spirit, which has made her an outcast. Between that and Ann not wanting to accidentally touch anyone, she spends most of the time in her familiar nursery at the top of the house. The only time she ventures out is through the secret passageways late at night. It was during one of these jaunts through the countryside that she found a cave that has become her special place. Since her parents died, the only person she could count on was her uncle, but now, he is dying and wants to see her married and taken care of before he passes on. To that end, he invites their distant and ultimately distasteful cousin, Erich Van Helsing, who is a caricature loosely based on the vampire hunter Van Helsing from the Dracula legends, to visit. He's nothing but a fortune-hunter who thinks he was cheated out of his rightful inheritance and plans to marry Ann to get it back, caring nothing about her possibly going insane from touching him. In fact, he welcomes it, so that he can place her in an asylum and be done with her. Unfortunately, Ann's ailing uncle has the wool pulled over his eyes with regards to Erich and gives the other man his blessing, leaving Ann with no idea how she's going to escape her fate. Ann is a very gentle, peaceful person who is quite loving and forgiving of others. She has no desire to see anyone hurt, no matter how bad they might be, and is always ready to help someone in need if she can which is how she ended up meeting and falling in love with Stephan. I think it was wonderful how Ann's love for Stephan gave her the courage and insights she needed to take matters into her own hands on more than one occasion, and how she refused to let Stephan face his enemies or his emotional demons alone.
In the beginning, Stephan and Ann's relationship seemed to move a tad slowly, although I realize it was probably necessary to tell the story the way Ms. Squires did. At first, Stephan's emotions were so closed off, it made it difficult for me as the reader to sense the budding romance, but his desire to take care of Ann was admittedly very sweet. Also, Stephan and Ann have minimal interactions when one of them isn't unconscious until about a third of the way into the story. At that point, they begin to talk, but each is afraid of what the other must think of them. Stephan fears that Ann knowing everything about him will make her view him as a monster, while Ann worries that Stephan thinks her a witch like the people in the village. Even as they slowly overcome those fears, they are only able to talk. There is still the barrier of her not being able to touch him, because the one time she did, it sent her into a three day coma. Once they figure out the answer to the puzzle which allows them to become more physically intimate, then the connection between them is unmistakable.
The lack of emotional connection and the somewhat slow pace of the first half of the book are the only reasons I knocked off a half star. Otherwise, The Burning was a great story that drew me in and kept me guessing as to how Stephan and Ann would overcome the many obstacles in their path to happiness. Readers are introduced to Callum Kilkenney, a made vampire, who is purportedly following in Asharti's footstep, raising a vampire army, and whom Stephan is sent to kill. As it turns out, there is some surprising depth to his character, and he will become the hero of the next full-length novel in the series, One with the Night. One of the Daughters, Freya, isn't as bad as the other two. She is redeemed to become the heroine of the novella Beyond the Night from the anthology Dead After Dark. I'm definitely looking forward to reading those stories and continuing with the series soon.
Note: The sensual scenes between the hero and heroine are only moderately steamy, but I've given the book a higher overall sensuality rating due to Stephan's time with the Daughters. They subjected him to all manner of eroticism and sexual stimulation, including multiple partners, anal play, and BDSM. These parts are definitely not for the faint of heart.
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