5 Rated Books 7 Rated Books Book of the Month Book Reviews

Book of the Month: Touch the Dark

Title: Touch the Dark (Cassandra Palmer Series, book 1)

Author: Karen Chance

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal

Stand alone or series: First in the Cassandra Palmer series

Summary: (from Amazon.com)

Like any sensible girl, Cassie tries to avoid vampires. But when the bloodsucking Mafioso she escaped three years ago finds Cassie again with revenge in mind, she’s forced to turn to the vampire Senate for protection.

The undead senators won’t help her for nothing, and Cassie finds herself working with one of their most powerful members, a dangerously seductive master vampire- and the price he demands may be more than Cassie is willing to pay.


First impressions

Thea: I am a confessed Urban Fantasy fan. I like sassy heroines, and I like the obsessive compulsive nature of these books—once I find a series I like, I will marathon read that baby til the end. True, a lot of the heroines start to sound the same, some universes aren’t as distinct as others—or worse off, characters suffer from Anita Blake syndrome and lack any depth beyond a smart mouth and pissed off attitude. Not cool.

I’m happy to say that Cassie Palmer does not fall into that latter category—and actually stands out as an urban fantasy heroine. She’s neither a shape shifter, nor a badass deadeye with a gun. Physically, she’s your typical girl, not adept at street fighting or martial arts. What Cassie’s advantage is, however, is her gift (curse?) of clairvoyance, and her unique upbringing in a Vampire court. Cassie is smart without being overbearing and strong without being snarly or abrasive. She knows that her weapon is wile, and running away when she can’t win a fight.

I have to say this is a good start to a new series. I liked this alternate urban universe created by Ms. Chance, her own spin on vampire/supernatural creature lore, and her writing style has a nice flavor to it. I wasn’t a fan of certain aspects of the book (the heavy sex stuff at the end seemed completely out of place for me, regardless of it being hot), but overall I was pleased with it, and will definitely be picking up the next books in the series.

Ana: I am new to Urban Fantasy having read but a handful of novels. My favourite so far was Sunshine by Robin McKinley and I couldn’t help but to compare it with Touch the Dark – it seemed rather appropriate since the overall feel of the book was similar – a first person narrative of a young woman who finds herself right in the middle of something larger than her little self until she finds out that she has a much bigger role to play than expected. As with Sunshine we are catapulted in this world and we find out about it as we go along but if the former made me intrigued and fascinated with the story, the latter was just confusing.

I had a hard time finishing this, and it took me a bit more than one week to finish the book. I had to force myself to go through with it and was on the verge of quitting it but pressed on, hoping it would get better. It didn’t.

On the plot

Ms. Chance sure packs a whole lot into a smaller package. The story follows our heroine, Cassandra Palmer, who is a 20-some-year-old orphan. The book opens with Cassie on the run—she receives a cryptic message on her computer, an obituary for herself that states she will die that evening. Cassie has been in hiding for years now, after pinning her ‘guardian’, a Mafioso Vampire named Tony, with a bunch of racketeering charges. When she sees the message on her computer, Cassie doesn’t even skip a beat—she immediately trucks outta there to gather her few possessions (including a .357 magnum which she isn’t really adept with), and makes off to say goodbye and warn her current roommate, Tomas. Unfortunately, Cassie doesn’t move fast enough, and is cornered by five vampire assassins at the nightclub where she used to work.

It is here that we get a blast of what Cassie’s strengths really are.

While Tomas starts fighting off vampires—surprise! He’s one too—Cassie tries to take out another with her gun. Which proves disastrous. Luckily, she has a pentagram ward tattooed on her back (strong, old magic) that protects her from harm when someone comes in direct contact with it. And then the ghosts come in.

As a clairvoyant, Cassie also has the ability to see and converse with ghosts. Neither humans nor vampires (nor mages nor the fey for that matter) can do this, so while it provides some comic relief (Cassie appears a bit touched in the head by talking to herself, in the eyes of other characters), it also provides her with an invaluable tool to amass allies. Cassandra, with the help of ghostly lookout Portia (who is a whiny spirit of a southern belle) is able to round up help from spirits of Civil War soldiers–and uses their help to destroy another of the vampire assassins. One of the most regular presenses in Cassandra’s life is a ghost named Billy, who she is tied to through a necklace she picked up at a pawn shop (he “haunts” the necklace), and they share a sort of symbiotic relationship–Cassie gives Billy freedom to travel with her (via necklace) and gives him free energy, while he serves as a lookout for her (since no one else can see the spirits, Billy is an ideal spy).

With the foiled assassination attempt, Cassandra is taken under the wing of the Vampire Senate–who of course don’t give aid for free. Turns out, Cassandra’s birthright and her power as a clairvoyant is anything but ordinary, and she finds herself in the midst of a power struggle involving a dual faction of vampires, light and dark mages, heck even witches and the fey too.

Thea:I like Ms. Chance’s writing style. She writes a fast paced, jam-packed story. Plot-wise, I had no idea what was coming next, and that’s a very good thing. Predictable whodoneits aren’t as fun, and I can honestly say that portions of this plot twisting and turning definitely caught me unawares!
Ana: I sort of like her style as well – I agree that the story is fast-paced and unpredictable at points but there were some turns, specially towards the ending that I found less than believable and frankly I was rolling my eyes. Without spoiling it much , let me just say that when a major battle is about to happen it is not really urgent to learn the story of the Man in the Iron Mask is it?
But I do like her descriptions of the the places and the people. Her fighting scenes were well done and thrilling and that was the one thing that kept me from putting the book down.

On the characters

Thea: I really, REALLY like Cassie. As with most Urban Fantasy, or any story told from the first person POV, the hero(ine) can make or break the book. So much of the story depends on what Cass is feeling, as a clairvoyant, she needs to be in touch with herself lest she go nutso with all the curveballs her visions throw her. I adored how Cassandra was not ever going to be taken for a ride by any of the vampires–having grown up with them, she knows that anything they want, or any affections they show her stems from some ulterior motive. I especially loved that Cassandra had no smartmouth bitchy tendencies–like Mercy Thompson, Cassandra Palmer knows that she is low on the power totem pole, and needs to act accordingly.

So…with that said, there were some character aspects I was less than thrilled with. I really REALLY was not digging the whole ‘famous vampires’ thing. Cleopatra, Rasputin, Rafael, Jack the Ripper, etc etc etc are actually very powerful, ancient vampires. Maybe if it was just one or two, but given the all-star historical roster, I was heavy into eye-rolling territory with each new reveal. Baah! Not to say it was written badly, just that it felt kinda hokey. But…that’s just me. I’m certain other readers were very pleased with this historical quirk.

Famous vamps aside, I felt that all of the characters were pretty well developed (well, at least the ones you get to meet). The Big Bad Baddy Rasputin didn’t really have much screen time, but I am looking forward to seeing more of him in the next books. I enjoyed the interactions between Cassie and Billy, and her Vampire protectorate–Mircea, Louis-Cesar, Rafe and Tomas. Heck, even the driven, single-minded Pritkin was very well done.

Ana: WHO is Cassie? I have only but a faint idea. Plotwise the book was surprising but I felt that it was all plot, plot, plot at the expense of a more deep characterisation. Even though we were inside Carrie’s mind for the entire book , I still don’t know much about her, what moves her – I specially know very little about her feelings. I didn’t relate to her and that is one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy the book very much. I also lost my patience with her several times when other characters would bring to her attention that she was more than JUST a human and she would just ignore them. How many times can someone call you sibyl without making you wonder? Cassie? She would just say “the name is Cassie” Oh, please. Get a grip.

Up until the very end when it was revealed who she was, she kept denying it even though her powers grew exponentially over a mere number of hours – granted it may have been too much to process over a small amount of time but come on.
As for the other characters , I have to agree with Thea. The whole thing with the famous vamps: Rasputin, Mircea – Dracula’s brother – and Marlowe/ Shakespeare did my head in. Heck, even Tinker Bell made an appearance. She mentions en passant that Michelangelo was also a vampire and with Raphael being Cassie’s friend , I kept waiting that Donatello and Leonardo would show up and then voila, we would have the Vampire Mutant Ninja Painters.

The only character I really really liked was Pritkin, the Mage who is bent on fighting evil in any form. His reaction to the vampires torturing other beings was very much realistic. Also, his powers were very cool.
Final Observations

Thea: I liked the new spin on vampire lore Ms. Chance took here. Yes, we have our share of your run of the mill leather wearing sexy marble bodied vampires. But instead of everyone being beautiful, Cassandra explains that a vampire in death (undeath?) appears just as they did in life–for example, her former guardian Tony is a rotund, unattractive, badly dressed dude.

I also found the idea that vampires feed not only by sucking blood, but by entrancing with sight, touch, etc intriguing. At one point, when trying to explain to the obtuse Pritkin how vampires operate, Mircea makes the point that if vampires could only go around biting and sucking blood from victims at will, there really wouldn’t be that much food left.

I should also mention, there is some racy sexy stuff in this book–especially towards the end. Now I’m no prude, but it all felt kinda strange and out of place for me. And I’m also in general not extremely at home with play-by-play sex scenes (you know, the bread and butter of the romance novel), so…I wasn’t a huge fan. I think the entire sequence at the end was not really essential to the story, and I could have done without it. But again, that’s just me, and probably comes down to personal preference.

One note–given that I would have eliminated the sex altogether, in its defense, the sex that happens isn’t by the characters’ choice. That’s a bit of a misleading assumption. They ‘jump’ into the situation and the bodies they inhabit happen to be doing the nasty. So…It’s not as inappropriate, in my opinion. Also, the vamp Cassie gets down with is someone she has known from her entire childhood–since he’s a vamp and undead, he doesn’t age, whereas Cassie gets older. Some readers may find this creepy, but I didn’t really have a problem with it (I mean, in all of these paranormal books, be they Urban Fantasy or Romance or even straight up SF, humans have sex with immortals all the time…and when you think of how old the immortals are, i.e. Rain Tairen Soul being over a thousand years older than Ellie who has been dreaming of the ancient old fey dude for her entire life; or Sunshine has almost sex with an ancient vampire–that isn’t human at all even in resemblance–and looks like an old mushroom, any supposed willies concerning this situation with Cassie and her vamp don’t hold ground with me. Just sayin’.)
Ana: Even though as I said, the plot was kind of interesting, the worldbuilding and new spin on vampire lore as Thea puts it, were indeed creative, as creative were her descriptions of the places such as the Vegas casino belonging to Tony, it still didn’t grip me. I kept thinking what it was that kept me from enjoying it and I figured out: I think the story lacks emotion – it is all about plot and world building and the emotional side was just kept aside and that is something that I am always looking for in my reads. I don’t know if the next instalments will remedy this since the worldbuilding has been done in book one, but I am not sure I am interested enough in finding out.
I also have to agree with Thea with regards to the sex. I am a romance reader and l love me my sex scenes – but the sex scene in this book came out of nowhere, which is not a problem per se hadn’t it be coupled with the awkwardness of the situation behind it plus it felt like the sex came in the direct train from inappropriatemuchville – the person Cassie was about to have sex with was like an uncle to her when growing up. A few pages before the said sex scene she was remembering how she used to sit on his lap as a 11 year old to hear his stories. Ew.

Overall? Not my cup of tea.
Notable quotes/ Parts

Thea: There is one particular part that had me in stitches. When Cassandra touches Louis-Cesar for the first time, she experiences a new kind of vision–where she is transported back in time, and inhabiting Louis-Cesar’s body. In a compromising situation.

She stroked me again, harder this time, and I watched with something close to horror as an anatomical part I’d never possessed grew even longer under her hand. A flood of familiar sensations came from that very unfamiliar equipment, along with thoughts I was absolutely sure weren’t mine.

Ana: Cassie’s visit to Dante, Tony’s Casino in Vegas was very entertaining. The description of the place was very creative with each floor representing one of the stages of Dante’s work. And her encounter with the Satyr? Priceless.

Recommendation and Rating

Thea: 7 Very Good. I enjoyed this book very much, despite a shaky start and my aversion to the famous vamps, and I am excited to read the next few books in this series!

Ana: 5. Meh. Take it or leave it. The lack of emotional content left me cold but that is just little old me. I will wait for Thea to test drive the other books and if she says they are awesome beyond anything else, then I might pick them up.

Reading Next: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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  • Christine
    April 25, 2008 at 8:39 am

    I love the disparity in some of your duo book reviews. I’m left with no other choice than to go out and read TOUCH OF DARK for myself and see which one of you is right! lol kidding. Sort of. 🙂

    Have a great weekend!

  • Ana
    April 25, 2008 at 9:11 am

    Christine, this disparity has become stuff for legends -we have endless discussions every time we read the same book. LOL

    It is pretty amazing how two people can read the same thing and have such different reactions. It never fails to amaze me.

    We have now made our life mission to reach a consensus at least ONE time. LOL

    Have a nice weekend yourself!

  • li
    April 25, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Ana – If I say the next two books are awesome beyond anything else, would you pick them up? *grin*

    Okay, they’re not really the bestest books evah – but I love this series. I just finished the third book and it’s the best yet, IMO. We get to learn lots more about Pritkin and Mircea, and most of the loose ends are resolved.

    Like Thea, I love Cassie as a heroine, and I think the world Ms Chance has created is refreshingly different from other urban fantasies out there.

    My main problem with the first book (and to a lesser extent with the second) was the pacing. It’s just straight jam-packed action all the way through, and you never really get a chance to catch your breathe and gather your thoughts. I actually enjoyed this book much better when I did a re-read, just because I caught things I didn’t get the first time around.

  • Thea
    April 25, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Christine–Ana and I definitely wear ourselves out after doing a joint review (countless emails back and forth, debating every little aspect of said book!). Now go get a copy of this book 🙂 And have a great weekend too!

    Ana, dude. We WILL reach a consensus. It is coming soon. I can feel it. :p

    li–I have the next two books ready and waiting to be read. I also felt like this book was extremely fast paced and did get a bit confusing (not necessarily the author’s fault, just I am one of those readers that gets caught up in a story’s pacing, and inevitably I start reading at a frantic rate as well!).

    I’m definitely excited to continue Cassie’s story!

  • Carolyn Jean
    April 26, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Ana, though I love urban fantasy, I sort of agreed with you. This book was a total DNF for me. Maybe I was just in the wrong place when I read it, but I really lacked an emotional connection to Cassie, or more, I lacked a reason to read on.

  • ciara
    May 11, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    At the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in July EVERYONE recommended American Gods. So I’ve got myself a copy, but I haven’t read it yet. I’ll have to crack open the cover so that I can leave scintillating comments in your review this month. 🙂

  • spiceybiscuit
    May 13, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I have to agree with the 5 rating, I actually did not finish it…I skimmed through towards the end and did not miss anything. I believe there are two more after this one and won’t be reading them. The Senate with every well known villian (Jack the Ripper? Come on!) It started out so good and the club scene was great; after that is was a huge goopy mess. 😯

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