AfterEllen’s Summer of Love: “Desire at Dawn” by Fiona Zedde

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Fiona Zedde’s Desire at Dawn is a book I wrestled with a little. There are a lot of things to like about it but there are a lot of things I had trouble with.

The book centers on Kylie, a Jamaican-born vampire with a lot of issues around her mother, love, and sex. While she is frozen at 18—the age she was turned—she is really a 25-year-old virgin, terrified of losing herself in sexuality, retreating from intimacy at every turn and every way, restless in her vampire family, hugely resentful of her mother, convinced that almost nothing on earth can take her in a fight. (Her biological mother is also a vampire and a member of the clan; how this has happened is a longish piece of backstory that the book takes its time revealing.) Over the course of the story, Kylie finds love, learns to take joy in sex and intimacy, accepts her mother, and discovers that she is not so invincible as she thought.

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All of this is obviously what is going to happen from nearly the first page. Predictability in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing; this is a romance novel, not a whodunit, and being able to count on the characters finding love and self-acceptance by the end is part of the charm. The key is not to be surprised at where the story goes but to enjoy getting there, after all. This, however, is where I ran into a bit of trouble.

The thing about Kylie is she spends so much of the story rejecting everything—being a vampire, desiring love, desiring sex, desiring sex with women, emotional openness, her mother’s love. After a while, this got very tiring for me. Her lover in the book, Olivia, is a mortal woman who is (spoiler alert )dying of cancer. Inevitably, she begs Kylie to turn her so that she can survive: by the time Kylie’s rejectionism reaches the point of refusing to do this because she’d rather see Olivia dead than a monster like her, I was more or less tearing my hair. (A particularly egregious exchange: “Fear gripped Kylie’s stomach. ‘You don’t mean that [you want to be turned].’ ‘Don’t tell me what I mean. You’re not the one dealing with cancer right now.’ ‘You’re right; I’m not. But that’s no reason to let it consume your life.’” Um, cancer—at least the kind that you’re certain will kill you—literally does consume your whole life? Kylie, how do you see this playing out, exactly?)

However, there are several positives. While I mostly found the writing itself fairly average, there are passages here and there that I really liked. This, in particular, stood out, from before Olivia and Kylie have even really met:

Olivia. She silently tasted the name on her tongue. Olivia. She pursed her lips on the first syllable, licked her palate on the second, bit her lip on the third as she said her name. Olivia.

I mean, damn, way to make some phonemes extremely sexual. Strong work.

Speaking of sex, there is a LOT of it in the book and almost all of it is completely great. In fact, most of the best prose is found in the sex scenes. One of the cool things that comes from Kylie’s reluctance is that before the dam breaks and she starts sleeping with Olivia, she spends a lot of time voyeuristically watching other women have sex. Her vampire clan is mostly female and pretty hypersexual (not to mention kinky as hell), so she’s always stumbling across amazing sex romps in her own home and being transfixed into watching. Later, as she starts to open up to herself, she uses her vampire stealth skills to watch a pair of human women have sex, and there is an amazingly casual tour of a sex club too. This device of Kylie observing because she’s afraid to participate means we get a lot of sex early on and get to watch Kylie’s feelings about it change over time. It also means we get an impressive amount of variety in the participants and styles of sexuality.

The cast is almost all female and almost all black or brown, which is a wonderful change of pace. There is a welcome diversity of body types, all positively described; I particularly liked that Olivia had had a partial mastectomy before meeting Kylie, and the state of her breasts doesn’t turn Kylie off at all. Zedde does some good world building when the (again, inevitable) vampire hunters are introduced; in particular, their weapons and methods for caging a vamp are highly intriguing. The Manhattan penthouse where the clan lives is an amazing tricked-out luxury pad that I had a great time visualizing. (While I kept wondering where the reams of money they clearly have come from, I was also so amazed at the detail that Kylie took the toilet out of her bathroom to make room for a bigger shower that this frankly seems more important to me. She’s right! Vampires probably don’t need toilets! HOW HAVE I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT THIS BEFORE.)

The book’s climax—which I won’t spoil—also impressed me. It went to a hard-hitting place I genuinely did not expect, and while some details of it don’t quite add up for me logically, it created a symmetry and balance in Kylie’s and Olivia’s respective journeys that is pleasing and helps make their resolution (because of course there was a problem between them keeping them from being happy together) more believable and satisfying. (Note that when I say “of course” I’m not complaining—this is how romantic structure works!)

I have other quibbles, but most of them are fairly small. Choices that don’t quite make sense to me tended to happen on the paragraph or minor character level, not in the main romance or the overarching plot, so they’re mostly easy to overlook. The one exception would be the way Kylie and Olivia repeatedly used sex to ignore the problem between them instead of resolving it; by my count this happens three times right in a row, and it feels like the book just stops dead and starts to become repetitive. As the requisite make-up sex demonstrates, it’s much more satisfying when the sex marks their togetherness than when it stands in the way of their intimacy. Just have a conversation! I kept imploring them mentally, as if they could hear me. My dissatisfaction with this stretch of the story meant I kept getting distracted by wondering about practical details that ought to be irrelevant, like what the vampires’ chauffeur’s deal is and the carbon footprint of so much private air travel between New York and Atlanta. Typically this kind of off-base curiosity is not a good sign. But overall, the romance works and the two leads feel like real, distinct people, which is what the backbone of a romance novel should be.

Desire at Dawn is available now from Bold Stroke Books.

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