Death and the Maiden
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Entering into the second book in the "Johnathan Barrett, Gentleman Vampire" series, Death and the Maiden, I had hopes that the series would pick up its action and start delivering a more focused story. I had my qualms with the first book, Red Death, largely due to its pace and its unfocused plot, but all of that could be attributed to Elrod taking her time setting up not only our protagonists life before turning into a vampire but then following him for his first forays into undead-ness. Now that he's actually a vampire, one would surmise, it should be time for this second book to pick up the pace.
Unfortunately, Death and the Maiden never actually rises to the occasion. Much like the first book this sequel focuses on Johnathan Barrett and his continuing life (really, unlife) on Long Island of the mid-1770s. Although the Revolutionary War is really starting to pick up on the mainland, Barrett, his family, and the whole town are still largely removed from the adventure just on the horizon. It serves as color for the background but it still has yet to feel like the war is every going to come for our hero. And without that it's hard to say there's any really direction for the novel to go. Two books in and mostly we just watch Barrett as he focuses on the "gentleman" part of his "Gentleman Vampire" descriptor. The books, and the readers, need more.
This book picks up shortly after the end of the last. Barret has now been a vampire for a few months and has learned to enjoy his newfound powers. Sure, things aren't entirely ease for a vampire of leisure -- his mother is still an absolute wretch, the British are still occupying Long Island, and there are still bandit raids among the farms of this quiet hamlet -- but there generally isn't much for a vampire of means to do. Barrett spends his nights flying around as fog, visiting a rather comely whore, and waiting for word from his creator, Nora, to let him know she's okay.
Things do change slightly when his sister, Elizabeth, falls for a handsome young gentleman. The man, a Lord from England here on a visit with his sister and trapped on Long Island due to the war, shakes up matters in the house. Now, suddenly, Johnathan is facing a long life without his sister at his side as she is courted by the Lord. Although happy for his sister, he would miss her company. Plus, there's something off about the Lord, something he just can't place, and it could spell doom for his sister's happy new life.
To put it bluntly, Death and the Maiden is a slow book. While things do happen -- bandits attack one farm here, are seen there, attack Johnathan one time later on -- much of the book is taken up with the mundanities of the rich on Long Island. In contrast to the "Vampire Files" books, where hero Flemming very often gets stuck having to run from one disaster to another for days on end, Barrett has a much simpler time, studying the intrigues of nobility while he idles away his days.
It might be interesting if Barrett were at all interested in being a powerful vampire who actually did vampiric things, like maybe taking over Long Island and sending the British away, or perhaps using his vampire powers to fight for one side (or the other) in the war. Barrett, though, seems squeamish to use his powers in any way, good or bad, that might get noticed. So he flies quietly under the cover of darkness, he hardly every uses his mind control powers, and he either feeds on animals or the comely whore in town, and that's it. he could, frankly, not be a vampire at all and the structure of the story wouldn't change drastically either way.
The story of the noble and Barrett's sister would be interesting if it were a larger part of the book, but most of the action on this plot line happens in the last part of the book. The lord doesn't get much character development and the few times he shows up he's not even memorable (frankly the book had to remind me time and again he was even a character in this novel). Elizabeth, of course, is a character that's been with us since the first novel so we do have some affection for her, but since her plot line largely comes in the late portion of the novel it hardly seems to matter. And, of course, the whole thing is resolved in two chapters, making it more of a blip than a real climax to the novel (for those curious, the Lord was a fake and had planned to kill Elizabeth and steal he fortune, a dastardly plot if it had been developed more).
Frankly, I think the whole story would have been much more interesting if it had been told from the perspective of Elizabeth rather than Barrett. Seeing society from her eyes, watching her try to thread being a good woman (as society considered it) while courting a new man and also helping her brother hide his dark secret would be a much more interesting angle on the material than what we did get. At the very least it would have prioritized her courtship into the main storyline, which would have forced more development for it. Besides which, Elizabeth is more interesting than her brother and I would have rather spent more time with her as our protagonist.
And this doesn't even get into Cousin Anne. This character, introduced in this book, is always billed as some kind of foil for Barrett, a girl with a scheme she plans to put into motion. That's what the copy on the back of the novel says (and its the same summary you'll find on every other site discussing this book). The thing is, though, that Anne is barely a blip in the book at all. She's a quiet girl, smart but uneducated, and she mostly just makes flighty small talk in between reading books and plays Barrett suggests to her. There is a very mild romance between the two, which even the novel seems to think is icky since they're first cousins, and then the matter is simply dropped. Again, there just isn't any momentum here.
I really don't know what the point of this book series is yet. It's hardly done much to make Barrett, a character from the main "Vampire Files" series, interesting on his own. It also does a poor job of extending the "Vampire Files" formula into a new setting. I have a feeling that Elrod thought it would be neat to write these books but, once she got into it, she realized there wasn't as much story here as she thought. Whether that was something she realized or not, it certainly is the case that we're two books in and still waiting for anything really important to happen. Barrett became a vampire in the first book, an inevitable action considering this is a book series about him as a vampire. Beyond that, though, we have yet to learn anything about him, or see him do anything, that really justifies giving him his own series. This book is a dud and it spells bad tidings for the final two books we still have to read.