Catching Midnight features the upyr, an immortal, shape-shifting, blood-drinking race. Although written about by no less than Tolstoy, Emma Holly first introduced the upyr to romance readers in 2002’s Fantasy anthology. As a fan of Ms Holly’s work, I had high hopes for a book that combines two sub-genres I also enjoy – vampire romance and historical romance. Unfortunately, my overall impression is that this novel suffers from an identity crisis. Days after finishing it, I still can’t decide if it is truly a romance, a horror-lite novel in the vein of Bitten (by Kelley Armstrong), a soft-core Anne Rice imitation, or a bonafide launching pad for a new series.
The novel opens in 1349 London, home of the Black Plague and our 10-year-old heroine Gillian. Turned out of the house by a mother who already has too many dying children and desperately wants her daughter to live, the grieving, frightened, and utterly alone Gillian stumbles into the forest, where she is found sleeping by two impossibly beautiful creatures of the night (upyr), Auriclus and Nim Wei. The two elders argue over Gillian’s fate, ultimately giving her the choice of who will make her like them. Nim Wei explains why the creatures want to change Gillian into a being like themselves:
“You are what we love: a creature whose passions are too big to contain. A creature with a seeking mind. Think of all the things you have desired. To have your hunger sated. To rule over those who slight you. To be brave and strong and beautiful all your days. Long days, during which you shall never be sick or helpless or ignored. You will be loved, Gillian, as a goddess.”
The difference between Nim Wei and Auriclus, as described to Gillian, is that Auriclus represents life away from humans, while Nim Wei lives among them and plays with humans like toys. The two have a truce not to fight each other or their “children,” as long as they reside in their separate worlds. Gillian chooses Auriclus and her new life begins.
When next we meet Gillian, she is in 1370 Scotland. She is now an upyr, changed by Auriclus and left in the keeping of Ulric, leader of an upyr shapeshifting pack, who is pressuring her to become both a full member of the pack, and his mate. But like Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Gillian is consumed with wonder about all things human. She longs to know her history, to travel in the human world, and be a part of normal, human things. With the help of a pack member, she runs away in the night to seek her future away from the upyr pack.
Gillian’s character type is classic in the paranormal romance subgenre – the heroine who is “changed” against her will and then rebels against the confines of her new life. However, unlike Elena, whose angry confusion brought such fire and energy to Bitten (a personal paranormal favorite of mine), Gillian’s characterization is a real weakness of Catching Midnight. Her fits and starts as a member of the upyr pack, and her resistance to becoming fully upyr, even in the face of her ever-escalating powers irritated me. I felt like she didn’t respect her power or her new race, even as she took advantage of it time and again in order to achieve her own ends. She is by turns a wild child innocent and a beguiling temptress, and neither persona seems to fully work. I didn’t empathize with her enough for her story to resonate for me.
On the other hand, I did like Aimery Fitz Clare, the mortal master falconer hero, who catches Gillian while she is in falcon form. There is a strong beauty-and-the-beast element to the relationship between Aimery and Gillian, but off course, the ironic twist is that in actuality Gillian is far more beast than Aimery, who bears the brunt of a terrible reputation he doesn’t fully deserve. He is a huge, scarred man – both physically and emotionally – and he is also a warrior who longs for peace, love, and a family. Aimery has layers which are well-drawn and interesting, as illustrated by his loving and full relationship with his lonely nephew. In many ways, he and Gillian are a good match, since he can understand how things can be other than what they seem, and can more readily accept her differences than most men of her time might.
Aimery bonds quickly with his new falcon, and shortly after her capture, begins dreaming of a beautiful priestess. Yes, that’s Gillian, coming to him in his dreams. By day Aimery unknowingly trains her as a falcon, by night he dreams of making love to a goddess with the same captivating eyes. Holly’s trademark burning sensuality and explicit love scenes are in evidence, but many of the scenes have a formulaic, almost perfunctory quality that reminded me of Anne Rice’s use of sex in her novels. I didn’t enjoy the love scenes in Catching Midnight as much as I have enjoyed similar scenes in other books by Holly.
The myriad plotlines eventually intersect: Aimery discovers Gillian’s true nature, they begin a clandestine romance; she begins to discover/use her upyr power; and Nim Wei, Gillian and Auriclus confront each other. But, regretfully, the resolution of many of these threads is inconclusive, and seems more like overall series development than a legitimate, fully cohesive climax to this novel.
The complicated relationship between Nim Wei and Auriclus interested me, and Holly seems to have created some possible plot scenarios for the next book in the Upyr series. I hope to see more of both of them, because they are fascinating and well-matched characters.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how I feel about Catching Midnight or about the future of the Upyr series in general. While not an unlikable book, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as it should have, could have been, and I kept asking myself: Do we really need yet another series about a vampiric, shapeshifting universe filled with powerful beings who can do whatever needs doing depending on the occasion? This book didn’t make me say, “Yes!” despite its appealing hero and interesting premise and, frankly, it just didn’t excite me in any way. I may pick up the second book in the series out of curiosity to see where Holly takes the upyr from here, but my expectations won’t be high.