Melanie Jackson’s Divine Fire is a paranormal romance with an original and fascinating premise. It’s a very interesting read, but also has a number of weaknesses that make it an uneven one.
In 1816, Lord Byron came to stay at the home of Dr. Johann Conrad Dippel, the mad scientist who inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Seeking a treatment for his epilepsy, Byron agreed to take part in one of the scientist’s experiments in hopes it would cure him. Dippel’s “cure” did take care of Byron’s epilepsy, but it also left the poet unable to die. For nearly two hundred years, he has lived under a number of identities, faking his death every few decades and resurfacing under a different name each time. It’s a lonely existence, as he can’t allow anyone to get too close and risk having them learn his secret.
In 2005 he is known as Damien Ruthven (a nice little Easter Egg), a ruthless literary critic infamous for his scathing book reviews. When he receives an advance copy of a biography on Lord Byron, he is intrigued by the author’s insight into his former life and the way she expresses her ideas. He also notices a few minor errors and decides to contact the author, Brice Ashton, so that she can correct them before the book hits the shelves.
Brice is intrigued when she receives Damien’s letter and immediately makes plans to travel to New York to meet him. The details he mentions in his letter are things someone could only know if they had access to some private papers of Byron’s that aren’t known to the public. As a scholar who dedicated years to researching Byron’s life, Brice wants to learn whatever Damien knows about Byron that she doesn’t. She doesn’t count on the attraction that quickly develops between them after she arrives, or the startling truth about himself that he reveals to her.
The book gets off to a good start. The story takes place in the week before Christmas. The wintry New York setting and Damien’s isolated, gothic-inspired penthouse give it a strong sense of atmosphere and a moody feel that’s very nice. Both Damien and Brice were interesting and likable characters at first. Brice is both a reclusive writer and a scholar interested in history, two character types I very much enjoy. The author clearly knows a great deal about Byron, as well as the French historical figure Ninon de Lenclos, who is the subject of Brice’s next book. All the details about these people are fascinating, and my favorite parts of the book are the one where Damien and Brice sit around talking about them. These scenes feature two smart, literate people discussing subjects they’re interested in and know well, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Jackson’s premise, mixing historical characters with Frankenstein lore, is intriguing, and the sections where we learn about what happened to Byron, what his life has been like all these years, and what Dippel was up to make for compelling reading.
There are some weakness though, that keep the story from being as good as it might have been. While Damien and Brice are both sympathetic, they’re not well developed. This is one of those books where the characters’ backstories are what pass for characterization. Brice is a widow whose husband died under traumatic circumstances. Damien was Lord Byron. That’s about as deep as their characters go.
The pacing is very uneven. The first half of the book is mostly character-driven, as Brice comes to stay with Damien, they fall in love, and she learns the truth of who he is. The romance happens too quickly and easily to be very convincing. Jackson tries to give the sense that there’s some kind of instant connection between them that quickly leads to deep feelings, but the relationship lacked any real tension. It just kind of happens, without the emotions necessary to make it entirely believable. While there are some nice moments, I didn’t think they knew each other well enough to be in love, and it wasn’t romantic enough to make me forget that fact and go with it.
Then, about halfway through, the story makes an abrupt shift into suspense mode. From then on out, it’s basically one long action sequence that takes place on a single night, with a brief, oddly-timed interlude for sex in the middle. The villain is suitably evil and there are some chilling moments, but this part of the book goes on way too long, to the point where it stops being suspenseful and becomes dull. It doesn’t help that at this point the story often moves slowly and is somewhat overwritten – the author describes everything to the point of excess and occasionally inserts introspection that slows any momentum. I liked the characters when they were sitting around discussing Byron, but during the latter stages of the book, as they went through the motions of the action plot, I lost interest.
The book rebounds a bit at the end, with some promising developments and indications that there are more stories to follow. Based on the last chapter, I’d certainly be willing to check out the next book to see where the author takes the characters and premise she’s created. As for this book, it’s not totally satisfying, but it is an interesting read.