Call me food-obsessed, but reading irrevocably brings out the gourmand in me. Not only do I tend to nibble away on something chocolate-related when I read, but some books also seem to provoke metaphors straight out of the kitchen from me. Michaela August’s Glass Souls is such a book. It is a hotpot of diverse ingredients. It is the plate you eat when you get carried away at the buffet, a bursting and exotic blend of everything that was on offer. Mixing elements of the paranormal fantasy, the historical novel, the Gothic tale and the Goddess myth, all spiced up with a bit of cross-gender confusion and homoerotic undertones, this saga-ish novel fantasy boasts an impressive number of characters, backdrops and topics. From secret vampire societies and soul reincarnation to gay Crusader knights, there is so much going on in this novel that it risks overcrowding. Meticulously researched, this zealous wealth of subject matter creates an imaginative and multi-layered fictional world that, while laudably crisscrossing genre categories, leaves the reader in turn disorientated, overwhelmed and enticed.
In the 13th century world of religious Crusades and political upheaval, the vampire lords of the House of the Rose – the flying, aura-reading, almost-immortal djinni – are busy protecting their mortal people as well as searching for new reincarnations of the House’s ancient souls. During the Cathar massacre of Béziers (1209), djinni Menelaos, aka Dominic a.k.a Ninshubur, (and, yes, almost all characters have that many names) loses many of his charges, including his wife Honoria. Menelaos himself is badly wounded, bereft of most of his powers. Resisting the sexual healing methods of djinni matriarch Sharibet, aka Eresh-erib, for forty years, Menelaos grows more and more disillusioned by his own impotence (both in and outside of bed). Desperate to redeem himself, he accepts a difficult mission in the Holy Land, not knowing that his journey will reunite him with the reincarnation of his beloved wife, freshly reborn in the body of the young Crusader knight Michel.
Cousins Michel and Roland de La Roche-en-Ardennes are short of cash when they join the marauding gang of gay aristocrat Amalric de Sens to loot a Saracen trading caravan. The gang find their booty surprisingly well protected by a Sir Dominic, who turns on his attackers, gruesomely slaughtering one after the other (I am talking genital mutilation here) and sparing the lives of only Roland, Michel and Sir Jean de Pézenas. His mercy is well-founded, it turns out, since all three knights happen to be reincarnations of former members of the House of the Rose. While both Roland and Sir Jean accept Sir Dominic’s offer to return to the House, Michel flees – appalled by his lustful attraction for the older man. Little does the god-fearing Christian suspect that he is facing his own husband from his previous life. Fearing for his salvation, a penitent Michel joins the Templar order. Yet, Dominic is not about to give up the love of his life once again. His obsessive quest for Michel will lead him from Egypt and merchant Venice to a final showdown in Flanders.
This is the light, the no-fat, no-sugar, no-carb version of a plot intricate enough to make your head spin. It would take long – very long – to convey everything that writer duo Marian Gibbons and Karin Welss (aka Michaela August) have cramped into this medieval fantasy. With enough secondary and tertiary characters to populate the next five installments of the envisaged series, this saga is not short of depth and variety. Yet at times it lacks the definition and the focus of a single-plot driven storyline. Michel’s whole family conveniently appears to be made up of reincarnated djinnis just waiting to be portrayed in the next episodes (it must be in the genes, I wonder). Rushed on from one character to the next, I could not help feeling that the novel would be more engaging if it took more time to focus on character development and relations rather than sheer numbers.
One more cautionary warning for the avid romance reader. The romantic component of this novel is so slight you need a good magnifying glass to find it. The only remotely romantic relationship is that between Michel and Dominic. At most times, however, this formation is graciously evaded, presumably because of its slightly more risqué nature. Sex is handled without much emotion and mostly serves regenerative purposes. The fighting scenes are realistically brutal and the language, true to the rougher setting, could offend the delicate reader used to more flowery prose. There is equally no sign of the good old HEA. As customary in some series fiction, the novel finishes with more questions than answers. What will happen to Michel and Dominic? What is the dark secret that the eldest of the djinni harbors? One can only hope that these uncertainties will be resolved in the next installment, House of Memory.
Imaginative and intricate, Glass Souls creates a, literally, full-bodied world of interesting characters and topics. By itself, however, August’s novel cannot stand, serving more as an introduction than a self-contained read.