Book Reviews

Vengeance Born by Kylie Griffin

Bitchery, I am on a quest to bring you all of the fantasy romance and romantic fantasy I can get my hands on. As a part of this quest I finally picked up Vengeance Born, a fantasy romance from 2012 that has been on my TBR for a few years now. There were some things I quite liked about this series opener and some things that made me shake my head and sigh, but overall, this was a perfectly adequate and moderately enjoyable fantasy romance read.

In the world of Vengeance Born, humans and demons (known as Na’Reish) are enemies locked in a generations-long conflict. The heroine, Annika, is the half-human, half-demon daughter of the demon king. (Half-human, half-demon individuals are known as Na’Chi). She is abused by her father and all the demons in his court for her “impure” blood, and she hides a magical healing gift. When one of the human warriors who protects humanity, known as a Light Blade, is taken prisoner in her father’s dungeons, she offers to heal him in exchange for letting her escape with him. The warrior, who is named Kalan, agrees, and we are off to the races!

The book basically has two movements: first, Kalan and Annika travelling together as they escape, and second, how human society reacts to Annika and other Na’Chi, who resemble their number one enemy. Readers should be warned that both of these major plot sections involve a LOT of unpleasant violence or attempted violence against Annika that goes mostly unpunished, which is a major bummer that is only sort of leavened by the burgeoning romance between Annika and Kalan.

As painful as it was to read about her suffering throughout the book, I did think Annika was excellent as a heroine. She has a certain vulnerability borne from her incredible loneliness and craves acceptance and connection. But at the same time, she has a lot of inner strength and conviction and won’t compromise on her core values. She’s also not afraid to call people (e.g. the humans) out on their bullshit. Overall, she is a genuinely good and kind person who has dealt with a lot of adversity. I wanted to wrap her in a blanket and brush her hair forever to protect her from the cruel world.

Kalan was…fine, I guess. I often prefer the heroine to the hero in M/F romance, so I don’t usually hold that against a book. However, I found Kalan to be either frustrating or EXCEPTIONALLY boring as a hero. He is spitefully ignorant and hateful towards Annika at the outset of their journey together, which is a bit rich after she saves his life so they can escape. While I appreciated that he did eventually realize that he was being a massive hypocrite and asshole, I don’t feel like he sufficiently made restitution to Annika for the harms he did to her before just, like, trying to bone down with her.

Then, once he decides to actually be a Good Guy, he’s very boring. It feels as though his only inner conflict is whether it’s acceptable for him to be attracted to Annika and once he decides that it is, there’s not much else going on with him internally. So he spends most of the rest of the book kind of charging around being righteous. Blegh.

As a result, I was lukewarm about the romance between Kalan and Annika. As much as I was excited for Annika to finally get the love, acceptance, and affection she craved, I did not feel like Kalan ever did sufficient groveling for the various shitty things he does earlier in the book. Without getting too spoilery, he also lies to Annika in a pretty major way at one point for reasons that truly make no sense, and this decision was never fully resolved or explained to my satisfaction. I sort of wrote off the entire thing as a baffling nonsense interlude and pretended it did not happen for the remainder of the story, but if totally unjustified deception is a big deal to you in your romance this may not be the book for you.

Another thing readers should be aware of with the romance is that in the early stages, there is a LOT of covert ogling (on both sides) while Annika and Kalan are bathing/dressing/etc. The way this read for me was so corny (like “baby’s first rush of hormones”) that it undercut the potential creep factor for me. However, I know lots of people are understandably REALLY squicked out by any nonconsensual creeping on nude or semi-nude love interests in romance so if that’s a big yuck for you, again, skip this book.

In terms of its detail, coherence, and novelty, I found the world-building in Vengeance Born to be fairly strong. The Na’Reish and Na’Chi are basically vampires; they need blood to live. I enjoyed the way the vampire concept was deployed in this paranormal-infused high fantasy setting. Additionally, while we don’t see much of actual Na’Reish society, the Na’Chi and human groups felt like fully rendered societies with their own norms, customs, and prejudices. Also, religion plays a prominent role in the story, and the cosmology of the world was fascinating to me.

As much as the world-building was interesting, it also had one capital-P Problem, and that Problem is fantasy racism. On one hand, I thought this book actually did an excellent job showing that deeply entrenched racial hatred for an “evil” group is almost invariably based on systemic, self-serving, and socially/politically entrenched lies about the other. HOWEVER! The Problem is that even though this book is purportedly about overcoming racist prejudice, it seems like basically everyone in Vengeance Born, whether Na’Reish, Na’Chi, or human, is White. (I say “seems like” because some characters are described as having golden skin, which is somewhat ambiguous, but these golden-skinned characters are also mostly blonde).

I find it troubling when racism in books is addressed by creating a fantasy race against whom others are racist, while people of color seem to be entirely excluded from the narrative. It’s not that race and racism ALWAYS has to work exactly the same way in a fantasy novel as it does in our world, as that would be both boring and depressing. It’s more that if a fantasy world can’t imagine POC in any role in a book that is fundamentally about racism, it…raises my eyebrows. If the fundamental divide here is between Na’Reish and human, why aren’t there ANY humans or Na’Reish of color? It feels like at best a cop-out or a profound failure of imagination, and at worst full-blown erasure.

To be honest, I was unsure how exactly to factor this entire issue into my grade. On one hand, I thought there was some genuinely trenchant insight in this book about racism in general, and the links between interpersonal and systemic racism, based on the way human-demon relations are presented. On the other hand, it was decidedly uncomfortable to read a book that is about racism with characters who all seem to be White. It ended up being sort of a wash for me personally but I think potential readers need to know about this in advance because I think it could (rightfully) be a massive turn-off.

So, where does this leave us? I thought Annika was a compelling heroine and it was my investment in her journey that kept me reading, plus a desire to further explore the intriguing (if at times frustrating) world-building. However, the actual romance was meh and there were a few things I found weird, unsettling, or otherwise not to my tastes. I think if you are in the mood for fantasy romance and none of the things I flagged in my review are dealbreakers, this book is a serviceable way to spend a leisurely interlude in another world. Personally, I might continue with the series simply because the next book has a much edgier Na’Chi hero and a badass blind priestess heroine, but I haven’t decided yet.

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