Imagine a city in which supernatural predators and mortals live in an uneasy balance. Imagine that the predators all belong to more-or-less powerful clans reminiscent of Renaissance Italy or the modern Mafia, except for the desperate exiles who have been expelled from their clans for various reasons. Imagine rivalry within and among families, and a network of relationships based on greed, lust, respect, curiosity and even unselfish love. Imagine a sexy mix of humans and non-humans who all meet in a seedy bar where anything can be arranged for a price, or in the one nightclub which is known as neutral ground.
This is the world of Between Love and Lust, whose title doesn’t give a clear-enough indication of what lies between its virtual covers. This is an ambitious, well-conceived erotic vampire novel intended to be the first of a series. There is definitely enough material here for a series of novels, and for a cult following.
The author's version of a creation myth (how the first vampires came to exist) is similar enough to the mythos of Bram Stoker: in the ancient past, demonic blood got into human bodies that became "non-living" in the sense of unchanging. Nikko Lee adds the influence of love: a human's love for a demon and the demon's unwillingness to live without her. The Adam and Eve of the vampiric bloodline (now in “eternal rest”) were heterosexual, complementary, fiercely bonded and long-lived, although none of their descendants are immortal. These vampires appear to be immortal because they survive much longer than humans – so much longer that they tend to fall out of touch with current reality and eventually go insane, without exception.
Faith plays a role, however. Unlike agnostic modern vampires who can’t be stopped by garlic and crucifixes, Nikko Lee’s vampires are affected by holy water the way human flesh is affected by napalm. All the reader is allowed to know about this unusual weapon in the first novel is that it works because it is infused with fervent belief.
There is a lot of sex in this world. Vampires can mate with each other as well as with mortals, and their appetites are larger than life. Their appetites vary, however. Some of the surviving members of the original thirteen families (particularly the Lucienna, a family of "shadow warriors") have their own sexual value system which mandates sex only within "blood-bonded" relationships, which last until the bond-mates literally crumble into dust. Both the sex scenes and the hints of frustrated longing are believable and integral to the plot.
Mika the vampire is a central character, a kick-ass heroine who is beautiful and stronger than she looks. She lives in a loft above the nightclub run by her best friend Dahlia, where all the major players in the plot meet for business or pleasure beyond the turf of particular clans. When her "pater-sire" Jacob, formerly her lover, comes to tell her about the recent murder of a clan leader, the third-person narrator suggests a theory of fetishism or imprinting:
"Each vampire had his own vice that could be traced back to his original embrace, as her pater-sire had once explained. Some vampires longed for chemically-induced euphoria, especially if their would-be sire had drugged them, thereby aiding them to withstand the horror that followed the rapture of the embrace. Others longed to re-create the violent hunt that preceded their transformation.
"Mika did not need her pater-sire to explain to her the vice that was her weakness above all others. The memory of her embrace was seared into her soul and her sex. Hunger for blood produced such wanton desires in Mika that her lust would make a streetwalker blush. The feel of a lover's manhood hardening under her grip or her nether lips moistening against his lapping tongue produced a satisfaction that was only paralleled by the consumption of fresh blood."
Despite her nearly-constant lust, Mika has a kind of innocence that has been protected by the now-fatherly but unreadable Jacob. When he bonded with Mika's "mater-sire," he joined a more powerful and prestigious clan than the one he was "born" into, but he still shows the unpredictable qualities of his birth-clan, the Seguines. Mika's "mater-sire," Jacob's former mate, was sentenced by the Council of Elders to "eternal rest," a punishment parallel to life imprisonment or execution. But the Council of Elders is known to be corrupt. Was Miriam really guilty of anything? Mika's memories of her seem to hover wistfully in the air.
The male vampire who ignites Mika's passion like none other is himself a Seguine by "birth," as well as an exile, sentenced to a kind of limbo by the Council of Elders. Jacob’s clan leader, Dawson, wants to reform the council into a more democratic organization which could rule the clans more fairly and effectively Yet most of the clans are more interested in their own concerns than in the business of good government, and a proposed change of regime is always opposed by someone.
Could the mysterious murders of high-status vampires be a sign of impending civil war in the vampire community? Are humans involved? And how is Hail, Mika's soul-mate, mixed up in things? As an exile he has been taken in by the exploitative Corbius clan that can always find a use for powerless vampires and humans. The once-proud Hail is the unwilling plaything of the clan leader's "little princess,” who degrades him publicly. Mika has her own kinky side (aside from the inherent kinkiness of surviving on human blood), but like Hail, she shows surprising integrity under pressure.
The great strengths of this novel are its complex plot, involving a large cast of characters, and the compelling qualities of the key players. At the heart of the conflict is an ideological clash which is echoed in the relationships between individuals, especially the Romeo-and-Juliet affair between Mika and Hail.
Vampires can inspire dread or desire, or some of both, and these vampires live up to the tradition. The way they produce "childer" mimics human reproduction, and it seems to rule out the homoerotic bonding introduced by Anne Rice and continued by her own literary offspring. Recreational sex between females happens a lot in this novel, often as part of a threesome scene. At one point, Hail sends a willing human female (a politician on the city council) to Mika much as he might send her a bouquet with an important message attached. (The message is a rhymed riddle lightly engraved in the skin of the woman’s back.) Mika shares the woman with Dahlia in an all-night party which largely takes place off the page, although there is a titillating reference to "necessary restraints." Sex between vampires and humans usually includes blood-drinking, but there is a general understanding that completely draining a victim is reckless and uncouth.
This novel is engaging on several levels, and the BDSM ethos and culture implied by any vampire story is generally well-integrated with the other elements. There is one exceptional scene, early in the plot, in which Mika goes slumming in a BDSM club in search of information, even though the place is considered disreputable – by vampires. The mind boggles, though of course such hypocrisy is also very human. In this dive, Mika puts on a show by giving a male informant a blow job which looks tamer than most of what she does for fun. Apparently the shock-value of such behavior from a member of Clan Chavel supplies the necessary frisson for a jaded or hard-core audience. Of course, it could be argued that kink is in the eyes of the beholder.Unfortunately, typing and spelling mistakes are not simply a matter of opinion, and there are too many of them in this novel. Sloppy editing does nothing to enhance the status of e-books, but with any luck, this one will be polished up and reproduced in print some day. It certainly deserves a longer shelf-life than many of its clan-members.