Demon Dance (2010) is the third book in Sam Stone's Vampire Gene series, which follows the adventures (violent, magical and amorous) of the vampires Lilly, Gabriele and Lucrezia. From reading reviews of the rest of the series, it seems that Ms. Stone picks a hero viewpoint for each book - for Demon Dance, the spotlight is on Lilly, the youngest vampire.
Demon Dance begins with Lilly lost in time. She, Gabriele (her lover and "sire"), Lucrezia (Gabriele's sire) and Ceasare (Lucrezia's sire - and brother) were all battling. During the course of the fight, Lilly winds up pulled through a strange series of doors and effectively lost in time. It seems that each door throws her into a different time. Unfortunately, she can't use the same one twice, so she can't come back easily. As an added tingle of danger, Lilly needs to be careful how she behaves - lest she inadvertently trigger some sort of paradox and erase her own existence.
As a result, Lilly winds up taking the long way back. Each chapter of Demon Dance sees the patient Lilly working her way back to the present. These are punctuated with occasional glimpses of the here and now, with Lilly awkwardly preparing for her reunion with Gabriele. For her confused lover, it has only been ten minutes. For Lilly? Centuries.
Lilly's perambulations through history take her from the epic (the Garden of Eden) to the genealogical (the moments where Caesare and Lucrezia were both turned into vampires). Throughout it all, Lilly pieces together more and more of the mystery surrounding her bloodline.
Fundamentally, I have two major barriers when it comes to reviewing Demon Dance critically.
First, this isn't a genre (or sub-genre) I'm familiar with, so I'm not able to evaluate if Ms. Stone is doing something new/old/good/bad/clever/awful within the context of vampire fiction and/or paranormal romance.
Second, Demon Dance is very much the third of the series. There's a short recap at the beginning that encompasses the plot to date, but it is very hard to establish the significance of anything without having read the previous books. If Lilly falls for x instead of y, I don't know why x is important. If b is revealed to be c, I don't know why that revelation should blow my mind. Despite the time travel element, following the story is quite simple. But, because of my unfamiliarity with the series, I'm not actually sure which parts of the story were important.
Even with those (major) caveats in mind, I still struggled with Demon Dance. Again, this breaks down in two ways. First, I found it impossible to connect with, or even appreciate, the protagonist. Second, I found the fantastic elements to be awkwardly incorporated. Both of these challenges were inevitably exacerbated by the caveats I list above, but I also believe they went beyond the plausible remits of those excuses.
Lilly, for example, goes through very little character growth during the course of Demon Dance. This wouldn't be such a glaring issue - or, in fact, an issue at all - except that Lilly is neither pleasant nor consistent. For example, she strictly refuses to be touched against her permission. In fact, brushing against her is inviting a painful death. This leads - logically - to her role as a vengeful spirit whenever she spies a women being raped. But her male companions through the years are all confessed - and often active - rapists, something she doesn't mind or control. Similarly, when she encounters a male-on-male rape in Renaissance Italy, she feels no urge to punish the attacker (instead, she drains a bit of his blood and uses her magical power to give him the pleasant memory of having wild sex with a young boy).
Nor does Lilly take a firm line on murder. She claims to prey only on the unjust - something that supposedly separates her from other vampires. Then why, for example, does she brutally maul a beggar in Italy, but leave the rapist with happy memories? Her moral stance wobbles further when she openly condemns Lucrezia for using her vampire powers to shag, maul and kill her lovers - the same behaviour that Lilly tolerates (and even encourages) in her (rapist) friend Harald.
Lilly explains away many of her actions (and those of her vampire ilk) as her savage nature - the sort of romanticised soullessness that I recognize from my years watching Buffy. However, Lilly is clearly able to control herself. She spends years being celibate, years disguising her nature and eons living off of the blood of animals. Lilly knows the difference between "right" and "wrong" and actively judges the actions of others... in-between doing hideous things to innocent people. She makes a difficult protagonist to follow and an impossible one with which to empathise.
Beyond Lilly, I was also challenged by the book's use of the occult. Whilst journeying through the past, Lilly undergoes magical training at the hands of a powerful witch. By the manipulation of a mysterious, flexible, and omnipotent force here called "ley energy", Lilly finds that she's able to do pretty much anything: preserve the dead, fly, see genetic connections, electrical force nets, open doors, close doors, etc. Those latter two are particularly key points - towards the end of the book, Lilly (much to her own frustration, as well as that of the reader) discovers that many of the "limitations" of her time travel weren't insurmountable after all. Her adventure could've been minutes, not centuries, if only she had known... At best, the gimmick is a first act gun; in this case, Lilly's powers are an endless source of deus ex machina.
Demon Dance also left me with the impression that it needed another editorial pass. Besides the larger issues above, I was bothered by Lilly's persistently anachronistic language as well as grammar and spelling errors. Nothing individually huge, but the sum total was such that I felt like I was reading something that hadn't been fully worked through before going to print.
It is only fair to note (for a final time) that, under normal circumstances, I never would've reviewed this book without reading the previous books in the series first. Similarly, although I don't dislike this particular genre, I don't seek it out. However, these aren't normal circumstances and I can only feel so apologetic. A book that has been nominated - and short-listed - for "best novel" needs to be able to stand on its own. In this case, I'm not sure it does.