Posted on October 9, 2008 by alanajoli
Welcome to the Gillian Key Admiration Society–that is, if you’re male, paranormal, and exquisitely handsome, as all the men in Talia Gryphon’s Key to Conflict seem to be. From ghosts to vampires to werewolves and dark elves, everyone wants to get retired marine and paramortal psychologist Gillian Key into their bed. Some of them succeed, to a greater or lesser degree (the ghost having to resort to sleeping with her in incredibly erotic dreams, so she won’t know she’s being screwed, if you can forgive the pun–and the forced-love aspect of the novel). While there’s also a plot, it doesn’t really pick up until page 227 of 325, when we meet Gillian’s old marine special ops unit, who gather to rescue a kidnapped vampire. The first 227 pages set up the world in a somewhat haphazard fashion: paramortals went public twenty years ago. Or they were creatures of legend up until the Human-Paramortal War a few years ago. Or they were out enough for there to be a paramortal psychology department when Gillian went to college, despite most humans believing them to be legendary. And when we’re talking paramortals, we mean all stripes: fey, elves, ghosts, vampires, shape shifters–all the standard fangs, fur, and fey are here, and they’re all hyper beautiful and ridiculously sexy.
Gillian is first a paramortal psychologist and second, a marine working undercover to gather information from the paramortal community about potential problems. Sometimes those roles skip a bit–the marine part of her character stays at the forefront for the majority of the novel. This is fine, because she pretty much kicks ass and takes names, despite being small and frail in the eyes of the vampires she ends up hanging out with. Unfortunately, because of tensions in the vampire community (Dracula is coming back with a vengeance to take over the world), she ends up spending the majority of the novel under the protection of Count Aleksei, one of her patients and also the vampire who might, after a year of not being her patient, steal her heart. What this amounts to is chapters of nothing much happening and all of the important world affairs being summed up between erotic dreams and trysts and a few adventures with mummies as that year progresses.
It’s a shame, because there’s so much potential in the idea. A psychologist for vampires experiencing “fangxiety” or werewolves with PTSD? It sounds great! Alternately, a U.S. Marine commander leading a diverse team of paramortals on rescue ops? That sounds pretty darn good, too–and that’s what starts happening on p. 227. But the novel just doesn’t bring those two concepts together in a meaningful way, and Gryphon’s attempt at third-person omniscient narrator never quite clicks into place. (If you want to see how third-person omniscient narration should be done in a modern novel, pick up Inda and sequels by Sherwood Smith. In fact, if you want to spice up your urban fantasy/horror reading with some epic fantasy, go pick them up anyway. They’re brilliant. But I digress.)
Gryphon tries some really interesting things, bringing in Egyptian and Greek gods as vampires (presumably because the early cultures saw godlike power and assumed that the paramortals were gods), which works much better in the case of the Egyptians than Dionysis, the only Greek god to appear in the novel (though presumably, since Vampire Lord Osiris has a “divine” vampire entourage, Dionysis should have one as well). The Egyptians come across as both vampire and semi-divine, which made for an interesting spin on the older theme. Gryphon also tries to bring in Tolkien as not a creator but as an observer of elf culture. This is much less successful, if only because Gryphon’s elven politics in no way mirror the very complex divisions that Tolkien created in Middle Earth. Tolkien’s “dark elves” are those that never saw the light of the two trees of Valinor–the Mirkwood elves, including Legolas, are all dark elves. Gryhpon instead uses dark elves that are the Grael, which I can’t find a mythological reference for, but seem to be predominantly based on the drow of Dungeons and Dragons fame. (The creatures called dark elves in Scandinavian mythology are actually more like dwarves or trolls–the only place where dark elves have ebony skin and crystalline white hair that I’m aware of is in the realms of D&D.)
Key to Conflict is Gryphon’s first novel, and it’s clear that Gryphon has a lot of great ideas but hasn’t mastered the execution. The book ends with a direct lead in to the sequel, which should launch readers straight into a new marine-based campaign and rescue operation as the tension with Dracula (clearly unresolved here–the only real conflict with him is a too-easy rescue and escape plot) continues to mount. My advice? Skip this one and start straight with book two (Key to Conspiracy, which came out earlier this year), which is bound to be better as it might actually start in the thick of the action instead of waiting for two thirds of the book to pass by to get to it. Better yet, go pick up Ilona Andrews’s “Kate Daniels” series, which has a kick-ass heroine and a much more consistent and vivid world, or Jeannine Frost’s “Night Huntress” series, which has delightful and sexy romance without anyone getting raped by ghosts.
Review by Alana Abbott