01/09/2009. Contributed by Vikki Green
pub: Pan Macmillan. 368 page paperback. Price: £6.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-330-46088-0.
check out website: www.panmacmillan.com and www.susansquires.com
Susan Squires' 'The Companion' is the first in a series of books set in the Companion Universe. I normally run a mile from anything with 'romance' in the cover blurb, so I was not expecting a lot here. I was bowled over by the compelling characters, the dense plot and the intricate background to the vampire mythos that underpins the story. It is set in 1817, with flashbacks to the previous two years.
The story begins with Ian Rufford's illness at an outpost in the Egyptian desert, El Golea. He is suffering from fever, aversion to daylight and is in delirium. The locals are hostile towards him and it is only through the protection of Major Ware that he survives to return to England. His experiences of the previous two years at the hands of a demonic being known as Asharti have made him keen to return to England and stay there if he can.
On the ship, he meets the heroine, Beth Rochewell, who is returning to England after the death of her father. This is not a situation that pleases her, mainly because she is used to being independent and working with her father on his expeditions into the desert. In her previous visits to England she has found the place and the society stifling. Just prior to his death, he was mounting an expedition to try and find the lost city of Kivala to be found in the deep desert. Unlike most 'feisty' heroines, she is not a pain in the neck but a well-rounded character with a genuine streak of intelligence and independence.
During the journey to England, they begin to grow closer to one another as they are both misfits in the society to which they are returning. Rufford endures flashbacks of his time with Asharti, which are quite explicit in character and fights his vampire nature as best he can. His conversion to a vampire was accidental and hates himself for what he has become. Beth is curious and accepts him for what he is when she finds out about his true nature. Her calm acceptance of his nature and her intellectual curiosity about it both frighten and fascinate Rufford.
On arrival in England, Rufford attempts to find a cure to the 'infection' in his blood and Beth finds she is penniless and dependent on her aunt's charity. They drift apart until Countess Beatrix Lente, one of the good vampires, takes Rufford under her wing. She mentors him in his new existence and helps him come to terms with it. She also makes him aware that he must defeat Asharti before he can move on in his life.
Asharti is a nasty piece of work, unlike the rest of her kind, she takes what she wants by force and throws away the carcasses when she has finished. She had been exiled to Africa because her behaviour had so disgusted the other vampires. There she set about finding Kivala and the power that lay beneath the mountains. Ian, like so many other unfortunates before him, was caught up in her quest for ultimate power and domination. He escaped her by an accident in which he was made into a vampire. His survival is down to an act of kindness from one of Asharti's followers.
I found Susan Squires' concept of vampirism refreshing. Her concept lies in a parasite living inside the host's blood, maintaining and repairing the host's body and mind in return for blood. Her vampires are moral beings whose behaviour is characterised by restraint and compassion. Those who exploit their supranormal abilities to use and abuse humans are frowned upon and punished out of hand. Asharti had transgressed and was sent into exile after she made a treaty with the power hidden at Kivala become so great that the rest of the vampires decide she needs to be killed. The task falls to Rufford and Beth.
The novel is erotic in places, but these passages are not overwhelming and are quite natural in the story as it is told. The characters and the plot are compelling. In general, the feel of the time is maintained well. I did find the denouement was a little rushed, but having said that I find the world Susan Squires has created here fascinating.
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