This is a story about death. About suicide, be it by inches or by bullet. This is a story about a monster who kills those who love him and an artist who can see the truth behind the darkness in people’s eyes. Saint — called Xav, called many names if it comes to it — is a creature that is not, nor has ever been, human. In a sense, he is a muse of creation. Favoring artists, authors, musicians, and dancers, he makes them love him and then feeds upon their life. Even as he consumes them, he grants them a gift of inspiration, a swan song that gives their deaths have some small meaning beyond merely extending Saint’s own, cursed life.
Grey Jean-Marcelin has decided to take his life. Copying Hemingway, he chose to use a shotgun, but unlike Hemingway, he did not succeed. While in the ambulance, being whisked away to the hospital, he meets the EMT, Xav. A young man, pale skinned and beautiful, he instantly catches Grey’s attention. But it’s the offer the young man makes him in the hospital room that brings Grey back: “How badly do you want to die?”
For once, for the first time, Saint wants to take a mortal willingly. Not that the others were forced, they were just … blind. Blinded by love while Saint said sweet nothings and watched, quietly, as they died. This tme, for this man, he tells him the truth. What he is and what he can do. Saint is willing to help Grey die and, in that death, to help him create a final series of works (Grey is a talented artist). His death will be peaceful, sweet, and Grey will die loving the young man who kills him.
This book was previously reviewed at Joyfully Jay — though not by me, personally — and has been revised, expanded, and republished from the original. It contains a suicidal character, attempted suicide, mentions of suicidal ideation and depression, and features a serial killer as a love interest and protagonist. It is not a sweet romance and while these scenes may be disturbing or triggering for some, I didn’t, myself, find them to be too much. A few mentions of suicide, a brief mention of depression, and some scenes in the hospital. However, everyone is different and will react differently to such things.
Saint is a monster. He doesn’t want to be and tries very hard not to be. Every twenty years, if he wants to live, Saint must find some mortal to consume. No matter how hard he tries to resist, every twenty years he adds another name to his collection, another tattoo to his body. In an attempt to balance the scales, he has taken up as an EMT, trying to save lives, as if that will undo the harm he has done. To be fair, each man he kills feels no hatred or anger; they love Saint. They always love him. That, too, is part of the curse. He doesn’t know why he’s cursed, or who he was before; he only knows what he was and that this isn’t how — or who — he is supposed to be.
Grey is an artist who simply chose, one day, to die. He has spent years cutting himself off from people, losing himself in his paintings. Lovers come and go but none of them have been able to compete either with the pain or the emptiness or the need to create. When looking at other people, Grey can see the darkness in them; it’s what inspires him to paint them. It’s a curse and a burden and he hates it even as much as he feeds on it. Having tried to kill himself once, already, he is taken aback when Saint offers a guaranteed death.
It isn’t the thought of dying, or the release of dying, or the need to die that makes him say yes. In the end, Grey says yes because he wants Saint. When he looks at the other man, he sees pain and tragedy and suffering. He wants to see the monster behind the mask and, when he does, makes Saint promise to never be human again, when it’s just the two of them. It helps that the monster is beautiful, as all of the Tuatha de Dannon are beautiful. Grey, with his tormented artist’s eyes, has a knack, an ability to see to the true heart of Saint, past the affectation and painted on smile to the wounded and broken creature beneath. It startles both of them, and for the first time Saint, too, is caught in the snare of his curse. However, after thousands of years of being invisible, hiding himself away in his tower to mourn and grieve over the many lives he’s taken, Saint is suddenly exposed — his true form, his true flesh — and studied, to be caught in the light with nowhere to hide from the onslaught of emotions Grey is making him feel. Feeling is something neither of them are familiar with, anymore; Saint is an exile from his people and Grey has been chained by his depression, locked away from anything like hope.
This is not a plot driven story with complex politics, adventures, or even world building. It’s an intimate story of two people who find a kindred soul. They’re both drowning, both despairing, but when they’re together they make just enough light to see through the darkness. But, again, there’s not much plot in this story, no reasons as to how or why anything works. When offered the chance to know his past and why he was cursed, Saint declines. He’d rather live with Grey in the moment then return to the past.
However, Sanders excels in the silence between words where the characters are nothing but poignant, painful, and powerful feelings of loss and loneliness. The writing is wonderful and soft and lilting and the story has is an odd flavour with voodoo mixed in with the faery tales. Stories of the sidhe — the Tuatha deDannon and the leanan sidhe — walk alongside Bawon Samedi and the loa and a hint that Saint and his kind might be the saints and devils and old gods of myth and legend.
The story doesn’t go too much into that as neither character really cares about anything save each other. As much as I loved the writing, the story felt more like a short story stretched into a novella. Two, three days of Saint and Grey getting to know one another were followed by weeks passing in a few pages as Grey began to suffer from the curse. The ending came along just as quickly and, while it felt true to the characters and the world, it was too rushed for me. Saint seemed to come to his realization in two days — after a few thousand years of enduring this — and while you can argue that his love for Grey is what sparked the idea, that only calls into question the hundreds of men he killed before Grey and the fact that he never felt anything for them.
Saint isn’t ever held responsible for his actions and Grey… I’m sorry, but the depression angle didn’t work for me. Yes, he tried to kill himself and admitted he was depressed, but it felt more like an excuse than an answer. I just didn’t feel his depression the way I wanted to. However, everyone’s life experiences are different. Simply because one aspect of the story stood out to me doesn’t lessen the work itself, or the brilliant writing and characterization.
When a work is so close to flawless, the small things stand out all the more. I am left wanting more from this author and more from their characters. I hope you give it a chance.