Zen does his best, honestly he does. He’s the only one of his kind in the Order of the Sun, the only darkling in the city of Aerie, and he’s trying his best to become a fully ordained priest of the Order. It’s ironic when you think about it, really, since his dark elf blood makes it difficult for him to stand in sunlight for long periods of time. Zen wants to be a healer and guardian in a city that hates him, wants to please Father Lewis, who hates him, and wants so badly to belong. To be welcomed. To be loved.
All Zen has is the semi-regular dream lover who visits him, who calls his white hair and grey skin beautiful, whose touches make his blood boil and his heart race. But it isn’t enough. It just isn’t. On a whim, after failing (again) to pass his ordination his rites, Zen heads to the local tavern for something to drink and finds himself face-to-face with an adventuring party — a half-dwarf warrior, a half gnome wizard, and a half elf paladin on the path to becoming a ranger. Each and every one of the three welcomes Zen with a smile, and he finds himself smiling back. It turns out these three adventurers are out to hunt the evil master vampire, Gaian, who has been sending vampires, werewolves, and ghouls of various flavors to torment Aerie for … well, for longer than Zen can remember. And after an argument with Father Lewis, Zen decides to join them. Here, he can help. Here, he can be useful — as a healer, as another pair of eyes, as a steady hand with a crossbow — and here, he is welcome.
This story reminds me of the various dungeon and dragon based stories I read when I was younger, full of all the warm and comforting tropes of good versus evil and found families, and a well-laid out path of bread crumbs to follow. There are chance encounters with wolves, mysterious figures in the shadows, and Zen’s dream lover calling for him to come, come, come to him …
Zen is a very likable character. He’s good and kind — though not necessarily gentle — and for all that he’s known hostility and neglect in his raising, he always sees the best in people. Even in their quest to face down the vampire lord, while two of them would like to see the monster dead, the entire party is just as willing to accept the possibility of saving him, if they can. Zen learns to rely on himself and his own abilities while also, finally, having others to lean on when he needs them.
The vampire lord they’re looking to face down, Gaian, has his reasons for being a monster and, in truth, doesn’t really see himself as monstrous. Humans feed on cattle and don’t call it cruel, so why should vampires or ghouls, who feed on humans, be judged any differently? His monsters, at least, don’t kill children, don’t take them from their mothers and leave them on the streets to suffer neglect and abuse.
For all that the story feels so simple, the author takes the time to build up the complex relationship between Zen and Gaian. Zen wants to fall in love, to be in love so badly, but he’s not willing to throw his brain away just to get laid. (Well, maybe for, oh, ten, fifteen minutes?) He’s not going to look the other way and accept the horrible things going on around him just because Gaian’s kisses feel like coming home. But it’s also not as easy as changing Gaian, who isn’t just a contrivance of plot and writing. Gaian is who he is, he has suffered, has lost, has fought for his people and his way of life and wants to bring Zen to his way of thinking.
The writing is good, the pacing is fast and focused, and the characters feel like realized people. There are bisexual and asexual characters, as well as lesbian and gay characters, and other than the casual bigotry in Aerie, there is no real racism. However, I don’t feel like the book stuck the landing. At the end, Zen is ford to make a choice between A and B. And he makes it. And yet, somehow he gets to keep both A and B. It felt as though the author wanted to have their cake and eat it, too, but I feel that the resulting see-sawing weakened the book as a whole.
Still, I very much enjoyed it! Enough so that I’m off to go look for more of this author’s work.