The Midnight Work
by Kassandra Sims
(Tor, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-765-35394-6
***
Paranormal fiction conjures up other possibilities. Its imaginary universe must nevertheless be clear enough to be understandable and coherent enough to be believable. A bold venture into new worlds, The Midnight Work does not completely meet these criteria.

A Ph.D. candidate in religious studies, Sophie has a longstanding interest in the Cathars, a thirteenth-century heresy. Against her better judgment, she agrees to meet a fellow aficionado at a bar. Instantly attracted to Olivier, she is confused about who he is and what he is doing to her. This confusion gets worse the second time they meet, when Olivier turns her into a vampire.

Sophie has no problem accepting what she has become. Without waiting to get the full scoop, she feeds herself (in full blood-and-gore vampire fashion) and then rushes home to see if her roommates want to join the fun. Norah says yes, but Suki has disappeared after leaving Sophie cryptic messages about not talking to strangers. While Sophie continues her search for her missing friend, Norah uses her new powers to take revenge on an overly competitive colleague. With the help of Sophie, Olivier and his vampire buddy Lucien, she makes Paul her slave. Now the trouble really begins. By binding Paul, they have unleashed an evil fairy who, as they learn when they finally meet up with Suki, was responsible for Norah's and Sophie's death in another life. They must restore order to the world.

Set in Chicago and faithful to the city's vibrant life, The Midnight Work incorporates various otherworldly creatures. Vampires, reincarnated beings, elves, fairies, witches and evil spirits all find their way here. Navigating my way through them shouldn't have been a problem, had I had a good guide. But with a heroine who accepts some evidence wholeheartedly but dismisses others as impossible, this wasn't the case. Body upgrades, vampires and killing sprees are okay; reincarnation apparently isn't. Sophie can't believe Olivier and Lucien are over one thousand years old. (Hello? They are vampires!) In the meantime, I wasn't sure what to do with all the information on the Cathars dumped in the first pages (albeit disguised as a blog). Forced to make my way without landmarks and references, I found myself bewildered and annoyed.

Suspension of disbelief aside, I had a hard time buying into the romantic relationship. Sophie immediately feels something for Olivier but doesn't stop declaring how much she hates him. Why she responds either way is never clear to me. He is too innocuous and submissive to inspire anything as strong as hatred. And while their physical attraction is obvious, what else they have in common had me scratching my head. How did they spend centuries together when they have little to exchange except for body fluids and bad poetry?

I also have a quibble with Sophie's logic. She wants Olivier to love her for herself and not because she is the reincarnation of his first love, Philippa. But if we believe in the duality of the body and soul as well as in the latter's transcendence, what does it matter who he loves, Sophie or Philippa? Though different bodies, they are the same soul or person. Yet, while Sophie accepts the Cathars' theological and philosophical principles, she has a hard time dealing with it when it comes to her personal lives.

The Midnight Work boasts some of the more unique female characters I have seen recently. Sophie and Norah are an unusual blend of anger, cockiness, lust and comic irreverence. They embrace their new condition with such zest they appear cold-blooded and cut-throat. In fact, they are just practical: anyway you cut, slice or bite it, human meat is murder - unless, of course, you are a vampire, then it's just food. While these vivid characters may not be sufficient for a strong recommendation, they are a good reason to keep an eye out for Sims' future books.

--Mary Benn


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