|Ordinary Victorian maidens probably didn’t spend much time thinking about, or hunting for, mysterious holy relics. Prudence Ryland is not exactly extraordinary, but she is indeed hunting for the Holy Grail, and she thinks it might be practically right next door. Since she lives in Cornwall, epicenter of Arthurian legend, she might not be far off. Prudence is determined to find it, not because she is fascinated by either religious relics or Arthurian legends, or even because she is passionate about the thrill of the hunt – she is desperate to find it because she believes it offers her only hope of surviving the cancer that is going to bring her life to an abrupt end. It’s 1899, and Prudence is hoping to see the next century. Under the direction of her partner, the ruins on an adjoining property have been under excavation and it is looking promising – so promising that the Catholic Church has sent “representatives” to keep their eye on things.
These representatives are an aging French priest and his companion, a clearly-not-a-priest hunk known as Chapel – not Mr. Chapel, just Chapel. These two are not only interested in the Holy Grail, but more importantly in the Blood Grail, the possibly mythic cup fashioned from the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot. Chapel, unfortunately, knows that the Unholy Grail is no mere myth – he held it, and drank from it, in 1307. He was then Severian de Foncé, a mercenary hired to find and wrest the holy relics from the newly outlawed Templars. Poisoned and dying, Severian drank from what he thought was the Holy Grail; his companions, following his lead and thinking the same, drank deeply as well. They have all been vampires ever since. Even though Chapel, as he is now called, gave himself to the Church centuries ago, he knows that he is a monster, possessed by a barely controlled demon, who has lost his human soul and has no chance for true redemption. He and his handler/Priest are in Cornwall to ensure that the Grail – be it Holy or Unholy – does not fall into the wrong hands.
This is the best possible set-up for a vampire romance – the vampire is basically a good guy who hasn’t fed on unwilling humans in centuries, and the object of his desire, both lust and blood-lust wise, is going to be dead soon anyway. Interestingly, the greater tension in the book comes not from the usual question of when will they succumb to the mutual lust, but from the question of whether Chapel will offer his blood to her – allowing her immortality as well, but at the price of her soul.
That sounds both more shallow and more flippant than this story actually is. Vampire tales frequently strike me as either excessively creepy or excessively shallow. It’s hard to engage emotionally with a “couple” when one of them isn’t human and holds life-and-death power over the other. But Be Mine Tonight is deeply emotionally engaging. It is emotionally wrenching, as in “go put a wet washcloth on those swollen red eyes when you’re done reading.” I was a blubbery mess because I really liked these two people, and watching Prudence waste away with her sisters and father gathered hopelessly around her, while Chapel denies himself the companionship of his true love for eternity because he can’t damn her soul as his has been… Well, it was a real tearjerker.
Prudence is, as Chapel notes, as unlike her name as is possible. She’s not reckless or thoughtless, but she clearly intends to get as much out of her limited time on earth as possible. That includes experiences not usually allowed a person of her circumstances, from experiencing true passion to learning to drive her father’s new Daimler automobile, and she has Chapel’s guidance in both endeavors. Endearingly, she also has the tacit support of her family, who behave as one would expect truly loving family to, rather than getting all Victorian-vaporish about it. Prudence is smart, determined, a little unconventional but not anachronistic, and exceedingly likeable.
Chapel is more complex, and vastly appealing. What an honorable, well, not man exactly. Creature? He is haunted by his past, weary of eternity, but self-aware enough to know that he’s not going to march into the sunlight and blow himself to smithereens, Vampire-suicide style. His vampire-ness is, in fact, rather appealing – upon first meeting Prudence, he is so overwhelmed that he accidentally gives her a little love nip on her knuckles when pressing a kiss to her hand, and she notices that he is inhaling deeply – good gracious, was he smelling her?
Smith is also good at evoking the particular time and place – end of the Victorian era, turn-of-the-century England – in a captivating manner. While clearly not “modern” times, there is a sense of history on the move, of big changes to come, of the headlong dive into the 20th century. Best of all, Smith is trustworthy – her factual information is completely reliable and her “mythical” information is consistent and logical.
The only problem I’ve had with this book is keeping the Roy Orbison soundtrack out of my head…be mine to-ni-igh-ight, indeed. This is the first of a “Victorian Vampires” series from Smith, and I look forward to seeing what the other one-name-only, formerly 14th century-now-eternal, guys are up to.