Thursday, 5 March 2015

Case Study: Reversing Expectations with Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter Series

Okay, there are some spoilers here if you haven't read the series.  Read at your own risk.

There are currently 24 books in Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter series, all paranormal romance about a group of immortals fighting soul-sucking daemons under the watchful eyes of their leader, Acheron, and the relative indifference of the Greek Goddess, Artemis.

I love this series, not just for my continuing adoration of lovely lethal men, but because Kenyon is an amazing author for reversing a reader's expectations about her characters.  She will leave a reader with an unfavorable first impression and then explore the background and meaning behind a character's reactions.  It's impressive, especially since I can then go back and read the original books and see little hints that all were not as they initially seemed.  That's very difficult and speaks to Kenyon's skill with both characters and plotting.

I generally don't like reversing character impressions because it is often done badly.  Either it comes off as excusing bad behaviour because of earlier trauma or it ignores the original material, thus completely rewriting the character and the fictional history.  Kenyon manages to keep her storyline and history intact and it is made quite clear that the jerk-ish behaviour is a problem, regardless of the cause.

I chose three characters who manage to be completely turned around:

Valerius: He was a Roman general, which puts him at odds with many of the Greek Dark Hunters.  Introduced in Night Pleasures, he is portrayed as arrogant jerk, more concerned with proper bloodlines and lineage than with making friends.  He holds himself aloof, leaving readers to wonder if he can be counted on to aid the hero of Night Pleasures, Kyrian of Thrace, especially since they have a personal ancient history.  Many of the characters go out of their way to provoke "Count Penicula" and his icy disdain for all things plebeian.

We learn his story in Seize the Night, that he was punished for showing affection as a boy by his cruel father, that his brothers killed a woman he loved and was trying to protect, drugging him and forcing him to witness her slaughter.  We learn that he has perfected his haughty disdain after years of being isolated and provoked.  He is trying to do what all our parents told us to do in the face of bullies, ignore them and they'll go away.

Beneath his exterior lies a caring man who believes his involvement with anyone, no matter how slight, carries a curse.  He has tried to help so many times and simply ended up making things worse that he now refuses to get involved.  He feels more deeply than anyone has given him credit for.

Zarek: He was a Roman slave, ironically to Valerius's family.  He is actively aggressive to everyone he interacts with, to the point of having been exiled to Alaska for most of two millennia.  He is introduced in Night Embrace as a psychopath, constantly on the verge of attacking the very people he is sworn to protect.  He is viewed as so out of control that many of the Dark Hunters make plans to take him out and have them ready to execute if necessary.

We learn his story in Dance With the Devil as he undergoes a trial to determine his right to continue to exist.  We learn about abuse so horrific it left him blind, scarred and barely able to move.  We learn that he has been forbidden to associate with anyone else and has spent most of his existence without anyone to speak or interact with.  He is so conditioned to expect abuse from other people that he refuses to interact with them, trying to help in secret as much as possible.

He is an artist, who creates beautiful sculptures.  He is tortured by his memories of having failed in the past.  He wants friends but is terrified of being vulnerable, and so adopts a "get them before they get me" attitude.

Styxx: Acheron's twin brother, the crown prince of Didymos.  He is described as spoiled and arrogant, continually demanding his sister's attention while Acheron is abused and neglected.  We see him in glimpses through many of the novels but the main story is in Acheron.  He is readily hated by all the Dark Hunters and the majority of the readership.  He is banished into permanent exile.

When I heard that Styxx was coming out, I wondered how Kenyon would deal with it.  Was he going to learn the error of his ways finally?  Instead, I found myself in constant brink-of-tears mode as we learned about Styxx's so-called "ideal" life.  The torture and abuse that Acheron suffered was also heaped on his twin, with even less recourse.  His idealized "banishment" was being left alone on an island without supplies or food for over eleven thousand years.  His wife and child were killed.  The list just kept going and going.

Styxx was never arrogant.  He had adopted a certain distance because a) his attention tended to bring severe reprisals from his father and b) after awhile, it was easier than being continuously rejected.  He wasn't a self-entitled prince, he was an abused child trying desperately to survive.

It's not explicitly stated in the novels, but there does seem to be a recurrent theme in Kenyon's work about not judging people until you understand the whole story.  Even her "bad" guys have tales of heartbreak and loss behind their decisions.  The adversaries of the Dark Hunters are the Daimons, who have a choice of feeding on human souls or dying slowly and painfully on their 27th birthday, the entire race cursed because of the actions of a few over eleven thousand years earlier.

This is the reason I come back to Kenyon's stories again and again.  Because she creates wonderful three-dimensional characters which always have some thread of compassion.  Over and over, we see the theme of being caught between difficult choices and having compassion for those who make them.

Those are stories of redemption that I can get behind every time.

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