A while before writing this review, I was in the mood for some vampire fiction (what can I say? I’ve been looking for something as awesome as Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” novels ever since I finished reading them). And, after looking online, I discovered an author I hadn’t heard of before called L. A. Banks. So, I decided to order a second-hand copy of the first novel in her “Vampire Huntress” series – a novel from 2003/4 called “Minion”.
However, I should probably point out that this novel seems to be the first part of a continuous series and it isn’t a self-contained novel. I was forewarned about this by a few reviews I saw, but don’t go into this novel expecting a full story. Likewise, the edition of “Minion” that I read is a “special edition” version, which apparently contains some extra scenes that aren’t in older editions of the novel.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Minion”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in New Orleans in the 1980s, when the wife of a preacher believes that her husband is having an affair with a mysterious handsome man that he’s met. Filled with jealousy, she ends up consulting a local magician for some kind of spell in order to exact revenge. However, this spell doesn’t exactly work as intended….
Flash forward to the mid-late 1990s and two people called Marlene and Shabazz are in a nightclub, searching for someone called Damali. When the band appears on stage, Marlene realises that the teenage lead singer is none other than Damali. After the concert, Marlene approaches Damali and offers to sign her to her record label – which is, of course, a cover for a group of vampire hunters. Since, although she doesn’t know it, Damali is the Neteru- some kind of mythical chosen one.
A few years later, in 2003, Damali is twenty and she is a well-trained member of the vampire hunting team. The team have travelled to Philadelphia to fight some vampires, but they find themselves in an alleyway where everything is mysteriously silent. Something is wrong. Of course, it doesn’t take long before the vampires attack. However, these vampires are different. They’re more powerful, more ferocious and are nothing like anything Damali has ever seen before….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, during it’s best moments, it’s kind of like a cooler and more badass version of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer“. Yes, it isn’t a self-contained story and it certainly has a few flaws but, when this story is at it’s best, it’s kind of like watching a really cool late 1990s/early 2000s urban fantasy TV show 🙂 Plus, it’s one of the few novels about vampire hunters that I’ve read which still manage to include a lot of the edginess of a good vampire novel 🙂
Interestingly, this novel is more of a thriller/drama novel than a horror novel. Sure, there are a few moments of gruesome horror, a suspenseful atmosphere and some fairly cool moments of paranormal horror too. But, for the most part, this is more of an urban fantasy drama novel with a few sizzlingly sensual moments and some well-placed action scenes. Surprisingly, this works really well.
In addition to some detective/crime thriller elements, a lot of the story also focuses on the lives of the vampire hunters, their plans, their conflicts and Damali grappling with her fate as a Neteru (which is presented as something of a second adolescence).
Although this novel is one of those stories where the main characters argue with each other quite a bit, this actually works quite well thanks to the general atmosphere of the story and the way that the characters are written. In other words, the conflicts between the characters emerge from their different perspectives, personalities and worldviews rather than just being there for the sake of drama. Likewise, the Los Angeles setting of most of the story is reminiscent of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, whilst also allowing for a lot more atmosphere and grittiness too.
Even though the story could have done with more action scenes, this is compensated for via a reasonably compelling plot and a suspenseful atmosphere in many scenes. Likewise, many of the story’s more action-packed moments are pretty cool too – with the highlights including a fight involving a three-sided sword and a rather cool chase scene that not only includes some beautiful descriptions of Chinatown, but also includes some fairly suspenseful combat scenes too.
Plus, even though this story contains a clear “good vs. evil” conflict, it is thankfully a little bit more sophisticated than this. In other words, most of the “good” characters aren’t joyless, self-righteous bores and some of the story’s villains are a little bit more ambiguous too.
Even the novel’s most puritanical character, Marlene, is given enough characterisation for her more self-righteous moments to make sense in the context of the story. Best of all, Damali is actually a fairly realistic twentysomething main character who (unlike many thriller novel protagonists) actually wants to enjoy life – much to Marlene’s prim consternation.
Plus, one of the characters (Carlos) is initially presented as a villainous drug baron, but he gains a bit more depth (and even some reader sympathy) as the story progresses. In other words, this novel contains a bit more nuance and humanity than “good vs. evil” vampire stories focusing on vampire hunters usually do. This really helps to add atmosphere to the story too 🙂
Still, this isn’t to say that the story doesn’t have some hilariously cheesy elements too. Whether it’s a rival music label who are quite literally run by demons and vampires (and, in true 1980s/90s moral panic fashion, promote goth music and drug-fuelled rock music) or a scene involving an alliance between crime gangs, this story can be a little bit silly. Likewise, one scene involving a vampiric council who reside in the depths of hell is straight out of a cheesy horror movie. Still, these elements help to add some cheesy, light-hearted fun to the story and provide a bit of balance to the grittier and more serious aspects of the story.
But, although this story is reasonably atmospheric and fairly cool, it isn’t without flaws. Most of these happen near the beginning and ending of the novel, which are literally the last places where a writer should make mistakes.
After the prologues, the novel begins with what should be a suspenseful and gripping action scene – but it is bogged down by the fact that this scene introduces quite a few characters very quickly, which can get confusing. Likewise, the climactic moments of the story are basically a long-winded exposition-filled data dump about the series’ backstory. Yes, this segment does also serve as a cliffhanger ending, but it’s a fairly boring way to include one.
In terms of the writing, Banks’ third-person narration is somewhat on the informal side of things, whilst also being reasonably descriptive too (and fairly “matter of fact” during more thrilling moments). Although it took me a little while to get used to Banks’ writing style (probably because I read a slightly more formal novel directly beforehand), it works reasonably well – with the informal elements also helping to reinforce the story’s atmosphere too.
As for length and pacing, this novel is an efficient 286 pages in length – however, this isn’t a self-contained story (so, it’s more like the first part of a longer novel). Likewise, as mentioned earlier, chapter one overloads the reader with characters and the cliffhanger ending is far too slow-paced. However, the pacing throughout the rest of the story is reasonably good.
All in all, whilst this novel isn’t without flaws, it is still fairly interesting. When it is at it’s best, this novel is as fun as watching a really cool TV show. The middle parts of this novel are dramatic, atmospheric and compelling. Yes, both the beginning and the ending are a bit weak – and the story isn’t even vaguely self-contained. But, these flaws aside, this novel still has some really good moments.
If I had to give “Minion” a rating out of five, it would just about get a four (even though, in some parts, it’s a solid four and a half and in other parts is more of a three and a half).