Buffy Summers. Sydney Bristow. Quentin Tarantino’s The Bride. Three tough-as-nails heroines who don’t take crap from anybody. They’re strong, they’re crafty, and they’re self-reliant. They have good heads on their shoulders, and they’re cool in a crisis. But it’s not their weapons skills or their all-around ass-kickery that has earned these women a special place in my pop-culture-loving heart. Any old muscle-bound thug or cyborg assassin can exact bloody revenge with a Hatori Hanzo sword, a Glock 19, or a broken broom handle, but these women? They’re not mindless, soulless killing machines; they’re human beings. They lead (semi-) normal lives, and they experience tragedy and heartbreak just like everybody else. They cry, they grieve – sometimes they even break down. And then they pick themselves up off the ground, and they keep fighting.
Sarah Zettel has created such a heroine in Charlotte Caine, star of A Taste of the Nightlife, her new Vampire Chef Mystery series. (Not one of them, Charlotte cooks for them—it’s haute noir.) Charlotte’s got baggage. Quite a lot of it, really. She’s what some might call a damaged human being. But that doesn’t stop her from ruling her kitchen with an iron fist, or fending off vampire attacks in dark alleys, or picking fights with power-hungry sorcerers. And yes, sometimes the reality of her life gets to her:
“You keep rescuing me,” I whispered. “Why do you keep on rescuing me?”
“Because I want to.”
It was too much. I couldn’t take it. I’d never had backup like this. Nobody could take what I had to throw at them. Even my own parents had left me alone to deal with the mess I’d made out of my brother’s existence. But Brendan kept coming back, and he not only took it, but he made it better. Really better. Not because of the money or the magic, but because he saw me at a level of bad I wouldn’t have been able to imagine a few days ago, and he still came back.
I started to cry.
These were not decorous Elizabeth Taylor tears. These were great, loud sobs that shook my exhausted body and made my throat instantly raw. No pride, no dignity, no strength, just a river of guilt, regret, and confusion I couldn’t hold back anymore.
But never does it overwhelm her:
“You’ll call and let me know you got in okay?”
“Yes.” He was too tall for Humphrey Bogart and I was too short for Ingrid Bergman, but our problems still managed not to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
“This isn’t over, Charlotte.”
Yes it is. “We’ll talk when I get back with Chet.”
He leaned in and I closed my eyes. The second kiss surprised me, and it was every bit as good as the first. If it had gone on for a second longer I would have started crying all over again.
Brendan finished the kiss, and I stood there for a moment, seeing my hand on his chest but not remembering when I put it there.
“Be careful,” he said.
“You too.” I turned away, because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to force “good-bye” out of my mouth.
To me, it’s the heroes and heroines who have either lost the most or have the most to lose that I find the most compelling. They don’t let their vulnerabilities become their weaknesses – they live through their pain and fight past their despair and are all the stronger for it. Give me a series protagonist whose (real or metaphorical) kung fu I can admire, but with whom I can still identify as a person, and there’s a damn good chance I’ll stand in line to buy your next book.
(Click here for a full review at The Season.)
Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for The Season E-Zine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.