What a weird fucking month. Remember back in December, when all we had to be terrified of was nuclear war and post-Brexit food shortages? They were good times. I did not appreciate those joyous times when I had at least 12 months to start my own victory garden and dig a nuclear bunker. I was a fool not to see them for the heady, sunlit uplands that they were.
But we’re getting through, and I’ve been spending my free time working my way through a bunch of lesbian romance novels. Iron & Velvet is the first book in the ‘Kate Kane, Paranormal Detective’ series by Alexis Hall. Kate, our protagonist, is a traditional hard-boiled PI, waking up “to the taste of stale whiskey and the smell of stale cigarettes” as all PIs should. The twist? Kate also happens to be the daughter of a mortal man and the Queen of the Wild Hunt, an honest-to-goodness faery princess, who quickly finds herself dodging “orgies of androgynous bonk demons” and investigating a murder for a vampire Prince.
The other twist? The vampire Prince, Julian Saint-Germain, turns out to be a woman and also hot as fuck, and Kate is very gay.
Look, despite the werewolves and fairy rituals, the mystery plot is fairly predictable. It’s nothing that Jim Butcher didn’t do better, or at least with a bit more audacity, in his Harry Dresden novels, and urban fantasy detective novels aren’t exactly uncommon. Iron & Velvet doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with either the plot or the form this story takes, but it’s still a fun ride – in the same kind of way that I might know that the independently-owned bistro might get you a really interesting lunch, but sometimes I go to Greggs anyway, because it’s familiar and it’s nice to have something that’s just going to deliver on a story. ‘Predictable’ isn’t a great thing in mystery novels usually but it’s not the same thing as boring, it’s just sticking to the basic formula of those novels.
Where it comes alive is the relationship between Julian, the vampire, and Kate. And while Julian lives up to the stereotype of sexy, infuriating vampire queen in a lot of respects, Alexis Hall brings some new ideas to the table when it comes to writing a centuries-old character who has existed entirely on blood and who has just discovered the concept of the Eton Mess:
She closed her eyes blissfully. “That sounds wonderful. Does it melt in the mouth? Describe it for me.”
[…]”It’s.. uh… nice?”
“You can do better than that. […] Does the tart flavour of the strawberries perfectly complement the dry sweetness of the meringue, like dust motes dancing on an April morning?”
She clapped her hands excitedly. “Excellent. All right, what’s next?”
And Julian the former pudding nun turned undead ruler of a healthy chunk of London isn’t exactly the brooding Edward Cullen type of vampire. “I enjoy power, I enjoy control,” she explains to Kate, “As previously established, I’m a motherfucking vampire prince. But I’ve also been around for eight hundred years, and I’m kind of over it. I’ve got enough going on in my unlife that I don’t need you to be the centre of it.”
Alexis Hall strikes this lovely tone in Kate’s narration and through a lot of the dialogue – irreverent and sarcastic in a way that lets the reader have fun with some of the silly vampire romance tropes without ever seeming mean-spirited. When Kate’s investigation inevitably leads her to fight a sewer monster, Kate and her assistant Elise (a statue animated by stolen fire) take some tools and high-vis jackets to pass themselves off as working on the sewers, Kate muses that “Generally people don’t question you if you’re wearing a hard hat. This time, however, I had a supermodel following me around. We looked like a small lesbian Village People tribute act.”
It’s daft, it’s sweet and it’s hot, with all the best things about vampire fiction – the danger, the oozing sexuality, the mix of blood and sex and hedonism and longing – and very gentle fun at the expense of the worst. Iron & Velvet isn’t groundbreaking but it doesn’t need to be; it tells exactly the story it wants to tell and makes for a fun read while you do it.
Sometimes that’s really all you need from a book.