The Taker (The Taker #1) - Alma Katsu *** The review may contain some spoilery concerning the first half of the plot ***

Finally over. *sigh*

That short outburst above had been my "review" right after I had finished reading the book, and as far as my account was concerned I planned to leave it at that. Now, more than three months later, I have accumulated enough emotional distance to deal with the story again.

I do not remember the exact wording, but when I was handed Alma Katsu’s debut The Taker in March, it came with the promise to be something like Die for Me aimed at the slightly older young adult reader. "Today" the line would probably use the words "A New Adult Die for Me" instead. The ambitious novel has unquestionably its merits and strong points, which I will come back to later, and will appeal to a certain target group – which I to my shame have not been able to label yet -, but it miserably failed the above mentioned pitch in both aspects: The only things The Taker has in common with Amy Plum’s successful paranormal romance are that it deals with the idea of immortality and that part of the plot takes place in Paris. And although two of the three narrators focus on the respective hero’s and heroine’s teenage years, I would never hesitate to sort the novel into the "regular adult" section next to dark books on the blurry edge to paranormal like The Gargoyle or thrillers about mentally unstable killers, who tell their own story in hindsight and drift off to their grandparents’ unhappy childhoods while they are at it. It should go without saying that I would never discourage a teen from picking up books from those shelves. I would say: Read what you want to, but know what it is you are wanting. And that is why I am sitting here to elaborate.

The Taker could be called a gloomy thriller, dark historic fiction or a book about alchemy and magic. But furthermost, as the title hazily suggests, in its core The Taker is a frightening study of obsession in different ugly forms. The story is arranged in three chronological, but interwoven layers told from three points of view.

The most recent layer shows us middle-aged, jaded small-town surgeon Dr. Luke Finley, who is divorced, lonely and extremely weary of his future in the unfriendly town St. Andrews, Maine. When a beautiful murderess is brought in by the Sheriff for the medical check-up that has to precede her police interrogation, he immediately falls so hard for the young girl and her weird explanations of being immortal and having done her companion a favor by ending his much too long life, that he risks everything to help her flee across the border in a "borrowed" car and becomes an accomplice without even looking back.

In the course of the middle layer killer Lanore McIlvrae tells Luke the story of her youth in a partly Puritan, party Catholic wood-cutting settlement in Main around 1809 and of her fateful move to Boston at the age of 17. All her life she had – like all the other girls and women in her village – been feverishly craving the undivided attention of rich and otherworldly beautiful Jonathan St. Andrews, who graciously admitted her to become his friend-like confidant, but who was too obsessed with himself and his unstillable sexual needs to bestow any kind of affection on her her or one of his uncountable married and unmarried bed-partners. No means to gain possession of Jonathan had been to dangerous, too evil or to stupid for Lanore, but eventually her parents had to send her to a Catholic convent in Boston to birth and hand over her out-of-wedlock offspring. Right off the boat she fell into the hands of immortal Adair's street hunters, who provided his drug-laden house parties with fresh, dispensable material, helpless girls meant to be fucked to death by the master of the house or his guests.
Inexplicably to me – and to Adair's cold-hearted household staff as well – Lanore felt grateful and excited towards her kidnapper for deigning to to save her from bleeding internally to death by making her immortal, and strived hard to become his favorite mistress and to learn the art of seduction from him in order to be able to contribute to the household by luring in prey herself. In fact, her fascination with him began even before her life was out of the danger zone:
"Despite my illness [she refers to her shredded intestines and her miscarriage], he had me that evening and I let him, surrendered to the thrill of his weight over me."
Adair’s own obsession seemed to concentrate on beauty and perfection at first.

The deepest layer of the three-tiered story narrates the misery of his 14th-century youth in a third-person-point-of-view: His father, a Romanian nomad, sold his teenage son to a creepy, old alchemist employed by an entertainment-crazy Hungarian Count. Along with sympathetic Lanore the reader learns a lot about his complete loss of freedom, his utter loneliness, his purely sexual relationship with the physically and mentally disabled maid, his quiet hate for his unspeakably brutal, immortality-seeking master and his step-by-step foray into satisfying his sexual urges by sleeping with the mutilated corpses of village wenches, who his master regularly raped to death in his private dungeon and had him bury in the forest afterwards.

Yes, there is a lot of sex in The Taker. But, as already stated, the book is no paranormal romance and does not promote love. It doesn’t get very graphic, but it also does not hide anything: There are no glistening drops of fluid dancing on silky body parts to the rhythm of a sensually throbbing loin area. There are hiked-up petticoats in dirty barns, iron chains and primal screams in mouldy underground chambers, bruises and mortally wounded vital organs, there are forced threesomes and frantic, unexpected couplings in motel rooms. Although I can safely say that the romance-novel-style-overdose of sexual visuals is more often than not something I could do without, I would gladly exchange the corpse-groping and all the loveless abuse for some mushy minute-details-narration of how Lord X expertly leads Lady Y to her first orgasm ever. Honestly, I abhorred every single sexual encounter in The Taker, but I guess others might not. But what appalled and enraged me the most is the description of rape victims getting unwillingly aroused while being sexually abused and beaten to pulp. Partly the strangeness of Adair's sexual preferences is put a little into perspective when the secret around his narration's point-of-view which I, by the way, guessed much, much too early is revealed, but, still, scenes like that do not sit well with me.

Another thing that stood between me and the ability to enjoy the book were the characters themselves. I did not remotely like any of them. I despised Lanore and her parents, Jonathan, Adair and his minions and certainly the alchemist, but I also did not get Luke, his unhealthy, illogical fascination with selfish Lanore, and his willingness to overlook that she is using him for her means in a very calculated way.

In addition, some of the facts that open Lanore's eyes are not logical at all, and the plot unnecessarily drags in places. I even contemplated giving up during the first third of the book. Plus, I felt as if the author wanted to mislead me in purpose by using elements that make the well-read fantasy reader associate "vampires": In the beginning it seems like Lanore has the ability to read thoughts and Adair's staff member Tilde is described as having sharpened teeth. But both hints turned into dead ends without a later explanation or apology.

Apropos end: The novel's ending points out dangerous things to come. Dangerous things Luke and Lanore remain unaware of. So you close the book with a lot of unease in your guts although you might not feel the urge to pick up the sequel. Do you like that? I definitely don’t.

Yet, I should not hide that although I easily anticipated most of the important plot mysteries, I think that the story-within-story-within-story structure has been well-planned and well-executed, that both historical eras seem to haven been well-researched and intricately depicted, that the writing shows talent and promise indeed. Savour, for instance, the novel's very first sentence to get a taste: „Goddamned freezing cold. Luke Finley’s breath hangs in the air, nearly a solid thing shaped like a wasp's nest, wrung of all its oxygen.“ That is beauty in the midst of mess, isn’t it?