fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Janine Cross Touched by VenomTouched by Venom by Janine Cross

I’ve been tempted by Touched by Venom for a long time. The cover art is sensual; the blurb is intriguing and contains a promising quote by Jacqueline Carey, one of my favorite authors. Something held me off, though, until recently, but I finally broke down and bought Touched by Venom used.

First of all… yowza. I thought I was into dark fantasy. Little did I know, compared to Touched by Venom, pretty much everything I’ve ever read is all rainbows and unicorns. This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. Janine Cross doesn’t shy away from the grit of a peasant’s life (brutality, disease, excrement…) or from the scourges of racism, sexism, and classism. Our heroine, Zarq, is on the wrong end of all three of these bigotries and so her life is difficult in the extreme. Readers may be particularly disturbed by the inclusion of female circumcision in Touched by Venom. There is also bestiality in this novel.

I’m not going to bash Cross for including atrocities in her novel; after all, with the obvious exception of dragon bestiality, all of these horrors have occurred in humanity’s past, and many are still occurring today. I do think the story would have been better had it included any sort of brightness, any sort of tenderness between the characters, anything to break up the relentless parade of brutality. Some reviews have compared Touched by Venom to Anne Bishop‘s Black Jewels series. I disagree; Black Jewels had humor, romance, and friendship. If this is similar to any of Bishop’s work, it’s her Match Girl short story, which focused on the tortures inflicted on suspected witches during the “Burning Times.”

I also believe that Touched by Venom could have been paced better and/or the heroine made more dynamic. Zarq spends the first half of the novel as a small child; all of her decisions are made for her by others. Even after she grows to late adolescence, Zarq seldom makes a choice of her own, instead being buffeted along by the will of others. It’s only after page 300 that she really starts acting of her own volition (the book is less than 400 pages long, by the way). And even when she does, she does it in such a thoughtless way and makes such a botch of it that I don’t have much sympathy for her.

It may be “realistic” that a society as oppressive as this one would produce citizens as passive as Zarq. However, that doesn’t necessarily make for the best story. Fantasy works best, in my opinion, when the main character has spirit and courage beyond the ordinary. The character doesn’t have to be perfect — in fact, it’s often more compelling when s/he’s a flawed person with a humble background — but s/he needs to be the kind of person who writes his or her own destiny.

I’ve heard that Zarq begins to defy the powers-that-be in the two sequels to Touched by Venom. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exactly inspire me to reach for the others. I may end up giving them a try eventually, as Cross is a competent writer, but for now, I think I’m going to take my leave of Zarq Darquel.

Dragon Temple Saga — (2005-2007) This trilogy is complete. Publisher: On a large dragon estate in Malacar, young Zarq Darquel’s rebellious ways go unnoticed by the watchful eye of the Dragon Temple-until she accidentally captures the attention of an eccentric and dangerous dragonmaster and unleashes a storm of tragedy. Zarq and her delirious half-breed mother flee through the underworld of their land-from The Zone of the Dead to a sanctuary for outcast dragons, through discovery and persecution. Consumed with the desire for revenge, Zarq develops a taste for the highly addictive venom drawn from the dragons she has been taught to revere, and sinks into a realm of bizarre magics. Here, influenced by the divine grace of dragon memories, Zarq glimpses possibilities of revenge and social revolution; but to achieve such, she must defy not just the sexual taboos and patriarchal conventions of her society, but the Emperor who rules her nation.

Janine Cross Dragon Temple Saga book review 1. Touched By Venom 2. Shadowed By Wings 3. Forged By FireJanine Cross Dragon Temple Saga book review 1. Touched By Venom 2. Shadowed By Wings 3. Forged By FireJanine Cross Dragon Temple Saga book review 1. Touched By Venom 2. Shadowed By Wings 3. Forged By Fire


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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