Sarah M. Harvey, The Convent of the Pure. Lexington: Apex Publishing, 2009. Pp. 138. ISBN 9780981639093. $13.95.Reviewed by PostMorbid
Girl with big cleavage, burning stake to be fired from a crossbow, naked woman half-covered in runes, magic flowing from her hands. Every fantasy geek's dreams seem to be embodied in the cheesecake cover of Sarah Harvey's The Convent of the Pure. Let's have a look inside this 'steampunk novella'.
The main character of the book, Portia Gyony, is a lesbian demon hunter, supported by the ghost of her dead lover Imogen. Both are Nephilim, descendants of angels, raised by a secret group of watchers who through the ages have fought off evil spirits. Just think a crossover of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Nephilim fantasy roleplaying game and a hint of steampunk.
Portia is a troubled kind of hero, blaming herself for the death of Imogen who was killed in battle, and not quite realising who she is. If that were not cliché enough, she finds herself drawn into a conspiracy among in which, surprise surprise, no one is quite what they appear to be. After a short introduction, our heroine spends most of the book battling demons, being tied to chairs and altars, snogging demons and ghosts, being confused by prophecies, getting in touch with her inner power, firing blessed bolts into demons, being sexually aroused by demons—all to eventually overcome her personal defects and move on to what, we are told, will be two more sequels.
Some reviewers of the Convent have praised the book for its "atmospheric" setting. It may be a little unfair to judge a trilogy by the first book, but as far as stories based on "heroes fight evil in torn-down convents" go the setting is not particularly original or intense. First of all the steampunk aspect—I am still not quite sure what it adds to the book. True, if handled well it could surprise the reader and make them wonder what technological marvels to expect. However, apart from Portia's wireless transmitter (which is not important to the story), the book could conveniently have been set in early 20th century England. There are syringes, motorcycles and various laboratory devices (surprisingly, the bad guys do some experimentation on pure and innocent beings) that use electricity—nothing unique to this world or in any way surprising shows up. This is probably because of the fact that the book is so short and mostly set in a dungeon kind of mode (the first scenes of the Baldur's Gate roleplaying game come to mind) where the external world does not really matter. This all is, of course, no argument against setting the story in a steampunk environment—it just seems like a lost chance to add something unique to the book; and that would have been very welcome, seeing as it contains so many clichés.
Cliché is certainly the crucial word for describing this book. It starts with a stormy night in a cemetery and ends with an apocalyptic fight during which the lair of the bad guys burns down. You get a heroine trying to overcome her troubled past, betrayal and double betrayal, a gothic mansion-style setting, Frankenstein-like experiments, a power-hungry male drawn to the dark side and lusting after our heroine, a benevolent old lady as stern mentor of Portia and the other members of her group, the heroine's journey to a different plane of existence to find her true power, a bad guy consumed by the demons he called, sudden plot-twists that you can see coming for miles—and all of that in less than 150 pages.
If you enjoy that kind of thing and don't mind paying the price of a full book for what actually seems to be a third of one, well, then please go ahead and read Convent. The first third certainly had some enjoyable parts, but once it got into dungeon-mode I actually wanted to go back to play Baldur's Gate—it's about as well written. Maybe the sequels will flesh out the world a little more and move the characters beyond cliché, in which case there may be some potential for decent entertainment. Based on this reading, however, I can’t personally recommend it.