Review: the Molly Sheldon series by Aurora Smythe

5 Aug 2018, 5:07 p.m.

Corpse Position, Dark Alley Books, 2012
Down Dog, Dark Alley Books, 2013
Salute to the Sun, Dark Alley Books, 2018

Now that the final volume in Aurora Smythe's Molly Sheldon series has been published, I thought it would be a good time to review the whole thing. I ordered new copies of all three books (so as to get the brand-new matching cover art) and have been working through them all week. Or, as my partner put it last night, "Are you still reading those Vampire Yoga Instructor books?"

Yes. In some sense, I will always be reading those Vampire Yoga Instructor books. From a sea of cookie-cutter urban fantasy novels with equally frustrating blonde protagonists, Molly Sheldon grabbed me from her first, irritating adventure. So let's begin there.

Yoga instructor Molly, as chipper and perky as that description suggests, has been trying to hold on to her mojo since a blind date went awry six months ago... leaving her sadly unable to lead her accustomed dawn classes in the park, for reasons that will be obvious to any reader of this blog. (She's a vampire.) She's trying to turn things to her advantage, opening Austin, Texas's first All Nite Yoga Studio. Unfortunately, just as Molly seems to be settling into her new life undeath, she discovers the body.

This scene, which takes place in chapter one of Corpse Position, is honestly one of my favourite pieces of horror description ever. We're not yet familiar with Molly as a character, but somehow it's hard not to identify with her as she steps into the dark studio towards the figure prone on (of course) a natural rubber mat. I especially like the offhand mention that, if she still needed to breathe, she would have been holding her breath. This early Molly is a predator who still believes she's a prey animal.

I have to admit, up to this point in my first reading, I was fully on board with the central conceit of the book and hopeful it would be great. The vampire legend is one of embodiment: the vampire's physical existence is radically changed from what it was when they were mortal, and greatly different from what their outside appearance signals. For me, yoga practice is an opportunity to focus on my own embodied experience in a way my daily life doesn't otherwise encourage. When I saw Corpse Position, newly released, in a railway bookshop, I hoped that Smythe would combine these two ideas into something really insightful, getting into vampire interiority from a hitherto unconsidered angle.

Unfortunately, she does not.

Molly's job as a yoga teacher is constantly brought up throughout the first book, usually by other characters as a way to put her down as airheaded and not a 'real' vampire. The actual work of it, like the spiritual and cultural aspects of yoga, is barely touched on. As soon as the body is discovered and Molly, like so many urban fantasy heroines, decides she's the only one who can take on the investigation, she skips classes right, left and centre, or persuades her friends to cover for her. I found this tendency annoying in Sonia, the protagonist of Martin Suter's Der Teufel aus Mailand, who is nominally a physiotherapist. In a novel where I'd had hopes this high, it was downright disappointing.

What's worse is that, honestly, those other characters are right. Luckily for Molly, her unusual business venture has attracted a mixed clientele from what you might call the dark side of the city. Without them—sexy computer-expert witch Rosita, buff-yet-flexible vampire Niall, and mysterious-but-human ex-cop Darren—she'd be completely helpless to solve the mystery of the bloody corpse. (Oh yes, there's a lot of blood involved. I did enjoy the gore level of this book.) By the end of Corpse Position, Molly is praised by the head of the local vampire council for her work in getting rid of the big bad, but frankly I can't see why.

Down Dog, Molly's second outing, was published a year later and I picked it up immediately, despite my better judgement. The intervening time had softened my impressions of the first book and I can see, on this reading, that I'd greatly exaggerated some of its merits in my memory. Though it doesn't get mentioned nearly as often on the page as her profession, Molly is canonically bisexual. And Rosita is cute, witty and spends far too much time with her useless friend for it to be platonic, right? The first great disappointment of Down Dog is that Aurora Smythe doesn't see things that way at all. It turns out I'd invented almost their entire relationship based on a couple of throwaway lines.

My new theory is that Dark Alley Books accepted Smythe's second work entirely on the strength of the risqué pun in the title. The proof, if proof is needed, is in the screamingly heterosexual cover art (in both the old and new editions). This, you see, is the obligatory Werewolf Boyfriend book in the series.

Nope, I didn't realise there were werewolves in this universe either.

I kept an eye out, this time, and did spot a couple of references to them in Corpse Position. Once, werewolves are included in a list of supernatural creatures that Rosita's older cousin claims to have seen. Other entries on the list are the Lake Worth Monster—later revealed to be a joke on the cousin's part—and the wendigo, which does exist in-universe but thankfully is never encountered. I say that both because I don't trust Smythe to handle it with cultural sensitivity, and because I find the wendigo myth genuinely frightening. There's another mention of werewolf clans "taking over" cities up in Oklahoma, but I'm not the only reader to have missed it completely.

In Down Dog, however, we find werewolf-vs-vampire politics occupying the minds of the Austin vampire council almost to the exclusion of all else. This is fortunate for Molly, given the shaky legal standing of the All Nite Yoga Studio after the disappearance, in between books, of an elder who'd been something of a protector for her. Vampires aren't supposed to work in service roles, especially not ones where they might encounter the human public. Again, this would be an interesting thread to pull on—surely Molly can't be the only millennial vampire with rent to pay?—but Smythe lets it drop in favour of the romance plot, which I can't avoid discussing any longer.

Just as the local politics subplot is getting interesting, Molly falls head over heels for a newcomer to town: Chase, a veteran of werewolf infighting who comes to her looking for exercises to help with his rehabilitation from terrible bite wounds. (At least his name suits his supernatural species better than Kitty Norville's.) Is Chase telling the truth about his violent past? Will the gang find a way to keep the studio open? Can a vampire and a werewolf ever... no, I can't even finish that sentence. The budding romance between the two is so tedious, I nearly noped out of the book altogether back in 2013, and it didn't improve on revisiting.

The novel as a whole is much better than I remembered, though. Thanks to Chase's appearance, we get to enjoy several scenes of Molly teaching yoga and even working on routines to best help in his recovery. It feels as though Smythe actually did some of the research that was so blatantly lacking in the first book. Rosita largely drops out of the picture (so would I, if I'd been dumped for a part-time wolf), but there are some great interactions between Niall and Darren that flesh out the social and supernatural world of Austin. Not to mention two memorable scenes where Molly finds herself fighting—and feeding— without her friends, which are honestly far hotter than any of the sexy interludes with Chase. Her biggest flaw as a protagonist is that her author won't let her be the monster she occasionally worries she is, leaving the non-mystery-solving parts of the stories feeling rather anaemic. (Sorry.) Down Dog hints even more tantalisingly than Corpse Position at the story a braver writer could have told about this character.

Having refreshed my memory of the older books, I felt cautiously excited to begin reading Salute to the Sun. In the last five years, Aurora Smythe has been mostly silent about a future for her most memorable heroine. The standalone sci-fantasy novels she's released instead (Belly of the Nova and Shark Nebula, both 2015) didn't hold my attention and I'd just about given up hope when this, the concluding book of the series, came out with barely any publicity.

Five years have passed in Molly's Austin, too. Chase has followed his pack to San Diego after an amicable breakup, though he still sends postcards. Darren and Niall are still around, and Rosita's back, yay! There's a subplot that finally explains some of Darren's mysterious connections, and sheds some light on why the vampire elders of Austin have put up with him poking his nose in for all this time. It hinges on a distant Spanish ancestor; weirdly, I'm sure this same person was mentioned in Corpse Position back when I first read it, described as Dutch, but I can't find the reference in the new edition. I'm less surprised by the inconsistency than the thought that someone's gone back and fixed it.

Financially stable at last, Molly is happy to be single and still doing what she (allegedly!) loves for a living. The All Nite Yoga Studio has just hired another instructor, shy bloodsucker Meredith, and a new client has just taken them on to give private moonlight lessons to aristocratic vampires. Amusingly, the mansion where these take place is pretty clearly based on the Texas Governer's Mansion. It's there that she hears the rumours about Lord Inigo, her erstwhile patron who disappeared some years before. Allegedly, he's walked into the sun.

Up till this point, a third of the way through, Salute to the Sun had been everything I expected in a Molly Sheldon book: fun dialogue, secondary characters more interesting than the lead, and frustratingly little attention paid to the metaphysical questions opened up by the setting. Oh yes, and missed opportunities for queer representation. I was pretty sure Meredith was going to turn out to be the villain, but I was still rooting vainly for her and Rosita to become an item.

Something happens when Lord Inigo's supposed fate is mentioned, though; all of a sudden, this slight urban-fantasy novel seems to grow up. The tone gets darker and the jokes get further apart. More importantly, the quality of the writing increases to a level it hasn't seen since the early chapters of the first book. Molly decides, of course, that she has to find out the truth behind what happened to her old acquaintance. (Smythe tries belatedly to cast him as a beloved mentor and protector. This might work better on a reader who hasn't just read the first two books, in which Inigo is barely mentioned.) In doing so, she confronts the emotional turbulence that her years as a vampire have put her through, and has to consider whether the sunny (hah) demeanour she relentlessly puts on is really the healthiest way of dealing with it.

At the end of Salute to the Sun I was left shocked by how much I wanted the story to go on. Inigo's true whereabouts and motives were as bizarre as anything else in the series so far. The yoga scenes reminded me of Cayce Pollard doing Pilates in Pattern Recognition, which is to say they were well-observed but somehow hollow-feeling, and might just as well have been about a human being as a supernatural predator. What I enjoyed, and didn't want to leave, was the series finally recognising that a vampire story must truly acknowledge death. If only Aurora Smythe had stayed in this mode all along, from Molly's first fearful tiptoing towards the corpse in the studio, how much better these books could have been.

Or perhaps not. Molly's big emotional breakthrough in Salute to the Sun culminates in her kissing Niall while her other friends cheer them on, and I really don't have time to read more of this shoehorned-in girl/boy romance.

End note

I completely made up Molly Sheldon, Aurora Smythe and Dark Alley Books, though writing about them was so much fun I now wish this series did exist! They are entirely the result of letting my mind wander during my own yoga lessons, led by a teacher who is definitely not a vampire.