Rating: 4.8 out of 5
I love it when a writer gets it. When you read an early piece, enjoy it greatly, yet think they could do better. Then you pick up their next book, and it improves on the first tenfold. Most things you would’ve changed have been altered. The emotion runs higher than ever. It’s exhilarating.
It is also how I felt reading Cameo and the Highwayman by Dawn McCullough-White.
The story picks up where Cameo the Assassin leaves off, with Cameo (the undead assassin), Black Opal (the gun-toting, rapier-swinging dandy of a highwayman) and Kyrian (the son of a priest who the previous two had been charged with protecting) heading for the island kingdom of Shandow. They had lost their friends and fellow travels in the first book, killed by a fellow assassin named Jude (who they’ve left for dead) and Cameo’s vampire master, Haffef.
Once arriving in Shandow, Cameo is approached by another vampire, Edel, who also has Haffef to thank (or curse) for his current state. Edel, seeking company after centuries of loneliness, enthralls Cameo and holds her captive in his home – a magically concealed partition of the mansion belonging to Shandow’s royal family. This leaves Opal and Kyrian alone, and gives Cameo ample time to sit with her thoughts, isolated from everyone, and reflect upon the situation her life (or un-life) has lead her to.
And this, readers, is where the book does more than shine.
Just as in the first book, Cameo remains a metaphor for the abused woman. However, whereas in Cameo the Assassin she takes a back seat to other, more fleshed-out and interesting characters, in this one she takes center stage. She bemoans her loss of humanity. She hates both what she’s become and what she might someday be. She wants love – longs for it – and yet finds it hard to give in to that most personal of emotion. She is damaged, and in some ways she thinks that to show affection to another would be to pass that emotional mutilation on to them.
Which is what makes the relationship between she and Black Opal so intriguing. Theirs is a relationship rooted in base needs – the need for companionship, the need to know that no matter how much of a horror they might have become, there is someone else who shares their pain. Just the simple act of looking in the mirror proves this out. Cameo does so, and she sees a woman scarred, both physically and emotionally, by her past. And Opal, with his smallpox scars and dead eye, echoes as such. And yet, when they look at each other, neither notices the faults. All they see is the chance for camaraderie and sensuality – which Opal is more than willing to give, though Cameo needs a bit more convincing. She is still running away from her past, and starts to make great strides towards remedying this, though at the end it is proven how much internal growth she still has to make. This being said, the scenes of their intimacy are both subtle and heartbreaking.
Speaking of Opal, he is the subject of the book’s second major theme, and this one I found even more captivating than the burgeoning love between two broken people. It seems he’s done some horrible things in his past – actions whose consequences are wide-reaching enough to affect Cameo, herself. He has lived his life trying to cover up his deeds, and when they are revealed, he fears the undead woman he loves will no longer want him. Interestingly enough, this is his major concern. He ends up facing death, and all he can think about is how much the disclosure of his deeds will affect her. It’s beautiful, and it rings true to life. I know I’ve thought this way when contemplating some of my past regressions. Sometimes, the big picture is dwarfed by the smaller, more intimate one.
This is where the story becomes surprising – though I guess it shouldn’t be. Cameo finds out about these dastardly exploits, and she doesn’t care. To her, Opal isn’t the man he’d been. He’s become something new, something she doesn’t want taken away from her. This level of forgiveness is intense in its scope, and begs the question: Are we defined by our past, and can we ever make amends?
The answer might not be so simple. In the story, we see that Opal is still haunted mentally by his perceived misdeeds, and it is made all the more painful by the fact these actions were made with honorable intent. It’s the results that were unfortunate. So how can his past be absolved if he can’t absolve himself? This is the dichotomy facing all the characters, and also shows their inherent blindness. Cameo, for her part, forgives him, and yet she, too, tortures herself for the things she’s done. It’s fascinating, and a great psychological study. I’m not sure if the author has a background in this sort of thing, but the way the story reads, the way the character’s motivations are revealed, says that if she hasn’t, she is surely an extremely bright storyteller. It would take one to pull something like this off.
The writing style is brisk and fast-paced. I finished the book in less than two days. Chapters flow into each other beautifully. If I have one complaint – and this is something I feel a duty to reveal – it’s that there is still a lot of head-hopping. To be honest, it surprisingly didn’t bother me in the slightest this time (probably because the story is so expertly crafted and flows without a hitch), but I need to be fair and consistent here. However, there are no in-paragraph switches as far as I could tell, so the point loss is minimal.
That small glitch aside, this is a brilliant book, one of the five best I’ve read since starting this review blog. As a reader, I tend to gravitate more to emotional threads than anything else, and there were a few times over the course of reading Cameo and the Highwayman that I started to get teary-eyed. So bravo there.
This is an excellent novel, one that deserves to be read. It’s meaningful and has something important and revealing to say. And yet I’ve read far less skillfully crafted novels that outsell it. Perhaps this is simply a matter of exposure. Who knows. It is my hope, however, that people will read this review and jump at the chance to read this book – and the first one, as well. They’re both worth the miniscule amount of money it would take to buy them.
Dawn McCullough-White is a fresh face in literature, one that I hope succeeds. It’s time we recognize those who have something interesting to say and push their books to the forefront. This reviewer, for one, would find his life a lot less full complete if I hadn’t read her work.
Plot - 10
Characters - 10
Voice - 10
Execution - 8
Personal Enjoyment – 10
Overall – 48/50 (4.8/5)
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