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Bewildering Stories

Janine Cross, Touched by Venom

Book 1 of the Dragon Temple Saga

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Touched by Venom
Author: Janine Cross
Publisher: Roc, 2005
Hardcover: $22.95 U.S.
Length: 353 pages
ISBN: 0-451-46048-0

I can’t remember where I read it now, but there’s some old advice about writing detective stories, particularly the hard-boiled ilk. It boils down to a simple adage. Get your hero or heroine into hot water. Turn up the temperature. Turn up the pressure. Dig ’em into a hole so deep, the nose doesn’t show. Then... dig them out. More or less, that’s the art of the page-turning novel.

I was reminded of that advice (kudos to anyone who can advise me where my pack-rat brain found it) when I read Touched by Venom. We have a pretty ordinary kid as our heroine. She’s not particularly smart; she’s not particularly pretty; she’s sure not noble or compassionate. Zarq is by all accounts a perfectly ordinary jill. Not so her mother, father, and elder sister, who all exhibit varying degrees of courage, unconventionality, brains or beauty lacking in our Not Quite Heroic Heroine.

But then stuff starts happening to Zarq, much of it triggered by her more unusual father, mother, and sibling. By the end of the book, Zarq’s sunk into ravening drug addiction; gained another monkey-on-her-back in the form of her own mother’s anguished haunt; and lost her, um, external female genitals to an unspeakable form of “cleansing” called circumcision (practiced even today in Darkest, and I really mean Darkest, Africa, so I’m told). I guess I also forgot to mention the homelessness, the starvation, the loss of her beautiful sister to whoredom, the incestuous homosexual brothers, the rats after the corpses and a few other miscellaneous difficulties. To tell the truth, the loss of those, um, external female organs quite drove the rest out of my mind. And this is only Book One!

Zarq is a serf. She and her parents are members of a sort of pottery guild. They live, like other serfs, on the estate, or ‘clutch’, of a rich dragon-lord. Dragons are power, and dragons are also divinity. Dragons are also drug — or sex — addictions, as their venom has a highly sensual and hallucinogenic effect on anyone it touches. Everything Zarq and her parents do support the dragon-lord and his dragons.

Zarq’s mother is part aborigine, with the blood of the accursed Djimbi in her veins. The Djimbi have magic, and Zarq’s mother soon gets in trouble for using it. Zarq’s beautiful sister is sold into whoredom when the group falls on hard times, and Zarq’s mother becomes obsessed with redeeming her lost and best child. If that means that Zarq the Ordinary becomes an unheeded tool in her mother’s hands, well, that’s a price Mom is prepared they should both pay. Then Mom dies, and fastens her soul and unrequited obsession to her unfortunate younger daughter like a leech. Poor motherless Zarq passes into the hands of a dragon-tending, knife-wielding sisterhood. More stuff happens...

Cross does a good job of depicting, with conviction and without information overload, Zarq’s complex and different world. She does a good job with characters, too, although Zarq herself is a less-than-sympathetic figure. She really doesn’t seem to give a hoot about her mother’s anguished obsession with saving Zarq’s elder sister. She seems to be a rather ordinary, slightly selfish girl who finds herself dipped in an acid bath of drug addiction (and bizarre sex — those venomous dragons; no more details in a family publication, I’m afraid!). Her raging addiction in turn fuels her unnatural ambition to own her own dragons.

By the end of the book, I can well believe that there isn’t anything Zarq wouldn’t do to fulfill that goal. And that, of course, makes me a little less interested than I would be in her subsequent story. But she sure isn’t ordinary anymore.

How she gets her dragons, of course, we’ll find out in the sequel. Cross’s first volume is a definitely dark, but involving, story. I warn you now about those graphic “circumcision” and addiction scenes... I admit it was more than Ms. Wimpy could easily stomach!

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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