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The Burning    by Susan Squires order for
by Susan Squires
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Martina Bexte

Susan Squires first introduced idealistic Stephan Sincai via a series of flashbacks in The Companion and more fully in The Hunger as Beatrix Lisse and Asharti's mentor and lover. Now Stephan returns in his own story in The Burning, where The Eldest, Rubius, has called him to task for the horrendous crimes that Asharti has committed against her kind in her quest for vampire world domination. Stephan has finally admitted that letting Asharti live had been a grave error, and is now ready to embrace Rubius's judgment, if only to find sanctuary at Mirso. The remote Transylvanian monastery is where the vampire race originated millennia before and where Stephan hopes to leave behind the human world. Rubius proclaims that Stephan must first give himself over to training as a Harrier, and that his specific task will be to dispatch every made vampire sired by the crazed Asharti. For the next two years, Stephan endures The Sisters' regimen as they suppress his every emotion and turn that power inwards to make him the ultimate killing machine.

Once he is deemed ready by Rubius, Stephan travels to England to track down a man named Kilkenny, whom they believe is organizing his own small army to continue Asharti's work. Stephan's first encounter with Kilkenny's minions ends badly. He is gravely wounded but manages to translocate himself to a secluded cave to allow his companion to initiate healing. He cannot know that this cave is the sanctuary of Ann Van Helsing, a young woman who suffers torments of her own. She has inherited the ability to know everything about others by simple touch. Their every thought and desire overwhelms her. This ability had driven her mother mad, and Ann knows the same fate awaits her. But when the bloodied stranger literally falls into her lap, she knows she must help him. The moment she touches Stephan she is besieged by three thousand years of his history, including the often-brutal training he received at the hands of The Sisters. Ann's mind cannot assimilate all this information and she falls into a coma.

Stephan holds himself responsible for Ann's fate and once she awakens, he finds himself drawn to the ethereal beauty as he has been to no other woman. He wants to protect her, not only from the townsfolk who deem her a witch, but also from her greedy cousin Erich, who is forcing marriage to get his hands on her fortune. The longer Stephan remains at Ann's side the more deeply he falls in love with her, realizing that she is the only woman who has ever truly understood him. But he knows he cannot offer Ann any sort of a future, especially now in his deadly role as Harrier. Ann, however, is unwilling to give Stephan up and will do anything, including sacrifice her humanity, to save Stephan from himself and the others who seek to destroy him.

Susan Squires continues raising the bar when it comes to exemplary historical paranormal romance. The Burning adds another marvelously rich, emotionally charged, imaginative, and beautifully written addition to a series that surpasses any other that I've read for a good long time. Her characters are believable and completely human, especially the idealistic Stephan, who craves absolution for the many sins he believes he's commited over lifetimes. But it takes Ann's own strength of character to convince him that she is his absolution. Also Squires puts a few nifty twists on the Van Helsing legacy, including Erich's eventual fate, which should give readers a bit of a chuckle.

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