Bee reviews Die For Me by Luke Jennings

Killing Eve: Die For Me by Luke Jennings

SPOILER WARNING

Trigger warning: emotional abuse, transphobia

Being a Killing Eve mega-fan since season one began, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading the books. I picked up Luke Jennings’ series at just the right time – only a couple of months before the release of the third and final book, Die For Me. Codename Villanelle and No Tomorrow were unbelievably enjoyable for me. Although very different to the TV series, they retained a different kind of charm: slightly trashy thrillers (in the best possible way), filled with designer brands, designer sex, and designer murder. I had the best time reading them, and when the end of No Tomorrow saw Eve jumping on the back of Villanelle’s motorcycle and the pair of them riding off into the sunset together, I was practically salivating for the final installment. I preordered Die For Me, and eagerly awaited its arrival. When it came, I devoured it immediately. And I was disappointed.

There were certain things I was expecting from this book, based on the previous ones. I wanted sensuousness. I wanted desire. I wanted absurdly and wrongly hilarious kill scenes. I wanted the passionate explosion that could only come from Eve and Villanelle’s final collision after their sizzling mutual pursuit. I wanted haute couture and fast cars and spies, lies, and intrigue. What came instead was what can only be described as an abusive relationship. Where previously Villanelle and Eve were matched in their pursuit of each other, playing out an ouroboric cat-and-mouse, this third book casts Villanelle as deliberately cruel, bullying, and emotionally abusive towards the woman she claims to love. It is true that Villanelle – or Oxana, the name she reverts to in this book – is a psychopath. Her feelings for Eve are constantly in question, by both outsiders and Eve herself. But she expresses enjoyment of bullying Eve; she calls her vicious names; she flies into rages and then acts cold and distant; she flagrantly cheats. Through it all, though, Eve makes excuses for her, and clings to her attraction. I wasn’t expecting Villanelle/Oxana to do a complete one-eighty and transform from calculating killer to doting girlfriend. They do say that psychopaths readily manipulate people’s emotions, even those who they know care about them. But even so, it was jarring and uncomfortable to read Oxana treating Eve so horrendously, and for Eve to defend her – again, and again, and again. It is a familiar abuse narrative, one that is harrowing to hear about. It made for distressing reading which drastically shifted my perspective: I no longer wanted Oxana and Eve being murder wives. I wanted Eve to get away.

What made it even more distressing was that the final sixty pages of the book delivered one hundred percent on what I wanted. I got an absurdly funny murder, some entertaining banter between Oxana and Eve, tenderness and sexiness, and a high-stakes assassination plan. The ending is utterly perfect. Or, it would be, if not for the entire beginning and middle of the story. It feels like a completely different book, focused on a completely different relationship, with a completely different tone.

There were other facets of the book that I enjoyed. I loved that it permitted its women to be dirty, messy, violent. I do love a story about feral women. They sometimes don’t shower, they revel in the sourness of each other’s bodies, they get bloody. I liked Eve’s character arc as she comes to embrace the parts of her that are more like Oxana than she wants to admit. I liked how fast-paced the overall plot was, with the right amount of action to maintain interest. These qualities aren’t enough to surpass the genuine distress I felt over Oxana and Eve’s relationship, especially as they were glimmers of what this book could have been.

Another point to make is about Charlie. Charlie appeared in the previous two books as Lara, Villanelle’s lover and fellow assassin. Eve experienced considerable jealousy over their relationship. In Die For Me, it is revealed that “Lara” is non-binary, and has chosen the name Charlie. Charlie’s pronouns are they/them. It is something I would normally be excited about – there aren’t enough non-binary characters generally, and a kickass non-binary assassin? Amazing! Fantastic! Incredible! However. There is something slightly off in the way that Charlie is written and written about. Eve, as the narrator, always uses the correct pronouns and name. And it is obviously realistic that of the people who Charlie interacts with, not all of them respect their identity and their pronouns, and they have to deal with that transphobia. But when Charlie corrects these people, it is almost a punchline. The phrase “PC language” is used multiple times. There is something well-meaning in Jennings’ use of correct terminology, but it all feels a bit Googled. One of the characters makes a joke about being woke, and it sort of comes across that this is what Jennings is trying to prove. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I really do feel that there is something in the tone that suggests the reader is supposed to find Charlie a little ridiculous.

The Killing Eve books were always, for me, a separate entity to the show. I was never expecting the same level of sexual tension, nor the true ambiguity of both Eve and Villanelle’s characters. I wasn’t really expecting the same depth. But I really did enjoy the first two books, as quick thrillers told with humour and exaggeration. They were fun and wild romps. This third book was not that. I believe it needs a very strong content warning for anyone about to read it. The realism of Oxana’s abuse is confronting and horrible. There is nothing cartoonish or exaggerated about it: there are people living that reality. Even the supposedly uplifting ending was not enough to wash that taste from my mouth. I suppose all I can do now is wait for Killing Eve season three, and hope that the show strays as far from the books as possible.

Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

Who Is Vera Kelly? is a thoughtful, twisty spy thriller, whose eponymous protagonist is a queer American spy in 1960s Argentina. Vera’s life unfolds in fragments through the novel: passages in her present day, in which she is working for the CIA to monitor the unstable Argentinian government and suppress communist interests, are interspersed with passages recounting her troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and path to the CIA – as well as the path she takes coming in to her lesbian identity.

The novel is a spy thriller, but one with a little more languor: the focus is more on the psychological – oppressive feelings, the sense of things closing in, Vera getting inside her own head – than on heroic exploits, dastardly villains, and implausible twists of fate – like a queering of the genre itself. We follow Vera, in all her complexity, as she poses as a university student and tries to enter the inner circle of a student identified as some sort of communist operative – which includes befriending his mysterious girlfriend, Victoria, who seems to be flirting with her…

Who Is Vera Kelly? puts us right inside Vera’s head, and peels the layers back one by one: via the intermingled flashbacks, we journey through her life, starting with the death of her father and her difficult relationship with her abusive mother, moving forward right up to her present day, uncovering what she has been through and what makes her tick, as she herself tries to uncover this communist plot while the Argentinian government crumbles after a coup and she is left stranded there.

It took me a little while to get sucked in to the novel, but I once I was in, I was hooked. The novel fills you with an all-consuming desire to know what happens, both in Vera’s past and in her present… Who is on what side, and who can she trust? What is Vera’s life story? How can she escape Argentina after the coup? And, crucially, was Victoria actually flirting with her? You’ll have to read to find out.