REVIEW: A Taste of the Nightlife

Note: This review originally appeared in the The Season E-Zine's July mystery section.

A Taste of the Nightlife by Sarah Zettel
Obsidian, July 2011

Rating: 8 (Very Good) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10.)

For fans of: Juliet Blackwell and Charlaine Harris

Nightlife isn’t exactly your typical fine-dining establishment. The restaurant, run by Chef Charlotte Caine and her blood-sucking brother Chet, is one of the few places in New York where humans and vampires can not only dine together, but where a portion of the menu is catered specifically toward vampires. Nightlife is still relatively new on scene and has yet to actually turn a profit, so when undead food critic Anatole Sevarin shows up one night to dine, Charlotte and Chet set about trying to make sure Sevarin has a perfect evening; after all, a good review from him could make or break them. But then a drunk wizard stumbles in, tries to pick a fight with a vampire at table two, and nearly sets the restaurant on fire. The sprinklers engage, the restaurant empties, and their chance to impress the critic goes up in smoke.

To make matters worse, the next morning Charlotte shows up for work only to discover the scene-causing sorcerer from the night before drained of blood and lying on the restaurant floor. Nightlife’s declared a crime scene, and once the police discover Chet’s the only vampire with after-hours access to Nightlife, they haul him off for questioning. Charlotte believes her brother’s innocent of the crime, but she’s equally sure he’s hiding something from her. He may not be a murderer, but is he the reason a dead body was dumped at their door? Until the mystery is solved, it’s unlikely the police will allow Nightlife to reopen. Can Charlotte exonerate her brother and catch the real killer in time to save her beloved restaurant, or will she fall victim herself?

A Taste of the Nightlife is the first in author Sarah Zettel’s new Vampire Chef Mystery series. I admit, for the first 100 pages or so, I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of this book; the start is a little rocky, due in large part to the excessively detailed, info-dump-y manner in which Zettel introduces the reader to rules of Charlotte’s universe. Once Zettel gets past the formalities, however, she seems to find her flow, and the story just takes off from there. The premise is unique and fun, the plot is intricate and clever, and the mystery is sure to keep you guessing until the very end. Zettel has a young, hip writing style and an easy way with snarky dialogue, both of which to help set her apart from the other authors in her genre.

Charlotte’s an incredibly likable heroine for whom readers will want to root; strong, witty, and independent with a good head on her shoulders, she’s more than capable of carrying a series. Her emotions and interactions with other characters feel genuine, and they serve to not only further the plot, but to add depth and complexity to her personality, as well.

Zettel also does a good job of fleshing out the other characters who populate her book. Sorcerer-slash-sidekick-slash-knight-in-shining armor Brendan Maddox is a perfect love interest, and the chemistry between he and Charlotte positively sizzles. Chet is perfect as the screw-up brother whom Charlotte loves, but feels a constant need to protect. And Charlotte’s roommates, cosmetics saleswoman Jess and lawyer Trish, help to ground the story in reality and provide a nice counterpoint to all of the crazy supernatural high jinks that otherwise characterize Charlotte’s life. Zettel’s only real failure, character-wise, is restaurant critic Anatole Sevarin. Don’t get me wrong – I find Anatole intriguing, but despite her best efforts, I just don’t think Zettel successfully sells him as a potential love interest for Charlotte. She seems to have been aiming for someone akin to Charlaine Harris’ Eric, but I have a hard time not picturing him as Bela Lugosi. (A very smart, charming, and debonair Bela Lugosi, but still.) For this reason, Zettel’s attempts to fashion a burgeoning love triangle between Charlotte, Anatole, and Brendan fall kind of flat.

A Taste of the Nightlife ends so strongly and on such sure footing that I was very tempted to give it a nine; ultimately, however, the weak start dragged the score down to a very high eight. That said, I have incredibly high hopes for the series, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun summer read.