Long ago, before accepted history began, there lived a Great Queen with nine powerful daughters. Their powers lay in their beauty, in their truth, in their abilities to heal and create and protect. Their powers lay in their skill at dance and art and sports and poetry. But their greatest power lay in being women.
The nine (sometimes seven, sometimes thirteen) daughter poured their powers into cups that have since been lost but the Grail Keepers have kept their legacy alive through rhyme and fable ever since. Since she was fourteen Magdalene Sanger has known she was one of this long line, and that she could rely on any woman who knew the intersecting circle design off the vesica piscis and the recognition rhyme.
Now a professor of mythology, Maggi has devoted her adult life to the discipline of tai chi, the study of myths and tales, and to avoiding becoming ensnared with Lex Stuart, a man she's known since boyhood and with whom she shares a magnetic attraction. But when her apartment is broken into and her goddess figurines smashed, Lex in the first person she contacts after the police. When Maggi learns her great-aunt Brigitte, a Parisian historical sociologist, has been attached and her office also ransacked, Maggi is certain it's more than coincidence - aunt Bridge had been researching the goddess Melusine, one of the daughters.
There follows a search for the Melusine chalice, complicated by the Comitatus, a male secret society searching for the Holy Grail and bent on destroying the Goddess Grails. Lex keeps coincidentally turning up, and Maggi is torn between trust and suspicion. She's also attracted to Father Rhys Pritchard, who left the priesthood for love only to have his fiancee die just days before his papers came through.
A fairly uncategory category romance, AKA Goddess combines contemporary action and Da Vinci Code-esque* mythology with a chronology of Maggi's relationship with Lex, from their first meeting at the age of five. The emphasis here is on action - though there are some sex scenes (the physical attraction overwhelms reason), their relationship never wavers from balancing precariously between Maggi believing he's a good guy and believing he's part of the team against her. The heart of the plot is the pursuit and keeping of the chalice, rather than a typical romance, and even the potential competition for hero is tokenistic - Rhys and Maggi have some chemistry but he's never a contender.
The main theme of the novel, though, is the difference between male and female conceptions of power, which is crystallised in the gendered societies - Comitatus is male, exclusionary, blood focused in terms of both lineage and spilling, structured and hierarchical, plagued by intrigue and internal disharmony, fearful of challenge and attack, and secret to protect its strength and power, which are seen as force and weapons. The Grail Keepers are female but allow men to participate, encompass all manner of co-faiths, dismiss blood lines in favour of emotional relationship, have no leadership or internal structure, are bound by womanhood and female experience, believe in shared power and balance, and are secret "like deer" - to protect themselves from attack and destruction, rather than to consolidate a power base.
The message is essentially that the world would be a better place with more women and more female energy at the helm. That's not to say that women are portrayed as being weak or defenceless - Museline is powerful when confronted, and Maggi is able to evade pursuit, manages not to be killed when pushed in front of a train, scales buildings, swims through underwater caverns in the dark, and is able to kill half a dozen men in a sword fight while avoiding injury herself. This is through her martial art of choice, which complements the novel's thematic drive - tai chi looks peaceful and nonthreatening, causing the observer to dismiss it, but a skilled practitioner uses an attacker's force against themselves.
I found some of this a little over the top - did we really need waves of swordsmen? In places the writing a little jarring - "I should let you go, shouldn't I?" might be layered but in no universe is a double entendre, heart hurting or otherwise, and the line "my heart didn't have a return policy" made me wince. For the most part, however, it was unobjectionable, and the plot carried me along.
However, while the cover tips the alert reader off that this is a series (though according to the author's website it's more like a novel with a sequel), I did expect resolution by the end. In other genres a total lack of resolution is unwelcome but not wholly unexpected, though a partial resolution is more common. But I ended AKA Goddess with no feeling of any kind of ending. The primary relationship is being renegotiated but is still precarious, the chalice is still in hiding, and the enemy are unchanged.
I had to search online to find out more about the series - Maggi's story continues in Her Kind of Trouble while Something Wicked follows another Grail Keeper, while books one and seven of the Madonna Key mystery Lynn's been following ties in too (and apparently book seven is also about Maggi). Leaving aside my determination to read every Sweet Valley High novel, which continued well past the time a normal person would pass based on age alone, I am no stranger to long series novels. However, I do like the pay off of the resolution of at least one storyline per book, particularly when the genre convention is strongly oriented that way. For example, most romance series follow a group of people with each novel detailing one primary relationship and secondary relationships that are picked up in subsequent installments. Category romance series typically come in threes, perhaps siblings or cousins; non-category entries range further, like Suzanne Brockmann's deservedly loved SEAL team 16 or Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Chicago Stars. While the previously resolved romances may crop up in subsequent works, and reading the whole lot may add a layer of completion and roundness to the reading experience, each novel is self-contained.
I may have been interested in reading more about the Grail Keeper's world (which is "Grail Keepers" on the cover, but both "GrailKeepers" and "Grailkeepers" on the author's site, in the same way Maggi is also Magi in the text and Maggie on the back cover). I am not, however, prepared to read not only the rest of this series but a whole other seven part series as well. Fortunately Lynn's only one book away from completing the Madonna Key septet and will let me know if it ends as strongly as it started. As for me, I may give Vaughn another go but I'll be making very sure the book is a stand alone before I start. - Alex
* I feel the need to point out that, though I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail when it came out a hundred years ago, I haven't read The Da Vince Code. Lynn took the bullet for me - between her description and the Wikipedia summary I know enough to see the san greal/sang real plot similarities