Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.
So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?
So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.
Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.
For a review of another book by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the days of innocence, there used to be jokes that started, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. . .” That was before we got all wrapped up in what might or might not be politically correct and worried such jokes might be a form of racism in mocking the idiosyncrasies of each nationality. Well, in Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson (Orbit, 2013) Jessica McCain Book 2, some werewolves, two vampires and a human go into the woods together. . . Now those of you who, by accident, have encountered the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, will know that this combination is fairly combustible as romantic love triangles complicate interspecies politics. This pursues the same basic idea but just on the adult side of the young adult (YA) divide. In other words, this is not strictly speaking YA but rather the kind of book you encourage YA readers to try. Hopefully it weans them off YA and moves them into reading books with more adult sensibilities. The marketers then say, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” or words to that effect and before you can say “Snap dragons are beautiful at this time of year!” these older readers have been moved on and are actually reading stuff meant for adults to read. To fill this interstitial role, this author has crafted a not quite “urban fantasy” because almost all the major action takes place in natural surroundings (forests and mountainous areas). But we have a youngish female heroine who’s just growing into her powers and her love interest who’s missing, held in captivity. Plus the mandatory human who’s just found out that all this supernatural shit is true. Ah, if only our heroine didn’t have a conscience, it would be so easy to kill off the human to protect the secret of her heritage. But fear of guilt makes werewolf people do foolish things. So they take him along on this campaign to kill Selene, the Lunar Goddess (and rescue the love interest).
Now as you probably know, Goddesses are pretty badass and damned difficult to kill. It’s going to take a lot of effort to drain enough of her immortality so she ceases to exist. Why take the human? Because the werewolves can’t leave him where he was being held captive and they can kill him if he gets in the way on their mission — assuming none of the assorted supernatural perils do for him on the way, of course. In the first book, our heroine made a deal with the Vampire Queen, so two vampire foot-soldiers who have some experience of the Goddess are sent along to help. That’s why this disparate group end up traipsing through the woods to get to the mountain and do battle. This would be relatively straightforward (insofar as anything ever is in fantasy novels), but then the Underworld decides to get involved and this upsets the natural order of things. And that brings us to the Prophesy. Yes, all books like this have to have a Prophesy and, in this instance, powers long ago predicted that population growth in the different supernatural species would lead to new tensions and conflict. In such a situation, there would have to be a peacekeeper, someone not directly involved who would see each side in the conflicts played fair. Yes, you guessed it. Our girl is the interspecies referee in the making.
So there you have it: this is a tag team contest between our heroine and her mixed cohorts against the Goddess and her backers from the Underworld. Everything happens at a good pace and there are twists and turns on the way to the set up for the next exciting instalment. It’s positive and upbeat with every challenge easily defeated as she explores and grows more confident in her powers (I suppose there will be some explanation of the source of these powers at some point but, for now, you just accept she can defeat all-comers without using anything like her full potential). In my opinion this makes the book suitable for the fourteen to sixteen age bracket in emotional development if not physical years. Those who are emotionally older will look for books which have protagonists face more real challenges without the assurance of success to keep their spirits up, i.e. books which deal with the uncertainties of life and death in the battle against “dark forces”. Parents can be reassured this book has no sex scenes. Just a tender clinch when the battle is over. All this makes Hot Blooded is a safe and unchallenging read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) a short ebook collection @ $3.99, starts with “Still Life No 41”, shortlisted for Best Short Story in the 2013 Edgar Awards, in which the young twenty-six year old Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art is pushed out of her job on the orders of the Minister of Culture. She’s naturally outraged. While it’s true she only got the job because the previous director had been her uncle and her father used his political pull with the Minister, it wasn’t her fault that the first exhibition she curated should turn out like that. The Museum had been negotiating for two years to persuade the artist to allow his work to be displayed. Our first-person narrator simply came in at the end with the deal in place. All she had to do was display what arrived. Which is what she did even though there was one more piece than the Museum was expecting. The launch was a triumph. Even the canapés were deemed sensational. After the excitement of the opening, every art critic who attended during the first days of the exhibition was ecstatic, confirming the forty-first work to be one of the finest example of modern art he or she had seen for years. It’s all so unfair she should be the political scapegoat.
The reason why “A Stitch in Time” is so successful is the tone. I mean if I was going to do something like this, I would have to be organised and stay calm. This is not the kind of thing to do when you’re all-a-flutter. Perhaps one of the more powerful anti-anxiety pills would be a good idea, just to settle the nerves but, once started, I would need to keep myself in one piece emotionally without external aid. And then it’s all as I rehearsed when the police come. Oh yes, the police are almost certain to come. But I’ll have everything ready by then. . . It’s the same with “The Thought That Counts”, a strangely dispassionate history of the life of a vampire. Did you know what having your very own vampire in residence does for the tourist trade? Everyone wants to come for the dark and forbidding castle and to sample the atmosphere where the beast sucked the life out of so many virgins. Anyway, having lived a lonely unlife through the centuries, you can imagine how our hero feels when someone tells him another bloodsucker has moved into his territory, and without so much as a by-your-leave or a friendly “Hello”.
“The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer” shows a troglodyte of above-average intelligence tasked with the job of investigating three murders. Someone is bashing out the brains of his fellow cave dwellers with conveniently-to-hand rocks which is disturbing the amenity of the cave and putting some of the other men on edge — at least those bright enough to see a correlation between dead men and blood-stained rocks left a few feet away from the body. Our hero is able to discount Geoffrey as a suspect because a bear ate his arms which makes rock-wielding a challenge. But be reassured, our Sherlock of the Stone Age is going to crack the case as soon as he realizes the game’s afoot, or something. And finally, “The Offering” has a pathologist readying himself for an autopsy without realizing it’s the body of one of the secretaries working at his clinic who’s apparently committed suicide. When the truth sinks in, he grows obsessed with the question why she should have taken her life. He visits her apartment and learns something of her by observing what she left behind. But it’s when he confronts the body that he realizes her motive. This story, like the others in this short collection, has a brooding sense of tragedy overlain with a satirical sensibility.
Thematically, we’re concerned with individuals who find their lives turned upside down by events. The Museum director accepts the additional exhibit, the mother can only find love for her child, the vampire is first curious then angered another is attacking the people who live around him, the detective who can penetrate the mysteries of life, and the pathologist who finds unexpected beauty. Set out in simple phrases, this fails to capture the wit and humour underlying the sometimes gory subject matter. Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is not quite black humour, but it’s certainly dark grey and a delightful surprise in a world that’s largely forgotten the function satire is supposed to perform, i.e. as a form of social commentary or criticism designed to encourage the world to improve. This review should encourage us to try Teresa Solana’s latest mystery novel The Sound of One Hand Killing which comes out in May.
For a review of one of her novels, see The Sound of One Hand Killing.
“Still Life No 41″ was nominated as in the Best Short Story category of the 2013 Edgar Awards.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Underworld: Awakening (2012) is the fourth in the series and a sequel to the second film. For those of you who like to keep things in order, the third film was a prequel. You should understand it’s not really necessary to watch these films in order. They exist and share a historical context for the continuing feud between vampires and werewolves. Three of them have the same lead character. But they have minimal plot continuity.
OK, where are we with this latest exciting episode? As always, you can rely on humans to completely overreact when they discover supernatural beasties are real. I suppose, to those in power, the idea that vampires have been living among us for centuries might not be such a hard sell since both groups feed off the uncaring masses. But, as is required, we now go in for a shock and awe campaign to eradicate both the vampires and the werewolves. Martial law is declared. Repression is put in place. After all, the politicians must get fringe benefits if they are to take out their competitors. Let the mass cleansing begin as all who fail the tests are executed on the spot. Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) attempt to escape the purge but Michael is “lost” and Selene is captured.
Twelve years later, our heroine awakes in a cryosuspension chamber in a lab run by Dr Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea). It’s always impressive to see how quickly supernatural beings recover from being frozen. One minute they lie naked on the floor to give all the voyeurs an early taste. The next minute they are dressed in the leather gear so helpfully left to hand and they are running and jumping (and killing) as if nothing had happened. Then, after a quick snack, it’s into the streets for a quick memory recovery exercise and reorientation on current market trends for vampire teeth. Needless to say, after fighting off a few remnant werewolves and meeting up with David (Theo James), another vampire, Selene is reunited with Eve (India Eisley), the daughter she never knew she had. It’s a touching moment since it turns out the girl released the mother from the lab. Slightly later, there’s a nice line to explain why Selene does not immediately go all motherly, “My heart is not cold. It’s broken” by the news of Michael’s death. Then it’s underground (good to see Charles Dance again). Can she rally the remaining vampires to defend themselves rather than merely hide away? Meanwhile Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) is called to the lab from which our heroine (and her daughter) escaped. He knows immediately that Dr Lane is lying but he does not know why. When he meets up with our heroine, they conclude a faction in the government is protecting the werewolves and planning to harvest immunity to silver from Eve. Oh what a surprise, Dr Lane is the key player and his son is the first superwolf. And then the alarm went off and I woke up.
The question you always have ask when you watch films like this is whether the eighty-eight minutes running time is filled with sufficient content to entertain. This has everything you would expect. Vampires get to jump around like they escaped from the set of the Matrix. If you’re lucky they bite a few people to boost their strength and/or to heal more quickly Werethingies transform into ever bigger and badder doggies. They may not be endowed with the same brain power as the vamps, but they make up for it in brute strength. To this mix is added the new mother/daughter dynamic, the missing daddy and a policeman with vampire sympathies (but not Renfield tendencies) for additional emotional heft. No-one who pays to see this type of film expects anything subtle and, in this case, they won’t be disappointed. The plot moves along briskly and, for the most part makes sense. I suppose we shouldn’t think about how far up the government hierarchy the conspiracy goes. Underworld: Awakening is a film you admire for its technical proficiency. The effects are good. There’s an inexhaustible supply of bullets for Kate Beckinsale to fire plus the chance to let off a few grenades and generally blow stuff up. But there’s no emotional connection. You watch it. It ends. You wonder what to see next.
The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins (pseudonym of Peter Friedrichsen) (Angry Robot, 2012) is following in the footsteps of some fairly powerful writers like Joe Lansdale (Dead in the West, etc.) and Norman Partridge (“Vampire Lake”, “Durston”, “The Bars on Satan’s Jailhouse”, etc.) in creating a weird west series (as an example in short story form, see the anthology Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes. We’re in Jonah Hex territory as a couple from the south survive the Civil War and join the ranks of the bounty hunters. But as there are rather too many ex-soldiers trying to hunt down the human escapees, our happy couple specialise in supernatural threats, working for priests and protecting the people from harm.
The lead character is Cora Oglesby who with Ben, her husband, as her constant companion, moves from town to town, rooting out evil and collecting the bounty which is usually paid through the church. In this instance, they are passing through Leadville in Colorado when they get wind of an unusual killing. Hiring themselves out on a freelance basis, they work for Marshal Mart Duggan to confront the supernatural beastie. When the usual silver bullets fail to do the trick, the couple travel to Denver to consult Father Baez, their local expert on all things supernatural. In this instance, he’s baffled but an exchange of information over the telegraph wires bring a diagnosis of a wendigo. The despatch of this poor creature marks the end of the first part of the book.
The second begins with an approach from a British Lord who’s visiting Colorado to protect his silver mines. It seems the tunnels have been overrun with vampires (many of whom are recent converts from the ranks of his miners). Having nowhere better to go, the couple decide to stay in Leadville to help the Lord and his “expert” deal with this infestation. Needless to say, this proves more challenging than they are expecting.
This novel represents an interesting challenge to conventional marketing wisdom. As I was growing up as a reader in the 1950s, novels dealing with the Wild West were fairly thick on the ground. This was reinforced by television shows like the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. As we came into the 1960s, cinema was into spaghetti and television continued to boom, but this represents the last hurrah for the genre. Thereafter it slipped into the background and book sales plummeted. This novel is therefore carefully retreading the old conventions of the brave marshal, the pusillanimous deputy, the saloon with its nonstop supply of rotgut whisky and 24/7 poker school, the inevitable whore houses, the miners who drink too much, gamble and whore, etc. It also has to confront the problem of language. Does it attempt to recapture the way folk in the late nineteenth century actually spoke, or does it update the vocabulary and syntax to match modern sensibilities? And then there’s the gender issue.
In the conventional western, the woman is either the domesticating influence who tempts the man from his world of action to set up a home, or she’s the sex object who’s used and then discarded as the man wanders off to punch some cattle or sling his six-shooter. As a generalisation, women could not be true to their sex and good with a gun (or in fighting using other weapons) although those we might call pioneer women would certainly have had basic survival skills and could probably shoot. Apart from Annie Oakley who was a sharp-shooting superstar, few women are shown with heroic qualities (despite Hollywood’s best efforts with Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead). Yet here we have a woman as the heroine. In all ways, she conforms to the archetype of a hero. In classical terms, she’s on a quest across the Plains to restore order. On the way, she encounters and overcomes evil. With her husband as her constant companion, she demonstrates all the usual traits of individualism although, this time, it’s in service to the community. She wins because she has a strong mind and no hesitation when it comes to pulling the trigger.
This is playing the same game as Xena, the Warrior Princess in having her demonstrate traditionally male characteristics. Indeed, from the way she dresses and her general manner, you could mistake her for a man the first time she walks into a saloon. From all this, you will gather the author makes little or no effort to replicate the language or the culture of the Old West. This is the Hollywood version of history, replacing the city in urban fantasies as a context for fighting supernatural beasties. In this case, we have a wendigo and a nest of vampires. Indeed, this might just as well be classified as a Western urban fantasy or paranormal romance tracing the nature of the relationship between this heroine and her man. Once you strip away all the paraphernalia of the Wild West, this is a slightly tame and, at times, a rather plodding series of fights, punctuated by the characters’ backstories and explanations of the supernatural beasties’ capacities and weaknesses. It’s very professional and highly competent but, for me, it lacks a spark of creativity or originality.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For once, I’m going to say something good about the blurb. The catch phrase, “A bad day in the Big Apple” is actually rather appropriate in the same way that the title, Redlaw: Red Eye by James Lovegrove (Solaris Books, 2012) reflects a pleasing ambiguity. Our hero, John Redlaw has just emerged from his flight to America feeling a little under the weather, the designation of the weaponised soldiers is Red Eye One, and the vampires have spooky eyes. So kudos for a little wit from the editorial staff and/or the author. Now the the book itself. This is a direct sequel to the first Redlaw and picks up with our hero enjoying real hero status, i.e. his reputation has been shredded and he’s being pursued by the forces of law with the same enthusiasm they bring to manhunts for terrorists and traitors. Fortunately with the newly promoted Captain Khalid in command, the opportunities for evasion and escape are always good. Except John Redlaw recognises he cannot continue in London. When a friendly vampire mentions a new urban myth about attacks in America, this seems a Heaven-sent hint he should investigate.
From the moment he arrives in New York, John Redlaw finds himself immersed in a completely different culture with vampires viewed ambivalently. Whereas the Brits mix fear, loathing and indifference in equal measures, the Americans have no formalised framework for accommodating their existing population of bloodsuckers and the new immigrants. For the most part, the two populations physically avoid each other and the humans hesitate to make a judgement on whether they are welcome. At this fairly critical stage, the remnants of the international cabal that Redlaw disrupted in Britain are looking for power and influence in America. As a byproduct of testing to find a cure for a blood disorder, they have developed what may become an effective way of producing supersoldiers. The first group of seven are being field-tested in a program to eradicate vampires in New York. Obviously the vampires are aware of this and a young and inexperienced Tina “Tick” Checkley has captured the enhanced seven on video as they returned from eradicating a nest. Before she can make herself a target by posting the video on YouTube, she meets Redlaw and they set out to discover who’s behind the attacks. While visiting Father Tchaikovsky, a vampire shtriga, Red Eye One attacks and Redlaw inherits a small group of vampire survivors to protect. For this ragtag group, it doesn’t matter their new leader is human. They are interested in survival and think Redlaw is their best chance.
This is a fairly remarkable piece of writing from a technical point of view. As a vehicle for carrying the story forward, James Lovegrove adopts the chase. This is one of the most difficult to get right at length. Most authors chicken out and have their heroes running for the length of a short story until either death catches up with them or they triumph against the odds. In this instance, our hero attracts the attention of the superseven at an early point and, recognising their professionalism as warriors and their physical improvement, he decides running away is better than standing to fight. In other hands, this would have grown tedious but there’s consistent inventiveness in the way Redlaw leads his no-hope band of vampires. Indeed, our hero’s capacity to absorb punishment is tested to the limit in this story as he grimly moves forward to the inevitable confrontation at the end. Except, of course, he gets to decide where to make the final stand. For those of you who know Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he fights on “hemmed-in ground” and so must rely on deception to see them through.
As with the first book, there’s a lean mean approach with stripped-down language and non-stop plot development. The result is a most pleasing blend of urban fantasy and straight horror as our human hero steps into the role of shtriga, leading this band of vampires into completely new territory for them. Redlaw: Red Eye is a delight and even though our hero is left in New York, I hope to see him again. I suspect moving on to Japan might be a little too much because of the language problem, but there’s plenty of scope for building on his most recent acquisition.
For a review of the first in the series by James Lovegrove, see Redlaw.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Some believe the world should never change. They are comfortable with the now as it is, doubting that innovation can ever really be an improvement. The alternative possibilities are never directly considered. Indeed, the possibility of change is disconcerting to such people and to be avoided wherever possible. In political terms, conservatism is inherently popular, preserving the traditional, maintaining stability, and promoting continuity. Yet, in some areas of human activity, the pace of change is embraced. So technology marketing convinces us that yesterday’s 3.6 was nothing more than a stepping stone to the terrifying power of 4.0 which can all be ours for only a few pounds/dollars more. We’re encouraged to throw away the old, and queue like androids to acquire the next i-prefixed gismo.
Ignoring the local folklore creatures, the modern notion of the vampire stems from The Vampyre by John Polidori. Since 1819, therefore, we’ve essentially been recycling the same trope of beings that feed on blood drawn from living creatures. In most cases, they return from the dead and exhibit other supernatural abilities including transformation into a bat or a mist form. The best exponents can also psychologically dominate their potential victims. So, whenever you see the magic word “vampires” or suitable images on jacket artwork, you know what you’re getting. The only variables are in the language and the way in which the vampirism is described, changing the market focus from forms suitable for children, addressing the teen market, and then delivering different adult plots depending on whether the vampires are straight or gay, self-reflective parasites or predatory killers.
We now come to Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon. Because he likes to keep his audience on their toes, this is the third book in the Wearing the Cape series, except it’s really 1.5, fitting between events described in Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. More importantly, it focuses on Jacky Bouchard aka Artemis, a relatively minor character in the first two books, and gives her a leading role in this intermediate book. Obviously, we’re still in The Post-Event World, i.e. individuals can react to life-threatening events by spontaneously developing breakthrough superpowers. This is relatively rare but, when it occurs, the individual’s new abilities or powers reflect something psychologically important to them. For our immediate purposes, it skews the usual vampire “parenting” trope. In most traditional stories, the existing bloodsucker will descend on the flock, gorge until sated, and then throw the dry husk away. This is the rational predator at work. If a biter uplifts a bitee every time it feeds, that’s a lot of competition emerging onto the meat market. Suddenly, the sheep grow alarmed by their losses and take defensive measures. Worse, the original vampire may have to fight newbies to establish and maintain territorial rights over the flock. Only in rare cases does a vampire intentionally create another. Well, courtesy of Marion G Harmon, we have a different route. If you’re a passionate vampirephile, you can breakthrough into superpowers except, instead of being faster than a speeding bullet, you’re sprouting fangs and suddenly terrified of eating a garlic sauce with your fettuccine.
This is no more disconcerting to society than developing the power to manipulate one of the elements or fly. Any power in the wrong hands can be a danger to those in the immediate area. So, in principle, you can have good and bad superpowered individuals, plus the opportunistic swingers. Our heroine is a good vampire who’s sent to New Orleans to help police the local vampires. State laws prevent them from feeding on humans under the age of eighteen, so age verification at the doors of pubs and clubs used by vampires has to be reliable. Fairly quickly, she realises there’s a more serious problem developing as a vampire may have broken through with the power to create other vampires. Alternatively, a new drug is enabling a small percentage of the users who die to be reborn as vampires. No matter which cause proves correct, the idea there may soon be a plague of vampires is something up with which society will not put. So Jacky, a local police officer with only a semi-controllable hairstyle, a member of the Catholic Inquisition, and a granny with a powerful mojo, take the side of righteousness and set out to save New Orleans, if not the world, from being overrun by an army of powerful predators.
The most pleasing aspect of this book is the rigorous way in which the author explores the new world. For example, who would have thought there could be such significant advantages to a vampire like Jacky when she goes breaking and entering. His analysis of the relative strengths of security systems including motion and heat sensors is great fun. Home security would need a whole new upgrade if vampires were real. The only minor problem is a slight straining of credibility in our heroine’s apparent lack of understanding of the relative strength and weakness of vampires. Speaking hypothetically, if I was suddenly to become a vampire, I would immediately begin a series of tests to discover exactly what my limits were. I would also seek expert advice from as many people as possible. After a few weeks, it would be very difficult to take me by surprise. While working with the Capes, Artemis has had many opportunities to talk with the leading experts in the field. Yet this book shows Jacky still relatively unprepared for taking on her own kind in New Orleans (although she does learn fast).
Bite Me: Big Easy Nights shows Marion G Harmon maturing as an author. This is an assured performance, nicely balancing interesting ideas against the need to propel the plot forward. More importantly, he’s also pushing the vampire trope into slightly less familiar territory. The blend of superhero and supernatural conventions is far more successful here than in the mass of urban fantasy novels which mix different types of being together and let them fight it out. You could read this as a standalone but, as is always the case in a series, it would be a richer experience if you’d read Wearing the Cape. So no more conservatism. Forget 1819. Rapidly accelerate past 1.0 and 2.0 and embrace the terrifying power of 1.5!
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review and you can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.
When someone sits down to write fiction, there will be a number of conflicting impulses. There’s the natural desire to create a work of which the author can be proud. Yet that may be in conflict with the dictates of the market. Obviously the content that interests the author may not be in the slightest interesting to the mass of people. Compromises may therefore have to be made unless, of course, the author has the natural capacity to hit the market with what it wants to read. Then there comes the writing style. Something too literary may be off-putting to Joe the Plumber. Something written in English accessible to people with a reading age of twelve may not be capable of conveying the subtleties of meaning the author wishes to communicate. So where are we with Rosedale the Vampyre by Lev Raphael (Amazon: Kindle store)?
Well, as the title suggests, we’re in the land of the vampyre (note the old-school spelling approved by John Polidori). And in the use of the “classical” spelling we come to the first of the authorial decisions for discussion. This is set in the New York of 1907 and written in a style that approximates fiction of that era. Frankly, I’m never sure what purpose is served by writing in anything other than a contemporary style. There seems to be a fashion for science fiction, fantasy and horror to be offered for sale as if written by Jane Austin and other period luminaries. I see no added value in this affectation. This does not deny the possibility of additional entertainment from a frame story in which our hero discovers a long-lost manuscript. The dissonant juxtaposition of modern and period writing styles is often part of the fun. But this novella comes straight out of the starting blocks as if a hundred yard dash written around 1907 by Edith Wharton. There’s no frame and nothing to justify or explain why the story is being presented in mannered English. This is not denying that the writer has been reasonably successful in the craft of recreating an old style, but it’s an odd decision.
Then we come to story itself. Those of you who have an interest in older works of fiction may well recall that Edith Wharton is probably best known for The House of Mirth. It catalogues the social decline of Lily Bart and also comments on the fate of Simon Rosedale, the “little Jew” who’s consigned to the social oubliette without a trial yet contrives to do rather well on Wall Street when the monied class loses out in the crash of conventional stocks. Read today, Wharton’s novel is a particularly overt example of the instinctive antisemitism that has informed the social reaction to Jews over the centuries. This novella produces a potentially ironic racism in which our hero, having been bitten but not consumed, transforms into a vampire that’s superior to the standard Caucasian model. Whereas the weak gentile version succumbs to daylight and can be blighted by crosses and the sprinkling of Holy Water, the Jewish version is unaffected by sunlight and untouched by the use of Christian paraphernalia.
The plot details the process of transformation as humanity is shrugged off in favour of the more powerful vampire model. This is not a moral decline. Rosedale has been frequenting the bordellos of New York in a vain attempt to overcome the grief occasioned by the death of his wife. During the transformation, he continues to service the same prostitute but becomes a better lover. The heightening of his senses enables him to give the woman greater pleasure. It’s rather curious a predator in the making should become more giving in the bedroom. Equally inexplicable is the decision of the other vampyre to preserve Rosedale’s existence when it would have been so easy to allow him to die. Indeed, given the pervasive animosity, you might have imagined Rosedale’s Jewish heritage might have hastened his permanent demise rather than elevated him to the top of the food chain predators.
Taken overall, Rosedale the Vampyre is a clever way of exploring the process of physical transformation alongside the social and commercial choices made as grief is transformed into a more proactive view of the world. Should he continue the story, I would be interested to see where Lev Raphael takes it but, at some point, I’m going to grow tired of the period writing style. I’m not convinced this use of past racism is contributing constructively to the modern discourse on attitudes between different racial groups. That said, this is a mildly erotic and potentially provocative novella describing the elevation of a downtrodden Jewish “millionaire” into a cautiously self-confident bloodsucker. I was intrigued.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Humour is one of these slightly irrational human reactions. If A prods B with a sharp stick, excluding situations where scantily clad partners intend erotic reactions, it’s reasonable to predict an angry response. It’s more difficult to predict what will amuse or make people laugh. Assuming, of course, that the ultimate point of humour is laughter. Indeed, that assumption may be putting the cart before the horse. Does humour actually have a point? Often the things we find amusing are the results of situations where someone looks ridiculous or is the victim of an unfortunate accident. Yet people actively seek amusement which would suggest that humour has a social function. We obviously enjoy different types of stimuli and, whether by reading or joining in some activity, hope to relieve the tedium of existence with the resulting smile or laugh.
Let’s put aside what others find comic. When I look back at a lifetime spent reading, I recall rarely cracking a smile when ploughing through P G Wodehouse more than fifty years ago, but falling about in helpless mirth when absorbing some of the early Tom Sharpe. I suppose the best comedy lies in the contemporary moment when authors are able to address their audience in real time. Once even a decade has gone by, so many of the allusions and assumptions have changed, it grows harder to remember what people might have found amusing. As to humour from America, there were standout moments. Back in 1962 before onboard terrorism became a threat, an air stewardess asked me to stop reading Catch 22 because my laughter was disturbing the other passengers. But, in general, I’ve found even less to make me laugh in US fiction with the exception of some short stories in the 1950s and 60s by Henry Kuttner, Robert Sheckley and the pseudonymous William Tenn. I have the sense that comedy does not comfortably pass over linguistic and cultural borders unless the content is universalised as satire or absurdism. For the most part, I appreciate the cleverness of what’s intended to be comic writing. The craftsmanship of the wordplay can be genuinely pleasing. But it doesn’t make me laugh (or smile very often, for that matter).
All of which brings me to Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick (PYR, 2008). This follows the exploits of John Justin Mallory, a PI stranded in an alternate Manhattan and featuring in Stalking the Unicorn (1987), Stalking the Dragon (2009) and a collection of short stories titled Stalking the Zombie due later this year (2012). The hook is reasonably conventional. Our hero starts off his miserable existence in our New York. Like all noir PIs, his wife has succumbed to the charms of his partner and, left to his own devices, his business is going from worse to diabolical. As with any hero down on his luck, he takes to the bottle and so is less than impressed when an elf appears and offers him money to track down a unicorn that’s gone AWOL. This moves his business into an alternate reality in which the supernatural is accepted as perfectly normal by all who live there. Not surprisingly, our laconic Mallory takes everything in his stride, cracks the case and settles down in this new world. This leaves him down on his luck and struggling to earn enough to cover the rent on his new office. Plus ça change and then some.
So how does Stalking the Vampire measure up in the comedy stakes? Following the rescue of the unicorn, this book continues the strict adherence to the Aristotelian unity of time. As has now been popularised by the television serial 24, each chapter follows real time with the clock progressing an identified number of minutes. The convention is that the action in each book or story should be completed in no more than 24 hours. Second, this is the fish-out-of-water trope with noir meeting whimsy. The humour is intended to flow from our practical gumshoe’s reaction to the madcap world around him. Except, of course, many of the supernatural beings are as deadly in this world as they have been in ours. So our hero can’t verbally brush off all-comers. He needs the help of locals to navigate the waters safely. Hence, the regulars are Felina, a real catwoman, and Col Winnifred Caruthers who’s a female big game hunter. For the purposes of this book, we add Bats McGuire, a pusillanimous vampire, and Scaly Jim Chandler (better known as Nathan Botts), a dragon who writes very bad PI novels —a sample is included as one of the appendices. Finally, there’s Grundy who, in Sherlock Holmes terms, represents the local Moriarty. Were they not on opposite sides, they would be friends if only because Mallory is completely unimpressed by the demon’s villainous approach to life (or should that be afterlife — difficult semantics when talking about a demon interacting with the human world).
There are a number of individual moments when I smiled in admiration of a nice touch. Unfortunately, Mike Resnick relies on running jokes that, after the first few miles, grow lame. As the miles rack up, they get blistered and limp. In other words, at this length (248 pages of novel plus 20 further pages of appendices and a biography), the repetitive nature of the different styles of humour wears out its welcome. Had this been 150 pages in total, there would be less chance of the jokes recycling too many times. But every time Mallory talks with Felina, their conversation follows exactly the same pattern. She’s heavily into cupboard love and skritching, while he’s always negotiating to get her constructive co-operation in the investigation. Goblins relentlessly try to sell him silly things at inflated prices. And so on. When not into situational humour, we get verbal humour. When not into absurdity, we get nonsense. Even puns appear from time to time. You have to admire the dedication of the author to the cause.
So here’s the final view. Stalking the Vampire is well-imagined and, in short bursts, highly readable. But, unless your sense of humour is on this single wavelength, you will not find this uproariously funny. I understood where I was supposed to find things amusing, and one or two of the individual jokes do hit the mark. But, to my jaded palate, the set-piece passages slow down the development of the urban fantasy plot. Ah yes, the plot. This is very professional as, without a description of the vampire in question, Mallory and his sidekicks must find the fiend and bring an end to proceedings before the clock runs out. It does all hang together, but you need to be strong to get to the end in a single sitting.
As a final thought, Mike Resnick has sold the film rights to the John Justin Mallory books and stories, so this is yet another film we almost certainly will never see.
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
The Trojan Colt
Desdaemona by Ben Macallan (yet another pseudonym for Chaz Brenchley, this time suggesting an affinity with single malts) (Solaris, 2011) sees us kick off a new series with a new name as author (up to this point, Benedict Macallan has merely been a character in two Brenchley novels, Dead of Light and Light Errant following Edmund Cooper’s example of Richard Avery, i.e. turning a fictional character into an author). Uncharacteristically for what’s billed as urban fantasy, Chaz has bravely chosen to hide behind a male name. This runs contrary to the norm with most urban fantasy written by women for women. There was a time, of course, when Chaz was not afraid to use a female pseudonym (not moving too far over to the female side, it’s only once, not time and again). Fortunately, he recovers self-possession in titling the book with a female name and adorning the cover with her lithe figure — the marketing department would throw in the towel if it could not commission another sexy picture of a woman in black — only to completely lose the plot with a first-person narrative from Jordan, a seventeen-year-old boy (although quite how many years he’s been seventeen is not immediately clear). Has no-one whispered in Chaz’s shell-like that urban fantasy is all about female heroines hacking supernatural nasties to pieces when not agonising about their weight or fussing over a hangnail. It seems nothing is sacred when it comes to this book. It even includes sex with a demon! Although it’s all described in the best possible taste, this is not the urban fantasy we’ve been trained to expect with a virginal young woman waiting for just the right hunk to drop down on one knee and pop the question, “Do you want that roasted or fried?” referring to the dead nasty at her feet, of course.
As an aside, I admit to living in a bubble almost completely insulated from the outside world save by what I read in books. To learn of Dusty Springfield’s death therefore came as a shock. It seems only yesterday she was performing with the Pet Shop Boys — like Jordan, yet more males who will be forever young boys when in the presence of animals. Anyway, back to the book which is told in a fun way. Not outright humour, you understand. There are some laws carved in stone and “Thou shalt not crack jokes in urban fantasy” is up there with Google’s “Don’t be evil!” Yet you can see Chaz edging that way. “I can hear sirens,” says one. “I knew a siren once. She was a bitch. . . Oh, you mean the police are coming.” It’s not going to bring the house down although, if you asked her nicely, Desi would probably do that for you, but it’s symptomatic of a general wish to entertain the reader while describing various escalating levels of conflict. Or perhaps it was an undine. . . sorry, still thinking about sirens.
Desdaemona is not unlike a computer game with different levels of threat to contend with. Jordan and Desi are on a quest to find her missing sister. They start off by rescuing a young man who’s been asked to do lunch with a coven of vampires. This has nothing to do with finding the sister but, hey, the seaside town where they met is now a safer place save for the members of the Masonic Lodge, local councillors, bent police officers and other assorted people to avoid meeting in a dark alley. Then we do spend a few pages looking for the sister in London and find the trees are alive with the sound of music — the tree was a trap, OK! Then it’s off to Richmond where the news of Dusty’s untimely death was unceremoniously broken to me. After an exchange of view with a naiad about the problems of climate change as they affect water levels in the river, it’s back to London where things get a little rocky for a while before our lustful couple find neutral ground on which to recuperate. Once they leave this sanctuary, events take an increasingly perilous course leading to a conclusion that neither Jordan nor Desi desired (rather neat meta-alliteration at work). To that extent, the book has a pleasing edge. Too often, everything in urban fantasy turns out rosy as virginal status may be surrendered in the hormone-enhanced aftermath of assorted nasty-slaying.
This is a nicely designed puzzle book at two different levels. The first is the more obvious quest to find the missing sister before Hell’s mobsters lay their claws on her. It seems she’s literally just dropped off the face of the Earth although, at one point, it’s punily suggested she might have been turned into stone — yes, there are gorgons about. The second is to discover exactly who Jordan is and why he’s on the run. To that extent, it’s all about family and the problems teens have with their parents and each other if abstinence is not on the agenda. While admitting a predisposition to like books by Chaz Brenchley, I confirm this as a superior fantasy with a supernatural cast of hellions trying to deal with their teenage angst while fighting off increasingly dangerous supernatural threats (including the Morris Men trying to wipe them down with their handkerchiefs and whack them with their sticks). It’s great fun and you should not be put off by the urban fantasy label or the jacket artwork by Vincent Chong. Anyone, i.e. both male and female, who enjoys supernatural fantasy, particularly when told with knowing smile, should pick up Desdaemona and probably order the forthcoming Pandaemonium which threatens to be more of the same or even better.