Carpathia by Matt Forbeck
Carpathia by Matt Forbeck (Angry Robot, 2012) is an historical horror novel without any steampunk elements, Jane Austen lookalikes or zombies. There, I’ve let the cat out of the bag — shot the book down in flames before it’s had a chance. At this point, you may be shaking your head, thinking I’ve lost it. Reviewers are not supposed to follow such a destructive path when a new book is launched. But, for once, I’m trying to applaud both author and publisher. These brave souls have elected to avoid the bandwagon effect supposedly generated by these three popular tropes and offer something ripped from the pages of books about the real world. So, look again at the title.
I’m striking a blow for RMS Carpathia (RMS means the ship was allowed to carry the Royal Mail). She was built in the yards just a few miles and a few years away from where I spent my childhood. I never got to see her. She sank in 1918 and I’m not that old, but I know the type of ship she was. Magnificent for her time, although not as magnificent as the Titanic to whose rescue she sailed in 1912. It was perhaps appropriate that one great lady of the sea should be the first on the scene to rescue the passengers from the other on her maiden voyage when the iceberg got in the way. Like the Carpathia, we should note the timely arrival of this book — just in time for the centenary of the sinking. I’ll pause a moment for you to replay, “My Heart Will Go On” in celebration of the publisher’s marketing nous.
It’s interesting to see who and what Matt Forbeck pulls out of history. My favourite is Jacques Futrelle who was a very good writer of mysteries for his day. The others are mostly key members of the crews of both ships. This signals a preference for people rather than the features of the ships which are described in a slightly generic way. This is a book that tells you only what it needs to push on with the story. There are anachronisms every now and then like the first class dining room serving a merlot — in those days, wines were always named after the vineyards: only the best chateau-bottled for the Titanic — but they match the expectations of modern readers and do not detract from the general sense of realism.
Lucy Seward, Quin Harker and Abe Holmwood come courtesy of Uncle Bram and signal the presence of vampires. This triggers more confusion. How can these creatures be out on the high seas. It’s not like they ever hoisted the Jolly Roger and raided ships passing in the night for their next meals. As it happens, the Carpathia was on the usual run from New York to Fiume when it got the call from the Titanic. For those of you not into geography, Fiume is now known as Rijeka, a major port in Croatia. Finding New York a little too hot, a major group of vampires is on its way to the Old Country for a little peace and a greater sense of security. Unfortunately, the prospect of human sushi on ice just a few miles away is enough to bring vampire factionalism to the fore. Whereas their leader wants a low profile until they disembark, the younger ones who have caused so much trouble in America, are not prepared to accept hunger as the price of safety. They transform into bats and wing across the night sky to gorge themselves.
This brings the two strands of the story neatly together. Our trio of friends are variously pitched into the Atlantic some 370 miles off Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. With the Carpathia on the way, some of the vampires arrive. From this point on, the tension steadily ratchets up as all the humans, rescuers and survivors, end up on the Carpathia. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to run once on board. Matt Forbeck imparts a pleasingly relentless quality to the narrative as the humans slowly realise they may just have been demoted in the food chain. Naturally, no-one wants to believe in the reality of vampires so it takes more obvious loss of life before the threat is accepted as real. Then, like Custer, they prepare for their last stand.
This is not a book you read for the history. Unlike others more often found on the detective/mystery shelves, where the detail is woven into the narrative to offer colour and depth, this only gives you the bare bones of life on the Titanic and Carpathia. Everything is focused on the characters and their predicament. In this, the vampires are not forgotten. Indeed, if anything, they emerge as rather tragic figures with the majority trying to work through an intergenerational problem. The older members of the group want a quiet life, but their rebellious younger recruits forget the old rule, “The fox preys far from home” or, if you prefer the more direct version, “Never shit in your own backyard.” Such is life in big undead families.
So, overall, Carpathia is a stripped-down thrill ride as humans and vampires are set on a collision course thanks to the accident of an iceberg. It’s well worth picking up.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.