Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard
Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press, 2014) is, in a word, magnificent! It manages something only rarely seen in these increasingly less intellectual years. It takes a work of fantasy about a dragon named Griaule and contrives to make it about ideas. Under normal circumstances, no doubt even the most hardened fantasy lover would run screaming from the room. But this carries off the entire project with such panache, you can’t help but be enthralled by the chutzpah and emerge applauding at the end.
Way back in “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) we were introduced to a large lizard. As a result of combat with an altruistic magician, concerned the dragon was becoming too much of a hazard for local people, the giant beast was, for the most part, frozen into immobility. Proving that humanity is remarkably adaptable, a settlement springs up around this beast in its magically-induced coma. In due course, the settlement becomes a village becomes a town becomes a small city. The few straggling lean-to hovels, develop a life of their own as some buildings extend up the sides and on to the back of the beast. Others become the essential ground-based buildings any group of people need from church to brothel, from militia compound to tax collection vaults. One of those who come to this new spawning ground for humanity is Richard Rosacher. He’s a man who pursues a dream of science and seeks to understand the body so obviously dominating the local landscape. Being a man who likes to work with blood, he pays a local to climb into the mouth of the beast to extract some of the life-giving essence from the beast’s tongue. Unfortunately, through circumstances outside his control, our hero ends up with a substantial amount of this blood injected into him. We spend the rest of the book watching what happens to the man and attempting to distinguish between evidence of determinism and free will.
So let’s get to some of the ideas. Going back to the origin of this enforced sleep, the beast has entered a phase of what we might term physical stasis, i.e. the body is not affected in any significant way by the passage of time. So Richard finds himself experiencing a form of dislocation in time. It seems he lives through the years but only fully inhabits his body at intermittent moments. This is sufficient to accumulate memories of what he has been doing but, only when he surfaces, does he pick up the thread of running the body in real time. At such times, he can receive warning messages in his dreams from contemporary or future individuals who have a “relationship” with Griaule, e.g. as scalehunters. In other words, he becomes a form of sock puppet for the dragon. Even when he’s autonomous, there’s still some doubt as to whether he’s truly free. Assuming the dragon to be a form of god, this may be inevitable since gods always manage to get their prophets to do what they are supposed to do. There’s a parallel model of this state in a child rapist called Frederick. He’s also transformed by Griaule and becomes altogether something more primal. The point of this counterpoint is to show both Richard and Frederick have different kinds of friend who offer guidance or direction, yet both in their own ways end up as forms of marauders.
In turn, this leads on to a consideration of the extent to which the beast should be considered a deity. At an early stage, we see flocks of birds and insects being influenced as they move around or fly close to the surface of the dragon. Even Richard finds he achieves a rather pleasing meditative state at some points on the dragon’s skin. During these times, he feels his mind can make sense of different factual elements in his life. Who’s to say whether he’s integrating these facts into a coherent understanding or telepathically communing with the dragon and listening to its thoughts. No matter who’s doing the thinking, the result is that Richard survives and the dragon’s existence is not threatened in any meaningful way (unless you count the poisoned paint and only the dragon knows whether it’s permitting the slow death to come). It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe the dragon is influencing the people who live on it and, to a lesser extent, around it. When a major physical beast or object can interact with those around it, promoting the interests of those who do its bidding and punishing those who defy it, characterising it as a deity is not unreasonable. Indeed, the otherwise powerful church feels threatened by the presence of the beast and would like nothing better than to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the fallible human beings in charge of the church lack the control over the people to sway them away from dragon worship (which can come with fringe benefits) in favour of conventional beliefs which have less provable benefits in a life hereafter.
In turn, this leads to a meditation on the different forms of leadership and whether it’s ever going to be possible to have a human leader without faults. For these purposes, we’re offered many exemplars. At the apex, we have Breque, an overtly corrupt and not a little incompetent man when it comes to the management of finances. He runs the city forming around the dragon and, amongst other things is responsible for defence. Carlos is the king of the neighbouring state. He lives for and through his people. If there’s a local problem, he jumps on his horse and rides out to solve it. He asks no thanks, only that his people love him. Ah, so he’s a narcissist and while such men can go through a benign phase, they can get a little tricky to manage if they lose confidence the people actually love them. Some of the most interesting debates consider how best to motivate the mass of people into doing what you want. One might develop an opiate for the masses, i.e. leadership through the exploitation of chemical dependence, or another might rule through a primary emotion like love or fear, or someone might seek influence through the interpretation of faith, and so on. Power comes in many forms, whether between individuals in relationships or at wider levels. Curiously, the dragon’s rule (if such it be) is through passivity. This leaves its presence as enigmatic and, of course, that allows people to develop all kinds of superstitions about it. Perhaps that’s the most effective long-term way to control people. To allow them to deceive themselves into doing what you want. Put all this together and Beautiful Blood emerges as the most intelligent work of fantasy published so far this year.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.