Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Reviews, 2/25/2011

This week, we have vampires as monsters again, which is a nice change from the past two weeks. Three books and a short story.

John Steakley - Vampire$

Have you ever gone back to re-read a book that you found to be compelling the first time through, only to discover that it's not really as good as you remember it to have been? Yeah - this was like that.  I read this back in high school, and I recall that it was somewhat mind-blowing back then. Now, not so much. It was serviceable, but not mind-blowing anymore.

This is the story of a group of men who hunt vampires. For money. Team Crow is the go to group for vampire hunting in North America, and they are supposedly good at their job. They have the official sanction of the Catholic Church, and the unofficial support of various agencies within the US government, most of whom would like very much to be able to pretend that vampires don't exist.

I say that Team Crow is supposedly good at their job - the whole plot of the novel is that they're up against a bunch of vampires who are just a little too much for them, so, well, they don't do so well. It would have been nice to have a competency montage - you know, that bit towards the beginning of the movie where the heroes are shown being really good at their jobs, so that, when the problem arises in the middle of the movie, we get a sense of how really big a deal the big deal is. Steakley gives us a chapter at the beginning where things look like their going well; we get a quick run down of the various problems that Team Crow might encounter on a regular hunt - getting permission to destroy a building, convincing a small town sheriff that paying them would be a good idea, after the fact, how to keep the team cohesive in the face of lots of alcohol, dealing with hotel owners after the team trashes the hotel under the influence of lots of alcohol, etc. It goes down hill from there, fast.

So, the vampires are very much monsters, and the heroes kill them. This is good, as far as it goes, but it doesn't really go very far. There's room for some depth there. Steakley's vampires are not unlike Whitfield's werewolves - humans with all of the humanity stripped away. For instance, in a flash back, one of the characters witnesses a close friend undergo a radical transformation from a friend to a fiend - horrifying. This could have been played with a little more. Steakley also sets up a dichotomy between his vampire hunters, who are fairly blue collar (they get a lot of money, but tend to drink it all rather than save it, for instance) and his vampires, who tend to be fairly high class - mansions and fine clothing and such. This was something that could have been riffed on a little. Exploring these themes, I think, would not have hurt the strong story elements of the novel, and would have made the narrative stronger, more compelling.

Other things I didn't like in this second reading - the women are totally helpless. They have a very limited number of roles; mother, victim, bait, lover. They never hunt. I can see, perhaps, some justification for this at the beginning, when the hunting is shown as mostly brute strength - pikes and wooden daggers - but the big decisive thing after the first part of the novel is the inclusion of a shooter, who uses light hand guns and silver bullets - a role that could easily have been given to one of the women, perhaps.

Finally, there is a trigger warning worthy flash back involving fairly heavy psychic rape - one of the characters (one of the women, naturally) was forced to witness and participate in some decidedly unpleasant behavior. This helps cement the image of the vampires as evil, and as irredeemable - utterly lacking in human morals, emotions, or inhibitions - but it was more than a little squick-worthy. A thing to watch out for.

Fred Saberhagen - A Question of Time

This is part of Saberhagen's Dracula series - possibly the last in the series? Dracula has become a detective - early in the series he meets and helps Sherlock Holmes - and is working with a Chicago private eye, investigating crimes involving metaphysics and the supernatural.

The plot here - a young girl has vanished around the Grand Canyon. Her great aunt has hired Joe Keogh and his partner, Mr. Strangeways (that would be Dracula) to find her. Things get complicated from there - there's a side plot involving loan sharks, and there's a parallel plot involving Jake Rezner - a young man working with the Civilian Conservation Corps in and around the Grand Canyon in the 1930s. As the title suggests, everything ends up being tied together by time; the teaser material suggests that Rezner finds himself trapped with a young woman and an artist in a part of the Grand Canyon which is far earlier in time than the 1930s.

So it's a time travel novel, sort of. (The mechanics are never really explained) And the artist, Edward Tyrell, is a vampire. And he's sort of monstrous. His motivation is somewhat muddled, and the novel ends rather abruptly - Dracula sweeps in and cleans everything up without really explaining anything properly.

In the end, I'm going to file this one under Meh. If you're reading the whole of Saberhagen's Dracula series, this one completes it. Other than that, I'd steer clear.

Brit Mandelo - "Though Smoke Shall Hide The Sun" -

A short story on This showed up quite unexpectedly in my inbox early this week. Since it fit my theme so nicely, I decided to read it.

Mandelo tells a story about a vaguely post-apocalyptic, or post return of magic, world - enclaves of magical beings - weres, and vampires, and fairies, and all manner of beasties and bogarts and things that go bump in the night live outside the cities of humans. Our characters are a vampire and a young fey with pyrotechnic powers who have been hired to go into one of these enclaves and clean up a dynastic problem. In the end, nothing is what it seems - this is a story of betrayal and revenge. Vampires are presented as monstrous, but largely towards each other.

It was quite a good story, certainly worth the admission price (ie, free), and hopefully it will result in a broader and deeper exploration of the compelling world that Mandelo has offered. Watch for that, I know I will be.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro - Borne in Blood

A novel of the Count Saint-Germain, Yarbro's vampire renaissance man. Imagine that Flashman was a) an ancient vampire, and b) not a horrific cad, and you might approach Yarbro's hero.

So, last week I assigned my students two chapters of Swallow Barn, by John Pendleton Kennedy. Swallow Barn is a fine example of a plantation novel - a genre of novel popular in the mid-19th century in the American South. The novel is a series of vignettes centered on a plantation, depicting the interactions between the master of the plantation and the people who live in and around the plantation (yes, also slaves).Kennedy, who pioneered the genre, was attempting to translate for Southern audiences the British manor novel - a genre which presents vignettes centered on a manor house and depicting the interactions between the lord of the manor and the various folks who live on and around the lands of the manor (yes, also peasants). The reason I bring this up is that Yarbro has written a fine example of a manor novel, for all that it's set in Switzerland, just after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The novel tells the story of Saint-Germain and the young widow he is looking after. It is told in a series of loosely connected vignettes and letters. As an artifact of Yarbro's research, it is fascinating. As a narrative, it leaves something to be desired - a lot of the action takes place in between chapters, which is disconcerting. In the end, the novel is quite satisfying, but it drags a bit in the middle, and it's easy to get lost.

There are monsters in this book, but Saint-Germain is not one of them, and perhaps that is Yarbro's point. We do not need vampires to have monsters - we are perfectly capable of being our own monsters. The novel is also interesting in its gender politics - Saint-Germain is hugely progressive for his period, and treats his widowed companion as a social and intellectual equal. I think Yarbro is calling attention to the continued gender inequalities of our current age by highlighting similar inequalities in a much earlier period.

A trigger warning here, too - there is some child abuse; not graphically presented, but clearly present.