Posts Tagged ‘Twilight’



Sedgwick has been on my radar for a few years now, creeping into the shortlists for the Carnegie Medal regularly. I’d previously read his White Crow, and Midwinterblood. The first of those I had thoroughly enjoyed, bouncing between time zones; the second was breathtaking, tracing echoes of a story back through generations and encompassing wartime escapes, ghost stories and vampires, all with a mythic resonance. 

My Swordhand Is Singing is in many ways simpler than either of those: the structure is a straight forward chronological one; the narrative is strongly plot-driven; the language is sparse and economical.

The novel revolves around a father and son, Tomas and Peter, itinerant woodcutters who have settled in a small village called Chust in a Central European setting. In the vicinity of Romania. Or Transylvania.

Sedgwick, for me, captured two things effectively in this novel: the brooding presence of Mother Forest in which humanity is trying to carve out its niche; and the ritualised superstitions the villagers used to protect themselves from the oncoming winter. The tar daubed on houses. Hawthorn briars thrown into graves. The wedding of the dead. The haunting song of the dead, The Miorita. This is a community to which fear clung closely: the practical fear of a hard winter; the suspicious fear of strangers; the superstitious fear of the dead rising. 

Because this is, at heart, a vampire tale – and that may well have been one reason why I had allowed it to slip down my to-be-read pile. Young Adult. Vampire. The fear of reliving the torture that was reading Twilight may have allowed other books to overshadow this one. 



But, I could not have been more wrong! Sedgwick’s undead “hostages” are as far removed from Edward Cullen – or indeed Stoker’s Dracula – as you could want. He does not dwell too long on the descriptions of the undead but they are bloated corpses, twisted by jealousy and malevolence towards the living, more reminiscent of zombies than either the urbane Dracula or the glittery Cullens. 

There are some confusions, I felt, in the depiction of the vampires. Characters told us that they returned to their homes after death, leaving their wives pale and weak – nodding the Lucy Westenra; or cunning enough to pretend to be another person. Yet there was a bestiality to them when we saw them and a bloodlust which seemed just a little jarring. 

This may be the result of Sedgwick’s deliberate attempt to create a vampire tale consistent with its earliest roots. He has clearly done his research and helpfully includes an Author’s Note listing all the names they are known by: krvoijac, vukodlak, wilkolak, varcolac, vurvolak, liderc nadaly, liougat, kulkutha, moroii, strigoii, murony, streghoi, vrykolakoi, upir, dschuma, velku dlaka, nachzehrer, zaloznye, nosferatu. I knew some of these already – and can see potential derivations of The Brucolac, the vampire lord from China Miéville’s The Scar – and nearly broke autocorrect copying them out! I do wonder whether the effort to reconcile such divergent original stories explains for some of the slight contradictions. 

There is a presence in the novel of the Shadow Queen who, even within the universe of the novel, occupies a space  between myth and superstition. This novel’s sequel, The Kiss Of Death, picks up on Peter’s quest to find her. There’s certainly enough here to make me keep an eye out for that one, although, set in Venice, away from the primitive world of Mother Forest, it would have a very different tone. 

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Death Bringer.

An apt title to read this week as I have struggled with another vile bug. Or possibly the same vile bug that I’ve had since Christmas and never really shifted.

The Death Bringer virus.

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Or perhaps just book six in the Skulduggery Pleasant series.

I lost faith a little with Mortal Coil and the unnecessary violence inflicted in Valkyrie Cain there. I was pleased that Landy appeared to have stepped back: there is plenty of violence in here – plenty! – but it has a comic book quality to it rather than horror. It is perhaps telling that the final conflict is resolved in a Forbidden Planet store for a couple of reasons.

Ok. Let’s look at the plot. In some ways, the plot felt freer than previously. Almost pared down. The various generals of Mevolent’s war had been dispatched with previously and it felt as if Landy had drawn a line under that. Our antagonist instead was the Necromancy Order who had been erstwhile allies and were tutoring Valkyrie. They had discovered (or twisted into being) a sufficiently powerful necromancer to act as the fabled Death Bringer.

Once it was realised what the Death Bringer was intended to do, which isn’t wholly surprising given its name, Skulduggery, Valkyrie and the Sanctuary seek to stop her.

A lot of fighting ensues.

We also get a good chance to study the terrible Darquesse, the ultra powerful version of Valkyrie fated to destroy the world. And we discover the truth about – and again witness – Lord Vile. The full Lord Vile. Not just his armour. Their combat certainly came across as cool. And violent. Bones shattered and organs were crushed. But healed instantaneously. There was also something reminiscent of Man Of Steel about it though: two functionally invulnerable characters fighting each other quickly becomes repetitive. And stale. And dull.

In fairness, Landy does just about pitch it right. Better than Man of Steel.

The novel also seems more character driven than previously. Although there has been a gap since I read the previous ones so I may be doing them a disservice. The darkness at the heart of both Skulduggery and Valkyrie get star billing with echoes of Jekyll and Hyde. The somewhat cliched love triangle between Valkyrie, Fletcher and the vampire Caelan is resolved – with an always enjoyable swipe at Twilight

“We’re not Buffy and Angel, or Romeo and Juliet, or those other two from West Side Story. We’re not even Edward and Bella. OK? You’re far too freaky for me.”
He looked at her. “We’re meant to be together…”
“And this is exactly what I mean.”
“Our love is written in the stars.”
“And there you go again.”
“I love you.”
“You bore me.”
He faltered. “What?”

And we see far more of Valkyrie at home, with her parents, her baby sister and even her uncle and cousins.

Along with the fighting, Landy’s hallmark has been the comedy elements to his books: Skulduggery is typically described as wise-cracking; Scapegrace and Thrasher return as the comedy zombies. Personally, I think the comedy was overdone here a little: following the deaths in the assault on the Necromancers’ Temple, Cleric Craven and the remains of the order seemed to degenerate into farce and were almost played for laughs which detracted from the credibility of their threat. And the incessant joking and wisecracking from Skulduggery became just a little tiresome.

I did enjoy Fletcher’s character assassination of Valkyrie, though, when she dumped him

“Do you even care? I mean, I know you’re crying, I can see the tears, but they’re not tears for me. You’re crying because you feel bad. Those tears are about you, because everything is about you. It always is, isn’t it? The world revolves around you because you are just that selfish…. I don’t think it even occurred to you that I would be hurt. It never entered your head. You’re that obsessed with yourself, you know that?”

And I have to say I do kind of agree with him: she is an engaging character but all her wisecracking gives her a certain air of self-importance. It is important that we see her in these more domestic and mundane and emotionally vulnerable.

The novel leaves many potential threats by the end: Melancholia, Eliza Scorn, the continually misbehaving reflection and, most interestingly to me, Kenny Dunne, a journalist slowly patching together an exposé of the magical world of Dublin.

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Its odd how my book reading lurks in certain genres for a while: after a crime spree, I notice a range of horror books collecting on the pages of this blog – with more on my to-be-read list.

I wonder what it is with Scandi-Lit.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; Jo Nesbø; Mons Kallentoft … There seems to be a certain sensibility that they share; a sensitivity for the darkest recesses of the human psyche; an unflinching a sense of social responsibility; a sympathy for the effects of the environment surrounding their characters; a keen eye for the intricate details of domestic life; and a spareness and economy of language.

And Lindqvist’s vampire novel, Let The Right One In fits into exactly this milieu.

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This is the story of Oskar, 12 year old boy, whose divorced parents struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow in the suburb of Blackeberg.

It is a typical – slightly pretentious – English teacher thing to say that the setting is a character in its own right but it is so infrequently actually true. James Joyce’s Dublin od Ulysses and The Dubliners manages it. Lindqvist’s Blackeberg also breathes and seethes throughout the novel, as dark, poisonous and insidious as the vampire itself.

The novel opens with The Location:

Blackeberg.

It was not a place that developed organically of course. Here, everything was carefully planned from the outset. And people moved into what had been built for them. Earth-coloured concrete buildings scattered about in green fields.

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one. That is to say, there was something about an old mill. A tobacco king. Some strange old buildings down by the water. But that was a long time ago and without any connection to the present.

Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, it’s rationality. It tell you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and if terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

No one saw them move in.

Blackeberg – soulless and bereft of history – is an echo of the vampire itself – equally soulless and utilitarian in its hunger. It is the home of glue-sniffing teenagers, broken families, a community of drunkards, vicious bullies and the mentally disturbed.

And it is into this environment that the waif like and mysterious Eli and the hopeless hapless lumbering paedophile Hakan Bengtsson move.

And children start dying.

The plot in the novel moves with an horrific sense of inevitability. The situation is achingly familiar to anyone who has even the vaguest notion of vampirism. We know the hunger. We know the inevitable conflict that that hunger creates.

But the heart of this novel is Eli and the relationship between Eli and Oskar. Eli has endured two centuries of being twelve years old. Vampire. Manipulator. Killer. Innocent.

She is not the monster of Stoker’s invention – indeed Hakan is possibly the closest to that role – nor is she the insipid and limp fairy of Meyer’s Twilight series. Somehow the balance between her feeding – as with much Scandinavian Literature, explored without blushing from the visceral – and her childish innocence is maintained throughout. She is a remarkable achievement and a haunting creation. She is not dissimilar at all to Amy Harper Bellafonte in Justin Cronin’s The Passage (click here for my review) and The Twelve

And some of the dialogue between her and Oskar is heart-achingly realistic and beautiful.

As indeed is some of the dialogue and interactions between the drunkards, especially Virginia and Lacke. Isolated and alone, seeking comfort in alcohol and one-night stands, their helpless inability to communicate and their self-protective barbs needling each other to maintain the protective bubbles whilst simultaneously clinging to each other was painful.

The book is not without flaws – the almost inevitable attempt to explain the vampirism in medical terms – that the infection causes a tumour of brain cells to develop on the heart (and recalled unpleasant memories of ovarian dermoid cysts being opened up on some Channel Four documentary to reveal teeth, eyes and hair). There is also at one point a rather clumsy attempt to verbalise some of the implicit connections between the environment and the disease at the heart of the novel.

It is, however, quite simply one of the best, most haunting books – certainly one of the very best vampire books – that I have read.

After reading a couple of extremely well-written, moving but rather serious books, picking up The Bloody Red Baron was intended to be a welcome piece of light relief: a bit of fun vampiric horror.

Kim Newman takes up the reigns of his alternate history some thirty years after the events in the previous Anno Dracula. Having fled from England in the conclusion of that book – as a result of Charles Beauregard’s effective device of giving the enslaved Queen Victoria the knife with which to kill herself and alienate Dracula from his claim on her throne – Dracula has ingratiated himself as Graf Dracula in Germany and taken over the persecution of World War One.

One of the pleasures of the book was putting together the pieces between the previous book and the current one with Beauregard as the rock around which both novels revolve. In this novel, as he staunchly refuses offers to be turned he appears to be moulding one Edwin Winthrope as a successor.

One regrettable loss was that Genevieve Dieudonne did not make any re-appearance here having been parcelled off to California; her role taken up by Kate Reed who had been somewhat underused in Anno Dracula. Although not as underused as in the original Dracula: Stoker managed to write her out compeltely! Reed – whilst still a vampire – is a new-born one and therefore fails to bring the mystique, majesty and mystery of Dieudonne who can state to Dracula the Prince Consort himself that “Impaler, I have no equal”.

Another pleasure is recognising the references and intertextuality that abound in Newman’s fiction: vampires from book and film stalk his pages from Count Orlok to Lord Ruthven to Caleb Croft (and fortunately no Cullens); but being further from the 1890s, for me, the references were less well-loved, less tender, less Gothic and more historical: Biggles, Mata Hari, Ten Brincken and Doctor Moreau.

One character who I simply did not like and did not understand his role in the novel was Poe: ostensibly drafted in to compile the Red Baron’s biography he just seemed to float about as an observer neither affecting nor influencing anything. The character of the Baron was fascinating: cold, detatched, bound in layers of emotional armour which I was hoping Poe would be able to peel away… but it seemed that, just as something human was being unearthed in him, the novel ended.

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This novel pits the plucky Allied airmen and airvampires of Condor Squadron against the eponymous Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen and his demonic Jagdgeschwader Eins. And demonic is probably the right adjective here: Newman’s vampires are full-blooded nightmarish creatures, not the sparkly effete fairies of our post-Twilight world!

Whilst most vampires in the novel are broadly human in shape and size, Newman delights in the shapeshifting ability that the Dracula bloodline has and grows his JG1 into enormous bat-winged creatures the size of aircraft with guns strapped onto their flesh. As Newman put it:

a prehistoric monster with twentieth-century guns.

And these are not the most mostrous vampires: Isolde is a vampire mentioned briefly who as a performer in Paris presents a remarkably unattractive striptease, slicing through a leotard with a knife and then continuing to slice through her own flesh and to flail herself for her audience night after night. Newman delights in the description of her

exposed muscles [which] bunched and smoothed…bones visible in wet meat… arteries [which] stood out, transparent tubes filled with rushing blood

She becomes a recurrent image in the novel, memories of her returning to haunt Winthrope throughout and can be seen as a metaphor perhaps for the war itself. And the book is very strongly anti-war in its message: whilst there are individual acts of bravery and even heroism on both sides, the war across Europe created monsters of all involved. At its most literal level. In fact, as rather civilised and sympathetic vampires abound in the novel, the greatest difficulty Newman faced in the book may have been how to make the vampire more monstrous to his readers.

But it is not just the vampires who are the monsters here. Another very briefly seen vampire is an American one who – nameless – is seen disintegrating into mist in order to infiltrate a tank and, less than a page later is hit by a flame thrower and

centuries of unchronicled life were extinguished in an uncaring instant, blasted to sparkling shreds by brute modernity.

What this novel lacked was the overview that Anno Dracula had: Dracula there was present, ominous and contagious; in this sequel, he was distant and almost absent, his activities reported but not seen. There was no final standoff. No climax.

All in all, a good well-written and surprisingly thoughtful romp through Newman’s alternative World War 1. Certainly worth a read – as is any book in which Private Charles Godfrey from Dad’s Army appears!

There are some authors for whom a new book is more than just a new book on the shelves of W H Smith. It’s an event; it’s anticipated; it generates a frisson when you see the spine waiting for you, calling to you, beckoning you.

China Miéville is an author like that for me.

There are also authors whose books echo and resonate and speak to me year upon year, age upon age.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is such a book for me.

To stumble upon Miéville’s Railsea was a genuine moment of excitement in a dreary end-of-term week. A young man, aboard a mole train – what’s a mole train? – seeking a great white mole for his less-than-whole-bodied captain.

Could this book lover resist?

Hell no! He could not!

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What this is not is a re-hash of Moby Dick, despite the obvious similarities. Yes, Captain Abacat Naphi and her philosophy in pursuing the giant white mountain of a mole that is Mocker-Jack is Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick. Sham ap Soorap has touches of both Ishmael and Pip the Cabin-Boy. Miéville’s post-modern, fourth wall breaking – not so much as breaking as shattering and disintegrating the fourth wall – echoes Melville’s own cul-de-sacs and digressions in Moby-Dick.

But Miéville’s world is not derivative. All of Miéville’s books are notable for their world-building whether it be the London of Kraken or the sumptuous world of Bas-Lag within which Perdido Street Station and The Scar and Iron Council breathe. And this is no exception: Railsea inhabits a continent of shifting, inconstant, permeable earth. Cities can only survive on rocky outcrops because the soft soil is home to a range of vast, carnivorous, monstrous beasts: man sized earthworms, antlions, owls, tortoises

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and the various sized moles.

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And atop this shifting surface are rails: not the linear rails we are used to but a snaking, branching, multiplying sea of rails and tracks and sidings and branch lines and rail upon rail upon rail. Miéville rejects the word and in Railsea, relying of the ampersand instead – often starting sentences and paragraphs with an “&” which initially grated but which I quickly accepted. About halfway through, Miéville opines as to the futility of the past’s linear use of “a-n-d” and posits the symbolic nature of the ampersand, it’s curving twisting shape reflecting the nature of the Railsea itself.

I can understand that some readers would be put off by oh-so-self-aware metatextuality of the narrative. Robinson Crusoe is explicitly referred to as well as Moby Dick. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island inform it. Miéville’s own Iron Council is echoed here.

And Miéville ruminates and ponders the narrative itself explicitly. The first half of the book is very much from Sham’s point-of-view aboard the train Medes. Half way through, the narrative splits: Sham and the Medes part company and other trains are introduced as points-of-view. And Miéville explicitly discussing when and where to change point-of-view. Chapter 64 consists of two simple sentences:

Time for the Shroakes?
Not yet.

And Chapter 71 opens with

Now. At last. Surely.
This must be the moment to return to the Shroakes & to their rail. Surely.
It is, in fact, yes, Shroake O’Clock.

As I said, I get that this will irk and put off lots of people. Some will just shrug it off. But I loved this!

I loved how much fun Miéville had with the structure, the voice, the language. I imagine him chuckling to himself as he wrote it – no doubt with a pneumatically enhanced pencil attached to an artificial prosthetic like his Captain Naphi. He uses language like

a gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed up oddness

chthonic

eruchthonous

verspertilian

there was throating & a snarl of tree-sized slaver-spattering tusks & a plunging

These phrases shout to me a joy and a playfulness with language which (I hope) I share in – albeit with a less impressive vocabulary. Miéville’s prose for me shimmers and sparkles and coruscates.

Yes, this is a very writerly readers’ book but that doesn’t distract or detract from a cracking good tale and extremely tautly plotted novel.

The weakest part for me was the final confrontation. Miéville’s politics spills out into the novel here and – whilst I absolutely share his left wing views – it felt just a tad didactic and obvious.

But, what a book!

Absolutely mind blowingly wonderful.

Railsea has been labelled as Young Adult which I worry about: how many children expecting Hunger Games or Twilight would pick this up? How many adults who would love this wouldn’t pick up a YA book?

And as a brief postscript: I now want a daybat … As well as a direwolf!