Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

It’s a Dresden File.

It’s Harry Dresden; it’s Jim Butcher.

Even after reading only the previous two novels, I already know what to expect.

It’s also a step up from the previous two novels in the series: the prose is still very, well, prosaic; Dresden is still a wise cracking hard boiled detective with magic; but the plotting and world have expanded here and it feels that there’s a more assured hand on the tiller. I have not been convinced that Jim Butcher knew whether to embrace the paranormal or the police procedural style of the first novel, but, with this one, he seems to side with the paranormal, expanding his mythology as well as his character list.

The first book touched on vampires but focussed on a single rogue sorcerer; the second turned the spotlight onto various forms of werewolves. This one has sprouted into a dozen other fantasy creatures. And so we meet (in the opening chapter) Michael Carpenter, a carpenter and crusader, who wields Amoracchius, a fabled mystical sword embedded with one of the nails of the Cross. We also meet Dresden’s Godmother Leanansidhe, a faerie who seeks to control Harry through a combination of seduction, bribery and bargaining.  The plot revolves round Harry’s efforts to confront the being dubbed The Nightmare which attacks people as they sleep and possesses them, binding them with a spectral spiritual barbed wire. Ghosts abound and are vanquished, rival clans and houses of vampires assemble and even a Dragon makes a cameo appearance. And, somehow, the overtly Christian and the Faerie and the mythological and the magical managed to complement  each other rather than conflict with each other.

It is not great writing – sorry Mr Butcher – but it is a fast paced and enjoyable read and is written with a playfulness and joy which is a pleasure to read. It is as if Butcher knew just how insane putting these multifarious ideas and mythologies together was, but did it any way.

In terms of plot, we are plunged directly in medias res as Dresden and Carpenter battle a ghost in a children’s home, learning that the boundaries between the mundane world and the otherworld has thinned, causing the increase in ghostly apparitions. Later, Dresden is summoned to the home of a police officer – with whom he defeated a demon-summoning sorcerer named Kravos earlier – who is under attack by The Nightmare, briefly reuniting with Karrin Murphy (who is again regrettably absent from the novel) and defeating the attack. Further attacks by The Nightmare show that it is assaulting those involved in defeating Kravos prior to the start of the novel, leading to attacks on Karrin and on Carpenter’s wife and on Dresden himself, consuming a large amount of his magical power. As with Fool Moon, we are given hints that Dresden is ridiculously powerful but fettered which is a little (and I’m sure intentionally) frustrating and not unlike Ben Aaronovitch’s treatment of Nightingale in the Rivers of London series.

Throughout the novel, the Red Court of vampires’ ball is built up as a central set piece, and it is here that we finally get to see a real hint at the extent of Dresden’s power, even though Susan Rodriguez, his girlfriend for wont of a better word, is captured, which forces the weakened Dresden into a reckless attempt to rescue her. Without adding spoilers, Susan’s fate is tragic and painful and I hope that she returns later in the series.

Just set aside any expectation for realism, strap in for a fun ride, turn off your brain and enjoy!

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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. 

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!

Jazz is cool.

It’s undeniable; it’s super cool. As a genre of music, it lurks in the back of the iPod in a smoke filled subterranean playlist. Jazz does not wear sunglasses; jazz is born with dark tinted irises. In a politically correct world, jazz sensuously drinks and smokes itself to a hospital bed where it still looks cool. And probably seduces the nurse, the consultant and the undertaker. Jazz is smart and intellectual and doesn’t care; and it is dirty and filthy and doesn’t care.

It’s also a genre of music I know little about.

Which made Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch’s second novel revolving around Peter Grant, the Met’s latest magic police officer, slightly intimidating. Because there’s an awful lot of jazz in it.

It’s not much of a problem, to be fair. I just wish I knew the artists and songs he mentions.

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Two plots interweave through the book.

Firstly, a series of jazz musicians die of apparently natural causes but, because of lingering vestigia – a sort of magical afterglow – Peter is called in. Secondly, a growing number of men die from exsanguination. Exsanguination following the biting off of their manhoods. Collective crossing of male legs. Even more disturbing is that the teeth which did the biting were not the usual horizontal facial kind: instead they were horizontally oriented and vaginally located. Every man’s Freudian nightmare!

Entwined with these plots is: a search for a mysterious and dangerous black magician; a budding love interest for Peter; more insights into Peter’s boss – the enigmatic Nightingale – and his background; and the aftermath of the previous book.

Aaronovitch gives himself a lot to do and – to be honest – it makes the book less satisfying than expected. There’s no real resolution: the black magician is encountered but not apprehended; the pale lady – she with the toothed front bottom – is rather speedily dispatched. The book feels like a bridge, converting the first book into a series by putting together the threads that will be developed later. It felt to me as if Aaronovitch had intended a series but the editors had doubts over its success and made him make edits so that it could have been a one-off. This book seems to be putting into place the pieces to set up the future books.

Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t a bad book! It’s a solid, paced read. It’s not the most intellectually challenging or linguistically sophisticated but it’s a good read. Two things impressed me most:

– Nightingale remains successfully impressive: hints of his life are given which are sufficient to make him formidable – his fireball destroyed a Tiger Tank in World War 2 and after the war he returned to his old school to carve his fallen schoolmates names into the wall; but controlled enough to remain mysterious.

– Lesley, his comrade, colleague and possible love interest from the first book who became temporarily possessed, returns. I had been expecting her return, but not that the facial injuries inflicted in the previous book could not be healed. I had expected her to have been back to normal with the Harry Potter style explanation: “oh it’s magic so that explains it all”. Instead her injuries remain so severe that she is unable even to speak at the start of the book; wears a face mask up until the final pages; and Peter is horrified when he finally sees it. There was a certain integrity and honesty in keeping her injuries extreme. And, from the final pages of the novel, it is clear she will become a very significant character in future novels.

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I have a confession.

I love Dracula. Both the character and Stoker’s novel.

And I love vampires.

Not the sparkly, fairy, effete version populating Meyer’s asinine attempts at fiction (“Dear Dracula, do you remember that one night seventeen years ago? Well, we need to talk. Sincerely, Tinkerbell”) but full blown raging bloodlust sensual sexual visceral vampires. Buffy’s Angel and werewolves may be a tortured soul trapped in a bestial form struggling to contain their animal appetites (which has its own appeal) but a real true dyed-in-the-wool vampire revels in and relishes their evil.

The concept for this book, then, had an automatic appeal: Dracula had arrived in England; he seduced and turned Lucy Westenra who is dispatched by the forces of light comprising Arthur Holmwood, John Seward and Quincey Morris. As the forces of light attempt to track down Dracula, he turns his attention to Mina Harker. At this point, Newman’s narrative departs from Stoker’s: Dracula kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris; he seduces Queen Victoria and becomes Prince Consort; a world of vampires flocks to England to make a stab at (or to take a bite at) an openly vampiric life.

History and fiction mingle in Newman’s tale: Stoker and Van Helsing are both characters; Inspectors Lestrade and Abberline work side by side; Sherlock Holmes has been incarcerated in a ‘warm’ concentration camp; doctors Moreau and Jekyll investigate vampire physiology. Vampires from fiction abound from Lord Rothven (appropriately for the first literary vampire in Polidori’s The Vampyre now Prime Minister to less familiar names such as Kostaki, von Klatka and Count Vardalek.

As a self confessed geek, there is an undeniable delight in recognising the various recreations and re-imaginings of famous and less famous characters.

Had that been the only pleasure, though, this would have been a thin, poor novel. Fortunately, it is not the only pleasure: Newman’s story remains rooted in the final years of the nineteenth century and focusses on the Jack the Ripper murders. The Ripper’s victims, Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly remain prostitutes in Whitechapel but are now vampire prostitutes and their murders attract the attention of Scotland Yard; Queen Victoria herself; the shadowy Diogenes Club headed by Mycroft Holmes (which exists somewhere between diplomacy and warfare on behalf of the Queen); the criminal spider’s web headed by Fu Manchu, the Lord of Strange Deaths, and Professor Moriarty; and the philanthropic hospital and charity of Toynbee Hall.

Our main characters are Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard. Geneviève is a four hundred year old Vampire elder who works as assistant director of the Hall under Dracula‘s Jack Seward; Charles is an agent of the Diogenes Club and, through them, the Queen. Geneviève in particular is a quite compelling character: turned at the age of sixteen and remaining in a sixteen year old body, she remains a strong moral anchor in the world. Enough of her history and powers are hinted at that she comes across as indomitable throughout the novel even though we never truly see her unleash that power. Charles Beauregard by contrast is a lesser character: mired in duty and obligation to his Queen, his fiancée and his deceased wife he is so much less confident and compelling than Geneviève.

The novel conjures up all the expected cliches of Victorian London with Hanson cabs, fogs and gas lamps yet manages to remain fresh and convincing. The addition of the vampires into the social sink of Whitechapel, where a threepenny could buy you both a roll in the hay and a blood letting, deepens the griminess of the area. One woman in a particularly unpleasant image trails the streets of Whitechapel with two children in tow (which may or may not be her own) to pimp their blood to passing vampires.

The vampires themselves are not quite the full blooded bloodsuckers I had hoped for. The magic and superstition of Dracula is stripped away, as is their antipathy to crosses and holy water and garlic. These vampires are more natural than Stoker’s: they’re still preternaturally strong, heal almost instantly from most injuries, have a various abilities depending on their bloodlines including almost psychic sensitivity to others’ thoughts or shapeshifting; sunlight can burn newly turned vampires and silver can prevent wounds from closing. It is from this silver that Jack the Ripper is dubbed Silverknife before the Ripper moniker is attached to him.

There is a wider larger plot behind the efforts to track down the Ripper but in fear of spoilers I shall not dwell on that. It did manage to take me by surprise in the final hour of the audiobook!