Robin McKinley does the modern vampire in this one. Neil Gaiman describes it on the cover as “pretty much perfect”. I had this recommended somewhere a few months ago – I can’t remember where now – and since I’d liked McKinley’s Damar books, I decided I’d give it a go. It’s pretty good, but I don’t agree with Gaiman on its perfection. Certainly it’s a cut above most of this sub-genre (and I don’t just mean Twilight and other such teen wangst). In setup I was rather reminded of Kim Harrison’s Hollows. This is a non-masquerade supernatural world, where the beasties have come out if not into the daylight then at least into knowledge. There’s been war – the Voodoo Wars – and humanity has been significantly reduced in size. There are magic users, part-demons, weres (not just wolves, but all sorts of other changelings as well) and vampires. Vamps are regarded as the worst of the bad bunch and most of them, particularly the antagonist of this story, are pretty nasty pieces of work. Mostly people don’t survive an encounter with a vampire, they just tend to die.
This novel has two great things about it. The characterisations of all the major and most of the minor characters is brilliant (it’s one of McKinley’s strengths as a writer). Her take on the “good vampire” is also much better than most and works at the character level. However, the weakness of this book lies in the backdrop. It’s very detailed but it’s all two dimensional. It just doesn’t quite seem to work when one thinks about it. Characters in the defence force against supernatural wrongdoing fear that in 100 ears people will be ruled by vampires completely. There was huge attrition in the Voodoo Wars. None of this seems to really work, though, if one thinks about it a lot. This was published in 2002, so probably written a year or a couple earlier and there’s an Internet-equivalent in there with some interesting elements, though it seems quite dated and text-oriented, a bit like A Fire Upon the Deep, so maybe it was written even earlier than that. Anyway, what troubles me about this is that if many of the big cities have been de-populated, then how has advanced civilisation survived as well as it has? THe “New Arcadia” medium sized city is one of the larger ones left, we’re told, though we’re not actually told where it is, beyond it being the US. It’s somewhere with deciduous trees and real seasons including winter, not just climate, but it could be New England, Pacific NorthWest, Great Lakes. There’s a distinct lack of locality to it which distracted me rather.
I think this would have made a great few books gradually exploring this world in more detail and explaining just how it came about, and how close it went to the lights going out, how they were and are kept on and what the danger is short, medium and long term from vampires and other “Others”. But McKinley doesn’t seem to write series, only one-offs (plus the odd related book).
Still, very recommended for those who like the vampires but not the fang-fucker sub-genre. See also, Charlie Stross‘ forthcoming The Rhesus Chart for his take on vamps.
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