I cannot escape the undead.
Whatever I do, I'm either seeking them or they are seeking me. Well, maybe they aren't actually seeking me. I do tend to stumble across them fairly often, though, and often accidentally.
Not literally of course.
To the point then. This week, after a rather favorable review in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine (cheap Kindle subscription, I highly recommend it - there's also a free one, but go for the extended, it's worthwhile), I decided to check out A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. It has vampires - not the world's best vampires, but they don't sparkle, so hey.
In a seemingly unrelated decision, I read A Night of Blacker Darkness, a newly released and fairly inexpensive e-book by Dan Wells (or if you prefer, by Frederick Withers by way of Cecil G. Bagsworth III by way of Dan Wells). It also has vampires. They are not impressive - they are, however, my favorite vampires in fiction since Anne Rice stopped writing them.
I shall review both books after the jump.
A Discovery of Witches almost needs an explanation; one look at the cover told me it wasn't for me, so I never gave it a chance. Still, once I read the review mentioned above, I thought, "Hey, get the sample" so I did, and I was impressed. Discovery is Harkness's debut novel, and it shows in some ways - but in a lot of ways, it doesn't. Some character developments and decisions are a little inexplicable, but that's hardly unique to new authors. There's a bit of deus ex machina here and there when things are going too smoothly and the story needs to be pushed along, but Harkness doesn't leave many loose ends - at least, she hasn't yet. It's going to be part of a series, so we have Book 2 to wait for and see.
Harkness is, by trade, a scholar of history, so there's a whole lot of what I assume to be historical fact in the book. It makes sense in context because the main character is a professor of history (as well as a witch) and the male lead is a 1500-year old vampire - so of course they have a lot to talk about, and it's no surprise to anyone (except everyone in the book, mostly) when they fall in love.
There are inevitable comparisons to Twilight with any vampire romance, so let's get through them. For some reason (with perhaps only a weak basis in previous literature) vampires are always unnaturally good-looking these days. And like the Twilight vamps, the sun doesn't hurt the vampires in Discovery - they still avoid it, though, since it supposedly makes it easier for humans to recognize them. Unlike Twilight, Discovery nods respectfully to all the vampire lore it's ignoring; in a somewhat expository conversation (to both the reader and the character, so it's not at all awkward to read) main-vampire-crush Matthew explains how most of the main myths came about and are based on some nugget of fact. For instance, everyone thinks that vampires drink blood - this comes from the fact that vampires kill things (and people) to drink their blood. See how there's a little truth behind the myth?
If I were to take this as serious serious literature, I would take issue with a number of small details of logic. Harkness's vampires have a heartbeat - a really, really slow one, but it's there. They are "efficient" as mentioned in the useful conversation I mentioned. So efficient that they can feed maybe once a week or less, yet still move with superhuman speed and strength - that kind of mass-energy conversion is usually nuclear in nature. There are certain other details that come up rather late in the book as well, but it's possible that the next installment will clarify the logic to explain it properly.
Still, such caveats are small, and on the whole it was a great story. For being only the first book of a trilogy, it's actually quite an impressive chunk of story. The basics of the basic elements could be resolved quickly
It didn't clean anything up neatly at the end - and I like that in a series book, actually. It's not a monster-of-the-week story, it's a continuing drama. Still, things did come to a convenient stopping-place. I'm curious about the next book and I hope to actually read it eventually; we're promised a change in setting that should be rather interesting.
I gave it four stars on Goodreads. Good characters and interesting relationships, excellent debut novel but I don't grade on a curve for that sake.
Once I finished A Discovery of Witches (did you wonder, as I did, if a "discovery" is the correct way to refer to a group of witches, like a gaggle of geese or a murder of crows? Maybe not), I changed gears entirely and picked up A Night of Blacker Darkness, supposedly written by Frederick Withers, later edited by Cecil G. Bagsworth III at an unknown date, then re-edited most recently by Dan Wells. Between the title and this apparent chain of intellectual custody, you should have a sense of the rather absurd nature of the work in question.
In a lot of ways, the setting and absurdity remind me of one of my very favorite old books, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. That book had anarchists like this one has vampires. Ah, the vampires.
I have to really salute Dan Wells for these vampires. Anne Rice did good vampires; Bram Stoker did good vampires. I have been thoroughly unimpressed by the vampires and "vampires" in modern fiction. They're always hot, they're always friendly, they're always misunderstood. And of course they're always super-powerful, superhuman in every way. They're like undead elves - when they even bother do be undead, that is. Well, thank God for Dan Wells, Trendbreaker to the Undead. These vampires are undead, combustible in sunlight (we assume; none of them actually go out in the day because they aren't suicidal), and not at all romantic. But most wonderfully, they are not at all dangerous. Not if you're awake, anyway. They're about as strong as kittens, and one living man with a club and a few stakes can probably clear a room full of them even if he's a bumbling idiot. The lead vampire, Sable (or Bernard, if you'd known him in life) reminded me a lot of some characters John Cleese may have played as part of Monty Python. Wells also gives fair nods to various bits of vampire lore - garlic, for instance, is quite effective deterrent. Any strong smell will overpower the poor creatures, leading one vampire to remark, "I was turned aside by a very sharp cheddar once."
It's very refreshing. The different vampires that is; sharp cheddar is also refreshing, but I need to actually eat it to feel that refreshment, unlike some people in this book.
We include Mary Shelly and John Keats in the main cast, which is interesting. Caricatures of them, anyway; Jane Austin is mentioned as well (her pen-name, at least), but is never seen in person. Wells is much more literary than I am so it's plausible that other writers of that or nearby eras appear as well that are unknown to me - most of them are unknown to me, after all.
All the characters, both historical and otherwise, are engaging and robust. That's not to say they're well-developed or thoroughly rounded out. They each personify one particular element and they tend to stick to it. It's quite well-executed, however, and in the context of the slightly absurd story it's all perfectly acceptable.
It's a dialog-heavy piece of work, for something so short. Any random page I turn to is mostly full of dialog, with relatively few blocks of long paragraphs or descriptions. All of the characters have completely unique voice and I had no trouble at all following any of it; Wells develops the characters and the story through the dialog with great strength, basically eliminating any need for descriptive paragraphs and most need for narration. Being dialog heavy seems to keep the pace steady and quick, which is a great plus.
I gave it five stars. You might say, "Jeremy, this didn't earn five stars. You didn't even give five stars to A Dance with Dragons." Well, I say to you that in terms of simple joy, this book was a five-star piece of work. It was short and thoroughly enjoyable. It's not a universally lovable piece (some people don't like absurd comedy; some people are weird that way) but it's damn good. Five stars.