Title: Spiral X
Author: J.J. Westendarp
Genre: Urban fantasy, crime, vampire fiction
Source: Pdf received from author for review
Cheryl Erickson is a sexy, wealthy 22-year old vampire hunter. She’s been staking vamps since they killed her father when she was 16 and now she’s part of an underground vampire-hunting force in Dallas with the help of her gay best-friend Virgil, who handles all the electronics. There’s a dangerous new drug on the streets called Plast, which awakens addicts’ most predatory traits, turning them into violent psychopaths. For some reason vampires are dealing Plast to humans, but no one has been able to find out why. Cheryl is determined to crack the case, but her investigation forces her to question and sometimes violate her own code of ethics.
Spiral X is fast-paced and heavy on the action, spanning just a few days and nights as Cheryl goes on a relentless mission to find out what the vampires are up to and stop them. But although it has the ingredients for an entertaining novel, it failed to interest me. Despite being a meagre 201 pages long (pdf) I struggled to finish it. I can sum up my feelings with a shrug – it didn’t do anything for me; it was simply average, not terrible, but not good either.
Despite the fact that it’s about a vampire hunter, it’s surprisingly short on vampires. It’s some time before the reader encounters the first vampires, and Cheryl’s stake brings that to a quick close. People read vampire novels because they like vampires, whether they prefer evil monsters or angsty romantic heroes, so Spiral X disappoints a bit there.
Clearly Cheryl is the focus of the story, but she’s no Buffy Summers. Yes she’s sexy and feisty, which is what most of us want in our heroines these days, but she’s not emotionally engaging and in fact, I don’t like her or even care about her. Her character is a forced – super-hot, wealthy, and the best, most bad-ass vampire hunter around – it’s too much, too convenient. Of course, she’s got issues man, but most of the time her angst rings false or is simply annoying.
At one point she spits out this lovely bit of gender stereotyping, to explain why she and her partner Tank won’t talk about their feelings:
“It was weird, since women and emotional issues are synonymous with weepy little tarts wondering why the cute guy the occasionally slept with was suddenly giving them the cold-shoulder. The trouble was, I grew up sansmother so all I had to learn from was my dad and his friends. They weren’t exactly the type to express their emotions, and it rubbed off on me. Virgil was really the only person I had ever opened up to, so while I knew Tank and I needed to have a sit down to hash out our issues, I was doing the guy thing by not being the first to bring it up. (47)
Gee Cheryl, thanks for reinforcing all those stereotypes. How great that you were raised to be like a man so you didn’t end up a weepy little tart like the rest of us females, otherwise you might spend all your time waiting for some guy to call you instead of fighting evil.
This is one of several things that lower my opinion of Cheryl. Another is the way she treats her boyfriend Thom. She learns that he’s a police officer but he lied about his job so that she wouldn’t be worried about him. Cheryl finds this deception unacceptable and dumps him. Her excuse is that she can’t trust a Thom enough to one day tell him that she’s a vampire hunter.
Excuse me? You don’t trust him enough to stop lying to him? So you’re dumping him for doing the exact same thing to you that you’re (still) doing to him? Nice.
The vampires are actually a bit more interesting than Cheryl. It seems like everyone writing a vampire novel these days tries to add something new to the mythos. What’s wrong with the classic vampire? But anyway. Westendarp’s vampires are not the usual undead humans but dead human bodies possessed by demons. When a person is bitten by a vampire and dies, the bite leaves a supernatural ‘marker’ on the person. After sunset, the soul departs from the dead body, creating a small hole in the fabric between this world and the next. Using the marker left by the bite, a demon in hell can pinpoint the location of the departing soul and use the hole it makes to enter our world and inhabit the dead body.
The result is that Westendarp’s are completely inhuman. The person who inhabited the body is dead, the soul is gone and the vampire is pure demon in human packaging. When killed (by the usual means – sunlight, decapitation, stake through the heart), the demon is sent back to hell.
This is important for the novel in two ways. Firstly, it affects Cheryl’s morals. She can draw a very clear distinction between humans and vampires, and she’s got strict rules about not killing or hurting humans, even if they’re hardened criminals. Some of the tension in the novel arises when these morals are challenged. Cheryl often has to break her rules, sometimes more brutally than seems necessary. In the opening scene she’s trying to get information by threatening a man with a knife. He realises she won’t cut him and refuses to talk, so she decides that her ethics are of less importance than information and shoots him in the kneecap.
A bit much, I think, but then later, she’s explaining why she won’t tolerate any violence against the drug dealers supplying Plast:
These guys probably don’t know they’re supplying vampires with the drug, if they even know the vamps exist. For them it’s business. A dirty, filthy business that hurts people, but business all the same. That doesn’t warrant violence, not from us.
I find this a tad questionable to say the least, and Cheryl’s morals often seem shaky – at one moment she refuses to use violence against humans, at another she’s extremely brutal but considers it justified.
The second important thing about completely inhuman vampires is that they play into the novel’s increasingly Christian tone. At first, it’s nothing notable – Cheryl has to find a mysterious man known as The Reverend; a nurse gives Cheryl some spiritual comfort of the “God is looking after us” sort. As the novel progresses, the Christian message becomes more pronounced – angels, white light, God’s wrath, a biblical character, Cheryl being saved from death by a miracle. The whole vampire problem is framed as part of the ongoing battle between God and Lucifer. Vampires are demons entering the human world, and the humans need to be saved from them, but it’s not the usual situation where humans are damned after being turned into vampires, because their souls escape unscathed. The whole idea of an Eternal War is cool – the movie Constantine (2005), based on the graphic novel Hellblazer, was awesome. But unlike Constantine, Spiral X is not ambiguous about good and evil, and the demon-vampires aren’t even that scary. The arch-villain is the type who says things like “it would be far too easy to kill you now” and gives Cheryl ample time to kill him later.
I started to get worried that this would turn into Christian urban fantasy. Luckily it didn’t go quite that far – it’s more like urban fantasy with a strong Christian theme. While I don’t mind, and sometimes enjoy, religious themes in fiction, they have to be balanced; I don’t like being preached to.
But if the Christianity didn’t bother me, the writing most certainly did. It’s not all that bad, but it needs an edit. Westendarp does an awful lot of telling rather than showing, dumping large amounts of info on the reader whenever a new character or location pops up. At other times, he does the opposite, suddenly dropping a titbit of surprising information that should have been mentioned earlier. For example, you don’t even know that Cheryl has a boyfriend until she sees him. At one point, Cheryl states that her relationship with fellow vampire-hunter Tank is “strained to the breaking point”, but that was the first I’d heard of it. Almost halfway through the novel, Cheryl mentions (in an info dump) that she has psychic powers that allow her to detect vampires. You think this would have come up ages ago, but instead it sounds like Westendarp made it up on the spot and didn’t bother working it in.
Another bad habit is the tendency to repeat the same phrase within a short space (like a few paragraphs). I got really, really irritated with the way Westendarp kept using and in fact misusing the term “begs the question”. This phrase actually refers to a logical error in which you assume the truth of a claim you’re supposed to prove. A very simple example: killing people is wrong because it’s immoral. However, many people use the phrase to mean “raises the question”, as Westerndarp does multiple times. Even if he didn’t misuse it, I would have been irritated enough by its frequency.
Because good writing is important to me, these flaws were constant distractions, always drawing attention to themselves and spoiling the book. Add to that a main character I don’t like or care about and action that fails to excite, and the only really good thing I can say about this book is that at least there weren’t any love triangles.
Buy Spiral X