By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

By Blood We LiveTitle: By Blood We Live
Series: The Last Werewolf / Bloodlines
Author: Glen Duncan
Published: 6 February 2014
Publisher: Canongate Books
Genre: fantasy, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

By Blood We Live picks up two years after the events of Talulla Rising. The 20 000-year-old vampire Remshi wakes up to find that he’s been asleep all this time, much to the dismay of his human partner Justine. They’re still trying to sort out their issues when they’re attacked,and Remshi is forced to turn Justine in order to save her life. Through Justine’s blood, Remshi recovers his memories of his obsession with Talulla, who he believes is the reincarnation of his only love, a werewolf named Vali who died 17 000 years ago.

Meanwhile Talulla and the twins are still with the pack from the previous book. Talulla is still with Walker, but their relationship is strained. She never loved him like she loved Jake, and things were never the same after Remshi came to see Talulla and said he’d come back for her.

There’s an outside threat too. WOCOP is no more, but they have been replaced by the Militi Christi, a militant Christian group determined to wipe out werewolves and vampires for the glory of god. The werewolf population has exploded since the virus was cured, and Talulla and Madeline started creating new wolves. The world is turning against both vampires and werewolves, and when Talulla learns of a possible cure, she has to decide if that’s something she wants for herself and her children.

Like the previous two books, By Blood We Live has everything that has come to define this series. Loads of gory violence, most of it involving monsters eating humans. Lots of musing on the psychological experience of being a monster who eats humans and absorbs their memories along through flesh and blood. Conflict with a human organisation whose aim is to kill monsters. There isn’t quite as much sex as before, but there is something new – a vampire having sex with a transformed werewolf (it was really only a matter of time).

However, there are some crucial differences in By Blood We Live. There are two vampire narrators, so for the first time we get some insight into their experiences. While Talulla and Jake spoke of the Curse and the wulf, Remshi speaks about vampirism as the Lash. We also have four narrators total – Remshi, Justine, Talulla and Walker. Justine leaves Remshi shortly after he turns her, believing that he’s going to leave for Talulla anyway. She decides to track down the people who abused her as a child, now that she has all these new vampiric abilities. Remshi goes after her while trying to track down Talulla at the same time. Talulla has been given the book that Jake was looking for, which describes the origin of the werewolf race and apparently gives the cure. However, the pages detailing the cure have been removed; to get them Talulla will have to meet with the vampire who sent her the book. At any rate, she has more immediate problems – the Militi Christi are trying to kill her family. Poor Walker knows that he’s relationship’s about to end, thanks to a dead werewolf and a mythical vampire. He’s well aware of Talulla’s awkward attempts to get him to have sex with his maker Madeline so that she won’t feel so guilty about leaving him.

There’s an interesting moral quandary regarding the attempt to wipe out werewolves and vampires. One of the defining characteristics of this series is that Duncan doesn’t hide the monstrousness of vamps and weres but emphasises and explores it. It’s impossible for them to exist without killing humans so obviously peaceful co-existence is impossible and violence is inevitable, as Talulla explains:

Here was the core of monstrosity: if you were a monster the human world had nothing to offer you but the just demand for your death. And since they were, in the last analysis, your food and drink, what could they be but right? There was no argument you could bring against them. All you could bring was your monstrous enmity.

Because the vamps and weres are the protagonists, the reader has the opportunity to empathise with them, but they’re still the bad guys. They’re murderers who can’t make any moral objection to the attempts at their genocide. I thought Duncan made a fantastic moral dilemma out of this in the previous book – Talulla was tortured, experimented upon and almost raped, but she admitted that nothing those people did to her was any worse than things she’d done. She wanted to survive but she couldn’t really complain about the violence per se. She was a monster attacked by other – lesser – monsters.

In this novel, Duncan sets up a similar dilemma although I found it less interesting. The Militi Christi are, in one sense, the good guys, because they’re trying to save humanity from a terrifying danger. However, they’re a bunch of militant Christians, and that already sets off lots of alarms. Then you get a closer look at them, and to no one’s surprise, they’re a bunch of ridiculous hypocrites. My problem with this is that’s it too easy to dislike them and side with our monstrous protagonists. WOCOP was also unlikeable, although in different ways. Given that there’s a very good reason for humans to want to wipe out werewolves and vampires, I thought it would be more complex and engaging to have an organisation the reader might actually side with.

Because, honestly, I’ve gotten tired of this monster formula now and I want something to shake it up. It was good in The Last Werewolf and it was great in Talulla Rising, but it’s old in By Blood We Live, especially since I read all three books within a short space of time. I know all about how the Curse (and now the Lash) makes you enjoy being evil. How “It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them.” God’s dead but irony’s still rollickingly alive. The great mathematical silence. How werewolves and vampires are like libraries because they absorb the memories of their victims (this is actually awesome, but I often wish Duncan would do more with it). Remshi seemed liked an interesting badass guy in the previous book; here, he’s actually quite a nice guy, but also quite boring.

That said, this book is not without its merits. The way memories are absorbed through the blood becomes really twisted when Justine drinks the man who sexually abused her, and in doing so gains his memories of the abuse, seeing herself through his eyes. Drinking/eating people is compared to reading, and Remshi warns her of the danger of it:

Reading a book is a dangerous thing, Justine. A book can make you find room in yourself for something you never thought you’d understand. Or worse, something you never wanted to understand.

Each of the books has at least one really horrific moment, and this is the one that stood out for me.

I also like that the characters are struggling with the possible truth of myths, dreams, patterns and prophecies. They’re all cynics who don’t believe in god, religion or fairytales, so when they’re faced with the myth of the origin of werewolves, prescient dreams, Remshi’s prophecy about joining the blood of the werewolf (which he wrote himself), and the patterns and connections that appear after feeding, they feel absurd. While they have to admit that they’re all fairytale creatures themselves, they’re disgusted by belief in dreams and prophecies, especially when it seems like they really are caught up in some cosmic plan. It’s amusing in a macabre sort of way.

Appropriately, the prophecy also gets entwined with the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning. I’m not familiar with it, but Talulla describes it as a poem about going on and on without hope, on a quest without any clear purpose. This applies to Remshi in particular, but is starting to characterise Talulla’s journey as well. How can she and her children live on in a world that wants them dead? It’s a question I paused to think about a few times during the book.

Ultimately though, the flaws outweigh the merits for me, and I judged this to be my least favourite book in the series. I didn’t hate it; I just found it a bit boring. If the series continues, I doubt I’ll continue reading it. And there is a definite possibility for a fourth book, which could focus on an all-out war between humans and the werewolves and vampires. Which, admittedly, could be interesting. And maybe I just need a break from this sort of style and content to appreciate it more. We’ll see.

Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan

Talulla RisingTitle: Talulla Rising
Series: The Last Werewolf
Author: Glen Duncan
Canongate Books
fantasy, thriller
own copy

Please note: This review contains massive spoilers for book 1, The Last Werewolf.

The Last Werewolf ended with a lot of drama. Talulla was revealed to be pregnant, something no one thought was possible. Grainer knew all about Ellis’s plans to subvert WOCOP, save the werewolves and kill Grainer, so Ellis got killed instead. It looked like Jake and Talulla would both get their heads cut off, but then Cloquet pitched up in a bit of a deus ex machina and shot Grainer as revenge for killing Cloquet’s lover, Jacqueline Delon. It suddenly looked like Jake would survive, but that seemed a little too good to be true so I wasn’t surprised when Grainer managed to kill him with one last shot before dying. Talulla escaped with Cloquet’s help, and he became her handler (like Harley was for Jake)

Book 2 opens on Cloquet and a heavily pregnant Talulla hiding out in a cabin in the woods. Being a pregnant werewolf is a particularly painful experience (“biology made me its punchbag”), but Talulla gives birth much sooner than expected. Unfortunately, her son is immediately kidnapped by vampires. Luckily they don’t hang around so they miss the birth of a twin girl.

Talulla names the baby Zoë and heads out, determined to save her son – who she names Lorcan. She assumes the vampires have kidnapped him for their Helios Project – based on the discovery that a werewolf bite can grant immunity to sunlight – but the truth is worse. A small group of fanatical vampires believe in a myth about an ancient vampire named Remshi, the oldest of their kind, who reappears every few hundred years and has the ability to walk in the sunlight. To reach his full power, he has to drink the blood of a werewolf. Talulla has only a short time to find her son before they sacrifice him.

Besides taking on vampires and looking after an infant, Talulla has to worry about WOCOP, which found itself a psychopathic new leader after the loss of Grainer and Jacqueline Delon. It’s a story that manages to be even more violent and intense than the first one. And I really like it that way.


If I had to pick just one thing I liked about Talulla Rising, it’d be this quote:

Keep reading, Lu, Jake had advised. Literature is humanity’s broad-minded alter-ego, with room in its heart even for monsters, even for you. It’s humanity without the judgement.

But, luckily, I get to say as much as I want about why I enjoyed this book. Although I wasn’t blown away by The Last Werewolf as many readers were, I liked it well enough and I was optimistic about the second book because I thought Talulla’s narration might be more to my taste. And it is. Jake was old-fashioned and philosophical, so while I liked his insights I found his style a bit overwrought and eventually tiring. Talulla, born in the 20th century, is a bit more straightforward and her story is much more dire, giving her less time for introspection. However, we still get some of Jake’s more literary insights as Talulla quotes from his journals. The best of both worlds. There’s even a note about Jake’s possible sexual relationship with Harley, which is something I thought should have come up in the first book.

For me, Talulla also better illustrates the realities and paradoxes of being a monster. It’s clearly an important theme for this series and a major part of Jake’s character, but they both knew Talulla was the better wulf. Also, we mostly saw Jake killing strangers or enemies, and we learned of all the charity work he’d done to balance out all the murders. Talulla has not yet had the opportunity to balance out her kills, she speaks more about how the kill is better for her when it’s worse for the vicim, and there is the ever-present threat of her killing people she – and the reader – cares about. Because for werewolves, “nothing compares to killing the thing you love”. Jake made an effort to be less of a monster by, for example, avoiding women he could fall in love with. Talulla, is forced to consider the full extent of her monstrosity. Is there anything, she asks herself, that she wouldn’t do?

Throughout the book she thinks about being a “Very Bad Dirty Filthy Little Girl” – she’s always done bad things, and she’s always enjoyed it. Now, she’s faced with the prospect of killing and eating her own children and enjoying it even though she’d hate herself for doing it. She wasn’t sure if she wanted them, was worried that she wouldn’t love them and when the vampires take Lorcan she doesn’t make much of an effort to save him; the guilt of which haunts her from that moment on. She thinks about how everything would be easier if she knew for sure that he was dead and she didn’t have to risk her life to rescue him. She berates herself for thinking about sex (or having really good sex) while her son is missing. What kind of a mother is she?

She’s a bad person who gets a kind of superhuman (or rather, inhuman) enjoyment from being bad and although she doesn’t often feel guilty about her sins, it bothers her that she doesn’t have that guilt. It’s a tangle of self-conscious immorality from which she will probably never find any peace.

In addition, Talulla endures terrible pain and suffering at the hands of others – a monster at the mercy of other monsters. Although determined to do whatever is necessary to save herself, she admits that she is no better, and is arguably even worse that the people doing unspeakably cruel things to her. It’s just that she’s suddenly on the receiving end. And as the reader I like her and root for her because she’s the protagonist, but I also know she’d have lots of fun murdering and eating me, she’d enjoy it even more if she could make it extra painful and terrifying, and afterwards she wouldn’t feel guilty about it. At most she’d feel bad for not feeling guilty and I’d just be another ghost in her soul.

It’s because she’s so scary that I find Talulla to be a wonderfully dark, twisted character, and not only as a kind of literary exploration of the werewolf as a monster. She’s also an action hero, a dutiful daughter, a new mother, a friend, a lover, and all these things come into play. I particularly liked the scene where she and Cloquet join two special forces agents in a house with 5 butchered bodies. The agents are weirded out by the fact that she’s carrying Zoë, and leaves when the baby starts to cry. But Talulla needs information, so she starts breastfeeding little Zoë while she and Cloquet search for clues amidst the gore. It’s nothing if not practical. Later, Talulla leaves Zoë behind and boards a flight to go rescue Lorcan, but the flight has unexpected consequences for her as a new mother:

The flight’s other reality slap was that I’d given no thought to having suddenly stopped breastfeeding. By the time what would’ve been Zoë’s third consecutive feed had come and gone the unsuckled milk had started a knifey protest. Look, I know we’re on a mission – but would you mind if we tried to find somewhere that sells breast-pumps when we land?

I love that Duncan doesn’t make Talulla a weak, vulnerable woman in need of protection just because she’s a new mother. Lactating and looking after a baby are just two items in a list of other practical concerns like getting guns and booking flights. She heads out with a bunch of people – most of whom aren’t nearly as badass as she is – goes into dangerous situations and rips people’s arms off. She gets help when she needs it and sometimes needs to be rescued, but she’s just as capable of saving herself too. Another favourite, and unexpectedly touching scene is when Talulla’s trapped in a particularly harrowing and almost hopeless situation, and imagines her mother (who was also a “Very Bad Girl”) guiding her through the violent kill that’s required for her escape:

My mother said: Be accurate, angel. Believe you can do this, and be accurate. I’m so proud of you.

So yeah, I’m impressed with this book. It’s got everything I liked about The Last Werewolf – the monster/wulf themes, the violence, the sex, the action, the danger – and it improved on what I didn’t like – the overwhelming intensity of Jake’s style. It’s also got way more female characters (the details of which would constitute a spoiler) and does lots of interesting things with the idea of a woman as a werewolf. It’s not brilliant – there are small things that bug me and on the whole it just lacks a certain something – but it’s still a pretty amazing book. Definitely the best vampire/werewolf book I’ve read. I’m looking forward to the final book, By Blood We Live, which is actually being published TODAY.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

The Last Werewolf

Title: The Last Werewolf
Author: Glen Duncan
my eBook published by Canongate Books
fantasy, thriller
own copy

Jacob Marlowe is officially the last werewolf. WOCOP – World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena – has just cut off the head of his only contemporary, and they’ll come after him at the next full moon. Grainer, the agent in charge of the hunt, wants the wolf, not the man.

Harley, Jake’s only friend, is an aged WOCOP agent who has been trying to keep Jake safe from the organisation for years. He’s ready to help Jake escape and disappear again, but the 200-year-old werewolf is tired. He’s depressed, world-weary and lonely. Every person he’s eaten lingers within him like a ghost. He no longer feels guilty about killing, but he’s still haunted by his first victim – his beloved wife. After her death he refused to let himself fall in love with anyone else; a painful way to live for 200 centuries. Now he just wants to write the “untellable tale” of his wife’s death, and then submit to his own death – and that of his species – at Grainer’s hands.

But he has Harley’s feelings to consider. And then the vampires get involved, because for some reason they want him alive. Even WOCOP seems unsure about killing him, partly because it would mean the end of an era and one of their reasons for existing. Jacob is caught up in the question of whether or not to keep living, while trying to maintain his freedom from the people who want to make that decision for him.

I’ve been on the fence about this series. Although I’ve heard good things about it, the whole paranormal romance genre has put me off anything with vampires and werewolves in it. Could this really be something different and interesting? Or is it just more proof that people need to stop writing about vampires and werewolves for a couple of decades?

I was encouraged by the fact that it was published by Canongate, which offers the kind of literary spec fic I like (most notably, their Myths series). The reviews made it look intriguing too, suggesting a ‘realistically’ gritty psychological portrayal of a werewolf, with loads of sex and violence. A werewolf/vampire book with substance, but fun too. So when Canongate made book 3 – By Blood We Liveavailable on NetGalley, I requested it and decided to review the whole series.

I’m still deciding if this was a good idea. On the one hand The Last Werewolf certainly is different, and there are lots of interesting things about it. There are major sexual relationships in the plot, but they’re visceral and ravenous, not the kind of Twilight crap that makes me want to throw up. But as much as I like the content I don’t like the style.

Jake is a very philosophical werewolf, which makes him markedly different from the rest of his species. Vampires hate werewolves for several reasons, one of which is their loss of speech during the transformation. After a while, this begins to affect their human counterparts, and they become less eloquent or barely talk at all.

Except Jacob. For years he has kept journals telling the story of his life, and this novel is mostly his memoir. He frequently reflects on the experience of being a werewolf. He speaks of the initial decision of whether to kill yourself or come to terms with the fact that you HAVE to kill and eat people (animal flesh won’t work). He has to deal with a raging sexual appetite, which was problematic for straight werewolves because females are beyond rare, and is problematic for Jake in particular because he only sleeps with women he dislikes to avoid falling in love. He attempts to balance out the all the murders by making money for charities, which he thinks of “vestigial ethical craziness”.

His transformation into a 9-foot tall werewolf is far more bestial than any other portrayal I’ve come across, in either books or movies. Besides eating people alive in graphic detail, he also describes other animalistic aspects of his nature, like marking trees with urine, or getting an erection when he smells a woman. The wolf has a “fuckkilleat” mentality that doesn’t fade away when it turns back into a man. It’s not pretty, it’s not sexy. It’s very violent and unabashedly immoral. And I like that about it. Duncan lets werewolves (and vampires) be monsters who enjoy doing things they know are horrific. Jacob’s self-reflective manner gives us so many insights into the man and the monster. There are some deliciously dark quotes:

Nothing like the blood and meat of the young. You can taste the audacity of hope.


Even underground the rising full moon like the Virgin Mary on a bed saying please, please, please just fuck me, will you?


About his victims: Yet somehow between then and now near enough two thousand victims. I thought of them in a concentration camp heap. My guts are a mass grave.

The downside is that I don’t like Duncan/Jake’s baroque style of narration. He was born in the 1800s, and his speech never quite modernised. Some readers might find it poetic or rich. I find it overwrought. Not purple, but it gets tiring. It’s not that it’s boring or badly written; I highlighted quite a few quotes that I liked, and I generally enjoy this sort of thing. But in this case there’s too much of it, the impact gets lost, and by the end I was skimming Jake’s musing because it felt like more of the same and had no real bearing on the plot. Not as bad as, say, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice (I would have staked Louis to put an end to his whining) but that novel often came to mind.

Normally I write about how I want characterisation to balance out the action, but this time the action and other plot development balances out the more interior stuff simply because it’s written in a simpler, more straightforward style. In fact, I would have liked to hear more stories from Jake’s past, particularly regarding his relationship with Harley, who has become an old man while Jake remains as youthful as the day they met fifty years ago. Also, because Harley’s gay and it’s possible that Jake is open to a homosexual relationship, I kept wondering if Harley loved Jake as more than a friend and if anything had ever happened between them. However, the novel seems to avoid this issue.

But hey, at least it’s not the romanticised werewolf/vampire story that has made vampires and werewolves so unappealing over the past few years. I didn’t love it, but I liked it well enough, and re-reading my Kindle notes and highlights makes me appreciate it a bit more. I’ll keep on with the series since I’ve agreed to review the third book, but also because the second book has a different narrator who is very different from Jacob and should have a completely different voice. I might miss his keen observations, but Talulla Rising has the premise for a very interesting story.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical GirlTitle: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
David Barnett
10 September 2013
steampunk, alternate history, adventure, metafiction
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl takes place in a steampunky alternate world: the America lost its War of Independence and remained a part of the British Empire, where the sun has not yet set and airships fly between continents.

In the tiny fishing village of Sandsend, Gideon Smith dreams of a more exciting life than one spent fishing. His imagination goes on exciting travels and adventures with World Marvels and Wonders, a penny dreadful magazine that publishes the tales of Captain Trigger, the Hero of the Empire. “Lucian Trigger was an agent of the Crown, charged by Queen Victoria herself with tackling the more unusual threats to her globe-spanning empire” and he’s aided by a band of adventurous friends. Gideon has read, re-read and memorised all of Trigger’s stories and at the age of 24, Gideon believes in Trigger like a 5-year-old believes in Father Christmas.

So when the entire crew of his father’s fishing boat vanishes and Gideon suspects a supernatural cause, he actually calls the magazine and asks to speak to Captain Lucian Trigger about “a most urgent matter!”, “an emergency!”. Obviously Gideon just gets laughed at, but he finds an ally in the author Bram Stoker, who happens to be in a nearby town doing research for his next book. Stoker however, is looking for vampires and inspiration. Gideon believes that he’s chasing the wrong monster, so he packs up and leaves for London to find Captain Trigger.

On the way he finds the house of Albert Einstein’s father, an amazing inventor. Einstein has disappeared, but he left behind a beautiful automaton named Maria. Maria is being sexually abused by Einstein’s servant, so Gideon takes her with him to London, a city that she’s dreamt about even though she’s never seen it.

When Gideon finds Captain Trigger, he’s disappointed – Trigger is a sickly old man who stays at home writing about the exploits of the real adventurer, his lover Dr John Reed. But Reed has disappeared on a journey related to the Gideon’s own mystery, and Trigger is now inspired to join Gideon on a quest to find him. Soon they find themselves embarking on an adventure that would suit Gideon’s beloved penny dreadfuls – a crazy caper with a motley crew of companions fighting a horde of ancient monsters.  They travel to exotic locations and encounter great danger as a mission of love and revenge turns into a desperate plight to save the world.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure with lots of mystery and action, full of tropes like ancient artefacts with incredible power, monsters awakened from a centuries’ long slumber, beautiful women, sinister villains and a dashing hero. According to author David Barnett in an interview with My Bookish Ways:

It was inspired, really, by a love of old-fashioned adventure, both the Victorian type and the pulp-ish Indiana Jones-style escapades. I wanted to write something like that but with modern sensibilities – explore the nature of heroism

By modern sensibilities I assume Barnett is referring to inclusive things like the fact that Trigger is gay and the hero of the magazine stories is his lover. Two of the women in the novel – the dirigible pilot Rowena Fanshawe and Countess Dracula – are capable, independent and sexually liberal, possessing strengths that make them equal to or more powerful than their male counterparts. Dracula’s wife Elizabeth actually goes around liberating other women from their social and physical constraints in a decidedly unconventional manner. There is also some criticism of the power of the British Empire and the practice of slavery.

However, what stands out most of me in Barnett’s quote is the word “pulp-ish”. Because pulpy is a word that frequently came to mind as I was reading. To say the novel “was inspired […] by a love of old-fashioned adventure” is a very inviting way of describing it. I thought of it as more of a homage to the penny dreadful, falling on the sillier side of sensational. This style just didn’t work for me the way it did in, say, the equally ludicrous The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton. It’s supposed to be fun, but it takes itself a little too seriously and still has old-fashioned tropes that could have been ‘modernised’.

The characters travel to Egypt where they meet a Ugandan guide who plays the funny, jolly foreigner with an odd way of speaking English. The female characters Fanshawe and Elizabeth might be independent, but too much emphasis is placed on their sex appeal. One of the male characters, a crude, overweight journalist named Bent, seems incapable of talking about any of the female characters without some reference to sex or their bodies. Maria, meanwhile, is a terribly pathetic damsel in distress (more on her later). And there’s Gideon, the traditional hero – a young man of humble origins, driven to heroism by the desire to avenge his father and save a girl.

I found it difficult to like Gideon. It’s possible to see him as adorably naïve but I just thought he was a twit. In fact the author wrote him as “a bit of an idiot” or at least “naïve and a dreamer” at the start, who will hopefully become “a bit more likeable and appealing as the story progresses” (My Bookish Ways). I don’t know if Barnett is referring to just this story or Gideon’s progression across forthcoming books, but I never warmed to him. A 24-year-old man who believes that his favourite adventure stories are the absolute truth just because they claim to be so? What a dope. It’s fine at the beginning of the book (after all, Gideon comes from a tiny village), but towards the end Gideon still can’t believe how much of Captain Trigger’s adventures are fictionalised despite many of the lies being revealed. Not that it really matters, because the story supports a more sensational view of the world. Gideon is deluded, but it’s his delusions that allow him to be a hero, as if this story were his own personal fantasy.

His greatest skill is memorising Captain Trigger’s adventures. Often, when he and his companions are in trouble, he thinks of a comparable situation from one of the stories, and employs whatever escape plan the characters used. And it works. Fiction serves reality, and because Gideon can quote or enact the fiction, because he’s so determined to live out his hero fantasy, the other characters start to look to him for guidance even though almost all of them are more experienced than he is.

And to be a true hero Gideon needs Maria – a suitably pathetic female character. The title suggests she is little more than a thing, and this is appropriate. When Gideon finds her, she’s being sexually abused by Crowe, a man who sees her as a mindless automaton. Crowe is a pervert, but you can’t blame him for not recognising Maria’s intelligence; she pretended to be mindless with him, never speaking because she “would not waste words on that scoundrel” who “would have merely heaped more insults upon me and enjoyed my pain yet further if he thought I […] could feel”. This sounds a bit thin to me, and as we later learn, Maria didn’t have to put up with Crowe at all – physically, she’s extremely strong. But somehow, she never knew this about herself so she’s in dire need of rescue.

When Gideon escapes with her, Crowe accuses him of theft. Gideon rightly points out that he’s liberating Maria, but Crowe has no reason to see it this way. Maria could easily prove her sentience at this moment and leave her abuser with a cutting remark, but she remains silent, which is her tendency for much of the novel. Entire scenes go by where Maria is present but never speaks. As one character states, “She’s a pretty little thing, but barely says a word and doesn’t even know her own name.”

And the plot treats her as a thing too. She was made using an artefact that the monsters seek for their secret plot, and until this is discovered she’s like a toy following Gideon around. Later she is abducted then rescued, but after her return no one asks her about her experience. It’s like they saved an artefact rather than a person. One character says to Gideon, “Hey, what’s a hero without a damsel in distress?” and that basically describes the rest of Maria’s role. Besides being an object within the plot, she’s there to be rescued by Gideon so he can be a proper hero, and to be beautiful so he can fall in love with her, which in turn serves to drive him to action.

I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about these two, but luckily they’re not really the main characters. The novel has a fantastic title but it’s a bit misleading because the narrative frequently switches its point of view between the many other major characters, particularly Bram Stoker and the misanthropic journalist Bent. It becomes a bit overwhelming at the end though, with frantic switches in POV to see various aspects of the action. I also have to add that Bent’s swearing gets extremely irritating. Not because he swears all the time – I don’t mind that – but because at some point he stops saying “fuck” and uses “eff!” and “effing” in almost every sentence. Drove me batshit.

A few remarks on world building. Steampunk Victorian England is always fun and I happily accept clockwork women who are almost indistinguishable from real women and dirigibles that can fly from one continent to another. There are some other issues that bugged me though. Because America’s revolution failed, France never gave them the Statue of Liberty. Instead they gave it to Britain “to celebrate the defeat of the Yankee rebels in 1775”. Which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. No one was liberated so the statue (known as “The Lady of Liberty”) is pointless. In addition, France had freed itself from its own tyrannical monarchs, so why would they honour the monarch whose empire prevented America from doing the same? Then, for no reason other than sheer hubris, the Taj Mahal has been dismantled and is being rebuilt in England. This gargantuan task acts as a display of Victoria’s indomitable power, but I find it both unnecessary and bizarre.

At times, the novel is critical of this kind of power, but its overall stance is ambiguous, if not supportive of the British Empire. While a few characters rail against its unethical practices, the majority work to preserve its world dominance. Gideon’s determination to become a hero becomes a rather unthinking endeavour to protect Queen and… Empire.

If this book really does “explore the nature of heroism” as Barnett claims, then it makes some discomfiting observations. Firstly there’s something deluded and deceptive about heroism. There are heroes performing heroic acts, but this always involves lies and fiction in some way. It also needs a weakling like Maria to be threatened so the hero has an opportunity to be heroic. And at the end of the day, what heroism does – or at least the sort of heroism found in this novel – is preserve an imperious status quo. On the bright side, a few things suggest the the second and third books will have a more rebellious kind of heroism, which could make them more interesting than this one.

There are things I liked. Bram Stoker was an enjoyable character, and I liked seeing him find inspiration for Dracula, only to learn the ‘truth’ about vampires and take an alternate path. While I criticised the way Fanshawe and Elizabeth are oversexed, I have to admit that I do like how sexy they are while also being skilful and powerful. And at times the absurdity of the plot really was just as fun as intended. If you enjoy this sort of old-fashioned, penny-dreadful, Indiana-Jonesy sort of caper, you could have a lot of fun with this. I think maybe it’s just a little too old-fashioned for me.

Review of Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo

Earth Thirst by Mark TeppoTitle: Earth Thirst
Series: The Arcadian Conflict #1
Author: Mark Teppo
8 January 2013
Night Shade Books
science fantasy
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

The blurb for Earth Thirst, with its emphasis on a dying Earth plagued by an overbreeding, over-consuming human race, and multinational corporations wrecking the environment in their blind pursuit of profit, led me to assume that this would be a dystopian novel set in the future. The scary thing – in reality, as much as in the novel – is that it’s a dystopian novel set in the present day. The things I mentioned from the blurb are true, of course, but when I read the word ‘dying’ I thought of future catastrophes to which we are no doubt headed.

In the novel, Mark Teppo gives the Earth a glimmer of hope by re-imagining vampires as eco-warriors. They’re still undead blood-drinkers, but their characteristics are explained according to their natural connection to the Earth: they sleep underground because the Earth heals and sustains them (they don’t even need to drink blood if they can bury themselves instead) and they dislike crossing the ocean, not only because it takes them far from the nourishing earth, but because salt water is dehydrating. They aren’t averse to sunlight so much as the pollution in the air. Although the term ‘vampire’ is used on a few occasions, they are better known as Arcadians, a reference to the utopian land of unspoiled wilderness where people live in harmony with nature. Their Arcadia is a never-seen homeland where they can return to “Mother’s embrace” by burying themselves in the rich soil at the roots of a great tree (who I think is Mother).

The story is narrated by Silas, a 33-century old Arcadian soldier who fought in the battle of Troy. When the novel opens, he and three other Arcadians are on some random mission aboard the ship of a militant environmental organisation that aims to stop whalers in the South Pacific.  The mission turns out to be a trap; when the Arcadians board a whaling ship, one of their team is seriously injured by a corrosive agent – a new anti-vampire weapon for which Silas and his companions provided unwitting test subjects.

Soon after, the environmentalist’s ship is captured and burned, and Silas is betrayed and left to die in the waters of the South Pacific. But he survives, and makes it to the mainland where he starts to investigate what happened. He tracks down and rescues Mere (Meredith) a journalist who was on the boat and with whom Silas has a vague history. Silas thinks of himself as a hard-headed soldier, and he hopes Mere can help him out with her planning and investigative skills. Together they uncover corporate conspiracies and travel from Australia to Easter Island and mainland Chile in the search for the truth, which undermines everything Silas blindly believes in.

I’m all for the eco-warrior theme behind this plot; some of my favourite stories involve humanity (or at most of it) getting wiped out in retaliation for what we’ve done to the planet. But Earth Thirst left me completely cold. It wasn’t a particularly bad novel, but it’s a novel I never managed to care about.

The vampire as eco-warrior sort of intrigued me for a moment, but I’m sorry to admit that I mostly just found it really lame. I’ve come to know vampires as monsters or monstrous figures of romance (which are lame in a different way) but there is so much vampire fiction on the market right now, I struggle to take any of it seriously unless, ironically, the book is meant to be funny. This new mythos didn’t work for me either. The corrosive agent that has been invented to take down the Arcadians is a weed killer that harms plants and vampires but not humans. When the Arcadians bury themselves, they become one with the Earth. They love organic fruit and vegetables. Silas might be a bad-ass, kick-ass vampire soldier, but he keeps whining about how much he wants to return to Mother and how he always serves her without question, even though she steals his memories to protect him.

Silas is also a dreadfully boring character. He keeps talking about all these things he’s feeling (most of it regarding Mother), but his emotions were no more than words to me. For someone who’s lived for 33 centuries, he really lacks depth. There is a series of flashbacks to his life before he became an Arcadian, when he was a seer (the kind who read the future in steaming animal innards) escaping Troy with Aeneas, but even this did nothing to make Silas’s character more interesting. Is it intentional, because Mother takes his memories (and with them his personality?) whenever he enfolds himself in her warm, nurturing embrace? Is it because he’s a soldier, whose purpose it is to fight and follow orders, not to think for himself? Not that those excuses would make me like the book more.

Mere is similarly dull as the investigator, love interest, or damsel in distress rather than an actual person. She and Silas have some kind of weird history that may or may not have involved romance, but did involve Silas saving her from a criminal who was busy cutting her throat. Now she has a scar and a crush on her rescuer, who decides to remain inexplicably chaste. I didn’t sense the slightest bit of chemistry between them anyway.

For equally inexplicable reasons, Silas sometimes withholds information from Mere, and slows the plot down. One the whole, I found it to be complex in a tedious kind of way, and there were times I lost my grasp of the details in the same way I would if I were reading legal documents. The plot didn’t really focus on the environment as much as I thought it would either – it’s more about corporate schemes and certain aspects of Arcadian society, with a few moments of almost-romance between Silas and Mere. The other ‘eco’ stories I’ve read, from boring to brilliant, generally got me all riled up about protecting the Earth, or deeply saddened at what we’ve done or could do to it, but this time the eco agenda seemed negligible. One of the few things I did enjoy were the plentiful action scenes (where Silas becomes mildly alluring), but as I read them I kept thinking how good they would look on film, rather than just appreciating what they offered on the page.

The best thing I can say is that Earth Thirst isn’t an especially bad book. I didn’t laugh at it, even when the vampires were eating organic melons or being defeated by weed killer and salt water. I didn’t yell at it for being ridiculous or badly written, because it’s not. But the fact that it barely evoked any reaction in me at all is bad enough; I will barely remember this novel by the time its sequel comes out.

December Round-Up

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’ve all had a great holiday season, and are continuing to enjoy it if you’re lucky 🙂

Without a festive season to enjoy (I really hope I’m not stuck in Addis for December again next year) I managed to get a fair bit of reading done.

December 1

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill was a reading challenge book I read with a friend. It was recommended to us as a particularly scary horror novel. I didn’t find it all that scary, but Joe Hill has clearly inherited some storytelling genes from his father Stephen King and I thought it was a good read overall. 7/10.

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches on the other hand, had very little in terms of story and rather a lot (often too much) of random meandering and weird sex. I think this is the kind of book you’re likely to enjoy only if you feel some kind of kinship with the narrator, a sixty-something bitter writer who drinks women’s blood and functions as a fictionalised (well, I assume) version of the author. While I admired a few things about this novel, it was mostly pretty boring.

Kraken by China Miéville was, to my unhappy surprise, a total disappointment. It is officially my least favourite of Miéville’s novels, and I’ve read all of them except Iron Council. I expected to finish it within a week, but I ended up taking more than two to slog through it. I was bored, easily distracted and, worst of all, I was at a loss to explain why I didn’t like it. It had all the kinds of things I usually love about Miéville’s novel, but this time it just didn’t work for me. Since I didn’t really have anything interesting to say, I decided not to review it for now. I’ll give it another chance some day, but for now it’s a 4/10.

December 2

The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (Tim Pratt) was a much more enjoyable metafictional mash-up of all sorts of entertaining genres – crime and mystery, steampunk, sci fi, and horror. It’s set in Victorian London, where the titular Affliction causes victims to change sex – a catastrophe for such a prim and prudish society. With lots of gender play and outlandish plot, it’s a really fun read. Review to follow soon.

Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo is an upcoming publication from Night Shade Books. Vampires are re-imagined as eco-warriors (for example, they sleep in the ground because the Earth nourishes and heals their bodies). They lament the damage that humanity has done to the Earth, and although the blurb gives the impression that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s set in the present day. Devious corporate plots that threaten the vampires make up the story, and it’s got loads of action, but I found it forgettably average.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen was my last read for 2012, and it was a good book to end the year, despite being a rather tragic one. In a disturbing global phenomenon, young children start killing their parents. The narrator, Hesketh [?] is investigating a series of workers around the world who sabotaged the companies they loved. Hesketh is very good at his job, partly because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, gifting him with an incredible talent for spotting patterns. He sees the connection between the saboteurs and the child murderers, but although this makes for a good story in itself, it’s Hesketh himself who really made this a great book for me. Jensen goes into the details of Hesketh’s psychology and daily life as someone with Asperger’s, and for me he became one of the most likeable and memorable characters I’ve come across this year. I recommend the book for that alone, but I’ll tell you what else I liked about it in my review.

The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeBefore The Uninvited I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis for a reading challenge. I don’t think I’ve read this since childhood, when I fell in love with it and wished very hard that my cupboard could also be a portal to another world. In my childish innocence I didn’t even notice the Christian allegory, which was so grotesquely obvious this time around. But although I dropped my rating from four stars to three, I still like this, and it still made me long for Turkish Delight. It might just be nostalgia working its magic, because I don’t really like such childish books anymore. 

January has gotten off to a slow start. I’m trying to catch up with my reviews of The Constantine Affliction, Earth Thirst and The Uninvited, so I haven’t finished any books yet. But I will have to get cracking – I’ve set myself a reading goal of 85 books for the year, and I’m planning to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, which means I’ve got some dauntingly long books ahead of me.

Up for Review: Earth Thirst

What is it with 8 January? So far I have five review copies of books that will be published on that day, and I’ve now banned myself from requesting any others (unless I really, really want them), because I’m already going to have to pull a masterful feat of organisation to get all these reviewed in time.

It’s been a while since I read anything about vampires, but I need a vampire book for a reading challenge, so Earth Thirst will most likely be one of the first 8 January novels that I read. It’ll be my first piece of fiction by Mark Teppo, although I already known his name from the Foreworld Saga.

Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo (Night Shade Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

The Earth is dying. Humanity–over-breeding, over-consuming—is destroying the very planet they call home. Multinational corporations despoil the environment, market genetically modified crops to control the food supply, and use their wealth and influence and private armies to crush anything, and anyone, that gets in the way of their profits. Nothing human can stop them.

But something unhuman might.

Once they did not fear the sun. Once they could breathe the air and sleep where they chose. But now they can rest only within the uncontaminated soil of Mother Earth—and the time has come for them to fight back against the ruthless corporations that threaten their immortal existence.

They are the last guardians of paradise, more than human but less than angels. They call themselves the Arcadians.

We know them as vampires. . .

Earth Thirst will be published on 8 January by Night Shade Books. It is the first novel in a series known as The Arcadian Conflict.

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About the author:
Mark Teppo suffers from a mild case of bibliomania, which serves him well in his on-going pursuit of a writing career. Fascinated with the mystical and the extra-ordinary, he channels this enthusiasm into fictional explorations of magic realism, urban fantasy, and surreal experimentation. Recently, he’s been building franchises and writing historical fiction. – from the author’s website
List of works on Goodreads