I must begin my review with a confession: before tackling this book I waited until the next one was published as a sort of… security mechanism, for want of a better definition. This is the extent of my involvement with this series, one that consistently gets better with each fresh installment: the narrative arc and the characters are expanded with a steady, fascinating evolution that is nothing short of addictive.
Tainted Blood starts with a dark note: Bhumika, Chivalry Scott’s latest wife, has finally succumbed to the physical ravages of being her husband’s main blood source, so that Chivalry is both in mourning and in no shape to attend to family matters. When a murder in the werebear community calls for Scott intervention, Fortitude is sent to deal with the matter, for once with no emotional or practical support from his brother.
This time, however, the investigation itself remains somewhat in the background, because the story is more focused on the inevitable changes that have been brewing since book 1 and that here are visibly gathering speed. Fortitude’s transition to full vampire-hood is now a fact he seems to accept more easily: improved strength, sense of smell, sight and hearing are all positive aspects of this progression, and more than once he notices these changes with something approaching pleasure. Unfortunately the other side of the coin is quite terrifying, and Fort must deal with the awareness that shortly he will not have the option of “saying no” anymore: Bhumika’s death and Chivalry’s search for a new wife/victim are forcing him to face the stark reality of what being a full vampire means.
There is a chilling scene in which Fort’s true nature asserts itself for the first time: the loss of control, observed with a sort of interested detachment, and the animalistic pleasure in giving way to such compulsions, make for a nerve-wracking moment, because we are forced to understand, with absolute certainty, that this is the end of innocence, that Fort cannot hope to sidestep his nature any longer.
Even more unsettling is the Scotts’ reaction to the event, or rather Prudence’s: she takes on the role of mentor and exhibits a very uncharacteristic softness towards Fortitude, an attitude that compels him to ask her why. The reply is such that my assessment of Prudence changed once again – and I suspect it will not be for the last time: she tells him that “You are my brother. Whether I hate or love you, that fact will never change, and what ties us together can be broken only by death.” Family ties, blood ties, are much more important than any interpersonal dynamics, and the fact that Fort is now transitioning into a full-fledged member of the family – to which Prudence gives her all, no matter what is required of her – brings her to change the way she relates to him. What’s equally fascinating – and not a little worrisome – is the new distance I perceived from Chivalry: if at the beginning of the book it could have been ascribed to his bereavement and search for the next wife, it’s still there at the end, compounded by a hint of judgmental antagonism that was never there before. It made me wonder if the balance between the siblings will not be subject to further adjustments.
Of course, Prudence’s brief moment of sisterly almost-affection is immediately counterbalanced by a practical “lesson” on how to feed: the cold ruthlessness she employs with her victim, the lack of any moral consideration, bring back the “old” Prudence, but at the same time they outline Fort’s limited choices in his future as a full vampire. There is a clinical efficiency in the demonstration – enhanced by the sterile environment of Prudence’s kitchen – that is not cruel but merely… pragmatic: only Prudence would have been able to carry it off in such a starkly effective way.
It’s impossible not to empathize with Fort as he contemplates the bleak alternatives in front of him: cultivate a “herd” of willing subjects, like his mother, so he can minimize the damage, even though this requires time and careful planning; take wives like Chivalry, with the awareness that they will sicken and die; feed from chosen victims he will have to dispose of before any signs of his activities raise suspicions, as Prudence does. He spends a sleepless night dealing with the harsh math of these choices, battling with the understanding that his survival will entail the destruction of other lives: not surprisingly it’s Suzume who helps him focus on what he wants, and find a different, personal way to minimize the impact of his needs.
Suzume – who, in my opinion, is the absolute best creation in these novels – seems the only unchanging fixture in this series: her energy, straightforwardness, clarity of vision, her potential for wicked mischievousness are a constant in Fortitude’s life, and yet in her apparent lack of outward change Suzume is a force for transformation. It’s through her deceptively offhand remarks that Fort finds the path he might travel, just as her humorous comments more often that not help him achieve unexpected conclusions. Suzume’s very nature as shapeshifter is indeed a catalyst for changes, as her unpredictability is the energy that carries those changes to the next level – as we see in a delightfully surprising development….
Transformation and family are the main themes in this novel, and they meld in a single entity when applied to the Scotts: Madeleine’s failing health, due to her extreme old age, has already affected some of the family’s dynamics but the greater impact of the situation – and of her impending death – is on the political side of the Scott “empire”. There are already some maneuvers hinting at a possible shift in power and alliances that will certainly evolve in unforeseeable directions and that are somehow mirrored in the power struggle related to the assassination in the werebears community: only time (and the next books!) will show how these clues will come to fruition. I know for certain, however, that they will be carried out with the flawless blend and drama and humor and with the amusing pop-culture references I’ve come to expect and are one of the trademarks of this brilliant series.
This is my last “offering” for R.I.P. X – Readers Imbibing Peril, a fascinating event running from September 1st to October 31st: created by Carl V. Anderson from Stainless Steel Droppings, will be run this year by the Estella Society – follow the link to know everything about it!