I have learned to appreciate Jay Kristoff’s works with the SF series Illuminae Files, written together with Amie Kaufman, and later on with his dark fantasy series The Nevernight Chronicles, so you can imagine my excitement at the publication of this new book, where I was sure he would successfully combine his writing skills with one of my favorite themes in the genre – vampires. This first volume in what promises to be an amazing trilogy proved to be everything I was expecting and more, and also a fascinating read that kept me turning the pages despite the darkness permeating it – on this subject I have to acknowledge that reading The Nevernight Chronicles some time ago was a good preparation for what awaited me in Empire of the Vampire, where such darkness does not come only from the story itself, but is an integral part of its background.
The premise of the saga is that, some thirty years prior to the beginning of the story, sunlight was obliterated by daysdeath, a mysterious obscuring of the skies that turned the world into a permanently crepuscular landscape, allowing the vampires to safely come out of their hiding places and start feeding on humans, constantly encroaching on their lands and moving ever onward in what looked like an unstoppable tide. The only true defense against vampires is represented by Silversaints, a holy order of warrior priests whose peculiar abilities allow them to battle the bloodsuckers on an almost even ground: Gabriel de Léon, the novel’s main character, is one of these Silversaints – actually the last of them – and when we meet him he’s the prisoner of a vampire queen who wants to chronicle his story before reaping her vengeance on him for all her brethren lost to his sword.
What follows is a tale told through several different timelines: the present, where Gabriel relates his story to a vampire chronicler; the far past, showing the Silversaint’s childhood and the dramatic events that brought him to the brotherhood; Gabriel’s formative years, as he learns his skills and encounters the people who most matter in his life; and the more recent times, when he embarks on a dangerous quest that might bring the end of the vampires’ reign of bloody terror. The various timelines are not presented in a linear way, with jumps from one to another that might look erratic (and here I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek shows of displeasure from the chronicler in his desire for a more orderly recounting) but instead create a sense of foreboding by hinting at some big tragedy that impacted Gabriel’s personality in a profound way.
De Léon is a brilliantly crafted character who breaks all the narrative “rules” required by the figure of the proverbial hero, since in his youth he’s both bold and reckless and tends to rush headlong into risky situations, more often than not making them worse; and in his maturity we can see him as cynical, world-weary and quite sarcastic of the mystique surrounding his person:
“You weep like a child over a dead horse, but shoot an innocent woman in the back and leave God-fearing men to be slaughtered by foulbloods. […] What kind of hero are you?”
“Who the f* told you I was a hero?”
The story of his life is also the story of an individual who, through heartache and dreadful loss, comes to a sort of found family that gives him a firm purpose in life, and a faith in the power for good he can wield agains the encroaching tide of the vampires, but it’s also the story of how certain events bring him to disillusionment and the loss of that all-encompassing faith, turning him into the “fallen hero” we meet at the start of the novel. The older Gabriel possesses all the characteristics of a man we might despise: he drinks, he swears profusely, he does not care about the collateral damage his actions might bring about, he’s an addict – and here I digress by saying that sanctum, the substance he’s in constant need of, is something strictly linked to his nature and not a drug of choice (for want of a better definition), but I’m wary of saying more because it’s one of those details best discovered by reading the book. And yet, despite all these nasty traits, Gabriel comes across as a very relatable character, because we are able to see all the agony and grief he suffers in the course of his life and in the end we develop a bond with this man and come to care deeply for him – not least because we see how family is important to him, both the one he was born into and the one(s) he builds in the course of his life, creating ties of love and brotherhood that help him keep his humanity burning bright.
Gabriel is not alone here, however, and he’s surrounded by a number of equally well-defined characters that enrich the story and offer different points of view for the reader on this world and the way it has changed from a “normal” one since daysdeath abruptly fell on it. And of course there are the vampires: besides being the blood-craving creatures we can expect from the myth created around them, Kristoff’s vampires are particularly cruel, even sadistic, all their previous humanity burned away by their virtual immortality and the need for blood. Still, these creatures go even beyond such already ruthless limits, often showing a perverse pleasure in inflicting demeaning kinds of torture on their slaves, in an outward show of the inner hideousness that at times even translates into their appearance.
Empire of the Vampire is a grim, bloody book where hope rarely makes its appearance, where the heavily filtered sunlight struggles to battle the darkness and the coldness of the land, and yet it’s also a compelling story where courage and love, faith and determination can sometimes bring a light and make it all more tolerable. It’s also a fascinating tale that will keep you turning the pages and leave you wanting for more once you reach the end of this first volume. And no darkness will banish my hope that the next one might not be too far down the road…