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!
For my second foray into the 2-month long event called Readers Imbibing Peril, 10th edition – RIP X for short – I’ve chosen to examine a very disturbing episode of Dr. Who, aired as the tenth episode of Season 3.
You can find more information on the event, running from September 1st to October 31st following the above link…
When I was walking my way through Dr. Who’s series on the recommendation of a friend, she warned me about this episode, telling me it was one of the scariest she had ever encountered. I must confess I did not completely believe her: after all I can watch The Walking Dead with impunity (as long as I’m not eating dinner at the same time, that is) and horror movies don’t make me afraid of the slightest noises I might hear in the house. So I sat in front of the tv with something resembling a jaded smile… one that did not last long.
Blink is indeed scary, mostly because it generates fright from one of the most unexpected corners of our mind, the one where the fears we can’t control usually dwell…
The story, in short: the Doctor and his assistant Martha Jones have been trapped in the past (1969 to be precise) without the Tardis, and through the “easter eggs” of a series of DVDs they come in contact with a young woman, Sally Sparrow, to enlist her help in preventing a group of alien creatures, masquerading as stone angels, from taking possession of the Tardis itself. The Weeping Angels, described by the Doctor as “the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life-form ever produced”, send their victims into the past, feeding on the potential energy of the life they could have lived in their own time. These creatures look like stone statues depicting angels, and are virtually unmoving when looked at directly, but once the prospective victims take their eyes away (or blink, hence the Doctor’s repeated warning about NOT doing it) they move fast, closing in on the target and transforming from innocuous-looking angels into demonic figures with fangs that resemble a vampire’s.
What makes these creatures so terrifying is their ability to move when you’re not looking: the horror genre thrives on the concept of horrible things that go bump into the darkness, and every time we see some character enter a dark room we know something ghastly is going to happen. But with the Angels the characters and the viewers are able to see them, in full daylight – it’s NOT seeing them, not watching them closely that allows them to exercise their peculiar brand of evil. Total concentration is required, the slightest distraction – even one as fleeting as a blink – can bring them close to you, close enough to touch you and send you back into the past.
Unlike other “monsters” the Angels don’t kill or devour you, they just displace you in time – and the two people close to Sally that undergo this fate don’t fare so badly, finding a way to live a long and fulfilling life even in a time that is not their own, which in a sense should give the viewer a measure of comfort. What’s terrifying here is the notion of being forcibly torn from the familiar, from the net of human contact and relationships we all have built around us; of being sent, virtually naked, into the unknown. We are not shown the last, frightening instants before the Angels pounce, and this is what makes their actions more dreadful: those brief seconds are left to our imagination, the meanest and scariest screenwriter of the lot…
What’s worse is that while the end of the episode seems to re-establish some sort of order, with the Doctor and Martha free once more to roam through time and everyone else settled, the last frames play on our fears once more: the Doctor’s warning is repeated over and over again, as a sequence of images of stone statues – the same we see in plazas or on buildings every day – rolls in front of our eyes. Whatever measure of comfort and newfound safety the viewers might have achieved is shattered by the awareness that the danger lurks around us. And that we’d better NOT BLINK.
A fascinating blend of history and fiction, Mayhem takes place in London toward the end of the 19th Century, at the time when the killings attributed to Jack the Ripper crossed over with another series of gruesome crimes labelled “The Torso Murders”, so called because the killer decapitated his victims and threw their dismembered remains in the Thames.
Dr. Thomas Bond, the surgeon working for the police much as a modern crime analyst would, and (as I learned) a real-life figure, is the main point-of-view character, the only one whose thoughts are relayed in first person: I found this narrative choice both peculiar and compelling, since Dr. Bond is not the perfect, cool-minded scientist one could expect to find in this kind of story, not by a long shot. He is delightfully human, fallible and flawed, a lonely man suffering from doubts about his own ability to face the challenge posed by this mysterious killer, and a man who feels the terrible burden of the crime scenes his work brings him to witness.
Mainly because of this, he’s prey to a constant background of anxiety that in turn generates insomnia, his constant companion in the past few months before the start of the novel: in an attempt to stave off both symptoms, Bond doses himself with laudanum and opium, indulging the latter (and growing) addiction in the most disreputable dens of London’s seedy areas. One of the main themes of the story is indeed Dr. Bond’s slow descent into hell, hammered on one side by the helplessness hanging over him and his colleagues as they remain impotent spectators of the continued carnage, and on the other by the progressive lack of necessary lucidity and coldness as the drugs and increasing fatigue start to take their toll.
Yet, it’s through his visits to opium dens that he catches sight of a peculiar figure that will have unexpected developments on the hunt for the Torso Murderer, and the creation of a strange, uneasy alliance with equally strange people who have been touched, each in his own way, by the evil that’s spreading through London. This is the point where Mayhem departs from the fictionalization of historical events and takes a decided supernatural turn, because there is much more than “simple” human wickedness behind the horrifying chain of murders.
The mysterious priest hunting for the ancient evil and poor Aaron Kozminski (a Polish refugee from pogroms) are two sides of the same equation, the hunter and the haunted: the former giving chase all over Europe to the dreadful Upir, the creature hiding in rivers, that possesses its unfortunate victims feeding on the horror it forces them to unleash; the latter able to feel the tide of wickedness and being helpless to do anything about it, even to prevent the resulting madness from infecting his mind. If the priest remains something of a cypher, his scant revelations adding to the enigma rather than shedding some light on it, Aaron is a more definite figure, a helpless victim of his own ability to see glimpses of the future and to feel the encroaching evil.
Dr. Bond finds himself in the middle of this peculiar dynamic, first dismissing and then accepting the priest’s information on the Upir, but never fully understanding or trusting the man’s motivations or his character, while he shows a measure of compassion for Aaron, despite the huge social and character differences, a sort of bonding born out of both men’s isolation: where Bond feels distant from his friends and co-workers because of his secret addiction and, later, for the burden of secrets tied to his mission, Aaron is disconnect from everyone, including his own family, by the intangible taint of madness and the far more tangible layers of grime he’s covered with, since he refuses to touch water, the Upir‘s natural sanctuary.
The novel develops the story from many angles, advancing it through the p.o.v. of secondary or lesser characters as well, the most poignant being the killer’s victims’: all of them women of the lower classes forced by circumstances to sell themselves on the streets, therefore becoming easy prey for the Upir‘s host, who is able to attract them with the illusory lure of money, food, or momentary comfort from their hardships. I found that these glimpses into the times’ social structure added to the novel’s background in an interesting way, as did the excerpts from newspapers’ reports: they gave the story a realistic flavor that counterbalanced the supernatural elements quite well.
What’s more important is that this story, despite the core themes, the escalating tension and the pervasive horror, never needs to resort to gory details to engage the reader’s attention or reactions, on the contrary the dread comes rather from the soul, from the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the horrific, something that the author manages with effortless skill.
I’m certain that the second book in this series, again centered on the figure of Dr. Bond, will be equally compelling.
This is my first “offering” for READERS IMBIBING PERIL X, an event running from September 1st to October 31st, 2015. Follow the link to learn more!
This image is the property of Abigail Larson
Thanks to Lynn’s Book Blog I discovered a fascinating event running from September 1st to October 31st: it’s the tenth anniversary of Readers Imbibing Peril (or R.I.P. X). Created by Carl V. Anderson from Stainless Steel Droppings, will be run this year by the Estella Society, and HERE you can find all the details your heart desires.
In short, it will mean sharing thoughts on books (or movies, or tv) that fall into these categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror and Supernatural – and, I believe, anything that mixes and matches them or falls into the shady corners between the various genres, who are noted for the abundance of said corners. The intriguing words “what if…?” are indeed the catalyst for the most interesting narrative experiments, and I’m certain that I will discover many fascinating themes in the course of this event.
My choice has fallen on PERIL THE SECOND, where I will read and review two books (Tainted Blood by M.L. Brennan, and Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough) and PERIL ON THE SCREEN, where I will revisit one of the most dark, moody and above all scary episodes of Dr. Who, Blink.
Let’s open that eerily creaking door and… step into peril! Who will dare to follow? 😈