I have been chastised in the past – and rightly so – for saying ‘I don’t like horror’ and then trying to justify something as ‘not being real horror’ and therefore ok for me to like. I’ve only done this a few times, I think, and I have been super aware of not doing it since that particularly poor attitude was pointed out.
(And for me, horror and thriller are close enough that they go together. I don’t enjoy them, in general, for the same reason: I do not like being scared.)
So I do not like horror. This is, though, the second time I’ve read this book.
Many, many years ago, I went to visit my mum interstate because my beloved aunt had cancer, and we knew it was terminal. A day or so after I arrived, she died, and so I was fortunate to be able to stay for the funeral. This did mean, of course, that I didn’t have enough clothes for while I was there… and, oh so small in the pile of consequences, I didn’t have a book to read.
All of this context makes sense of the fact that I read this book. Despite the title, if I had read the blurb I would never have read this book ordinarily; I do not tend to enjoy vampire stories, and I don’t know much about the historical or literary Dracula, so there’s no appeal there. But my mum had it, and I was bored and needed distraction, and so I read it. And, yes, I enjoyed it. Enough so that when my mum was clearing out books, I took it with me – mostly for nostalgia.
I recently re-read it, and I enjoyed it again. It wasn’t as scary this time – not only because I knew what was coming (I had mostly forgotten) but also because I wasn’t reading it stupidly late at night…
I like the way it’s basically a series of found documents; done well, it’s a very clever and appealing style for me. The one thing that irritated me was the letters sounding far too literary, even for a bunch of academics. Anyway – there’s letters from various people, across time; and historical documents, and the occasional bit of narrative to join it together.
In some ways this is almost a Dirk Pitt or Indiana Jones version of history: following one improbably clue after another, happening to meet useful people and locating useful documents in unlikely places. Nonetheless I enjoy reading about historians in archives, doing real primary research!
It doesn’t make me interested in going to read more about vampires. In thinking about where this sits in horror/thriller territory, I would guess that some horror fans wouldn’t class it as horror – but since I’m not one, I’m not sure, and I’m also not au fait enough with the intricacies of the genre. The level of violence isn’t greater than other books I read; I suspect I managed to read it because the focus isn’t on scaring me out of my wits. Is this a “it’s horror but…” argument? maybe. Are there bits I found frightening? yep. The first time I read it, I read it late at night a couple times, and that was definitely a bad idea. Does this mean that I might enjoy other books in the horror or thriller genre? Maybe, but there are so many other books I want to read where I’m in little danger of increasing my fear of the dark, I probably won’t seek them out.
I had read that this was Butler’s vampire-cum-courtroom drama, and had also been given a hint that the opening section might make the reader be all WHOA WTH NOOOO. And it would have, so I’m glad I had a bit of context, which I’ll give below as a wee spoiler that might help some readers. This is, though, a Butler book, and in no way is this JUST a vampire or courtroom drama – not that either of those would have been bad. But the book also deals with racism, justice, and family in intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Also, unsurprisingly given Butler’s interest in anthropology, with vampire myth and ‘logical’ ways for vampires to actually exist.
So here’s the spoiler:
at the start, the focus character can’t remember anything and is eventually found walking along a road by a young man, in his early 20s. There’s immediately a sexual connection… and then we find out that our character is young. Like, looks ten or eleven.
And it’s squicky even with the anticipation, and I can’t help but wonder what was in Butler’s head: did she want to use this to challenge assumptions about appearance, or about black sexuality (because our character, Renee/Shori, is black), or… ? I don’t know. And it’s intriguing because it’s Butler and I trust her, BUT.
Anyway. There’s are similarities here between the Xenogenesis and Patternist novels. They deal with miscegenation and the ramifications of that – for the individual who is ‘mixed’ and for the society around them, seeing the benefits and drawbacks. They all deal with the Outsider in our midst, and that the notion of the Outsider takes on a multitude of forms within each of those books – sex, race, species, ability. And they also all present different ways of compromising, different motivations for compromise, and different consequences of it too. Butler isn’t interested in making life easy for her characters or for her readers. She wants us to THINK. She probably wants us to be horrified, too, and forced to think through that horror.
This won’t be my favourite Butler; I don’t think it’s quite as well written as some of her other work. Goodness the ideas and challenges are magnificent, though, and with so little published work from her I’m pretty happy to read whatever I can get my hands on.
This book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.
It’s fair to say that I’m not a huge vampire fan. I have read a few vampire books, I’ve seen a few vampire movies, but they’re not automatically my preference. So I acknowledge that I may not be the best judge of a vampire story. But anyway, here I go giving a review of one anyway.
Vampires, in this it’s-tomorrow story, have recently been acknowledged as existing in the real world. But unlike in Gail Carriger’s stories, they’re not making moves as a population group to be accepted by the general human population. In fact it’s not really clear what the purpose of the vampires is as a group. Which is fine, because that’s not Olson’s purpose in writing the story. Instead the story is focussed on two people: one an FBI agent who’s joining the newly created paranormal division, and the other… well, that would be telling.
Alex, the agent, is a ‘legacy agent’ – his mother was a big shot in the Bureau and he’s looking to live up to that. Well, that’s what I got from the start of the story, anyway. It was kind of ignored for the rest of the story, though, and while I can see that neither the story nor the man want people to keep harping on his past it also felt like a part of his character that just went nowhere. Overall, though, he was a competent agent and made some interesting choices.
The other character was more interesting, but I don’t want to say too much about her because that are some nice revelations that are part of the fun of the story.
This story is fast-moving and has some nice character moments. It’s clearly setting up for a sequence of stories about the way humanity reacts to those different from them, and also what consequences predators can have. I’m not sure at this stage whether I’d sign up for the rest of the series, simply because I have so many other books to read and I did not fall completely in love with any of the characters or the setting. But if you’re into vampire stories crossed with police procedural types, then this is probably just your thing.
I also want to note that I read this off the back of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, and that was a REALLY weird back to back experience.
Galactic Suburbia 121: Live From Melbourne
The Tea Salon edition in which we drink the Tabitha Blend in front of a live studio audience at Continuum XI and chat about feminist hashtags and vampire college girl romance.
Kathleen Jennings drew us while we talked!
Tehani storified some of the tweets from Writing While Female.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Emerging Writers’ Festival: Writing while Female (How To Be A Woman in Any Boys Club); Bitch Planet, Issues 1-2; Twelve Monkeys
Alex: Cranky Ladies of History; Carmilla (based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu Novella); Veronica Mars; Radio Lab podcast catch up
Tansy: Sons of Anarchy; A-Force by Marguerite Bennett & G.Willow Wilson – AND Carmilla!
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
1. I received this as a review copy from the publisher.
2. I have not read the previous two books in the trilogy. As well as impacting on my understanding of relationships, it’s possible this review will therefore have spoilers for the first two books.
Vampires are not, in general, my thing. Yes I have read an enjoyed a number of books that include vampires, but I do not go out of my way to read them. And I don’t especially like vampires for their own sake; I have enjoyed books they’re in when the story itself is great. (Cyborgs, though? I like cyborgs. Sometimes I don’t even care about the plot.) So The Book of Life is not inherently my thing – so if you love vampires, this review probably isn’t going to be useful to you.
The main characters are a witch/historian, Diana, and her vampire/scientist husband, Matthew. They’ve just got back to the 21st century from Elizabethan England and things are messy, not least because there’s not meant to be such mix-marriages and it’s compounded by Diana being pregnant. Also there’s a threat a brewing both to their family and to the supernatural species in general – which also includes daemons but they hardly feature at all in the book – AND they have to continue their search for the titular Book of Life for reasons that are never clearly explained. This involves Science, and History, and the occasional It’s Not Really a Significant Crime, right? Also getting humans involved in their work, travelling across Europe, family arguments, snark, more snark, the odd bit of sex and being a bit creepy.
Pretty standard stuff really.
I was dubious when I received this from the publisher, having not read the others. But I decided to give it a go and I was impressed by how well Harkness managed to basically catch me up. For those completing the trilogy this may well have been annoying info-dump, of course. There were random characters who appeared that had no impact on me but were clearly significant, and call-backs to previous events that I just shrugged past, but I certainly never felt like I was being left behind. So that’s a positive. As well, this is the epitome of page-turning-ness. I read the whole thing on a public holiday (580 pages). I didn’t give it the world’s greatest amount of attention (it’s not like reading Ann Leckie), but I also didn’t skip pages searching for dialogue (um, a few books I won’t mention). Thus, highly readable.
At times I almost forgot that this was meant to be a supernatural kinda book, and read it as a family drama – and it works exceptionally well as such. Every now and then there were odd, jarring notes (yes, I’ve been mourning for five centuries…), but really most of it works on ‘you can’t marry him’/’I just did’ – ‘what do you MEAN you’ve got a [insert unknown family member here]’ – ‘I hate you but I’ll work with you anyway’ interactions. Which can be quite fun when they’re written with enough snark. (Harkness could have added a little more snark, and I wouldn’t have minded.) In this way, it reminds me a bit of the Gail Carriger books – the Parasol Protectorate, while having awesome stuff about tech etc, boils down to relationships and how to negotiate them ((maybe everything does ultimately…).
Harkness touches on some interesting issues, too. I quite liked that Diana and Matthew at least in theory had jobs – they didn’t do much for their employers in this novel, too busy being Indiana Joneseque, but they DID use their professional skills. And Diana is absolutely expected to use hers, because why not? That was nice. Also that Diana keeps working right up til she hatches. And the discussion around why witches and vampires and daemons aren’t allowed to congregate, while a little heavy handed at times, was yet another example of exploring racial separation/ ‘purity’ issues. Aided by the appearance of Diana’s best friend Chris, ‘a black man from Alabama’.
Problems? I don’t like Matthew’s possessiveness. There’s at least one jab aimed at Twilight (‘no, I don’t sparkle’), and maybe others – I haven’t read it so I’m not sure. But I do know from reading some discussions that the possessiveness is present there, as it is here, and I don’t like it. Explain it by saying he’s got a great sense of smell if you like; I don’t care. Plus I am SO BORED by love triangles. Also, on the narrative, there are some holes and a few bits that are just left hanging. Which was annoying. And finally, not something that’s unique to this story but something I’m getting a little weary of: all of the main characters are exceptional. They’re world renowned in their fields. No one is just average. Which, sure, I guess it helps the narrative, but ‘oh I’ve read your work!’ got a bit eye-rolly.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised, because I really didn’t think – when I picked it up – that I’d end up finishing it, let alone in a day. If vampires and witches and love and mystery are your thing, don’t start here – I imagine you want to go back and start with A Discovery of Witches. But anyway, you can get The Book of Life from Fishpond (and Discovery of Witches too).
In which we pore over the Ditmar ballot, Alex makes Tansy squirm about her nominations, Alisa makes Alex say ‘sexytimes’ more than once, and we take on the hard-hitting issues of the day: plagiarism, pirates and mommy porn. You can get us from iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.
Shirley Jackson shortlist featuring Deborah B
Stephenie Meyer moves into film production and who can blame her?
MindMeld looks at great SF reads for teenage girls. But what KIND of teenage girls?
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Feed by Mira Grant
Alex: By Light Alone, Adam Roberts; Lathe of Heaven, Ursula le Guin; In the Mouth of the Whale, Paul McAuley; Among Others, Jo Walton;
Tansy: Womanthology, The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Feedback: Fifty Shades of Grey
COMPETITION – SHOWTIME – What’s your favourite vampire?
Day 27 – If a book contains ______, you will always read it!
Um. The name Alastair Reynolds? His name is enough to make me read an anthology, that’s for sure…
I don’t think I have a “will read”. I know full well that not all books with space ships in them appeal to me; I know that not all dragons, or elves, are going to be my thing; sadly, not even everything set in ancient Greece or Rome floats my boat.
It might be easier to say what I won’t read: vampires and werewolves. Although I make an exception for Gail Carriger.
We re-watched Underworld and Underworld Evolution the other day; I really do like those movies. It was quite funny in that for a few minutes there I had to make the effort to remember that we were watching this, and not Blade. Kate Beckinsdale is quite good; Scott Speedman is quite adorable. Quite adorable.
The thing that struck me this time was the atemporal and aspatial nature of the duo. Yes, there is the date at the start of Evolution, where you find out about Williams and Marcus; there is the whole, rather confused thing about how long the war has been going on, how long Selene has been a vampire, and exactly when Alexander Corvinus lived… but it doesn’t give a date for the movie, and it’s both sufficiently old-fashioned – the mansion, for example, and the very noir feel – as well as sufficiently futuristic – the clothes, guns, lights – that atemporal is the only way to describe it.
The cityscape of the first movie is unrecognisable: it could be European or American. Add in the rural landscape of the second, which is essentially mythical Transylvania (or your basic Eastern European setting), and it quite confuses the setting utterly – certainly more European than American, which is entertaining in contrast to the predominance of Yank accents. I liked this aspect; I think it worked better than trying to ground it somewhere more concretely. It sets the story loose, lets it play fast and loose with geography and makes it more dramatic.
I was also reminded of quite how attractive the movies are to watch. Lovely shadows, stark corners, gloomy backgrounds… delightful.
I finally saw Underworld the other night (J didn’t; he fell asleep). It was pretty good: wish I’d seen it on the big screen, because some of the sequences would have been awesome. It was heavily Matrix, I thought… that movie’s influence will be felt a long time. The premise of the story was interesting, too; I liked the couple of twists it had. I also thought the conclusion was quite brilliant. My one complaint was the stupid thing about Corvinus: I guess they had to have some explanation of why the human was important, but it was so convoluted that it was just pointless.
Also finally got J to see Monsters, Inc. This is such a clever film; any animated movie that includes out-takes gets my nod, really. And of course there’s the whole thing about the main monsters being James and Mike….