Sunday, April 3, 2011

Not Your Daughter's Vampires

Jasper Kent
446p., $17.00

I generally avoid new offerings in the vampire genre the way vampires avoid garlic.  Not that I don't like vampires.  I kinda do.  I just don't like what Stephanie Meyers and her imitators have made of them.  Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer my undead to be evil.  They can be alluring to some of the characters because that adds to the danger and suspense in the tale, but as long term or safe romantic interests, no thanks.

I picked this book up on the basis of the cover.  It's eye catching, and the blurb about the story being set against Napoleon's invasion of Russia piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.  This is one of the best books I've read in a while, and one of the best vampire books I've read in years.  The vampires are vile, evil, not to be trusted, and for the most part, not romantic.  They don't glitter in sunlight, they burst into flame, and they have no romantic appeal.  Just the opposite, in fact.  In other words, these are not your daughter's vampires.  These are the real thing.  So to speak.

The story is told from the point of Alexsei Danilov, a captain in the Russian cavalry and a member of a quartet of officers who undertake a number of covert missions.  The story opens late in the summer of 1812, when the Russian army is in full retreat before the invading French.  In a desperate attempt to slow them down, one of the four, Dmitry has invited a group of men from Wallachia to work with them behind the French lines.  Dmitry met these while fighting the Turks, although he is somewhat reticent to share any details.

The leader of the group is called Zmyeevich, which literally means "son of the serpent."   It's also the name of a villain in a Russian folk tale, one carried on a bench by twelve men.  Zmyeevich introduces the men with the names of the Twelve Apostles.  Then he leaves for home.  Of the men left, Iuda is the one with the most personality.  The rest are rather withdrawn and taciturn.  The four Russians nickname them the Oprichiniki, after Ivan the Terrible's personal guards and enforcers. 

The Russians each agree to take a group of three and slip behind the French lines to wreak what havoc they can.  It doesn't take long for Maks, the youngest of the group, and Alexsei to figure out something is wrong, very wrong.  It also doesn't take long for the Oprichniki to insist that they work alone.  And at night.

I'll not spoil all of the surprises, and there are plenty.  Obviously the Oprichniki are vampires, come to feed at Dmitry's invitation, protected by the general bloodshed and chaos of war.  This is a rich, complex novel, with suprising depth and philosophy in it.  Much is made of whether or not the end justifies the means, although Kent never has his characters state it in those terms.  There is a good deal of action and bloodshed, but at its core, this is a thinking man's vampire hunt.  And the philosophy isn't limited to just hunting and war.  It also extends to Alexsei's growing love for Dmonikiia, a prostitute he began frequenting because she was said to resemble Napoleon's wife.  Theirs is a complex relationship that deals with the fact that Alexsi has a wife and son in St. Petersburg that he still loves and doesn't want to leave.

Also, I wrote in a previous post that I found books in which the author summarizes large blocks of time passing to be dull.  There are portions of the novel in which the characters, and consequently the readers, have to wait for things to happen, whether it's someone showing up for a meeting or wounds healing or whatever.  Kent makes those passage interesting and gives the feel that things are happening, even when there isn't much in the way of physical action taking place.  I've got to go back and study how he does that.  So should some writers I could (but won't) name.

When we finally find out how Dmitry met the Oprichniki in Wallachia, I got the impression that Zmyeevich is really Dracula.  The fictional character Dracula is believed to to have been based on the Historical Vlad III, often called Vlad the Impaler in reference to his favorite means of execution.  It's interesting that Zmyeevich (which is a Russian name) is said to mean "son of the serpent" because Dracula can either mean Son of the Dragon or Son of the Devil.  The Devil is called both a serpent and a dragon in the Bible (Rev. 12:9).

Once Aleksei realizes that the Oprichniki are voordalaki, and that there is some truth to the stories his grandmother used to scare him with, things really get interesting.  He and the Oprichniki, led by Iuda, begin a deadly game of cat and mouse in which each side tries to be the hunter rather than the prey.  It's at this point that a lesser writer would let the book degenerate into a stake-fest.  Instead Kent pulls out all the stops in the area of creativity.  Just because the voordalaki are undead doesn't mean they can't scheme.  The scenes of vampire hunting, and being hunted by vampires, which often take place simultaneously, are some of the best I've ever read.  They're certainly some of the most clever.

All I will say about the ending is that there is more than one kind of victory (physical, moral, psychological), and just because you have one doesn't mean your opponent doesn't have one of the others.  The sequel (Thirteen Years Later) is out, and I'll be starting it as soon as I finish the novel I'm reading.  (Both of which I'll write about here.)  If you haven't read Twelve, you should. 

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