Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Taint in the Blood

I picked up this one from Misanthrope, who bought it and got a few chapters in before giving it up and sending it my way. Getting to the end was worth it, but only barely.



Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: On the rambly side of average (502 pages)
Publication: May 4, 2010 from Roc
Premise: Adrian Brézé has spent years trying to forget his nature as one of the Shadowspawn, living as a mortal and refusing to continue the fight against his own kind. But when his mortal lover, Ellen, grows tired of his secrets and leaves him, she's kidnapped by Adrienne, who embraces her nature as a Shadowspawn. Adrian has to walk back toward his old life if he wants to try to keep the world, let alone Ellen, safe.
Warnings: rape, sexual assault, emotional abuse, mass murder of civilians
Recommendation: If you're absolutely stuck for new takes on vampires or werewolves, A Taint in the Blood has some intriguing ideas about how Shadowspawn powers work, but it's almost painful to read in places from the sheer melodrama.

There's some spoiler-laden discussion of the rape and abuse down in the red pen section, so steer clear if you're planning to read this and would like to be surprised. 

What makes this one fresh and clever: 

In A Taint in the Blood, S.M. Stirling streamlines several mythological traditions into the Shadowspawn while adding deft touches his own. These creatures were worshiped as gods and feared as demons in centuries past, but now they live among humans and conceal their identities while manipulating the affairs of the world. Like vampires, they need to feed on the blood of living humans. The Shadowspawn find that blood more delicious when it comes bundled with strong emotions, whether ecstasy or terror, and a compound they emit during feeding makes humans addicted to the experience after only a few feedings. Like werewolves, they change their shape, but they do so on their own terms and can take the form of any creature whose DNA they have taken into themselves. This comes in for some quite intriguing moments when some of the lead characters take on the form of creatures that went extinct centuries ago based on DNA recovered from fossils. Such forms are chosen for their convenience in combat, but also demonstrate the intelligence and creativity of some of the most dangerous people on both sides.

The Shadowspawn go beyond vampire and werewolf powers to magic that relies on both a demonic language and manipulating probabilities. If there is even a small chance of something happening, like a gun misfiring at a crucial moment, a powerful Shadowspawn can ensure that that probability is the one that occurs in reality. Using the magic is difficult, since it's keyed to learning the twisted language of Mhaboraghast well enough to achieve an effect, also called Wreaking, and also on having enough active or present homo nocturnus genes to access that power. People with enough of those genes tend to fall into the Shadowspawn mold of sadistic sociopaths who aren't good at working together, and thus their entire species, to some extent, runs on distrust. It seems odd at first, and can be complicated in places, but leads to some incredible scenes. Adrienne, the lead villain, causes a gun pointed directly at her head to misfire and then casually beats her attacker with a riding crop because she knows that things are going to go her way. That sort of arrogance is normally rooted in madness or well-laid mundane plans, but Adrienne can literally warp the fabric of the next moment of reality, and that adds an edge to both her character and the chilling sense of a world trapped by this sort of power.

Other Shadowspawn can use those gifts as well, of course, but despite Adrienne Brézé's flaws (see the next section), she does have some brilliant high spots. She's unquestionably a dangerous sociopath who's concerned mainly with her own pleasure, but that doesn't make her rash or impulsive. It's easy to forget that her twin brother Adrian is over fifty when his emotions run so close to the surface, but Adrienne rules with an appreciation for the long game and is careful with what's hers, even cultivating an entire town to fit her desires. The people there know what she is but continue to stay; the Shadowspawn neither feed on children nor stint on security, so ordinary people are happy to live and raise families in one of the safest places in the country. These mortal accomplices are called renfields, in a dark-humored nod to Stoker's Dracula, and the humans who are used for sex and feeding are lucies.

This town, Rancho Sanche Sagrado, is by far the most chilling aspect of the book. There's one note-perfect scene of teenage girls fussing over when they'll get to be initiated in a ceremony where Adrienne will have a sip of their blood and they'll swear loyalty to her. Older women in the same room are reminiscing about how tame it is these days, because the former master and mistress would often deflower attractive young people during the ceremony in addition to drinking their blood. It manages to strike the same tone as "when I was your age, we had to walk to school in the snow," with the older generation chatting about their experiences and seeing them as more difficult but also more significant in some ways. There are other wonderful flashes, like when one lucy (who until that point has seemed to be deluded and happy with her role as a food source despite the pain she suffers) explains that she knows that Adrienne hurts her, but that her children are growing up safer and happier than they ever would have if they'd continued having to live on the road with no money. The town is dangerous for the lucies and outsiders who are killed, but the renfields seem either resigned to their lot (as in the case of one doctor who serves because the Shadowspawn cured her brain cancer) or proud to be part of something unique. Stirling makes the situation frighteningly easy to picture, such that a world ruled by Shadowspawn feels like more of a realistic threat than vampires do almost anywhere else in the genre.

The red pen: 

It needs saying: what sort of terrible parents name their twins Adrian and Adrienne? These parents are named Jules and Julianne, which only raises more questions. Were these parents siblings as well? Are the risks of inbreeding for some reason not a problem for Shadowspawn?

The main characters on the morally good side of this book haven't made an appearance so far because they are, in large part, the problem. Adrian Brézé is apparently the one good Shadowspawn in all the world, capable of restraining his darker urges and seeing humans as worthwhile equals instead of food or servants. The whole "one good vampire" bit has been done to death and back so many times that there's a highway between this trope and the afterlife, but it can still be done well if it's justified; unfortunately, this simply isn't. The reader is never told why the two twins turned out so differently-- Adrienne was ruthless enough to feed on her brother even when they were children, but Adrian was somehow recruited by the Brotherhood fighting the Shadowspawn as a teenager and turned out well, because....reasons? There's no way to tell. Upbringing might make some measure of difference, but even fairly young Shadowspawn show early signs of their older selves, calling their dolls lucies and daubing fake blood on their neck. Adrian is just good, for reasons that are never fully explained, and watching him wallow in angst is beyond dull. 

This sort of struggle could be intriguing, especially since Adrian used to fight his own kind but then stopped because he saw it as a losing battle-- he even took Ellen as a human lover who was into light BDSM, and kept himself from feeding on her or manipulating her during the course of their relationship. When she's snatched away, he spends quite a lot of time brooding and beating himself up instead of directing his fury where it belongs. There's an element of realism to that, but it ca also feel like the reaction of a melodramatic teenager instead of an adult. Adrian has to struggle to stay good, drinking stale blood from the Red Cross instead of sliding down the slope of feeding on living and unwilling people, but the constant harping on how noble and tragic and lonely he is makes it all too easy to root for Adrienne simply because she's interesting, even while she's abusing and murdering people.

In coming to Ellen Tarnowski, we come to the largest issue with this book. She's a masochist and has submissive tendencies that she'd explored with Adrian, which makes her juicier prey for Adrienne, who for some reason has been The One Sexual Sadist To Rule Them All for decades and never sampled a masochist before. Stirling, to his credit, portrays Ellen as being very clear on the difference between willing power play and violation, but Ellen simply doesn't seem that bothered by the abuse a lot of the time. She says, over and over again, that she hates Adrienne (who always responds with some variant of "ooh, sexy, I love that you hate me"), but there's little discussion of the trauma of being serially raped by a kidnapper, which is all the more unforgivable given that Ellen was abused as a child. Not every book can or should be a character study piece about the aftermath of terrible experiences, but Ellen seems upset until Adrian manages to use an ill-explained bond between them to communicate with her and reassure her in dreams. Many Shadowspawn can read surface thoughts, and Adrienne is quite gifted at that, so Adrian uses a Wreaking to make sure that her conscious mind forgets their meetings when she wakes up. This means that Ellen feels a reassurance and happiness that she can't explain, somewhat safe in the knowledge that Adrian is trying to rescue her and truly loves her, while her waking mind knows only that she's trapped in with her rapist. 

This could have been an incredibly fascinating dynamic, and one that pushed Ellen harder as a character. She's been abused in the past and raped in the present, Adrian is nowhere to be found when she's a captive because she loved him, and Adrienne is hurting her and making her addicted to being fed on....but there's a source of happiness that she can't name or identify. All of this while Adrienne is playing on a long-held insecurity that she deserves to be treated badly, and even wants to be on some level. That is the stuff of insanity and nightmares, but instead it's confined to Adrienne going "well, you're happier than you should be, that's weird" once in a while instead of getting suspicious and giving Ellen's mind a close magical examination to see what's going on in there. It ends up making Ellen seem ill-defined and Adrienne seem arrogant to the point of overconfidence, which weakens both of them.

At any rate, Ellen wakes in these dreams with Adrian, and they have honest conversations about what he is and why he lied to her. There's not enough depth to these scenes, and before long they're talking seriously about marriage and Ellen is demanding that Adrian feed on her because it's a different experience with love involved, despite the very real risk of addiction, or of Adrian losing control for a moment and accidentally killing her. It's possible to see that one element as a way of reclaiming her own experiences, but then Ellen devolves into speeches about how Adrian is so good because he could easily be evil, and clearly he loves her because he didn't feed on her while they were dating, and it's just....deeply, deeply obnoxious to read. He didn't feed on her because he's chosen to live as a good person with human ethics: living up to that decision means that he's a tolerable person instead of a monster like the rest of the Shadowspawn, not that he's a saint who deserves a cookie. Ellen gets the chance to strike back at Adrienne near the end, shouts a lot, and then she and Adrian are on their honeymoon, which ought to be at least slightly unsettling given that Adrienne shifted into her brother's form to rape his former lover. That is fodder for decades of therapy, but it's never even discussed, only mentioned on less than a page in the middle of other things.

There are lots of smaller annoyances with the book: for one, the overabundance of what I can only call food porn. The Shadowspawn enjoy fine dining and experience the different emotional tinges in human blood as flavors, and Adrienne frequently spends paragraphs on end explaining exactly how some variety of Ellen's trauma resembles exotic mushrooms or steak or dessert. All this is to say one thing: I have not seen this many ridiculously detailed and unnecessary descriptions of food since the big feasts in Brian Jacques's Redwall books. This clumps together with the shopping expeditions and descriptions of fashionable clothes, not to mention all the talk about fine decorating and beautiful people. Description can add depth and texture to a story, but here it mainly serves to clog the narrative.

There may not be an easy way to say this without sounding callous, but the reviews going on about this book isn't for the faint of heart because it's so dark and graphic feel off the mark-- if anything, the story doesn't go quite far enough. Stirling goes for an S&M-tinged darkness with glamour everywhere, skating on the surface without looking at lucies who are already broken from insanity, or delving into the reality of a world made into slaves if some of the more terrifying Shadowspawn plots succeed. To be frank, there's darkness aplenty in this genre, and it takes a deeper commitment to the terrifying to actually get shock value or a visceral reaction. Stirling might have done better to either back off on the twisted sexual psychology, the better to spend time on the worldbuilding and Shadowspawn indifference to the value of life, or to crank it up to eleven and slim down the food and shopping to dive into the sick terror of the story without holding back-- in trying to hit both ends of that spectrum, it ends up feeling unfocused.

On the whole, this book shines with great ideas: a power behind all the world's thrones that feels somewhat convincing, a darkly elegant magic system, and a society bent around seeing human food sources as just one more normal part of everyone's day. It unfortunately also wallows in melodrama and some disturbingly lazy reactions to rape, emotional abuse, and trauma-- there are just enough good moments to show that Stirling knows how to address the topic with grace, but so many bad ones that A Taint in the Shadows is a real struggle to read in places.

Prospects: This is the first novel of the Shadowspawn. The second, The Council of Shadows, came out last year. The third and final volume in the trilogy, Shadows of Falling Night, comes out in May of this year.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The vampires in Robin McKinley's Sunshine don't have such a diverse power set, but the sense that they're going to take over the world within a century is similarly hopeless, and they seem viscerally terrifying without a hint of the normal glamour that dominates in this genre. 

1 comment:

  1. You have some good points there about Ellen's reaction to her situation.

    There's a structural problem, though. She -has- to be unusually able to cope, or the book has to focus on essentially her therapy, rather than her -fight-.

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