Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Nymphos of Rocky Flats

I'll be honest, I picked up this one because the title caught my eye and I couldn't resist my curiosity. Unfortunately, the title is a serious contender for the best aspect of the book. 

Rating: 1.5 stars
Length: On the longish side of average (354 pages)
Publication: March 14, 2006 from Harper Voyager
Premise: Felix Gomez entered Operation Iraqi Freedom as a solider and left as an embittered vampire. Now he's back in the USA, using his unique skills to solve mysteries while holding himself apart from other vampires by refusing to drink human blood. When an old friend from the Department of Energy asks him to investigate an outbreak of nymphomania, he finds himself up against vampire hunters....and other forces he doesn't understand.
Warnings: early graphic (but accidental) killing of civilians, consent issues, threatened sexual assault
Recommendation: If you really have a soft spot for conspiracy theories and government agencies, this one might be fun, but it falls a little too flat for a thumbs-up.

There's a bit of spoiler-ranting down in the red pen section, so steer away from that if you're planning to read the book yourself.

What makes this one almost take off: 

Mario Acevedo isn't pursuing a premise that crops up every day: Felix Gomez was an ordinary soldier until the day his squad accidentally shot an Iraqi civilian family, including a young girl who died more slowly. He gets separated from the others during an attack and encounters a vampire, who hears his wish to be punished for his crime and turns him into one of the undead to prolong that suffering. The book begins with Felix coming into Rocky Flats to run an investigation for an old friend: the plant has been plagued with an outbreak of uncontrollable nymphomania, and it can't continue to function with half its employees incapacitated. Felix is somewhat reluctant, but the money is good and he anticipates an easy job. He's cocky largely because of his vampire powers, which include a Spiderman-esque danger sense, the ability to see auras spike and move with strong emotion, and hypnotic control that he can induce with only an instant of eye contact. Most of these, and his others, are conventional, but Acevedo makes good use of the auras and hypnotism-- the way different subjects respond to Felix's powers can tell a lot about whether they're clued into the supernatural scene or under the influence of something completely outside earthly experience. 

The larger supernatural world feels promising, especially for later volumes. Felix is advised during his investigation by the Arnaeum, the secret international vampire network. The identity of individual members is secret, but they pass messages on through trusted agents and have a vested interest in keeping the existence of vampires secret from mortals, especially the government. Humans as a whole might panic, but government agencies would be only too happy to whisk a specimen off to a lab. Wendy Teagarden, a dryad, provides her own angle on supernatural life-- she's somewhat under the command of the Arnaeum, for reasons that are unclear, but she has an (unsurprisingly) natural affinity for plants and lust, as well as the ability to brew magic potions that do everything from inducing temporary love to literally turning people into frogs. She's a powerful force in her own right and provides insight into auras and the supernatural at large that Felix can't get from other vampires. The flavor of the protagonist being part of a larger world and not understanding even half of it yet is generally vital to a long-running fantasy series, and it's quite strong here.

Several of the other minor characters really shine. Bob Carcano, one of Felix's fellow vampires, is delightful; he chats about what foods mix best with blood and gossips cheerfully about other vampires. He's somehow a touch more human than most of the rest, though that's not to be mistaken for weakness: he urges Felix to drink human blood and accept his nature before his powers start fading away with the weaker nourishment of only animal blood. They meet in person at the beginning of the book after an internet correspondence, but they have the air of being old friends, all the more so because Felix looks to Bob as a mentor. There are also brilliant flashes from other characters, even if only for a page or two: Acevedo excels at using a few small details, or a snatch of conversation, to paint a full picture of a paranoid bureaucrat still stuck in the Cold War or a vampire who dotes over his blood chalices like a demented parent. It doesn't work for every minor character-- one nymphomaniac's speech about how men fear the female sex drive is cringe-inducingly terrible-- but when it works it can drive an entire section forward.

The red pen: 

Felix himself is honestly the largest problem with this book. The brooding vampire who feels trapped by his own nature isn't precisely new, but it's done well before in places beyond counting and Felix doesn't have the moral conviction to really carry this off. His sorrow over being involved in a war he can't support and killing an innocent family is powerful, but he's morally slimy about the little things. For example, when he's flirting with Wendy, he mentions that he hasn't had any problem getting sex since he got home because a flash of his uncovered vampire eyes can generate enough lust "to get into a vagina." It's unclear whether it's occurred to the character, or the author for that matter, that this is maybe half a step above slipping your date a roofie because seduction is just too much effort. And for someone who's so concerned about the human lives he took directly, he's quite unconcerned about the people who get shot by snipers or staked as a direct result of his actions and involvement in their lives. They are just as dead, and for less reason than the fear for his life that prompted the killing of civilians, but for some reason that doesn't seem to matter. 

All of this would be....not excusable, but more in the nature of nuanced character development if Felix was at least smart, but he doesn't even have a basic grasp of pattern recognition. When he interrogates the fist victim of the nymphomania, she breaks halfway out of his vampire hypnosis and tries to have sex with him-- her aura turns yellow, which he's never seen a red human aura do before, and he barely manages to reassert control and leave in time. His cunning plan of attack for the next two interview subjects is to do exactly the same thing. And all the while, he's having long internal monologues about how powerful he feels because he can dominate even strong-willed humans with his power, and they're all such easy victims, and so on. It's dead tiresome and has the effect of making him seem like a smug idiot who can't back up his own strength because his powers are fading and can't live up to any ethical standards because he's decided that not drinking human blood is the central component of goodness.

That cockiness spreads outward from Felix's character and into the plot. He sits in front of a subject for hypnotic interrogation and spends a paragraph recapping everything he's going to ask and basking in the glory of being about to receive answers, going so far as to think "case closed." This might make sense if the case was simple, or his first one such that he didn't understand the difficulties, but the whole mess already involved red mercury and Area 51, not to mention him almost getting shot by two different groups of people he can't fully identify. He stays confident for far too long and seems mentally stagnant; he goes around and around about how his powers are fading because he won't drink human blood, but he can't just decide to drink it because he's still guilty and feels unforgiven for the sin of killing innocents. This is powerful as a concept, but it just sits there, never exploring whether he could drink willingly donated blood, or expired pouches from the blood bank that would only be discarded anyway, and some sort of pressure on his resolve is necessary when his powers are needed to save lives, or just after the failure of that power gets someone killed. Unfortunately, the only real challenge to his decision for most of the book is people nagging him a little.

Such a flat character struggle might be all right if enough other things were going on to mask it, but it just plays into the larger problem. For example, the vanatori, vampire hunters, are considered automatically evil, and while there's room to justify that in their willingness to overreach and put mortals at risk, there could also be more of an interesting debate. Felix won't drink human blood, but all of his fellow vampires will, and they constantly make more of themselves, which is bad enough when they're feeding on willing human chalices, but we've established that these are incredibly strong people with dubious morals who have the ability to hypnotize and feed on victims whenever they want. They may be brutal, but these vampires aren't such fluffy bunnies that killing them might not be a public service. 

And then there's the doozy, which has to be kept brief because it was this or a thousand words of profanity. Spoiler: near the end, Felix is unconscious and half-dead because he can't heal a bullet wound. He drinks dryad blood and has a spiritual experience in which he sees the family he shot and talks to the little girl. She tells him that they have hated him for so long, but they need to forgive in order to get into Heaven, and that it's not his fault because his actions were the fault of those who started the world. Everyone's auras light up and Felix wakes up, energized and powerful from drinking real blood and getting absolution at the edge of the afterlife. This whole conversation with the civilians he murdered takes less than a whole page. Words cannot express how much I wish I was kidding right now. Yes, Felix gets renewed powers and forgiveness and ham-fisted plot resolution (other soldiers in his squad were involved in the shooting? No, no, we ignore that) because the people he killed forgive him. So it's okay now, he drinks human blood going forward and "looked forward to feeding on succulent necks." Because there's no question of donated blood in glasses to avoid taking advantage of humans, or worrying about the bloodlust-frenzy that other vampires went into earlier. No, the Iraqi girl he shot and killed forgave you in a dream vision totaling two pages counting scenery, so it's okay to a vampire like other vampires. I do not even have words.

The capper on this is the unpleasant aftertaste from Acevedo's portrayal of women. Don't get me wrong, there are several strong women in the book, but I can't think of a single female character who is not, in some way, all about her sexuality. Wendy is a seductive dryad, which is fair enough except for the inexplicable nature of her attraction to Felix. There's also fellow vampire Carmen, who's a decent leader, but she's described in every single appearance as wearing leather and gets such memorable gems as "she buttered the tops of her tits with sunscreen." The female nymphomaniacs themselves are figures of scorn and pity, and the outbreak doesn't affect men. Even a female police officer who appears for barely three pages is left in the backseat of her squad car with her hands down the pants of two male fellow officers simply because a nearby vampire was bored and irritated that she'd tried to do her job and arrest them. This part isn't even properly offensive; it's so over-the-top that it's just lazy. Over-sexualizing all the characters, or all the vampires, could at least add a measure of seamy darkness to this, but even the most lecherous male vampires still have character traits that are more obvious than their genitalia.

This is  getting long, so suffice to say that there's a lot more melodrama (and far more villain posturing) than this book really needed to have, especially given the ending. Three re-rereads of the relevant section have nothing to help me make heads or tails of what on earth was supposed to be going on. There were aliens, and technology, and some mysterious radioactive something from space that causes nymphomania in human females because "earth women are surprisingly complicated." If for some mysterious reason you have to understand, I invite you to read the book for yourself.

All in all, this could have been great: a vampire-detective sex farce could have been screamingly funny, and a darker book that tried to answer hard questions about ethics in the aftermath of one veteran's experience could have been genre-transcending. The Nymphos of Rocky Flats unfortunately flops between those two extremes and seems to be trying to rest in the groove of urban detective fantasy with some twists. Those tones don't always blend well, and it's hard to stay immersed in something with such a scattershot focus, especially when the ending goes out of its way to remind you how uncomprehensibly awful it is.

Prospects: These have great titles, including X-Rated Bloodsuckers and The Undead Kama Sutra. The fifth book in the Felix Gomez series, Werewolf Smackdown, came out in late 2010.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Tanya Huff's Blood series is perhaps a hair dated, but it does a much better job of thinking about vampire ethics, how to work with mortals despite the lust ad bloodlust, and so on, all while being quite fun to read. Odds are I'll review it when my mythical free time lets me start the series on how the vampire fantasy subgenre has evolved.

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