Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Reviews - Vampires and Witches, of Course

Thanks to my graduate school honed skill of speed reading, I got through two books this week. I'm happy to report my findings.

1st up, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Gotta say, it wasn't a book that I felt like I needed to get my hands on at first. When it was first published, I liked the idea, but decided to keep it on the reading list for later. It's central characters are men, it's about killing vampires not loving them, and it wasn't written by an historian. And despite those things, it is a very interesting read. It's an epistolary novel, which is one of my favorite literary forms.

Epistolary novels are stories told through a series of letters or other written documents. They gained popularity in the mid 1700s, the most popular then being Samuel Richardson's Pamela and years later Clarissa, about young women who have their virtue continually tested by the world around them. Epistolary novels do some interesting things that other novels don't. They show you the story from one person's perspective, with 'factual' additions like newspaper clippings or historical documents, and without the value judgments of an omniscient narrator. In many ways this conveys a sense of realism.  You get the story in the character's own words. Some think that the popularity of epistolary novels coincides with the rise of democracy. These are stories that tended to focus on ordinary people, generally the trials and tribulations of the working class or servant class, and in doing so encourage a sense of empathy for the experiences of those who are not like you. I like epistolary novels. Dracula is one of the most famous, with letters and diary entries from the different characters creating the story.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter begins with the story of a young writer who has given up on his dream of writing a novel. He instead runs the counter at a small town hardware store. He is given a gift one day by a strange local customer: what appears to be the collected diaries of Abraham Lincoln, detailing his life as young boy, and moving all the way through to the days before his assassination.

The stranger asks him to write a novel based on the diaries. As he begins to read these journals, he realizes that Abraham Lincoln was obsessed with, and very good at, killing vampires. He devoted his entire life to ridding the country of them, and only stumbled into politics. Lincoln eventually surmises that the institution of slavery is not only reprehensible on the basis of denying human beings rights, but also because it is held in place by vampires, who buy up the slaves who are old or disabled in order to feed. He believes slavery and vampires go hand in hand, so he sets out to get rid of both.

Even though it's about hunting and killing vampires, there are your "good" vampires, though they aren't as fleshed out as they could be. His good vampire sends him a hit list every now and then, and the story moves forward as Lincoln tries to fulfill his assassinations of the vilest vampires. Lincoln is definitely given a fascinating voice, and a clear picture of him emerges as the novel goes on. He deals with a lot of conflicting values and ideas, and is thoughtful about them.  The novel's historical inaccuracies are plenty, but I didn't find this too troubling. I mean, it's a novel about Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter. Changing history to suit the story seems like a no brainer. I loved all of the doctored photos that point out "proof" of the vampire hunter aspect of Lincoln's life. I loved the moral anchor that was the Lincoln character. He doesn't always do the right thing, but he does explore his ideas and opinions.

There were some things that disappointed me, though. It's clear that the writer isn't an historian, and that really makes the novel less than what it could have been. You see it in places throughout the novel, but most of all in the way slavery and the abolitionist movement is presented. Slaves are talked about in the abstract mostly, and usually only as victims. The underground railroad, the work of free blacks in the north, and slave rebellions are all attributed to the "good" vampires who want to end the reign of vampires in the south. Only one of these "good" vampires is developed as a character, and even he is more of a way to move the plot forward than a real person. None of the characters are black, and I think a black "good" vampire would have given the story some depth and add a counterbalance to the depiction of black people as only slaves and only victims with no power over their own lives. Lincoln never encounters other vampire hunters, which is strange. And the story spends so much time on his life before politics, that it seems odd that his road to the presidency was so short and so convenient.

All in all, the book does paint an elaborate picture of Lincoln's life, with vampire stuff added in there. His marriage, children, and the Civil War are all explored in interesting ways. I think probably this could have been an epic story, rather than a whimsical little novel. It's worth it just for the cameo by Edgar Allen Poe, who knows about vampires and chats with Lincoln about it from an interesting perspective!

My second review is a book I found via the Barnes & Noble nook recommendations page. They saw that I liked The Phyisick Book of Deliverance Dane and Daughters of the Witching Hill, and handed me A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I was hungry for another novel after finishing Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and I am glad I went back to witches for a time.

The cover of this novel isn't bad, but it isn't good. I would have preferred it to look like a page from an illuminated manuscript, because it features so prominently in the story, but I don't work in book cover design. I should though. I sometimes wonder what the hell those people are thinking. This is a big one at 592 pages, but I was fascinated the whole way through. It's a witch story, but unlike the last two I reviewed, this one takes place in the contemporary world, without a lot of flashbacks to the past. It's about a world where witches, daemons and vampires have worked hard to keep their existence secret from humans. It's also a world where the three creature groups are insular, and never mix across "species." It's also about the weird world of academics. In this case, however, some of the academics are relics themselves.

Diana Bishop is a witch, but has worked hard to create an academic life without witchcraft. A descendant of one of the Salem witches, she knows the fear and hysteria around witchcraft. She wanted to make a name for herself without resorting to magic, and manages to become a well known historian teaching at Yale. At the start of the novel, she is on a sabbatical doing research at Oxford, analyzing alchemical texts and illuminated manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. Her life changes forever when she requests a particular manuscript from the collection that was once thought lost. It's a book that is sealed shut with a spell, and Diana manages to open it. It seems like a confusing alchemy text that has magic running through it. When she sees the magical aspect of the text, she suddenly decides to return it and tries to forget the experience. The creatures in Oxford take notice, and pretty soon they are hovering around her, waiting for her to recall the manuscript, which is rumored to have secrets about the origins of the supernatural species and powerful spells. Another academic at Oxford seems to be most interested in her and her stack of books at the Bodleian, Matthew Clairmont, a vampire.

This is not your usual vampire romance, but it does go to similar places. What makes this novel different is the careful eye to science and history (the author is an historian of science and medicine at USC). It's not simply the history background that makes Harkness's work great. It's also her ability to create a lush, detailed world, with characters that have flaws and quirks. Even tertiary characters seem modeled on real people. Matthew, the vampire, is a great character, but I had a bad feeling about him at the beginning of the novel when he found Diana's smell to be too intoxicating. These vamps also don't have fangs. Which is stupid. I'm sorry but vampires have fangs. It's the way of things. I won't see them without. Anyway, I was worried he'd head into Edward Cullen territory, but things go a different, more mature way.

I guess that's what I liked best about this novel. It's central character, Diana, is a woman who is "different" like Bella and Sookie and so many others, but she isn't naive or prone to do ridiculous thins to prove she's independent. She is a thinker and mature about her actions. Whereas many other vampire romances are about vampires sweeping women up into their vampire bullshit, this story is about the communal bullshit of supernaturals, and Diana takes control of her life in beautiful and surprising (and sometimes wrong) ways.

The novel is long, but I didn't feel like it when I was reading it, and I wanted it to continue after it was over. If you are reading it and having a hard time moving through it, you should at least push forward to Diana's visit home to her family's witchy house. I could have read a whole novel about that house.

If you liked The Historian, there are elements of academic life, research and travel that are interesting, but it isn't a treasure hunt so much. If you liked The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Daughters of the Witching Hill, the culture of witchcraft is fun and fantastical, but the balance of power is not with humans here. If you like vampire romances, this book will provide you with a romance, but you'll have to deal with more than a few mysteries and side-journeys that take away from the romance part. Oh, and the sex is minimal. As in the supe couple never consummate their relationship. Which is the only part that I really disagreed with. Well, that and the princess fairy tale that features in a very small but annoying part of the story.

I'm hoping Harkness writes a sequel, but even if this is the last of Diana Bishop's story, it was a worthwhile trip. It's about time someone capitalized on the fact that real vampires (and people who know they exist) would be excellent academics.

I've got only academic books on the horizon, but I'm hoping to go in a different (but still supernatural) direction. I'm thinking less professor characters and more fuck-ups. A decent fuck-up centric vampire story, incidentally, is Christopher Moore's Bite Me!

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