RIP Challenge Results

Blood Price–Tanya Huff
I watched the entire run of “Blood Ties”, the television show based on Tanya Huff’s Vicki Nelson novels. (Note: I freely admit that I have abysmal standards when it comes to vampire TV shows: if it’s got fangs, I’m probably there.) I enjoyed “Blood Ties” for what it was, and liked the basic premise of it: a human detective, constrained by a degenerative eye disease to work only by day (she was effectively blind at night), paired with a vampire (with the obvious daylight restrictions) to solve otherworldly crimes. The kicker: the vampire is Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, the bastard son of King Henry VIII–a nice historical flourish, as ol’ Hank Sixwives did, indeed, have an illegitimate son who died of a “wasting disease” (probably tuberculosis) at age 17.

An excellent premise, carried out reasonably well by TV-adaptation standards, although I always felt that the source novels were probably much deeper, perhaps darker, and almost certainly more textured. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I finally read the first novel, and found the TV series had done it quite a bit of justice. It’s a serviceable genre novel, but it felt like reading a script for the TV show. Forum discussions among fans who read the novel first led me to think there was a lot left out–primarily Tony, one of Henry’s regular donors. The level of outrage at Tony’s absence from the TV show made me think the Tony/Henry scenes must be pretty hot. Instead, they were kinda not: as, in mostly occurring offstage and leaving it to the readers’ imagination. Maybe if I’d gone into it expecting a Young Adult novel, rather than the Canadian Anne Rice, it wouldn’t have been such a letdown. As it was, I found I was mostly continuing to read it to compare the book to my memories of the TV show.

Oh, the plot? Well, there’s a dork who’s learned how to call up a demon, whom he uses to get ‘gear’ to make him ‘cooler’–and then later, to take revenge on all who have ever ‘wronged’ him (by laughing at him, or by refusing to go out with him, or by simply failing to recognize his inherent superiority). What the dork doesn’t realize is, the demon has plans of its own, related to loosing the greater demon it really serves upon the human world.

Blood Trail–Tanya Huff
Why, after my experience with Blood Price, would I launch into a second Tanya Huff book? Well, it was conveniently at hand, I wanted to be sure to get at least four RIP novels done, and I still really wanted to like this series–I like both Vicki Nelson and Henry Fitzroy quite a lot as characters. (In the books, Henry writes romances, not graphic novels, and does it under the name ‘Elizabeth Fitzroy’–a jab at his half-sister, whom he considers as much a bastard as he.) Plus, I figured I could always put it down, if it was really dull. I used to feel obligated to finish the books I started; I felt like a bad reader if I didn’t. As I’ve aged, though, I’ve gotten over that: time is too precious, and there are too many excellent books to be read, to waste even an hour on a book I don’t like. About 100 pages in, Blood Trail was looking like the latest in a pile of books deemed not worth the time. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to abandoning it: I found I couldn’t put it down.

One of things I like about these books is that Tanya Huff introduces us to her villains early on and lets us spend some time getting to know them. Vicki and Henry may be running around in the dark, but we know who the miscreants are, and what they’re up to. It helps to ratchet up tension in some places–when we see the investigators miss the significance of a clue they don’t know they’ve found, for instance–and in this case, it kept me reading all the way to the end, because the evildoers were such self-righteous pricks, I couldn’t wait to see exactly how they’d get their comeuppance.

A family of peaceable, sheep-ranching werewolves (“¦yes”¦) are being picked off by someone who has discovered their secret and, apparently, takes exception to having werewolves in the neighborhood. They can’t go to the police, because the murderer has been careful to only shoot them in their “dog” form. Anyway, they don’t want the killer arrested and jailed–they want to deal with the problem the pack way. So they ask their old friend Henry Fitzroy to help them figure out who’s committing the murders, and Henry brings Vicki Nelson along–both for her investigative skills, and because he knows she can be trusted with the weres’ secret. The explorations of pack life and the difficulties of being a werewolf clan trying to get along in the modern world were interesting, but as I said, I was in it for blood. Of which: not nearly enough, at the end. People really could have been rent limb from limb much more than they were, to please me.

Sharp Teeth–Toby Barlow
Now this was a satisfying, disturbing, creepy, funny, and above all, bloody werewolf novel. My goodness, what a fantastic reading experience! Do not let the next thing I say put you off the book: it’s written in verse. No, come back here! Listen, after a couple of pages, you’re so deep into the story that you stop noticing the poetry. It’s blank verse, so it’s not all rhymey and precious and annoying, like the file full of junior high poetry I–er, some people–have stuffed in the back of their drawers. No, this is vital stuff, pulsing with life and lust and anger. The book practically throbs with primal urges.

There are (at least) two werewolf packs in Los Angeles, struggling for territorial dominance. One pack is headed by Lark, a very smart werewolf/businessman with big plans for his pack, but he is betrayed and overthrown by a lieutenant before he can put the plan into motion. He escapes, and finds a clever hiding place while he considers his options. His thuggish, but not stupid, successor is left to contemplate the pieces of the plan and make of it what he will.

Against these machinations, we have lone-wolf Anthony, just trying to get by in life, and working as a dog-catcher–a job that suddenly has a shockingly high mortality rate. Anthony is in the wrong place at the right time, and is unwittingly drawn into local pack politics. He also falls for a mysterious woman who we know as the female of Lark’s destroyed pack. (Two things: in this book, packs only ever have one female in them–they expand the pack by means of a ‘blood brother’ ceremony, not reproduction. Two: this was my biggest problem with the story: on the one hand, we’ve got weres with a sense of smell so acute, they know when a cop is staking them out from blocks away. On the other hand, you’ve got two weres living together, and neither ever realizes the other IS a werewolf. Uh…huh?)

How the dog shelters figure into the plan, and what it all has to do with an Odd Couple-ish pair of tournament bridge players and a Mexican drug gang, are mysteries best solved by reading the book yourself. There’s some artful misdirection that keeps a major piece of the puzzle hidden in plain sight right up to the moment the author chooses to reveal it–very nice!–and a few glosses over plot holes and contrivances that I was happy to forgive . This was a thrilling read: very much the high point of my first RIP Challenge.

White is for Witching–Helen Oyeyemi
Miranda Silver, the protagonist of this strange, chilly novel, is a 17-year-old girl stricken with the family curse of pica, which is a compulsion to eat non-food items like dirt, plastic, and (Miranda’s favorite) chalk. Miranda has just returned home from a lengthy institutionalization for a break-down brought on by her mother’s death a year earlier. But pica isn’t the only curse haunting the Silver women, and returning to the family home means returning to the influences that precipitated Miranda’s crisis. Miri has little will to resist the ghosts of Silver House, and is soon back to her unhealthy habits. Her father and twin brother are frightened for her, but make only ineffectual efforts at halting her decline.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, including that of the house itself, and the reliability of all of them is cast into doubt. Our most reliable narrator is Ore, a girl Miri meets at school and starts a complicated affair with. Ore has ghosts of her own, and they have well prepared for her entanglement with Miri. Ore knows perfectly well how to deal with a devouring female spirit; the question is, will she be able to save Miri, along with herself?

The book is indirect and ambiguous; much is hinted at, gestured toward, and elided; little is explained. The reader feels herself, like Miri, surrounded by swooping shadows and half-seen horrors, with the picture never quite coming clear enough to make out the truth of the situation. There are brief flashes of light, but what they reveal is even stranger than what we were imagining was out there. Perfectly sane-seeming witnesses proffer impossible, unimaginable testimony, and we are left to wonder what, if anything, is real.

The ending left me a bit flat; I thought we were leading up to a rather different conclusion. (Although, it’s less a conclusion than a turning of the wheel to begin a new cycle of obsession and compulsion.) But there was so much wonder and terror, such beauty and repulsion, on the way there that I didn’t mind making the journey.

Let the Right One In–John Ajvide Lindqvist
Twelve-year-old Oskar is a deeply troubled child: he’s bullied at school, he has a pants-wetting problem, he shoplifts, and he keeps a scrapbook of news stories about murders–the better to fantasize about revenge on his tormentors. Eli is a girl who moves in next door, and they quickly become friends. Although Oskar notices several odd things about Eli–he never sees her going to school, and only sees her at night; she’s unaffected by the cold of a Stockholm winter; she’s even more socially inept than Oskar himself–he doesn’t realize quite how unusual Eli really is. Not, at least, until he begins to suspect that she may be connected to the gruesome serial killings he’s been following so avidly in the papers.

I’d been looking forward to reading Let the Right One In since I watched the movie adaptation. It’s one of the best vampire movies I’ve ever seen, atmospheric and unnerving, keeping most of the horror just out of frame, and trusting in the viewer’s intelligence. It does a beautiful job conveying the bleak emptiness of Oskar’s life, and makes us sympathetic to Eli without glamorizing her. She may be the monster terrorizing the city, but she’s kinder to Oskar than his bullying classmates, and more responsive to his needs than his distracted mother. Everyone is damaged in some way; everyone struggles with dependence on others for things they may not willingly give: love, respect, kindness, blood. Is Eli really so different, so much more terrible, than her ‘innocent’ victims?

Given how good the movie was, I expected great things from the book–and was surprised to find it didn’t improve on the movie at all. It was a good book, an enjoyable read, but it never once chilled me the way the movie did. It did offer more depth on Eli’s background, which was interesting, and lengthy diversions into the subplots of secondary characters, which were not. Lindqvist did the screenplay adaptation, and perhaps he should consider working in the format more often: its constraints seem to help him refine and focus on his themes. The book really didn’t add anything critical to my understanding of the story, and the movie was far more engaging emotionally. By all means, experience both if you can and wish to; but if you have to choose, see the movie, definitely.

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