Empire of the Vampire – Jay Kristoff

Oh, vampires. Unless you sparkle, you’re my favourite fantasy creature. It’s hard to find books about vampires with any real bite, y’know. I enjoyed Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to enjoy a 700+ page high fantasy novel about vampires. The first in a series, no less! Because 700+ pages. And fantasy. Not really two things that make my very-much-still-beating bookish heart pitter pat. I was gifted a copy of Jay Kristoff’s novel Empire of the Dead last Christmas and it seemed like a good time to take a crack at it because I am now on holiday.

Gabriel de Leon is a Silversaint. What’s that you might well ask? Silversaints are paleblood’s (half vampire) who have taken a vow to protect the church and the realm from coldbloods, full-on vampires. At fifteen, Gabriel was whisked away from his home to San Michon, a holy place where he is trained in the art of killing vampires.

I do here vow; Let the dark know my name and despair. So long as it burns, I am the flame. So long as it bleeds, I am the blade. So long as it sins, I am the saint. And I am silver.

When the story begins, Gabriel is a prisoner of Margot Chastain, Undying Empress of Wolves and Men. Chastain’s historian, Marquis Jean-Francois, has joined Gabriel in his cell to “gather all knowledge of [his] order.”

The conversation between Gabriel and Jean-Francois provides the structure for the story the Silversaint tells. It bounces back and forth in time and introduces a cast of characters, many of whom readers will fall madly in love with (including a lioness, a horse and a sword. Not joking.) As for Gabriel: he’s cynical, foul-mouthed, loyal and brave. He’s the hero of the tale, but he’s imperfect, for sure. He’s also likeable.

I wouldn’t have necessarily said that I read fantasy, but according to this definition from Book Riot, I guess I do:

The basic defining tenet of high fantasy is that a fantasy story is set in an alternative fictional world, typically with magical elements. High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy, and some of the hallmarks of this subset of the fantasy genre include a high page count, lots of characters, usually a quest, and, most importantly, an alternative or secondary world as opposed to the real or primary world. With high fantasy, there are usual global stakes involved—you know, good versus evil, saving the world, and all that.

In any case, I read enough to understand the world building and the mention of mythical creatures. It’s easy to spot the nods to Tolkien, Martin, Malory, Christianity, Beowulf, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is clear that Kristoff is a reader, and books and their myriad joys are mentioned on more than one occasion.

As an English teacher, I could easily identify the hero’s journey and so I was able to anticipate some of the twists. I probably don’t read enough fantasy to know whether Kristoff’s novel is cream of the crop or not though, but by my metric it’s great.

I’ve read some reviews that complained about the novel’s pacing. That wasn’t a problem for me. I read this book in a week and I very much looked forward to picking it up whenever I had the chance. There was lots of gory action and well-written fight scenes. There were lots of funny moments and also some truly heart-breaking moments.

I would suspect that when you are creating a world, lots of exposition is necessary – but I never felt as though Kristoff wasted time with backstory. Readers were dropped into a fully-realized world and I wasn’t too concerned with who everyone was beyond who is good and who is most definitely not. I have no clue how Kristoff managed to keep all the characters and the rules of this world straight, but it felt like a real enough place to me.

Books need stakes and Empire of the Vampire has them. The world has been dark for almost three decades, and part of this story is when Gabriel runs into someone from San Michon who claims they have found something that can finally bring an end to the darkness. Gabriel is on a vengeance mission, but he agrees to accompany the group. Cue the bloodshed.

If I have one niggle about the story, it’s the expletive-heavy insults like “you fuck-eyed little pig dick” and “fuck you, you little shitgrubber.” There’s a lot of swearing in this book. A lot a lot. I swear a fair bit myself, so when I notice it in fiction it’s past the annoying phase.

Still, I have to say that I had fun reading Empire of the Vampire far more than I expected I would. It’s the first book in a series and while I am generally pretty lazy about keeping up with series, I will definitely be spending more time with Gabriel de Leon.

Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.