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Book Review: A Taint in the Blood

Now in Paperback: A Taint in the Blood

by S. M. Stirling

ROC, 2010

One of the tensions inherent in ‘following’ an author is vicarious performance anxiety: what if this writer who’s pleased you so many times in the past somehow changes, delivers a dud? The disappointment involved is more than simply reading an unsatisfying book: there’s a hint of systemic duplicity about the whole thing. You read a dull or dumb book by a favorite author, and in addition to thinking ‘that was a dull or dumb book,’ you also think, “were they all dull or dumb, and I just didn’t notice?”

Science fiction veteran S. M. Stirling is an author to follow. Over the course of a dozen novels, he’s managed to stay not only consistently interesting and innovative but refreshingly intelligent in a genre that knows a thing or two about pursuing the least common denominator. When a writer like Terry Pratchett can make a living turning out booklets like Guards! Guards! or Thud! a writer like Stirling, perhaps on his second scotch, has got to wonder sometimes why he’s putting in all this research-time.

So it’s at once pleasing that his books stay so good and nerve-wracking to think of him phoning something in. His latest book in paperback, A Taint in the Blood, raises that nerve-wracking to presidential-election levels: it’s the first instalment in a new series featuring a secretive ancient race of man, Homo nocturnus, a group that shape-shifts, lives forever, and drinks blood, and unless you’ve been in some kind of (blissful, blissful) suspended animation for the last eight years, you’ll immediately recognize that “Homo nocturnus” is therefore a science-geek way of saying “vampire” – and you’ll immediately suspect Stirling of stooping to the kind of literary sell-out that’s very, very popular these days.

But A Taint in the Blood is very good stuff, and hell, anybody can wake up one morning and feel like writing a vampire novel – even George R. R. Martin did it, back when he was a normal carbon-based life-form. Stirling hasn’t re-invented the wheel here: his “Shadowspawn” are all ultra-cool outsiders, many of them many centuries old, the bad ones feasting on unlucky humans and the good ones discontentedly subsisting on packets filched from the nearest hospital blood-bank. Their nominal authority is a Council of Shadows, which has been opposed since time immemorial by the Brotherhood, an equally-clandestine society of human vampire-watchers vampire-slayers. These basic materials will be familiar to any fan of Anne Rice’s novels, let alone all those, um, enthusiasts out there (you know who you are) who tend to re-watch “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer” four or five whole seasons at a time, in one sitting, without moving.

With Stirling, the goods are in the details. He can create a convincing character with just a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, and his characters are forever talking about their worlds (in the author’s fantastic post-technology-collapse “Change” novels, the characters quite literally never shut up … as fascinating as it all is, you often find yourself wishing some 1950s-style giant mutated ants would show up and mandible the hell out of all those know-it-alls).

The main character in this first “Shadowspawn” novel is Adrian Breze (I would have re-thought that name, and trust me, the acute accent-marks only make it more pornlike). We encounter him in the fresh aftermath of a bad break-up with his human girlfriend Ellen, and before he can buy apology-roses, Ellen encounters Adrian’s twin sister Adrienne, who has all of his supernatural powers but none of his good-guy conscience. Ellen herself reassures him of this:

“Adrian!” he looked around, and she went on sharply: “You are not evil! And believe me, I now have a wide enough acquaintance with people in your family who are real-thing no-fucking-doubt-about-it evil to tell the difference!”

When Ellen falls into Adrienne’s clutches, an age-old sibling rivalry ensnares Adrian, and Stirling does what he always does: he takes a background-situation that should be stupor-inducing in its familiarity and shakes it just enough to hook the reader. He invests his characters with a gritty believability, his action-sequences are masterful, and even his descriptions of some of the most familiar changeling stocks-in-trade are gusty with his signature energy:

The oldest Shadowspawn talent of all took him. A moment of silvery darts along his nerves, and his body flowed – to another shape … but much more familiar. Vision grew less, color absent or muted, shades of black and white and gray predominant, though the moonlight was more than adequate. He could see movement – the twitch of a leaf, the motion of a cat leaping to a wall in the gardens below – with utter sharpness, but anything motionless blurred like the world of a shortsighted man.

Ah, but the sounds!

Nearly as keen as those of the owl, and in a different range. He could hear breathing, voices half a mile away, a frightened dog that suddenly scented an ancient enemy; the quiet night was a babble of noise now, and the wolf’s mind sorted it with effortless ease.

And the smells! There are no words!

Stirling has a penchant for novels-in-series, and this one is off to a typically strong start. The prose shows signs all throughout of having been written at a faster clip than that of his previous books – there’s less care with language, and there’s even a small plot-gaffe (an extreme rarity with this meticulous author) – but this is still a writer who very much knows what he’s doing and does it well. Adrian himself leaves quite a bit to be desired even as a hero (one can already picture the kind of skinny-jeaned nonsentient cokehead who’d play him on TV), but with any luck, he’ll have many future books in which to grow a personality.