“I sense it even now. People thirst for it; the entire country is mad with desire for it…” A dying man’s cryptic letter catapults California college student Steven Roberts on a mystery-shrouded quest into the labyrinth of the war-torn Balkans. Singled out for the task by an enigmatic professor, Steven overcomes his doubts and plunges into the maelstrom to uncover long-lost clues to an ancient Emperor’s deeply buried secret, a long-forgotten evil that slumbered for centuries only to reawaken … and a love that defies death itself.
Meticulously researched and set against the background of collapsing Yugoslavia, Kiss of the Butterfly weaves together intricate threads from age-old Balkan folklore and modern events, to create a tapestry of passion and betrayal, obsession and desire, the thirst for life and the hunger for death. “Kiss of the Butterfly” is a literary thriller rooted in actual events. In the year of his death, 1476, the Prince of Wallachia Vlad Dracula committed a bloody massacre under the cloak of medieval Bosnia’s forested mountains in the town of Srebrenica. History repeated itself 500 years later in July 1995 in Europe’s worst massacre since World War Two. For most people, the two events seemed unconnected… Until now.
From that description, James Lyon’s Kiss of the Butterfly promises a tale steeped in the tradition and history of the Slavic region from which our modern vampire originates. I’m happy to say that it does not disappoint. There’s something immediately gratifying about a novel that eschews all the modern trappings of the Stoker and Hollywood vampire, and the primary strength of this novel is how Lyon returns to the earliest Serbian folklore which is strangely absent from most vampire fiction. The authenticity of that folklore and his Eastern European setting pervade the novel and give it a strong grounding and rich atmosphere.
For those that absolutely must have Dracula in their vampire fiction, fret not, Vlad Dracula makes an appearance in a richly detailed and evocative Prologue that parallels recent events in the Balkans and former Yugoslavia during the 1990s when the novel is set. Here we find a Dracula neither romanticized nor glamorized, but one whose cruelty is matter-of-fact, calculated, and Machiavellian in its political practicality. In truth, I enjoyed the Prologue so much that I find myself hoping that Lyon might write further historical fiction about the Wallachian despot.
Lyon is a good writer, his prose is concise and effective with the occasional dash of poetic flourish, which made for easy reading. I found some of his characters to be a bit flat, however, and some of the dialogue very on-the-nose, but not to the extent that it spoiled the over-all experience. My biggest complaint is the lack of vampires throughout. The story moves slowly at times and we don’t really get much vampire action until we near the end. Even then, I found the climax a bit of a let-down; clearly, there’s a set-up for future installments, but I would have preferred a bit more punch in the ending of the first book.
That said, Kiss of the Butterfly is a solid read and a worthy addition to any vampire enthusiast’s collection. His vampires are fascinating, possessed of a complex mythology that hints at a subtle layer of reality that still exists in certain parts of the world. They are neither sun-phobic superheroes nor are they angst-ridden teenagers, and readers looking for a return to an old-fashioned vampire will find much to love in this novel.
So what about the butterflies? What do they have to do with vampires? I won’t spoil such an inventive and lovely surprise, so you’ll have to read it to find out…
James Lyon is an accidental Balkanologist, having spent the better part of 33 years studying and working with the lands of the former Yugoslavia. He has a Ph.D. in Modern Balkan History from UCLA and a B.A. in Russian from BYU. Somewhere along the way he also seems to have picked up an M.A. in International Relations.
He has lived in Germany, Russia, England, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Utah, and California, and spent the better part of 18 years living in the lands of the former Yugoslavia, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia, and has worked in Macedonia and Kosovo. He has traveled widely, from Africa to Latin America to the Middle East, and all over Europe. He currently works in Sarajevo and bounces back and forth to Belgrade.
In his spare time he likes sailing through the Dalmatian islands and eating Sachertorte in Vienna at the old Habsburg Imperial Court’s Confectionary Bakery, Demel. He lost his cat in the forests of Bosnia and can’t find it. If you see a black and white cat that ignores you when you call the name “Cile II”, a reward is being offered…provided the cat hasn’t turned into a vampire.