I don’t read as much as I’d like anymore. One more reason to gladly review things for vampires.com since this forces a return to one of life’s great treasures: Reading! Ancient Blood: A Novel of the Hegemony came to me about a month ago. Let us start right now with the title. A tad pretentious perhaps? Well, perhaps. But it did give me a good idea of what to expect, especially with the cover! A mask weeping blood over a red chess board. Okay! We’re talking intrigue coupled with human tragedy, a world where deceit becomes so necessary that best friends, even lovers cannot help but feel doubt.
Yep, that was it.
We meet our hero, Avery Doyle, almost immediately. A lifelong geek, he met a wildly exciting young woman one day and fell in love. To his delight, she fell for him as well. But then her secret came out. By now you’ve already figured out she’s a vampire, right? Of course right! Caroline‘s secret entails a bit more, however. More than a vampire, she is the runaway progeny of Sebastian, one of the most powerful vampire in the world–Hegemon (master) of North America, and worse, an undead who is visibly devolving. He looks less and less human. In undead terms, he is going feral.
The author, Brian McKinley, shows his dream cast for the novel on his Facebook page. He sees Henry Thomas as Avery, Christina Ricci as Caroline and Liam Neeson as Sebastian.
One might expect such a story to begin with Avery and Caroline’s meeting, or her turning him into a vampire, or perhaps with a long chase while they seek to avoid the minions of Sebastian. Nope! Instead the two end up captured fairly soon and brought to Sebastian’s luxurious (and very disturbing) private estate. For a time, they’re kept prisoner in the wine cellar. No Sebastian doesn’t drink wine. Tis a dungeon containing stacked cages, each just large enough to hold a living human being in zero comfort and maximum humiliation. Even more than the undead of True Blood, the Hegemony by and large see humans as cattle. With a few exceptions. Probably what fascinated me most proved news that Sebastian had initially been one of those exceptions. Indeed, one refers to him as “the noblest of us.” But not now. No, not at all. All the Hegemons of the world come to gather at Sebastian’s estate, so Caroline sets in motion a plot to save herself and Avery.
So far it sounds like a ripping good yarn does it not? In truth that is precisely what Ancient Blood proves to be. McKinley fashioned a specific idea of what vampires are, their history as well as their organization, up to and including a complex web of interpersonal relationships. Here let me mentions something pretty impressive. Many a novel of this scale includes a large cast of characters. Usually, even in some best selling authors’ works, they blur after a time. I can think of a handful of exception — Herman Wouk and George R.R.Martin among them. Kudos to McKinley for managing it as well! That single fact does much to keep one’s interest. More, that very individuality makes some of the surprises (and there are many) feel right, feel believable.
Do I have any criticisms? Yes. For one, the rhythm of the actual writing feels ‘off’ for the first several chapters. Subtly, to be sure, but one feels it. Part of that is a somewhat awkward use of excerpts from other works (the novel presumes to be the unpublished manuscript of Avery). I think I see why they were there, but some just don’t work. More, the story at times reads a lot less like a novel and more like a screenplay adapted (very well) into prose. Easy to understand why–McKinley has written screen and stage plays before now. Ancient Blood evidently marks his first novel.
He’s indicated work on a sequel. For the record, I’m looking forward to reading it.
Ultimately I liked Avery, our hero, even though at times he seemed like a fool. Well, actually, almost everyone in the book was a fool. Sooner or later. But at the same time, Avery sometimes displayed insight and courage as well as the kind of emotional depth needed in my opinion for the plot to make sense. He really uses topical cultural references a lot. Rather too much. Got irritating after a time. But it also seemed very much in character. I found myself feeling what he did, though, and that seems crucial in a story like this.
Clearly I did enjoy this very much and recommend it–if your taste runs towards the idea of immortals plotting against one another and someone caught in the middle, rather like Shogun with fangs.