Random House, 544 pages, $27 (release date 6/17/14)
If there’s one thing we have lots of these days it’s vampire stories. The vampires are invariably darkly romantic. The famous vampires who live in rainy, atmospheric Washington state are sparkly. The New Orleans vampires are sexy. The Bon Temps vampires live in marginally sassier times, at least in the books. Certainly the TV series takes them to darker quarters. The first book in Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s series gave me nightmares. So why do we need another vampire book? Do we need more bastardized television or movie versions? Sometimes an author has a different take on the well-known mythology, and it’s worth reading. Lauren Owen’s is set in a Victorian world, shared by humans and vampires.
I can count on one hand the number of times Lauren Owen writes the word “vampire.” For her, they are the undead or, more humorously, the undid. Her book is not in the least humorous, however. It is quite Victorian and she settles it nicely in that era in both speech and tone. She doesn’t drop her “voice” for entre nous witticisms or anachronisms. Thank goodness. She keeps to the vintage and thus succeeds in presenting a historical mystery without pretensions or contrivance. Except for the vampires, of course. It reminded me vaguely of Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Queen Victoria would have been surprised to find out that vampires consider London’s foggy, chilly environment ideal, although Owen’s vampires are always cold. Some have even caught on fire trying to warm themselves — thus hotly ending their notorious existences as bloodsuckers.
Brother and sister James and Charlotte Norbury already have a rather gloomy existence in Yorkshire. Money is somehow scraped up to send James off to Oxford. He’s rather reclusive and humorless there, perhaps because of a childhood trauma or innate shyness or a rating somewhere on the autism spectrum. Until she is freed much later in the book, Charlotte is doomed to being tended by an elderly and fussy aunt, and then being the tender in turn of said aunt in her dotage. James chooses not to return to dour Yorkshire and hies off to London to have all the fun. Perhaps “fun” is the wrong word. He manages to be reclusive and humorless in London, too.
Yes, James runs across the vampires. There are two sects: the “Club” members, who choose an exclusive and limited membership from their own upper class ranks (only males need apply); and the Alia, originally the poor from the teeming lower class (men, women, children have an equal opportunity to become neck-biters). Never the twain shall meet, because Club members see to it that the Alia stay in their own neck, so to speak, of the woods. Although James is a member of neither group, he soon becomes involved with the vampires’ clandestine activities. (The advantage to having upstanding, monied vampires in the Club is that they can control how much official attention is given to the discreet disappearance of many of London’s denizens.)
“Quick” refers to regular human beings. When timid Charlotte loses contact with James, she travels to London to find him. She stumbles across several other members of the Quick who are trying to save humanity, one person at a time, unlike the vast majority of the Quick who remain oblivious to the darker aspects of living in a big city.
Owen has created a lot of characters on both sides of aisle. One member of the Quick is trying to determine which of the superstitions about vampires are true. Are they reflected in mirrors? Yes. Does a stake through the heart work? No. Owen must have had a lot of fun deciding which of the vampire lore to endorse. But, once again, the book is not funny.
Some elements of the ending nodded at modern horror movie/book tropes and seemed unnecessary. But overall, the ending was chillingly satisfying. The best characters were evil; the humans were ironically colorless in contrast. Kudos to Owen for creating a book that has enough style and rhythm to make it sound like the “undid” indeed could have roamed the streets of Victorian London.