Recommendation: This was a relief after some of the other trash fantasy on this blog. I mean, it’s still trash but these things are relative
Where to read: Well it has been raining solidly for the last two weeks…
Read with: Port, I guess
In brief: Full disclosure, I am a bit of a sucker for anything that revolves around historians so I was something of an easy mark here. That said, I also took great enjoyment in the reassertion that vampires are fucking horrifying and what I take to be a play on the actual historical effects of overcast skies at various points during the medieval period (cf. 536 and 1314ish).
Like many fantasy novels, Empire of the Vampire is set in a vaguely medieval/Renaissance Europe-style setting, complete with a powerful Catholic-ish church, an Inquisition, a bevy of feuding kingdoms and a Holy Grail which is definitely not plagiarised from Dan Brown. Kristoff then replaces Y. pestis with vampires and away we go. For a framing device, we have our imprisoned (for reasons that will gradually become clearer) “bit of an edgelord” protagonist getting absolutely munted and telling his story to a vampiric court historian. The banter between the two provides welcome relief from an otherwise deeply bleak narrative and allows Kristoff to shift the narrative between the near present and our protagonist’s education as a “silver saint” (think a vampire hunting version of the Templars) to keep things from getting bogged down. Nothing is particularly ground breaking but tropes are tropes for a reason.
Empire of the Vampire is also a refreshing return to the traditional idea that vampires are genuinely horrifying. I may be scarred by my membership of the Twilight generation but the ‘I will kill your friends and family’ vibe is very welcome here. Vampires have also traditionally been used to explore cultural anxieties, particularly around sex and lust. To be honest, the sex scenes here are more gratuitous than thematically profound but plenty of other authors got there first. They also, to give Kristoff his due, contribute to a sense that the entire world has gone awry – that personal relationships have been twisted and broken in the same way everything else has.
On the topic of unrelenting misery, the part I found particularly clever (making the bold assumption that I am not reading too much into it) is Kristoff’s reinterpretation of actual historical incidents, particularly the crises caused by climate change and volcanic activity at the beginning and end of the Middle Ages. A popular theory has it that a huge volcanic eruption around around 536 CE threw so much ash up into the atmosphere that Europe was mired in darkness for two years, bringing famine and heralding the first emergence of bubonic plague (the so called Plague of Justinian). The start of the Little Ice Age (which may also have been triggered by volcanic activity) was similarly traumatic. Most dramatically, near constant rain between 1314-1321(ish) resulted in rotted harvests, mass famine and coincided with a rinderpest epizootic which tore through herds across Europe and Asia. 20 years later, the Black Death wiped out 30-60% of the human population and triggered widespread social upheaval. As I say, I may be overinterpreting, but re-writing the complete and utter shit show that was the 14th century with added vampires is a stroke of genius in my book.
This is just the first book in the series so there will be plenty of room for Kristoff to go astray, but this is a solid first instalment.