With vampire/werewolf chick-lit becoming an established sub-genre these days, any new arrival on the bookshelves has to challenge the competition with something inventive, and indeed, must bring an original slant to all those monsters that we’re now so familiar with, from the days of black-and-white Universal Studios creature-features onwards.
Tanya Huff certainly does this, firstly by taking an entirely different starting point, that of the independently-minded female private eye so beloved of crime and mystery fiction, and secondly by setting her stories firmly in contemporary Canada. It should also be noted that, while the books are currently new to the UK, she began writing this series in 1991, well before the advent of Buffy or any of her literary sisters. This series is in no sense following a current trend but should be considered a forerunner of much that’s followed.
In Blood Price, Vicki Nelson has been forced out of the Toronto Police Department by diminishing eyesight but, refusing to give in, she has set up her own investigations business. So when she finds a horribly mutilated body on a subway platform she isn’t about to forget about it unless she gets some answers. The tabloids soon have their answer: a vampire is stalking the city. This happens to be true, only he isn’t the one doing the killing.
This prince of darkness is indeed of royal blood, namely Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, who would actually rather be left to his quiet, agreeable life as a writer of historical romances. Faithful Catholic and moral being, he’s as keen as Vicki to lay rumors of vampires to rest, so they join forces after meeting over a corpse freshly slain by a demon. Vicki isn’t about to deny the evidence of her own eyes, even if they are failing her in other respects. Together they have two issues to address; firstly, since demons must be summoned, who’s doing the summoning, and secondly, how is Vicki going to find an explanation that will satisfy the police, especially her erstwhile partner and some-time lover, the tenacious Mike Celluci?
In the subsequent stories in the series, these three protagonists tackle werewolves who are the hunted rather than the hunters, a revenant evil from Ancient Egypt, scientists with a Frankenstein complex and the unquiet dead demanding vengeance. All of these well-established classics are tackled with the same ingenuity and verve, and there are many more merits to these books besides such freshness of imagination.
There’s the writing and the plotting. I want to use the word ‘simple’ but that risks being misread as ‘simplistic’. ‘Direct’ is better, also ‘focused’ and possibly, ‘minimalist,’ in its very best sense. We learn what we need to know, and backgrounds are drawn in with deft strokes to give a solid grounding but there’s no time wasted on irrelevant digression either by author or characters. The books are comparatively short, dialogue-driven and fluently written to make for rapid, easy reading. But that risks implying they are undemanding or unsophisticated and that’s not the case either. These aren’t one-dimensional tales of things that go bump in the night. Human agencies are at work alongside the supernatural, and evil, together with responsibility for it, remains rooted in the everyday world. Thought-provoking undercurrents run beneath the adventures and won’t be ignored. In the same way, the darker inevitabilities of Henry’s nature aren’t obsessed over, but nor are they glossed over for those who would prefer their vampires without the icky bits.
This same ‘less is more’ approach is used to considerable effect in drawing out the characters of Vicki, Henry Fitzroy and Mike Celluci. As their triangular relationship develops, each acts with a refreshing lack of adolescent angst as well as believable maturity and equally convincing petulance on occasion. These are people you can easily believe in. Those who don’t feel the need to read about other people’s sex lives in anatomical detail will be happy to learn that similar sparing use of telling detail suffices in the bedroom scenes. And the relationships between the three of them, together with others, grow and change over the course of these five books, in the light of self-knowledge grudgingly acknowledged as well as after wholly unforeseen events. But that focus I mentioned earlier doesn’t waver. In each case, the story, with the challenge at its heart, remains central to the writing.
These are books that undoubtedly offer innovative ideas to keen readers of vampire/werewolf chick-lit. Equally, they deserve to be read for more reason than that. As pacy, skilful adventure stories, utilizing the strengths of fantasy, crime and thriller/horror writing, they’ll appeal to a wide audience. Read them, and you’ll find yourself plotting ways to get them into the hands of pals regrettably blinkered by genre bias.
This review originally appeared in Emerald City.