Tuesday, September 14, 2021

A Taint in the Blood

It's hard to believe S. M. Stirling's A TAINT IN THE BLOOD (2010) has already passed the ten-year mark since publication, which qualifies it as an "older work" by the criterion I've been using for these posts. The trilogy of which it's the first volume may be undeservedly obscure among the vampire fan community, since Stirling is best known for his alternate history science fiction. So here's my attempt to remedy that omission.

Stirling's Shadowspawn trilogy takes obvious inspiration from Jack Williamson's classic DARKER THAN YOU THINK (1940). There's even an explicit homage to that novel in one passage of dialogue. Like Williamson's Homo lycanthropus, the Shadowspawn embody the truth behind the legends of werewolves, vampires, witches, demons, incubi, and cruel gods who demand human sacrifice. Myths and fairy tales worldwide preserve ancestral memories of the prehistoric Empire of Shadow. These creatures can leave their bodies and, while incorporeal, wear different shapes. They can twist probability to perform feats that look like magic to ordinary mortals. At death, if they successfully transition, they become permanently incorporeal and much more powerful than in the "birth body." Silver hurts them, and sunlight and nuclear radiation have deadly effects on the incorporeal form. Stirling updates the concept with references to DNA and quantum entanglement. For instance, in order to assume the astral form of another animal or person, his vampires must ingest material containing the DNA of the chosen subject. They have immense power to control human minds and manipulate the target's perception of reality, including the ability to "carry" the psyche of a victim within their own mental landscape, indistinguishable in all sensory respects from the material world. The Shadowspawn can even extend this captivity beyond the subject's physical death, granting a nightmarish sort of immortality. Members of the Homo sapiens nocturnus species frequently indulge in the consumption of human blood for the pleasure of it, although while still in the birth body they can enjoy ordinary food. Moreover, they require blood to fuel "Wreaking," the exercise of their psychic gifts. In the process of Wreaking, they sometimes speak a sinister, ancient tongue called Mhabrogast, which is either the native language of Hell, the operating code of the universe, or both.

Adrian, the hero, and his cruel yet charismatic twin sister Adrienne are among the few near-purebloods, having a higher percentage of Shadowspawn genes than anyone previously born since the fall of the Empire of Shadow. Their twin children (conceived several years before A TAINT IN THE BLOOD through Adrienne's incestuous rape of Adrian) are, of course, even less human, but the second and third volumes of the trilogy strongly imply that, under Adrian's care, they may grow up valuing humanity as he does. Adrian remains recognizable as a dangerous, inhuman predator even while he struggles against his darker urges, determined to live as a "good" monster. To fuel his powers, he drinks bottled blood, which tastes terrible. As part of Adrienne's ongoing love-hate obsession with her brother, she kidnaps his human lover, Ellen, who until that night has no idea of his true nature. Adrian has broken away from his species' bloodthirsty lifestyle and is trying to live as nearly as possible like an ordinary human man. He works with his old friend and mentor from the Brotherhood, a secret organization fighting against the Shadowspawn. Most of its members, ironically, carry a higher than average proportion of nocturnus genes and use the resulting psychic abilities to protect ordinary humanity. In the process of Adrian's rescue of Ellen, the couple gets entangled in the Brotherhood's fight against a long-term plot to reduce Earth's overpopulation (as the Shadowspawn see it) and restore the vampire-shapeshifter-sorcerers' open rule over humanity. The sequels, THE COUNCIL OF SHADOWS and SHADOWS OF FALLING NIGHT, narrate the outcome of this conflict.

The main limits on the Shadowspawn's power arise from their sociopathic level of sadism and their reluctance, as solitary predators, to trust each other. Only their residual human genes enable them to work together at all. Despite their preternatural powers, they are on average no more intelligent than ordinary people; in fact, reliance on their psychic gifts tends to make them mentally lazy as well as arrogant. Since they've bred with their human prey over the millennia, near-purebloods are rare, and many members of the general population have some measure of the vampires' paranormal mental abilities. Depending on the percentage of Homo sapiens nocturnus genes, the resulting traits range from simple talents for reliable "hunches" to psychic powers that approach those of true Shadowspawn. Both the vilest tyrants and the holiest saints tend to have high proportions of nocturnus DNA, the latter reacting against their predatory instincts. Individuals who fall in the middle of the continuum, with enough Shadowspawn genes to crave blood but not enough to gain nourishment from it, become deranged serial killers. Some people willingly submit to the monsters and embrace the roles of "renfields" (servants and employees) and "lucies" (blood donors). Lucies are bound to their masters or mistresses by a blend of fear, addiction, and sometimes adoration, while renfields serve from a variety of motives, from the purely mercenary to a sense of obligation for favors received.

These three novels sparkle with lively characterization, sharply witty dialogue, and complex worldbuilding. The exposition of Shadowspawn evolution and biology is fascinating, and I wished for lots more of it. Adrian comes across as an irresistibly engaging good-guy monster. Ellen, while imprisoned in the luxurious private community that's essentially a very comfortable Shadowspawn livestock ranch, never succumbs to despair and even holds her own against Adrienne, at the same time making friends with some of the other lucies and ultimately cooperating in her own escape. Yes, the Shadowspawn-lucy dynamic includes sadomasochism, but it's only implied and discussed, never graphically portrayed. I'm thoroughly squeamish about such things, yet nothing in the trilogy squicked me. I consider A TAINT IN THE BLOOD one of the best vampire novels of the new millennium so far, a thrill no fan of scientifically explained vampires, werewolves, and magic should pass up. Although the third volume concludes with potential hooks for more stories, unfortunately as far as I know there's no prospect of additional sequels.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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