Tuesday 15 September 2015

Book Review: Barbara Hambly – 'Darkness On His Bones'

'Darkness On His Bones'

Having unfortunately been unacquainted with the previous five instalments of Barbara Hambly's novels following the exploits of James Asher, this review is approached with no preconceived notions based on the rest of the series, and as such is analysed as a standalone novel.

Set against the back drop of imminent war between the imperial powers of 1914, James Asher – a scholar, spy, and vampire hunter – is investigating a threat to the Parisian vampires when his is savagely attacked and left for dead. It is then his wife Lydia and an old friend in the form of the vampire Don Simon Ysidro whom Lydia has called on for help as she tries to piece together James' movements before he was left in a coma. War is declared and forces begin to move against the trio. As James comes out of his coma the shelling of Paris begins, still ailing there is a desperate race to move the ailing investigator as his original purpose remains shrouded in a veil of dreams that must be unravelled before a sinister evil moves against them.

If you are new to the series and vampire fiction in general, even with this being number six in line of novels, it is still pretty easy to get into. The characters are pretty well formed – the scholarly James asher torn between duty and friendship, the noble but damned Simon, and Lydia with her secret love for the vampire – the setting is also and easy one to be drawn into with the First World War gaining more media coverage recently due to it's centenary. In that respect the setting and plot at first glance may be unremarkable, but Hambly is a damn good writer and her brand of vampire owes just as much to folklore as to Anne Rice.

There are the now familiar trappings of elegant and hedonistic nobility, but these are much more violent and predatory creatures than Lestat, Louis and Armand. They have claws, gaunt corpse-like features and move in a much more supernatural manner benefiting their undead title. Hambly gives some much needed bite back to these creatures after the genre's wasted pandering to teenage fantasies over the paste decade.

Hambly's writing style is eloquent, descriptive and makes great use of analysing the wider environment to give a solid perception of her characters' surroundings. She uses the unseen forces of the vampires and the advancing Imperial German army to build a palpable tension that doesn't want to release it's hold. It is an engaging and fast paced text that keeps you wanting to turn the page.

However there are two main issues with the wider construction of the novel. The first is the heavy use of dreams. These by their very nature are hard to follow and occasionally you are forced to go back and re-read passages when you realise that there was a significant development that you missed as your mind plays catch-up to the surreal twists has just tried to visualise before jumping to something else. This si hard to get right and the over reliance on this device does slow down the pace and muddy things up somewhat,

The second issues is with the point of view. The narrative switches back and forth between the point of view of Lydia (who dominates a good portion of the book) and James (who does his best work in his dreams in this outing it seems). Lydia's point of view with her infatuation with the vampire Simon, and her attempts to keep up appearances as the horror of war draws ever closer, provide quite a bit meatier than James rather confused and matter-of-fact mindset.

On the whole though, this was a gripping and fast-paced book that helps to bring the vampire fiction genre back from the edge and into respectability once again. It may have its foibles and get bogged down every so often, but nonetheless it is a solid read that, if you are new to the series, will make you want to explore more of this world.  

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