Tag: Tanya Huff

Urban Fantasy Vampires

Ever since discovering the work of Anne Rice when I was about fifteen, I’ve been more or less obsessed with vampires, which tend to rise and fall in the trends of speculative fiction literature in a somewhat cyclical fashion. They’ve been having a bit of a quiescence since the hype of Twilight settled down, but I’ve recently been craving a return to this obsession that never dies. I’m impatiently awaiting the publication of Vampires Never Get Old next week, a short story anthology that brings together authors like Zoraida Córdova, Dhonielle Clayton, and Julie Murphy with fresh takes on an old favourite. While I was waiting, I decided to revisit some classics from the vampire urban fantasy oeuvre, and see how they held up. (Fellow UNBC alum: Yes, these were all on the syllabus from Dr. Stan Beeler’s English 486 Literature of the Fantastic course!)

Blood Price

Cover image for Blood Price by Tanya HuffOriginally published in 1991, Blood Price by Canadian SFF writer Tanya Huff is probably the oldest book I’ve read that could classed as urban fantasy. Vicki Nelson has recently retired from the Toronto police force at the ripe old age of 31, due to her rapidly deteriorating vision caused by retinitis pigmentosa. A former rising star within the department, Vicki still feels like she has a lot to prove, and she’s set up shop as a private investigator. In Blood Price, she is hired by a wealthy college student to investigate the murder of her boyfriend. As the killings continue, the local press begins speculating about vampires, as all the victims have been drained of blood. While she tries to keep an open mind, what Vicki never expected was to run into a real vampire who is trying to solve the murders himself, before the press draws too much attention to the potential existence of his kind. Part of the great fun of this series in the vampire himself, Henry Fitzroy, who is the bastard son of King Henry VIII. In 1990s Toronto, he is making a living as a romance novelist, penning historical bodice rippers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Fitzroy.

This was a fun reread that has held up in many respects, but aged markedly in others. The human villain of this installment is an angry young, white, male college student who feels he hasn’t received everything to which he is entitled, something that still rings so true as to almost be too on the nose. When this novel was published, the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989 would have been a still fresh event, and not much has changed since. A lot of the plot turns on answering machines, and people waiting for phone calls, something I didn’t notice when I first read this book in 2008 with a flip phone in my purse, but which is glaringly obvious in 2020 with everyone glued to their smartphones. I’m also less interested in police protagonists, and cringed really hard when Vicki’s former partner, Mike, made a joke about police brutality.

Guilty Pleasures

Cover image for Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. HamiltonPublished in 1993, this still ongoing series is often cited among the influences of urban fantasy writers, though my 2002 paperback edition describes it as “a heady mix of romance and horror,” and the cover blurbs are mostly from mystery rather than SFF writers. Guilty Pleasures introduces Anita Blake, zombie raiser and vampire hunter. Although her primary job is raising the dead, Anita sidelines in killing rogue vampires, and in this first installment of what is now a 27 book series, she is hired to investigate the murders of four vampires. Pressured into undertaking the investigation against her better judgement, Anita finds herself pulled into vampire politics, squaring off against the terrifying Master of the City of St. Louis, and upending the balance of power in a way that will inevitably bind her to the supernatural world, and to the handsome and alluring vampire Jean-Claude.

Urban fantasy is split into those series in which the supernatural world is secret and those in which it is openly acknowledged—sometimes with a transition in which the supernatural world is unveiled. This series begins two years after vampires become legally recognized in the United States, and one thing I find interesting about this book is the world-building that explores the consequences of such a ruling. Vampires can use their abilities for commerce—as we see at the vampire strip club Guilty Pleasures—or to found their own religions, as with the Church of Eternal Life, a vampire church being a truly fascinating concept in a world Laurell K. Hamilton also chooses to have holy objects repel her vampires. This series has transformed and reincarnated itself several times over the nearly thirty years it has been running, and I haven’t read a new installment in over a decade, but it was nevertheless illuminating to revisit. Even if the plot also heavily figured answering machines. Go figure.

Dead Until Dark

Cover image for Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisBetter known for its 2008 television adaptation True Blood, Dead Until Dark was originally published in 2001. Set in rural northern Louisiana, it follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic waitress. Like the Anita Blake series, these books take place about two years after vampires have “come out of the coffin,” and the book opens with Sookie meeting her first vampire, Bill Compton, who has returned Bon Temps to reclaim his family’s property there now that vampires have been legally recognized. Regarded as somewhat crazy by her neighbours, who don’t really want to believe in her psychic abilities, Sookie has faced a lot of social rejection before Bill rolls into town, but she is surprised to find that—unlike humans—she can’t hear vampire thoughts. She quickly falls into a romance with Bill, but this attachment is complicated by local suspicions about the newcomer, a series of murders of young women known to have associated with vampires, and the fact the vampires would very much like to put Sookie’s psychic talents to their own uses.

Urban fantasies commonly feature working class protagonists, but Sookie is notable for her pride in her job as a waitress, and her defensiveness about anyone who tries to put her down for being low class or air-headed because of her lack of education or her choice of employment. Much of the action centers on her interactions with patrons at Merlotte’s, the local watering hole. Dead Until Dark has one of the most rural settings of any urban fantasy series I’ve read, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, but Harris turns small town life to good effect, even as she pulls in wider vampire politics with Sookie becoming enmeshed in the supernatural community. The big cringe here might be when Sookie’s grandmother invites Bill over to talk to her about the Civil War, and she seems fascinated and delighted when he is able to tell her that her husband’s family owned two slaves. And yes, in case you were wondering, there were several plot points featuring answering machines. So let that be a lesson to you writers out there; vampires may never get old, but the technology you include in your stories will!

Have you got favourite vampire reading recommendations? Hit me in the comments!

More Vampire Reads:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Sing the Four Quarters

Cover image for Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff by Tanya Huff

ISBN 0886776287

“Annice had been fourteen when she left the palace for Bardic Hall in Elbasan and while she never regretted the decision, she did occasionally wish that some things could’ve been different.”

Travelling to every corner of the kingdom of Shkoder, it is a bard’s calling to carry news, gather intelligence for the crown, and help administer justice by binding witnesses to speak only the truth at trial. Bards are also magicians, Singing to the Elements to call the kigh of Earth, Air, Fire, or Water to their service. Most bards have a strength, but some rare talents such as Annice, can Sing all four. Or at least, Annice could until she discovered she was pregnant. As the child grows, so does her affinity for Earth, until soon the other Elementals will have nothing to do with her. But losing her talent isn’t Annice’s only problem; ten years ago her brother, King Theron, disowned her and forbid her from bearing any children that might muddy the line of succession. Worse, the father of Annice’s child, Pjerin, Duc of Ohrid has just been accused of treason as well. Now Annice must not only find a way to mend the break from her family, she must also convince the King that the father of her child has been framed.

As becomes evident early in the novel, Annice is pregnant, although it takes her much longer than the reader to realize it. I wasn’t sure how I felt initially about Tanya Huff’s choice to hamstring Annice’s abilities simply because she was pregnant. However, it did add some interesting conflicts and limitations to the story while helped me reconcile to the decision. For instance, eliminating her ability to call the Air kigh is the fantasy equivalent of taking away Annice’s cellphone; she can no longer send or receive messages from other bards while she is out on the road. The positive trade-off is that the King’s Guard cannot command the other bards to use the Air kigh to locate Annice when she goes on the lam with Pjerin at seven months pregnant.

Although the book is primarily about Annice’s estranged relationship with her family, and the looming war with the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, she also has two romantic interests, Pjerin and Stasya. Pjerin is the father of her child, and the two bicker like an old married couple once the plot finally gets them in the same place, but it quickly becomes evident that they don’t actually like each other that much, at least not romantically. Back home at Bardic Hall in Elbasan, Annice also has a longstanding liaison with Stasya, a fellow bard who seems partly bemused and partly annoyed by Annice’s interest in men. In general, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry or pull towards either love interest, but fortunately this is not the focus of the story, and in many ways actually adds to rather than detracts from the novel.

As is common in Tanya Huff’s fantasy novels, same sex relationships are common and unremarkable. In Sing the Four Quarters, this is true not just in Shkoder, but in other kingdoms as well, as evidenced by the early off-hand comment that one of Theron and Annice’s brothers made a marriage alliance with a distant nobleman. Homophobia is simply not a factor here. Instead, prejudice is attached to the ability to command the elements. In the neighbouring kingdom of Cemandia, this ability is viewed as unnatural, leading to tensions between the two countries. Annice also has an open relationship with Stasya; though the two go out separately to Walk the roads of Shkoder, they always come home to Bardic Hall and one another. Both their open relationship and Annice’s bisexuality are treated as entirely unremarkable, so if this is something you find enjoyable and refreshing in your fantasy, I can recommend this book in particular, but also Tanya Huff’s work more generally. Although this is the first in a series of books set in this world, each of the subsequent books follows different characters, so that Sing the Four Quarters can easily be read as a standalone.

You might also like Of Fire and Stars 

We Need Diverse Books

Over the past week or so, I’ve been quietly watching and listening to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and conversation. Being white, straight, and able-bodied, and generally pretty privileged, I felt like listening was my job. But I also need to speak up at least long enough to say that I read and support diverse books, and I want more of them. It’s wonderful to see myself in literature, but it would be pretty damn boring if every character was just like me. I want to hear from, and about, people from all walks of life. Here are some fantastic diverse books that I have enjoyed:

Cover image for The Buddha in the Attic by Julie OtsukaWritten from the perspective of a collective “we,” Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic relates the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Betrothed to men they had chosen from photographs, and promised a more comfortable life across the sea, these women left their homes and families for a hard new life on America’s frontier. Many arrive to realize that the husbands they were promised were mere fictions, and the men they are expected to marry are poor migrant agricultural workers. The lives they are able to build for themselves over years of hard work are abruptly yanked away from them with the onset of World War II and the institution of the Japanese internment camps.

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan takes us back to World War II Europe, as jazz musicians Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths relive their memories of that time. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. 

Cover image for Golden Boy by Abigail TarttelinIn Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttlein tells the story of Max Walker. Smart, athletic, and popular, Max seems to have everything going for him. He is loved by his parents, idolized by his younger brother,  and adored by his peers. But all his life, Max and his parents have been hiding a secret; he is intersex. Dating makes it hard enough to conceal this fact, but when Max is raped by a childhood friend, it seems that his secret will inevitably come out. The upheaval comes at the worst possible time; Steven Walker is about to stand for Parliament, and the ravenous British paparazzi that ran the previous candidate out of office may descend on the Walkers at any moment.

Cover Image for The Silvered by Tanya HuffCanadian LGBT author Tanya Huff often writes about straight protagonists, but in every book, you will find queer secondary characters, and wonderful female heroes. IThe Silvered, she reworks the concept of the werewolf, creating a complex social structure which combines werewolves and mages. Their country and their culture are under siege by an ever-expanding, Napoleon-esque Empire which regards the Pack as abomination. Bigotry, xenophobia, and racism complicate novice mage Mirian Maylin’s efforts to save the Mage-Pack after five members are kidnapped by the Emperor. 

Cover image for Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMaggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, a dyslexic boy keeps his mismatched eyes downcast, and tries to be invisible at school. In the dystopian society where Standish lives, being different is dangerous. Dyslexic herself, author Sally Gardner has created a wonderfully relatable hero whose learning disability isn’t a secret super power. This novel is best read with as few spoilers as possible. 

 

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissSometimes truth is better than fiction, and more diverse, too. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss profiles Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist. The son of an itinerant French nobleman and his black slave mistress, Dumas was born on Saint-Domingue, and became a free man when his father took him to France, where slavery was illegal. He received a traditional French education before joining the army. As a person of colour, Dumas arrived in France at a peculiar moment in history, when rising Republican ideals would enable him to achieve incredible military acclaim despite his race, eventually becoming a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for Dumas, the window of opportunity was short, and when Napoleon rose to power, the fortunes of the gens de couleur did not rise with him. 

 

The Silvered

Cover Image for The Silvered by Tanya Huffby Tanya Huff

ISBN 978-0756407438

Tanya Huff has written about werewolves before, in her urban fantasy Blood Trail (1992). However, she masterfully reworks the concept in The Silvered, creating a complex social structure which combines werewolves and mages. Their country and their culture are under siege by an ever-expanding, Napoleon-esque Empire which regards the Pack as abomination. Bigotry, xenophobia, and racism complicate novice mage Mirian Maylin’s efforts to save the Mage-Pack after five members are kidnapped by the Emperor. The daughter of a banker and a social climber, she has little experience with magecraft or Pack politics, but feels compelled to act. Her only helper is Tomas Hagen, the young, impulsive brother of the Pack leader.

As usual, Huff can be counted on to deliver strong, hilarious female characters as most of the men in the story are out of commission, and it is up to the women to save themselves. Although many of these women posses great power, circumstances bring it down to their wits and strength of character as much as their magical abilities. Magic, far from being a cure-all, only serves to make the situation more complex. The Emperor seeks to pit science against magecraft, but wit and common sense prove more important than either. The majority of the main characters are women but there are some great male characters in this story as well, particularly imperial Captain Sean Reiter, who is central to—but not exactly happy about—the kidnapping plot, and Gryham and Jake, a couple whose appearance in the story is all too brief.

On a technical note, the Kindle edition of this title does (as of my reading) include a small formatting error in which the dropped capitals at the beginning of each paragraph are in fact, dropped, and appear about halfway down the page. Paper editions of this title do not contain this quirk.