Vampires have gotten increasingly complex.
Sure, there was that blip with the Twilight series, where everything went a little backwards with the complexity and ferocity of the un-dead blood-sucker, but overall they have certainly changed with the times. The metaphors that drive human fascination with this particular breed of monster have morphed and expanded as technology and human relations have grown into their present state in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
In my previous reviews of this elegantly penned series, I have touched on much of this—the addiction metaphors, the lab-created blood sources and tropes of the dangers of scientific advancement, the origins in Western European fears of blood pollution by Eastern Europeans, the sexual metaphors springing from the suppression of the Victorian and Edwardian eras—and I don’t want to take up space repeating it.
What I want to touch on here—what really drives Grief for Heart—are the sexual politics and socio-political hierarchies that Ambroziak’s universe has expanded to in this series, for they are as unsettling a commentary on modern “humanity” as I have ever read in a vampire novel.
Although vampires continue to inhabit the screen and especially TV (Preacher’s Cassidy and the ubiquitous vampires of Supernatural), they are more often than not lacking overall in substance. Even Anne Rice appears to have fallen on hard times with her twentieth Lestat book, where she uses an origin story about Atlantis to provide a play-space for her vampires that doesn’t work in the least.
If Anne Rice is out of touch with the times, even with her exploration of genetics and the rest, we have to look elsewhere for our fix. It’s the younger, more modern voices, like Ambroziak’s, that are the ones to see us through to the next phase of vampire tales.
Grief for Heart (building on its trio of predecessors), like the graphic novel-turned-AMC series Preacher, takes as its launching point the traditional vampiric issues of isolation and dis-connection. Being an immortal vampire is a lonely business, and family has now become the driving goal, and the vampires that populate Ambroziak’s world have taken on the problem with all the creativity their preternatural abilities allow.
What is so engaging is that, in the post-plague world of the du Maurier series, there is a complex hierarchy—one that incrementally grows with the books. By Grief for Heart we have traditional humans (many of whom survive by allying with a vampire who uses them for a continual blood supply); the Hematopes or “New Men,” who are genetically engineered; the vampires who have recollections of their past lives with increasing clarity; and the gods and goddesses who inhabit many of the vampires’ bodies and minds.
The socio-political issues at play in Grief for Heart are deep. Entire families are pledged to a single vampire, an apt metaphor for any kind of feudal lord or lady taking advantage of an indentured servitude with no freedom in sight. Additionally, for reasons both internal and external, the vampires also enjoy sexual liberties—as if the taking of blood were not enough (another analog for feudal slavery—including colonial America).
It is impossible to talk about vampire metaphors without getting to the core reasons why vampires continue to hold us in their thrall (pun intended): Addiction and Psychic Vampirism. Both are at play here—and what is most interesting is that the Addiction resides on both sides. The dynamics go well beyond species preservation and a sense of family honor. The humans like it—despite how viciously the vampires (and gods) treat them. So let’s add Abuse as a prevalent theme.
Don’t expect to like anyone in these books. And I don’t believe you need to. Rice’s characters are no longer likable… Lestat should have stayed dead rather than resurrecting into what he has become—a failing bureaucrat. And as much as Preacher’s Cassidy entertains with his one-liners and dark behavior, as much as we want to root for him to find some peace and solace, his depredations and degradations are wholly vampiric. That is, after all, the point. Addiction, Psychic Vampirism, Abuse—these are not to be made light of. Not ever.
Ambroziak’s writing is elegant and rich. There is a hypnotic lilt to her writing that functions like the vampire’s gaze, lulling us ever Inward. The storytelling is structurally sound, unfolding at a comfortable pace and allowing us to languish in the language. And the paying of IOUs and twists, turns, and reveals make it clear that this is not writing on the fly—these stories have been carefully plotted for maximum tension and effect, without being tawdry or merely monster thrill-rides.
Grief for Heart ends on a cliffhanger; I am interested in seeing where the story goes and what new secrets are revealed.
One thing more. Ambroziak managed to write a successful book in a named character series without that character ever appearing in it! Du Maurier is there by implication, of course—his shadow passes over and holds station in equal proportion as the story unfolds, and, through his force of will and cult of personality in the prior three books, it is enough to sate us until his return.
And I do look forward to him returning, to face the hell he’s wrought.
TITLE: Grief for Heart (the fourth book in the Vincent du Maurier series)
AUTHOR: K.P. Ambroziak
Published by the author