Turgid supernatural soap opera

23 Mar

I know I should read Proust and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and all those people, but I don’t. I haven’t read “literature” since I nodded off in American Short Story in the 10th grade. But I know I should read that stuff because I absorb what I read and it is reflected in how I write.

But *alas*, I read for entertainment. To relax, to pass the time. Anything that I perceive remotely as, “this reading is GOOD for me, it will enhance me as a writer and/or person”, I won’t touch. It’s *work*, and all the pleasure dribbles out of it.

The preceding was my long neurotic apologetic preface to my review of the Tanya Huff Blood series, which falls somewhere in that nether region between fantasy and horror where BtVS and Angel ambiguously reside. And in fact, it was the resemblance of this series, in spirit, if not in level of writing quality, to BtVS/Angel that kept me reading through five books.

Specifically, this series has (1) richly drawn protagonist characters, (2) a hidden world of the “supernatural” existing within our world that our protagonists must enter and investigate and participate in to varying degrees, (3) a writing style that is humorous and a bit irreverent and yet at the same time takes its subject matter seriously, (4) and butofcourse, soap opera. Angst and passion and relationships.

(1) The protagonists: The books center around a 30-ish Toronto detective named Vicki Nelson. When we meet her in book 1, she has been diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition (retinitis pigmentosa) that has necessitated her resignation from the police force. She has gone into business for herself as a detective for hire. She eventually comes to specialize in supernatural cases.

Joining her in her adventures are (a) her ex-partner on the force, Mike Celluci, (b) a vampire she meets in the first book, Henry Fitzroy, and (c) a street kid (teenager) named Tony.

Celluci is very Italian and very much a cop–rugged, intelligent, competent, with very conventional thinking about most things. It takes him a while to get used to the idea of the supernatural events and creatures that become part of Vicki’s life. Once he does, though, he’s handy to have around. Until, of course, he thinks he needs to run everything and do everything himself. Then he’s a pain.

Henry Fitzroy sounds like he should be a very colorful character and yet he’s not. Not really. Tanya Huff is fond of pausing before Henry is about to do something and introducing him to the reader all over again: “Henry Fitzroy, 450-year old vampire, bastard son of Henry VIII, ex-Duke of Richmond, etc etc etc…” Suffice it to say he was the illegitimate child of a certain notorious British king and was vamped at the age of 17. Now he lives a quiet unlife in Toronto writing romance novels under a female pseudonym and hunting the night for human blood which he takes without killing (much). He is a subdued individual until something brings out the “royal bastard” in him.

Tony is a street kid that Vicki knew from her cop days. She introduces him to Henry, and Henry and Tony become on-again, off-again lovers. Tony is handy to have around as “the ear to the streets”, getting an angle on Vicki’s cases that they otherwise would not be able to get.

Vicki is my favorite character. She’s smart, independent, irreverent, fallible, and at times almost as macho as Celluci. She’s the quintessential 30-something “marriage, as if!” working woman.

(2) The “supernatural”: While starting up a normal detective business in the first book, Vicki stumbles into a case involving a demon who is running around tearing people to shreds. In the second book, Henry introduces her to a family of werewolves who are being stalked and systematically killed. In the third book, the gang has to foil the plot of an ancient Egyptian mummy come back to life. In the fourth book, a university student is creating zombies. And in the fifth book, a ghost is haunting Henry. In each book, Vicki Nelson, Private Investigator, Supernatural Cases a Specialty, is on the case.

Above, I put the word “supernatural” in quotes, because Huff does not treat all the unusual creatures in her books as equally at odds with the laws of nature. Demons are summoned by magic and mummies are created by magic, and are in that sense, supernatural.

Werewolves and vampires, on the other hand, both seem to be unusual physiological variations rather than supernatural creatures. In fact, Huff seems especially fascinated with creating human-like creatures who display different kinds of predatory behavior normally seen in animals in nature–in the case of the werewolf, pack behavior; in the case of vampires, lone territorial behavior that makes them unable to abide other predators in their hunting grounds.

Huff’s zombies are very much the products of science, while her ghosts seem mostly supernatural critters.

Other than the fact that these creatures exist and human villains sometimes are the reason these beasties are around and Vicki and her friends try to foil the baddies, Vicki Nelson’s world is our world. She doesn’t want her ex-cop colleagues knowing the kinds of cases she’s taking on, and humans who get involved with these creatures often end up having that convenient “it never happened” attitude towards the supernatural events they participated in ala BtVS.

(3) Huff’s writing style is absorbing. It’s not Art, but it keeps you from noticing your 50-minute one-way commute, and what else can you ask, most days?

(4) Soap opera: Vicki and Celluci are on-again, off-again lovers. Vicki thinks they have a friendship and a casual sexual relationship. Celluci wants more of a commitment. Enter Henry, who gradually insinuates himself into Vicki’s life with his mysterious Prince of Darkness aura, ostensibly as a business consultant, but soon Vicki’s other friend-and-casual-lover. At the same time, Henry starts seeing Tony as well.

OK, so let’s see. Celluci loves Vicki. Vicki likes Celluci a lot but she also likes Henry. Tony loves Henry, but Henry is in love with Vicki. Vicki wants both Henry and Celluci, but not in a committed relationship. Yet she’s jealous of Tony. And both Celluci and Henry are a bit old-fashioned when it comes to love and don’t care much for each other.

Is all this Tanya Huff’s wish-fulfillment? Yeah, well, so what if it is? It’s probably a lot of women’s wish-fulfillment: “Gee, who should I sleep with tonight? My rugged cop boyfriend, or my suave, aristocratic vampire boyfriend?” Vicki Nelson is not a Mary Sue by any means, and watching her stumble her way (both literally, and figuratively) to the solution to her cases with the help and hindrance of her friends is a lot of fun.

All their mutual passion and angst gets thrown on its ear at the end of book 4, however, when an unexpected event I won’t spoil you for throws the relationships of Vicki, Celluci, and Henry on its ear. It’s an interesting change for the series, although I do have to say I like Vicki as a character better in the first four books than in the fifth book.

(5) If there is any real flaw to Huff’s books, it is the human villains. Huff has done a great job of creating these rich, believable protagonists and metaphysically complex (super)natural non-human villains, and then gives us these unsympathetic two-dimensional human villains. The self-involved nerd no one likes who raises demons to change his luck. The ambitious university professor who thinks she’ll get the Nobel prize for conquering death. They’re all sociopathic foils, pure and simple, and it’s jarring to read.

The other thing that might be disconcerting to some is the limited omniscient point of view Huff writes in, where she skips from point of view to point of view within the same chapter. You’re in Vicki’s head, and then suddenly, you’re in Celluci’s. Oh, now Vicki’s again. It’s never confusing, really, who’s thoughts are whom’s, its just a bit jarring.

The titles of these books are a marketing gimmick I’m sure, in the sense that the word “blood” has different connotations in each title and is more there for effect than meaning:

1 Blood Price
2 Blood Trail
3 Blood Lines
4 Blood Pact
5 Blood Debt

7 Responses to “Turgid supernatural soap opera”

  1. lakrids404 March 24, 2004 at 4:11 am #

    Stupid question perhaps
    But do you the blood series on online version?

  2. neshaffer March 24, 2004 at 9:35 am #

    Re: Stupid question perhaps
    Not that I can find, but you can buy it pretty cheap on amazon.

  3. rahael March 24, 2004 at 10:24 am #

    Soup buying can wait for a bit!
    I was going to ask you whether I would like her. I do need a new author to read becuase I have a long train journey coming up in the near future.
    Fandom recs are unpredictable. Frex, I got Laurie R King from Fresne and Arethusa, and that’s been wonderful. But I flicked through one of the Anita Blake books in the bookshop (and she gets recced all over) and I didn’t think it was for me at all.
    So would a Harry Potter Reading, Diana Wynne Jones loving, Proust fanatic like Huff?

  4. neshaffer March 24, 2004 at 10:43 am #

    Who can tell?
    So would a Harry Potter Reading, Diana Wynne Jones loving, Proust fanatic like Huff?
    One reason I’m so glad my city has a well-stocked public library is so I can check out my friend’s recs and see if I care for them before I spend any actual Money on them.
    I have to admit, my reading tastes are pretty idiosyncratic. I can like one book in a genre and not another, one book by an author, and not another. My personal library isn’t truly eclectic, though, because I tend to be attracted to books with certain themes or character types, and I’ll hunt all over amazon and used bookstores until I find something that appeals to me.
    The Huff books are not unintelligent. They’re crime novels of a sort, where our trepid investigators are hunting down the culprits. There’s always an element of the supernatural in the cases, but they aren’t mystery novels as such because the reader is invariably taken into the bad guy’s head and life at some point in the first few chapters.
    The good guy characters are interesting and complex, as I said, and the human bad guys are almost invariably two-dimensional. It’s an annoyance, somehow more annoying than Rowling’s two-dimensional bad guys.
    It’s really hard to say if you’d like them or not. These books are about as close to “escapism” as I get–they require actual thought to read, but that’s water off a duck’s back to me. I’m in it for the cool monsters and the soap opera (which isn’t over the top, btw, it’s actually well done, a “soap” in the sense that BtVS was a “soap”).
    BTW, is d’Herb back from his trip yet?

  5. rahael March 24, 2004 at 3:30 pm #

    Re: Who can tell?
    Crime novels? That;s the hook to get me interested! I’ll keep my eye out for them.
    d’H still isn’t back! He must be back this weekend. I’m missing him terribly!

  6. neshaffer March 24, 2004 at 4:19 pm #

    Re: Who can tell?
    His wit and incisiveness leave a distinct hole when he is gone.

  7. neshaffer March 24, 2004 at 4:22 pm #

    Re: Who can tell?
    Crime novels? That;s the hook to get me interested! I’ll keep my eye out for them.
    Well, crimes with a supernatural angle to them. And since the reader knows whodunit, you get to watch Vickie and her friends put the clues together and solve the case while you know if they’re getting warm or cold. It’s interesting that way, IMO. I could never figure out the clues in real mystery novels where whodunit is unknown. I’m just not observant enough!

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