Tuesday, February 4, 2014

By Blood We Live

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The publisher graciously provided me with a galley copy of this novel.)

By Blood We Live, Glen Duncan
17 January to 2 February 2014 
4 / 5 stars

I can't say I was delighted when I found out that Glen Duncan, one of my long-time favorite living writers, had a werewolf novel in the works, let alone a whole trilogy of 'em; I can say, however, that when The Last Werewolf came out a few years ago, it won me over in a matter of pages, as tackling the ever- (and, for me, maddeningly) popular paranormal-beastie fad did nothing to diminish the elements of Duncan's writing that have kept me a loyally, fanatically enrapt reader of his works for more than a decade. Because, really, I read Duncan for the achingly gorgeous writing, and he does have an exemplary track record of wringing poignantly universal truths of the human condition from otherwordly characters, as he proved with earlier works like I, Lucifer and Death of an Ordinary Man.

By Blood We Live, the most recent installment in Duncan's werewolf saga, doesn't pick up exactly where the series' second book, Talulla Rising left off. The werewolf pack comprising Talulla, her three-year-old twins, her lover Walker, and a few of their were-pals is hunkered down in its newest temporary haven and waiting for their monthly transformation but to get to their story, one must first encounter the 20,000-year-old vampire Remshi, who just awoke from an unplanned two-year hibernation of sorts after running into Talulla and swearing that she is the reincarnation of his long-ago werewolf lover. To complicate the already hairy issues that arise from eating people and the existential crises such gory imperatives tend to bring, the usual self-righteously obsessed group of monster-hunters (the Vatican-based Militi Christi has supplanted the now-defunct World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena as The Enemy) is determined to take down all the paranormal monsters (and publicly bring Talulla to the light of God, whom she makes no secret of believing dead) as the human world has slowly begun to accept that it's sharing living space with supernatural apex predators who feed on them, which thoroughly mucks up the vampires' and werewolves' secrecy, plans and whatever degrees of normalcy their respective curses allow them.

What makes a genre that isn't easy (again, for me) to take seriously actually work for this novel and its two predecessors is that Duncan uses supernatural characters to expose otherwise wholly human impulses, fears, motives, and struggles to reconcile reality's ugliness with the individual's impossible wants. Myriad Big Issues--life, death, love, fate, religion--get ample air time as they're examined from all angles by all kinds of beasties. Rather than sticking with a primary point of view like the preceding two books did, By Blood We Live is a story told by its vampires and werewolves alike, allowing the fantastic elements to serve the story rather than the other way around. We get to see their shared sympathetic understanding of each other as well as how each curse affects the afflicted differently through a host of variables ranging from lifespan to mental state to current preoccupations. While this method of storytelling does betray that all of Duncan's characters are prone to similar bouts of matter-of-fact pontificating, it's hard to justify complaining about narrators' common predilection for high-minded observation and ten-dollar words: If nothing else, it turns a currently over-sexed genre into something much more intellectually and emotionally compelling.

The demonstratively reiterated humanity of monsters and monstrosity of humans is an effective somersault of expectations. The werewolves and vampires alike in Duncan's lore feel the lives they've taken swimming through their blood, allowing the until-recently unsympathetically rendered beasts to feel a morally ambiguous mix of secondhand human memories they can only enjoy vicariously, a conflicted dominance over their food source and jealousy of its comparatively uncomplicated existence, and an understanding acceptance of why their prey is eager to rid the world of the unnatural threat it fears. The supernatural cast are but slaves to the biological need for regular slaughter and each have to make their peace with it in order to go on living; the so-called army of God out to destroy Talullah, Remshi and their kin are doing so without the twinges of conscience their supposedly monstrous counterparts suffer. It's a subtle enough shift to underscore the point without beating the reader over the head with it while putting basic human turmoil on a grander stage for better observation.

Of all the recurring elements waltzing through this novel, the echos of Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" was both the most unexpected and the most satisfying, especially as someone (once again, like me) who is just over the moon for Stephen King's Dark Tower series based on the same poem. It is so geekily gratifying as when literary worlds collide, and whispers of Roland's quest resurfacing in the narrative with an increasing frequency as Duncan's story hurdled forward made for recent memory's best surprise comminglings of two unrelated written works. Like Roland, who's the last of his people in both his indigenous poem and King's seven-volume series, Talullah and Remshi know a thing or two about seemingly meaningless, circuitous quests and an unfathomable life span that spreads far beyond the finite days of their natural peers.

The novel ends with confirmation that the war between the non-human factions and mortals is just beginning, and modern times make living under the low-visibility an immortal being needs to avoid becoming an obvious target a more difficult task than it was in the less tech- and surveillance-besotted past. By Blood We Live does both its readers and characters the compliments of an unresolved ending, as a book cannot wax eloquent about the cruelties of the world continuing to forge ahead in the face of death without doing so itself, as it would cheapen the elements of messy truth within to wrap them up with a convenient but wholly unrealistic tidiness. The world Duncan has created for his characters bears a striking resemblance to our real one in that it spins on the axis of life trudging onward well after individual stories end.

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