Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Blood Opera Sequence - review

Author: Tanith Lee

Contains spoilers

The Blurbs:

Volume 1: Dark Dance – First Published 1992

Rachaela Day leads a grey, uneventful life in the London suburbs – until she receives a mysterious letter from the Scarabae family. Recalling her dead mother’s warnings, she wants nothing to do with them. But they persist: they want her to come and live with them, to be part of their family – to reclaim her dark ancestry…

And suddenly Rachaela has no choice. Losing both her ill paid job and her flat, she is forced to join the family in The House, the great Gothic cliff-top mansion in the middle of nowhere. The house where the apparently ageless Scarabae lurk behind stained-glass windows that block out the unpleasant light of day, where a giant cat stalks the corridors and where, on the night of a storm, the tall dark man of Rachaela’s nightmares appears. And only then will she know the real, chilling reason why the Scarabae worked so hard to bring her into their fold.

Volume 2: Personal Darkness – First Published 1993

Stiff and ancient, their faces blackened, skin pale but unburned, they move across the heaths and hills until they come to the pink-tinged outskirts of the city, where windows glow like Polaroid and the innocent mingle with the damned.

There they make a new home, a beautiful home to replace the one that lies in ashes. Puccini will play, the chessboard will come out, and the seductions and the feasts will begin…

But for motorcycle riding Uncle Camillo, Malach the warrior, for glamorous Althene, and pale-eyed, half-mortal Rachaela, the history of the Scarabae has reached a turning point. One of their own – little, beautiful Ruth – is igniting a blaze of blood and chaos across London so that now, among the deathless ones, a life must be sacrificed, another begun…

Volume 3: Darkness, I – First Published 1994

Lapped in the luxury of Scarabae wealth, lulled by her relationship with Althene, Rachaela has given birth to her second child. A girl. A beautiful, white haired, grey-eyed girl.

But something is wrong, for children do not mature as fast as this one. Her name is Anna, but other than that, little is known.

Before Rachaela can decide who she is, or Malach – in self-imposed exile – can make up his mind, Anna is violently abducted: another victim in a global phenomenon of stolen children.

Cain – monster, blood-lusting genius and outcast of the Scarabae – has Anna now, and has every intention of keeping her. And there she will remain, unless Malach can reclaim her…

The Review

This series was recommended to me by Leila. The first book is a richly evocative modern gothic book, as one would expect from the talent that is Tanith Lee. That said, having completed the first book I was almost ready to go down the ‘Vamp or Not?’ line.

The family, the Scarabae, are the ‘vampires’ in question but that status is somewhat blurred in the first volume. They appear to be longed lived, compared to normal humans, perhaps reaching several centuries and they are aloof to the world. They have been driven out of many countries by the superstitious. They avoid the daylight, but it is not the destroyer one would imagine and there is only one mention of blood drinking and that is during a sexual encounter. It should be noted that, whilst Rachaela’s mother was from out of the family, the Scarabae are incestuous and we hear that it is rare that their seed takes with an ordinary human. Rachaela believes that they have convinced themselves that they are vampires, though it is interesting that we discover that the eldest Scarabae, Camillo, murdered his betrothed when he tried to drink her blood he explains:

“I tried to pretend once I was like Adamus is. I slit her neck with a table knife. But the gene didn’t come out in me.”

This lead me to believe that perhaps vampirism is part of the family, somewhere. Certainly it is a belief shared by one character as several family members are staked. However, stakes kill humans as well as they might kill vampires.

The first novel itself was reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, with the rambling mansion, full of strangeness. Also in the fact that little really occurred in the first volume and yet, as happened with Gormenghast, one becomes sucked into the strange world that Lee draws around us.

The second novel, Personal Darkness, continues the story of the Scarabae – now displaced to London and yet in their displacement a life seems to grow within them. The old family members seem to grow younger as the days pass.

The book is more explosive than the first, following the story of Ruth, young and murderous and how Malach, a Scarabae from mainland Europe, tries to find and tame her. The novel also follows Rachaela as she becomes, despite herself, more at ease with her Scarabae heritage and begins to fit in, to a degree, with the family.

We learn more of the vampiric nature of the Scarabae. In this novel it seems that they drink blood only for sexual gratification, and then only rarely. Ruth drinks the blood of her victims because she deems it necessary, an affirmation of her familial ties. The family are rich and, we discover, extremely powerful, and the long lives they talk of seem to be endless.

Again we hear that the older Scarabae dislike the sun, though it causes no real harm. When Ruth asks Malach why the sun does not affect the two of them he explains, “We draw our personal darkness around us to keep us safe from the sun.”

We also discover that the Scarabae are inhumanly strong, can withstand much damage and some can heal. Malach, at times, seems like he has supernatural powers – at one point he manages to set a tone from a glass that shatters all other glass in a pub. They also can contact the dead in the form of séance. These are not the vampires of traditional myth, rather they seem like the figures who inspired such myth.

As with the first book this is a beautifully drawn novel, Lee’s writing sensuous and able to draw up sumptuous visions in the reader’s mind.

I did not like the third book as much as the first two, it seemed too global and therefore scattered. At times we become lost within the minutia of lives and, whilst that very same minutia worked in the first two books as they were concerned entirely with Rachaela and Ruth, the global nature of the book meant that the minutia distracted from the story. We did, however, meet Cain, still a drinker of blood – though it was apparent that blood was only drunk for pleasure, be it sexual or sadistic. More interesting in a vampiric sense was the progression of the characters Camillo and Miranda. Both old, ancient even, in the first book they both become younger and younger through this book, more so than in the second volume even. We even discover that Miranda’s stained, old teeth had fallen out and were replaced by young new teeth.

This, it seems, is the Scarabae way - they either become young again or they reincarnate, still Scarabae. The kidnapped children, mentioned in the blurb, are all Scarabae who through accident, or more probably because of the low birth rate amongst the Scarabae, were reincarnated within human families. The exception is Anna, Rachaela’s second child, brought up in the Scarabae world but of profound interest to outcast, and myth amongst his own kind, Cain.

This series is a fantastic gothic read, despite my reservations about the third book, and yet was very nearly a ‘Vamp or Not?’ as I said at the head of the review. That said the Scarabae are vampires, vampires rethought, reinvented. Blood drinkers by choice only and yet long-lived, even eternal. Vampires who have begun to believe the superstitions spoken about them, such as the need to avoid the daylight. This is an unusual take on vampirism but I would expect no less from Tanith Lee’s fertile imaginings. 8 out of 10 for the series as a whole.

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