Saturday, October 20, 2012

Kiss of the Butterfly – review

Author: James Lyon

Release date: 2012

Contains spoilers

The blurb: "The smell of blood is in the air, I sense it even now. People thirst for it; the entire country is mad with desire for it. And now we are going to war with our brothers because they look like us, and because we can smell our blood coursing through their veins. It is madness. I know not what will come of it. I had hoped to celebrate one more St. George’s Day together with you, but it is not to be. I fear we shall not see each other again in this life. For now I grow ever colder, the sun can no longer warm me…

A mysterious letter starts a university student on a journey into the war-torn lands of rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia. Naively trusting his enigmatic professor, the student unwittingly descends into a dystopian crucible of decay, destruction, passion, death, romance, lust, immorality, genocide, and forbidden knowledge promising immortality. As the journey grows ever more perilous, he realizes he must confront an ancient evil that has been once again loosed upon the earth: from medieval Bosnia to enlightenment-era Vienna, from the bright beaches of modern-day Southern California to the exotically dark cityscapes of Budapest and Belgrade, and to the horrors of Bosnia.

“Kiss of the Butterfly” is based on true historical events. In the year of his death, 1476, the Prince of Wallachia -- Vlad III (Dracula) -- committed atrocities under the cloak of medieval Bosnia’s forested mountains, culminating in a bloody massacre in the mining town of Srebrenica. A little over 500 years later, in July 1995, history repeated itself when troops commanded by General Ratko Mladic entered Srebrenica and slaughtered nearly 8,000 people, making it the worst massacre Europe had seen since the Second World War. For most people, the two events seemed unconnected…

Vampires have formed an integral part of Balkan folklore for over a thousand years. "Kiss" represents a radical departure from popular vampire legend, based as it is on genuine Balkan folklore from as far back as the 14th century, not on pop culture or fantasy. "Kiss of the Butterfly" offers up the real, horrible creatures that existed long before Dracula and places them within a modern spectrum.

Meticulously researched, “Kiss of the Butterfly” weaves together intricate threads from the 15th, 18th and 20th centuries to create a rich phantasmagorical tapestry of allegory and reality. It is about divided loyalties, friendship and betrayal, virtue and innocence lost, obsession and devotion, desire and denial, the thirst for life and hunger for death, rebirth and salvation. “Kiss” blends history and the terrors of the Balkans as it explores dark corners of the soul.

The review: Well it is a good, long blurb that probably cuts down the length of the review somewhat… Actually, that is rather unlikely because, as regular readers know, I love to delve into the lore contained within the novels and films I review and this is just teeming with lore.

To give a very quick overview, the novel is set during the Bosnian War as student Steven Roberts is encouraged to travel to the former Yugoslavia by his teacher Marko Slatina. He is to study the ethnography of the region – the folklore – but the path he has been set on keeps returning him to the myth of vampires and the Order of the Dragon. Of course we have been to this setting before in the 1993 film Pun Mesec Nad Beogradom, or Full Moon over Belgrade, so the concept of the war and vampires and draft dodgers, will be familiar to any who have had the opportunity to see the film.

However Lyon’s book goes much deeper into Balkan myths and, in many ways, is a book of two distinct parts. For the first half of the book (literary interludes aside) we travel with Steven as he explores the myths of the region, comes to terms with being in a nation at war and also tries to come to terms with his own personal demons (the loss of his faith, in organised religion at least, and the premature death of his young wife). This half of the book feels academic and possibly had a, at least distant, kinship with The Historian (though I found this much better researched and written).

The second half of the book, as Steven discovers that the things he has researched are real, organised and not enamoured with prying eyes, sees the writing style shift up a gear as the action springs to life and supernatural events unfurl around the main characters. However the vampire is allegorical as well as real and this is seen clearly early in the novel when Steven hears a Serb policeman state “The Moslems have all become Turks, they have become vampires who want to suck our Christian blood”.

Despite the use of allegory within the novel, ultimately we are dealing with an actual phenomena and one that draws its lore from traditional Balkan vampire mythology.It needs to be noted that, because of the involvement of the Order of the Dragon, we get an appearance within the text of Vlad Ţepeş but actual vampire cases, such as that of Peter Plogojowitz, are also mentioned. The vampires are shape-shifters – often taking the form of butterflies but also able to become werewolves (wolf-man type) or anything else they should want to become. We have seen several times the idea that a vampire’s soul takes the form of a butterfly. Here we hear that in Balkan mythology all souls take the form of butterflies.

In their natural state the vampires are “simply large inflated bags of skin, and as they feed they swell up. If they’ve gone without feeding for long periods of time, then they appear emaciated. So the typical well-fed vampire will appear bloated or inflated.” The vampire’s powers are connected with their shroud – hence the need to keep it safe. We hear they must go to their grave on Good Friday and that each time a stake (that must be hawthorne) kills a vampire it becomes empowered, a multiple kill stake being very powerful indeed.

The vampire is disorientated and vulnerable for the first 100 days after reanimation but after that gathers its wits and becomes much more dangerous. They can gather into groups of 12 – 12 being a quorum. As a quorum they are very powerful, much more than the sum of their parts, however, put more than 12 vampires into a room together and it will kill them (as they turn into gloop). It is the evil influence of a group of vampires that had caused the Bosnian war. We also hear of vampirovic or kresnik – what we more commonly refer to as dhampir – the child of a vampire and a mortal, who are immortal hunters of vampires. Interestingly, if the vampirovic has a child then they lose their immortality.

In many respects I have only scratched the surface of the lore Lyon invokes and, for the lore alone, I would recommend this book. But more than that, I really did enjoy it, very much. These were a breed of vampires steeped in evil and saturated in traditional lore; dangerous, deadly, obsessive and… well let us just say that Lyon’s tale has clearly only just begun. 8 out of 10.


James Lyon said...

Thanks to Andy for hosting me.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thank you James for a great read, looking forward to the next part.