by Gail Dayton, historical/fantasy (2009)
Tor, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-6250-6
New Blood is the first book in Gail Dayton's series set in an alternate Victorian Europe where magic exists. The plot of this book can stand alone quite well, however, since the plot revolving around the main characters are tied up conclusively here. If you choose to stop reading the series after this book, you won't find myself agonizing over what happens next to Amanusa and her husband Jax.
A brief 101 on this setting. Okay, I've read and reviewed the second book, Heart's Blood first and I described some things about the setting in that review. The setting is described more fully in this book, however, so I'll start all over again here. We have four schools of magic: alchemy, wizardry, conjury, and sorcery. Alchemy is the art of manipulating the four elements (fire, water, air, earth) to create all kinds of fireworks and special effects. Wizardry involves using herbs and other materials of plant origins to work magic. Conjury is the art of communicating with spirits of the dead to do the woo-woo thing.
Sorcery is called "blood magic" but I learn here that it's actually more to do with using the human body to work magic. Saliva, for example, works as well as blood, although the potency of saliva is far less than blood. Using the sorcerer's own body fluids, the sorcerer can do all kinds of cool things. With the blood spilled from innocents in a crime, she can evoke her magic to cause the people responsible for the crime to experience the pain they have caused on their victims. By spilling her blood into another person (discreetly adding a drop or two of her blood into the drink of her target usually does the trick), she can "ride the blood" of that person, during which she can take control of that person and can even make that person's heart stop beating if she wants to. When the sorcerer is "riding the blood", her target cannot shield any secret from her.
As a result, the sorcerer is often the judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to crimes involving blood letting. Sorcerers are almost exclusively female because, well, women are used to spilling their own blood at least once a month, after all. Most men are squeamish about this kind of thing, which is good as I don't have to make jokes about Sperm of Doom in this review. Anyway, you know how it is when we have women in power being so powerful that she can kill the strongest alchemist by pricking some blood into his tea and offering him a drink. Sorcery is considered an evil art, a slander abetted by misogynistic pigs within the Imperial Councils of each country. When the last known sorcerer, Yvaine, was burned to death by a mob of villagers a few centuries ago, sorcery is thought to be a dead school of magic. After all, with women banned from practicing magic, it's no surprise that no sorcerer has ever appeared in the following centuries.
However, what no one realizes was that before she died, Yvaine charged her blood familiar, Jax, to seek out a woman worthy to become her successor and train her to become a sorcerer. A blood familiar is the sorcerer's magical reservoir - she can use her familiar's body and all the magic contained within as if they are hers. Because the familiar is privy to the ins and outs of the art of sorcery, Jax is a capable mentor to an untrained sorcerer like Amanusa. Yvaine also imbues Jax with some fragments of her consciousness so that even after her death, Jax can summon Yvaine from beyond to teach Amanusa advanced things about sorcery that Jax is not familiar with. In this case, Jax eventually finds the woman he is searching for in Amanusa, a healer who knows magic but fears attracting the attention of the Romanian Inquisitors - men who are charged to destroy enemies of the country, including female magic-users. Amanusa lost her parents as well as her virtue to an encampment of Romanian revolutionaries, and she had been serving them as their reluctant healer ever since. When Jax shows up and convinces her that she is a sorcerer in the making, she can finally begin to get the justice she deserves.
But even then, her story is just beginning. Only England has an Imperial Council that will consider admitting another woman into their board since Yvaine's death, and therefore, Jax and Amanusa will have to travel to England with their Romanian buddies hot on their tails. Along the way, they will fall in love and discover that there is more to the sorcerer-familiar bond than mere enslavement of the familiar.
New Blood takes a while to find its rhythm. The first quarter or so of the story is best described as Amanusa's "All Romanian Men Want To Rape Me" Adventure - the whole thing is a little too over the top cartoony to be taken seriously as a menacing situation for our heroine. It also doesn't help that Amanusa tends to foolishly mouth off to these men who want to ravage and kill her. I know we all love strong heroines, but being strong doesn't necessarily mean being foolhardy and suicidal.
Things improve tremendously once Jax and Amanusa left Romania for their danger-filled trip to England. But even then, the story is marred by one-dimensional portrayals of misogynists and villains. Good guys are portrayed as really good while the bad guys are cartoon villains that literally scream and screech at our heroine. Late in the story, there is an overwhelming "love is powerful, woo-hoo!" message that comes often at the expense of the believability of the scene in which this message crops up.
But all those flaws aside, this story is a very entertaining one. I can't put down this book. The author's portrayal of magic, especially sorcery, is very fascinating and well-depicted, so much so that one main reason I keep turning the pages is because I can't get enough of the theories and the cool things you can do with sorcery. I even love the explanation as to why sorcerers must wear white when they are doing their thing.
Also, the romance here is much stronger than that in Heart's Blood. Amanusa and Jax have a relationship that is very nicely drawn, based on a foundation of respect and trust. Sometimes Jax can be quite annoying in his need to protect Amanusa, but hey, men will always be men, I guess. After her initial attempts to become Xena's less intelligent sister, Amanusa mellows down into a solid and capable heroine who can extricate herself and her man from various dangerous situations in a convincing manner. Which is to say, she doesn't get her powers immediately just because she's special - she has to learn in order to gain the knowledge.
All in all, New Blood is a powerfully compelling and very engaging story that sucks me in quickly and gives me a most satisfying adrenaline rush until the very last page. I could do without the one-dimensional "Love is so powerful! And amazing! And aren't those men so vile, misogynistic, and horrible?" stuff that is so at odds with the complex world building, but even as it is, this book is still great enough to convert me into a follower of this series.
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