Tor, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7546-9
When I heard that F Wesley Schneider was writing an actual novel in the Pathfinder Tales line, I was intrigued and apprehensive all at once. His writing in those splatbooks can be uneven – sometimes he can get carried away and turn in some of the most florid and purple prose ever, but there are lucid moments when he can rein in his excessive verbosity and turn in something readable. But at the same time, he seems like someone who enjoys blending horror with fantasy in a manner that I can certainly get behind with. Therefore, I’m not sure what I’m going to expect in Bloodbound, but my fingers are crossed and I am hoping for the best.
Set in the fantasy lands of Ustalav, which is probably the most Gothic and spooky place in the kitchen sink known as Golarion, we have humans living above the ground, and the vampires forming a shadow colony deep in the sewers – I hope the drainage is good, because I can only imagine the stench of that place – mostly unnoticed by the humans up there. The human leaders and the vampire boss known as the Grandfather have an arrangement – the vampires will behave, practicing some discretion during their meals, and the humans will leave them be. Stuck in the middle of these two factions is Larsa, a half-vampire or dhampir who serves the Grandfather but is also bossed around by the humans now and then. She’d like to think that, one day, she’d ditch them all, either via her death or… something else. She is the enforcer who takes down vampires and their slaves and buddies that misbehave.
Trouble starts when a nobleman’s family is murdered, leaving only a mentally fractured woman alive. This was clearly a vampire attack, so Larsa is called to look into this matter. She soon finds herself knee-deep in a mess that is more personal than she could imagine at first – the enemy may just be her sire, one that she is determined to stake with extreme prejudice. Accompanying her is the disgraced priestess Jadain Losritter, who is considered by many of her fellow priests and priestesses to be too soft, too chirpy, and too prone to taking things to heart to be a good servant to the dour Pharasma, the goddess of death and prophecy. Jadain is told to tag along with Larsa, and it’s not like the poor dear has anything better to do.
Interestingly enough, Bloodbound doesn’t offer as much insight into the underground colony of vampires as it does on the inner workings of the Church of Pharasma and a glimpse into the more fanatical and extremist Pharasmin Penitance sect, which is comparable to the xenophobic witch-burning folks in Europe back in the Dark Ages. Oh, there are some insight into the life of a dhampir – it isn’t a fun one, as a dhampir is considered fair game for “true vampires” seeking nourishment or sport – but “vampires suck” is nowhere as much a revelation as how bleak and unpleasant a truly neutral faction can be. Many folks seem to be think of neutral folks as dispassionate on-the-fence types, and those folks may be startled by how the neutral alignment here leans more towards that very gray and scary zone where evil and good can be indistinguishable.
I have mixed feelings about this book – very mixed feelings. Jadain starts out a rather irritating chirpy and helpless sort, but my goodness, the poor darling gets a brutal reception in this story. Am I evil to enjoy every second of her tortured existence in the second half or so of this book? I actually like her character arc because the author doesn’t sugarcoat what happens when you throw a lamb into a pit of wolves. The fact that Jadain survives and becomes somewhat stronger, but in a realistic manner (she doesn’t get super magical powers – she really struggles against her opponents) makes me like her a lot. I like what the author has done for this character.
On the other hand, Larsa seems to be stuck in a stasis – she remains mostly one-note, as this sarcastic, cynical, and rather cocksure Buffy-wannabe who at the same time is nowhere as smart as she’d like to think herself to be. She gets manipulated or lured into traps easily enough, for one. Compared to Jadain, she doesn’t experience as much character development as I’d have liked. Her sire’s plot also has me scratching my head – the whole thing seems too silly to be worth all the effort, but I suppose when you are an immortal, there is plenty of time to be really serious about being petty or trivial.
The first half of Bloodbound is a bit slow, and the story takes a while to start taking no prisoners. Things get very enjoyable and gripping in that second half… until I notice a very obvious pattern. The author would end almost every short chapter with a cliffhanger moment – a threat on the life of Jadain or Larsa – often with the lady in question screaming. Once or twice, that is more than fine, but when this pattern crops up as often as it does here, I soon become desensitized to whole thing. Oh look, someone once again bops Jadain unconscious from the back – it’s becoming a running joke now. Larsa is screaming again as she is dragged down by something? Been there, done that, bored now. Things could be great in these parts of the book, but I also find myself rolling up my eyes whenever I reach the end of a chapter. Oops, knocked unconscious again… is that a new record?
This one, therefore, is a bit of good and not-so-good all mixed up in one concoction. I have a pretty okay time reading it, but I find myself snorting or rolling up my eyes as often as I am entertained or taken by surprise (a good kind of surprise) by the events in the story. I like Jadain and I can live with Larsa, but their pattern of being knocked unconscious, captured, or overpowered at the end of every other chapter in the later parts of the book also makes them resemble cartoon characters. All things considered, three oogies would be a fair score for this one.