You go into a vampire story expecting to be focused on the vampires, but that's not the case here. For the most part, the vampires are little more than a scribble -- inhumanly fast and deadly creatures whose motivations are rarely glimpsed and whose "culture" is only sketched. Instead it's the human characters who stand at the center.
Cronin does a wonderful job of, well, being absolutely cruel to these people. Of giving them backstories so tragic that a world-ending vampire plague is often not the worst thing that happened to them, maybe not even the worst that that happened that week.
Wolgast, one of the two FBI agents who appears early in the novel, gets the most opportunity to hit on many notes. Reluctant recuiter into the military's dark experiment. Even more reluctant participant in the kidnapping of a young girl. Rebel. Hero. And finally surrogate father to a child whose needs he can't really understand.
Oh, this is a crying book. This is a book where the history of most of of the characters are knee-deep in tears. However, it doesn't feel like a tear jerker. Just a book about hard-knock characters facing a bleak situation.
Okay. Yes. A hundred pages into this book you may feel like you've been so beaten up by the sad events of the characters' lives that you -welcome- the vampires. After all, watching a loving young mother descend through the stages of poverty and dissolution to the point where she become a half-starved prostitute who abandons her own child is not anyone’s definition of fun. Neither is seeing a homeless man whose worst crime is trying to save someone being forced to take part in a ghastly medical experiment. And those are very nearly the light moments in the first half of the book.
I can’t say that things get much brighter from there, as the world falls apart and every step seems like more pace down a road to total desolation. But for all that, the book both holds your attention and your hope. Somewhere, somewhen, one of these characters is going to make a breakthrough. Someone is going to find not just a path back, but a path forward, and you can’t help but want to be there when it happens.
As always, Peter Kenney captures the sarcastic wit and quirky personalities of the Culture's AI "minds," giving each a distinct voice and delivery. In many of Bank's Culture novels, the ships themselves are the most interesting characters, and that's certainly the case here.
In several scenes, we see a half dozen of the ship minds arguing, talking, whining, wheedling, and generally taking pot shots at each other as they all work toward a common goal from different perspectives. It presents a wonderful feeling of watching a room full of highly precocious, often very funny, brats.
With the number of characters involved, and the rapid fire conversations, it would be easy to become lost, but Kenny does a fine job of making each character distinct. There are some characters among the ship minds that rise to the level of parody when it comes to accents or pacing, but that seems entirely fitting with the literally larger-than-life personalities.
Absolutely. And thanks to a long drive, I came very close.
If you've enjoyed Bank's previous Culture novels, you'll find more to love here. However, there's a bit of a melancholy note on top of the quirks and general humor. For all the Culture’s busy-body interest in their neighbors, there seems to be a bit of a… winding down. A sense that even the Culture may sense that the Culture really doesn’t have all that much to contribute to the broader civilization at this point. That maybe it’s still glittering, but a little pointless.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Culture either splintering or looking to “sublime” in the next few stories.
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