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Feast of Fools

Rachel Caine
Signet (June 3, 2008)

One thing you realize after reading a lot of vampire fiction, particularly of the young adult kind, is how many common tropes there are. The vampire ball, the magic item of jewelry, the discovery that vampires aren’t bothered by religious items, the sad and sympathetic male vampire(Hello, Byron?), the regal and icy female vampire, vampires drinking from blood bags like juice boxes, various commentary on whether or not vampires can eat food, etc. I’m sure this must be tremendously discouraging for anyone trying to craft her own path through the genre. Oh course, things pertaining to whether or not vampires can eat or be in the sun or touch crosses are necessary given the vampire mythos – authors need to stake out, as it were, the ontology of their vampires in relationship to the vampires that have come before. But things like balls and rings and harlequins are another matter.

I am reluctant to call it derivative. When I was reading through the Vampirates series, I complained to a colleague in my department that the Pirate Academy was too derivative of Hogswarts. He said, “Oh, come on. That’s like saying that since Austen has already done the novel of manners that no one else needs to do it.” And I think I’ve come to agree with him. It’s not so much that these tropes are derivative, it’s that the vampire mythos is such rich material to conjure with. Vampires are creatures of glamor in the old sense of the world. They proceed by casting a glamour over us, a glittering spell, an alluring charm. They are creatures that, by definition almost, must attract. If a vampire is going to be any kind of predator at all, then he or she needs to either go about it by brute force or by stealth and the idea that vampires are things of the dark means stealth. Neil Gaiman makes a similar point in an interview he gave for Entertainment Weekly in August 2009. Gaiman says “vampires, I think, should be outsiders. They should probably be sexual outsiders, to some extent. They should, they need to be charismatic. They need to be elegant. They need to be attractive in some way. But they certainly aren’t buying nice suits and calling the shots. And if they are, it’s about something else.” Vampires need to be attractive and elegant and charismatic in an ontological sense. That is, the need to attract is built into their DNA and is a biological, or perhaps, a definitional imperative. For the vampire, too cease to attract is to cease to exist. This necessity of glamour means that when we imagine the secret world of vampires, we want to imagine them at things like elaborate masquerade balls. What, after all, could be more vampiric than a beautiful ball with elaborate disguises? The beauty of the masks and costumes hides the predators underneath.

In Rachel Caine’s fourth installment in the Morganville Vampire series, Feast of Fools, the crux of the plot centers on a masked ball that vampire queen Amelie throws to welcome her father Bishop to Morganville. Vampires “invite” humans to escort them and although it takes heroine Claire Danvers until page 193 to realize that she has not been invited to the ball for her own protection, it is pretty clear that something is going to go down at the ball and it’s going to be something bad. The thing that I love, of course, is that in terms of the mechanics of the plot, the vampires and their human escorts could gather at any kind of social function. But, since these are vampires we’re talking about, it can only be a glamorous, masked ball – everyone in costume, everyone concealed, everyone’s intentions concealed, evil, hunger, desire, lust, greed all covered over in glittering masks.

I still like that Claire loves physics so much. You’ve gotta love a vampire novel that is this caught up into quantum mechanics and you really have to love a heroine that is so smart that she finds the advanced physics classes she’s too easy. Claire is still just 16, folks. I suppose some readers might find the fact that Claire likes to take time to study when the danger is high, but I find it a bit delightful that Claire doesn’t fantasize about having the hottest boyfriend. Rather, she wants to go to the oh-so-hot Cal Tech or MIT and she’d just like to take her boyfriend with her.

Book three of the series, Midnight Alley, introduces us to a crazy vampire scientist that has been working on string theory and worm holes and the like, except he calls it alchemy, of course. The scientist, Myrnin, by the way, is probably my favorite character. At one point Claire calls him “Byron on a bender.” Awesome. In book two, Claire goes in search of her patron Amelie and meets another of Amelie’s human servants – Katherine Day, an elderly and gracious black woman. Katherine’s house is called the Day House and it is all but identical to the Glass House in which Claire and her friends live. Both belong to Amelie. In the scene in which Claire has her first brush with Myrnin, Katherine Day is sitting on her old, beat up rocker on the porch and see Claire considering going down a dark alley that is next to the white picket fence that gates her house. She says “I wouldn’t do that, child. . . . You’re bein’ a fool. You ever heard of any lions? Or trap-door spiders? Well, you walk down that path, you won’t be comin’ out the other side. Not this world.” We learn that Myrnin is that trap-door spider and that is a wonderfully terrifying image to conjure with.