REVIEW OF A MORBID INITIATION:
My quest to read more Cuthbert Beckett-centric Vampire: the Masquerade fiction continues! We're onto our first proper novel and I was astounded by the leap in quality and feminism present in this work. My partner was shocked when I babbled to her about the good writing within A Morbid Initiation.
Regina Blake's life is in uproar. When her mother Emma dies after a mysterious illness, her father is swamped in grief, Hungarian relatives invade her home with some very strange ideas about burial rites, and her wedding to the dashing Lt. Malcolm Seward is delayed for years. She is alone in her mourning and in investigating these bizarre relatives, who only come out at night and carve symbols of witchcraft into wood. If the missing body and scratch marks on the coffin are any indication, Emma is not wholly dead. Regina vows to stop at nothing to find out what happened to her mother. At least the alluring Miss Victoria Ash is kind of her....
As a fan and as a writer, I enjoyed A Morbid Initiation. Regina is a brilliant protagonist and dogged, Sherlockian gumshoe. Like any good Gothic vampire tale-spinner, Boulle doesn't shy away from sexuality, decay, death, and corruption. However, whereas lesser writers (cough, cough like whoever wrote Revelations of the Dark Mother cough, cough) would use this excuse to use, abuse, and de-power Regina, gender minorities, and characters of color, Boulle resists this trend. Even when Regina is under the influence of vampiric powers, she is always herself and as independent and powerful as one can be under the circumstances. Boulle is also brave enough to pose the question of what defines a monster. While none of the vampire characters are saints, the colonialist humans actually committed the atrocities that made me the most squeamish.
While A Morbid Initiation did have hiccups, I still found myself very invested in the plot, characters, and the theme of initiation. Even though I'm in no way new to White Wolf's lore, I was engaged as ever in Regina's journey of discovery. The parallelism between her and her erstwhile betrothed, Malcolm, gripped me like a fever. Beckett does pop in for a few chapters, and everything he does is a tantalizing delight. I can't wait for the next book when his and Regina's journeys converge.
If you're looking for a novelistic entry point to Vampire: the Masquerade, I heartily recommend A Morbid Initiation. I'm very much looking forward to the next book.
REVIEW FOR THE MADNESS OF PRIESTS AND THE WOUNDED KING
I devoured the last two books of the Victorian Trilogy so quickly that I decided to review them together. What a journey!
After her initiation into the night society of London and saving her mother from Mithras' jaws, Regina and Victoria follow Emma's trail to Paris, and, later, Vienna. Paris is haunted by the spectators of Victoria's past. Among the rash of vampire huntings and court politics, one French Nosferatu has the answers, but they come at a price: get her ghouled lover out of the Santé prison. The prison is the domain of a certain Malkavian Anatole, who preaches a seductive salvation. Nevertheless, Regina busts the ghoul out, and Victoria and Regina head to Vienna, the heart of House Tremere. Victoria does several unforgivable acts. Other, more sinister figures (and one incredibly romantic figure) are after Emma. The Tremere are plotting something daring and stupid. Emma has her own plans, and desires.
As fun as all that sounds, The Madness of Priests and The Wounded King suffer. Boulle has too many plotlines, like too many plates of spaghetti spinning in the air. They give each one equal weight, to the point that the bloated chapters of The Wounded King were basically sectioned off updates of each one. Not all the plots were as interesting or added equal impact to the story. For example, the first 50 pages of The Madness of Priests follows Emma's ex-husband Lord James Blake and Regina's betrothed Malcolm Seward, as the pair murder, torture, and burn their way through London on their partners' trail. The thematic weight here was in the reversal. Traditionally, these white, upper class, and cishet men would be the gallant heroes saving their damsels in distress. Boulle reverses it so they are, in fact, some of the most monstrous characters in the story. Lord Blake and Malcolm work with vampire hunters, and the moment Regina or Emma fell into their clutches, they would die. This message got across in the first 5 pages, and I had to slog through 45 more to arrive at the interesting part of the narrative with Regina in Paris.
Part of it might be the nature of adaptation, or some corporate demand meddled. It reminded me in lore books when they're introducing potential scenarios to Storytellers: a bunch of characters and politics are thrown at the wall like spaghetti noodles, and the Storyteller can choose what sticks. That's fine for a lore book, but doesn't do so well in the constrained, defined world of a novel. The Tremere Bainbridge and Wellig sniping at each other; the Jack the Ripper distraction; Juliet Parr's asylum: these did not earn their page count.
The price of all the extra fat was especially evident in the lost opportunities. The half-baked theme of salvation and redemption from The Madness of Priests came home to roost. I could have read a whole chapter of Emma and Beckett sitting in the dark, discussing it, defining it, debating it. We get a couple paragraphs, the concept remains fuzzy, and Emma's decision in the final chapter feels inorganic and forced. Regina is upset in the way Victoria deals with Lord Blake, but she never acknowledges her father's intended murder and colonialist corruption, even though, by all logic, she should know about it. After following Regina's journey for two novels, Beckett neither has an on page talk with Regina, nor alludes to how Regina was involved in burning down his boyfriend Anatole's haven.
Most galling, the climax and ending itself: SPOILER [[I couldn't believe we weren't privy to howst the fucketh Regina convinced everyone to face Wellig. How did she form the most bizarre coterie of a feral bisexual nerd, a refined and respected scholar, an antediluvian, a neonate with a blood relationship to two of the most powerful people on the continent, a dumpster fire of a Toreador, and femme vampire Sherlock Holmes?? Like, I was internally screaming the whole time of wait, what is y'all's plan? Are you just letting Emma walk in some cursed circles?? Are Hesha and Halim still under a spell at the end? Did Beckett confess his love??? Where is the scene where he introduces Emma to Aristotle, because I know it exists, but where is it?? /END SPOILER]]
While I was disappointed with the Trilogy, it's still head and shoulders above other White Wolf publications. I did have fun. I know an almost uncomfortable amount about Beckett. I would like many fanfictions please. I choose to believe that Boulle did their best with an overwhelming amount of material and a highly restricted page count. I still think this is a good starter series for beginners. Now onto the Diary.