Void City: it’s where the vampires run strip joints, the werewolves play hockey, and the devil goes to steal souls when he’s in a bind because he’s way behind and he’s willing to make a deal. Let’s unearth Staked, by J. F. Lewis.
UNREPENTANT. UNIMPRESSED. AND TOTALLY UNDEAD.
Eric’s got issues. He has short-term and long-term memory problems; he can’t remember who he ate for dinner yesterday, much less how he became a vampire in the first place. His best friend, Roger, is souring on the strip club he and Eric own together, and his girlfriend, Tabitha, keeps pressuring him to turn her so she can join him in undeath. It’s almost enough to put a Vlad off his appetite. Almost.
Eric tries to solve one problem, only to create another: he turns Tabitha into a vampire, but finds that once he does, his desire for her fades – and her younger sister, Rachel, sure is cute. When he kills a werewolf in self-defense, things really get out of hand. Now a pack of born-again lycanthropes is out for holy retribution, while Tabitha and Rachel have their own agendas–which may or may not include helping Eric stay in one piece.
All Eric wants to do is run his strip club, drink a little blood, and be left alone. Instead, he must survive car crashes, enchanted bullets, sunlight, sex magic, and werewolves on ice–not to mention his own nasty temper and forgetfulness.
Because being undead isn’t easy, but it sure beats the alternative.
Staked may be unique among urban fantasy vampire novels I’ve read in one regard: it steers clear of vampire politics. Usually, vampires are organized into clans or covens or whatnot with strict hierarchies and elaborate rules; full of ancient, stuffy vampires who behave with impeccable formality and politeness while secretly plotting to undermine one another. It may very well be like that for the mainstream “high society” vamps, but it’s a lifestyle Eric wants no part in. He’s strong enough that he can ignore the other vampires entirely and play by his own rules: running a strip club in a sleazy part of town, getting into street fights with other supernaturals, and having a string of very bad relationships with vampire-groupie girlfriends. It’s a nice, fresh change of pace from the usual vanilla Camarilla vamps. Sure, there’s a Masquerade keeping most of the mortal residents of Void City in ignorance of the supernaturals among them, but Eric plays no part in upholding it; he just takes advantage of it while doing things his own way.
Speaking of Eric, the character concept of a vampire with memory issues is an instantly intriguing one. It’s an idea I’ve seen played for pathos before, with Pawl a’Seatt from the Saga of the Noble Dead – a mostly non-malicious vampire so old that he’s forgotten how he was sired, and is obsessed with the few fragments of ancient memory he retains – but he was only a minor character in that series, not a lead protagonist like Eric. Eric’s poor memory is a source of mystery, as he cannot remember how he became a vampire; but it is also played for comedy – the amusing running gag of him losing track of time and getting ignited by sunlight.
On the whole, Eric is the kind of protagonist who is his own worst enemy; he possesses incredible vampiric powers, but keeps making terrible life decisions. It’s a fine line when writing a protagonist like this, because they can easily turn unsympathetic; but I think Eric pulls it off. It helps that he acknowledges his flaws, and is in fact disturbed by the way Greta hero-worships him. There’s also the fact that he isn’t the only one making bad decisions: Tabitha insists on being turned into a vampire despite repeatedly being told it won’t be as awesome as she expects. And finally, it helps that his problems aren’t entirely self-inflicted: he actually does have enemies manipulating events to try and bring about his downfall. It’s easy to sympathize with him in spite of his self-sabotaging behavior because he’s not the one who causes the initial problem; someone else does that, and then Eric has to try and overcome his self-destructive impulses long enough to stop making matters worse and actually fix things. I always found myself rooting for him to solve his problems, even though he remained the type of person to whom I’d never lend anything which I might eventually actually want back.
The novel tries to play it off like it’s a mystery who the villain is, but it becomes pretty obvious right around the time Roger gets Eric drunk, leads him into an ambush by a bunch of werewolves, and conveniently disappears. Fortunately, there are a couple of other mysteries of an actually intriguing nature, such as what’s up with the “uber-vamp” transformation Eric undergoes during his rage blackouts and how Rachel apparently returned from the dead. Plenty of hints are dropped – deals with demons for second chances, a rank above Vlad called Emperor, revenant eyes – which make me eager to find out what’s really going on.
To top it all off, there’s a very strong cast of secondary characters rounding off the book: Talbot, Eric’s loyal assistant and some sort of divine cat monster; Greta, Eric’ vampiric daughter who has a compulsive eating problem; Phillip, formerly Phillipus, the extremely ancient and powerful wizard-turned-vampire who acts with all the charm and dignity a high society vamp should but who has just enough arrogance, power-hungriness, and bloodthirsty madness simmering beneath the polite veneer that you just know he’s going to end up a future antagonist; Veruca, the vampire with an unfortunate name, unfortunate nickname, and unfortunate limit to her shapeshifting powers; Magbidion the hell-bound mage who hopes Eric can win his soul back from the demon he sold it to; and of course Marilyn, Eric’s tragic first love, who has grown old and ill but has never allowed him to turn her even as he has never stopped loving her.
So, in summation, this a very promising start to the Void City series, and I’m looking forward to following Eric through his future adventures.
Final Rating: 4/5