Xandra is a half-vampire, her father a vampire and her mother one of the courtesan carriers of the plagued genes. Like many halvies, she serves the vampiric and were aristos that rule the county, in her case as a Royal Guard – and one of the Royal Guard’s best. And they need to be good – after the Insurrection, there are considerable human forces constantly seeking to overrule the immortal Queen Victoria and her vampiric court.
But, despite this, Xandra finds herself caught up in one of these treasonous movements herself, despite her position as Guard. When her sister is taken in to the notorious mental hospital of Bedlam, where Xandra’s mother was said to have died, Xandra confronts her own fears to find the truth. Unwilling to be dismissed, her investigations uncover surprise after surprise – and a deep conspiracy that rocks the place of all halvies in society. She ends up torn between family and duty – and betrayed by people she trusted beyond all others.
And through that she has to learn the truth not just about her friends, her family and her society and leaders – but also about herself. Her true nature, her true being and what that really means.
This book had a very shaky start for me. I start reading and am instantly treated to one of the longest, most convoluted info-dumps I’ve ever read as Xandra mentally resumes the entire world for me, the creatures, the politics, the history, her family and her personal history. It’s huge, it’s long, it’s interspaced with lots of area description and emotional exposition and it’s pretty hard to follow – I actually had to re-read several parts to double check the huge amount of information being imparted.
It put me off and, if I’d been skimming in a book shop deciding whether to buy or not, I’d have put it back on the shelves, disappointed. But it is worth holding on, getting through that shaky beginning and keep on reading. The world is revealed again in more sensible terms, the characters are more developed and then the real plot kicks in.
Once you get into the book, the world is fascinating. The supernatural here is a plague – the plague – kills people but leaves some survivors with offspring that carry the plague, that eventually over the generations changes them into vampires, werewolves and – when the werewolf and vampire plagues combine or through throwbacks, the lethal and terrifying goblins. The book is set in the 21st century, but it’s a very different world from ours. It’s a world where the immortal vampiric Queen Victoria still reigns, ruling a vampiric and werewolf aristocracy that precariously rules over a majority human and disgruntled populace. In between are the half-weres and half-vampires, serving the aristos with their much greater numbers.
Because it’s 21st century, we have much of the same technology displayed as you’d expect. But because there’s also powerful elements demanding the world stand still – the Queen’s conservative sensibilities, the aristos discomfort with the modern, there’s also a very strong steampunk aesthetic. It has a really interesting mix of modern and Victorian values – with things like a deadly fear of gossip and reputation, but a casual, liberated view of sex and sexuality.