To be an up and coming soprano with a contract to sing Donna Anna–in Milan, at La Scala, no less!–is already to be extraordinary. Octavia Voss is even more singular than that. Born in Italy centuries before the present day, she left home as a teen to pursue the dream of becoming a singer. Talent and determination get her into an opera company, but there she learns that her voice is perhaps less special than she imagined; her career prospects may be limited.
Then a depraved-seeming Countess lures Octavia and the company’s composer into a tryst. After the encounter, Octavia has been utterly transformed. She craves blood, for one thing. For another, she, the Countess and the composer all share each others’ memories… a powerful thing, considering that the composer is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Lifetimes later, Octavia still lives to sing. Her vampiric lifestyle, and her intimate exposure to Mozart’s genius, have given her endless years to perfect her craft and enjoy a bit of the limelight. But to maintain her secret, she must also endure painful periods of forced retirement. At present, happily, she is out of hiding and building a new career. Her partner in life is Ugo, a creature even more ancient than she, who acts as her personal assistant and ensures she has safe access to the blood she needs to survive. The two are very close, and when Ugo disappears just as Olivia reaches Italy to sing in Don Giovanni, she very nearly falls apart. She has become dependent upon him, perhaps to a dangerous degree, and as rehearsals go on and the usual backstage power struggles play out, the thirst–with which she’s made a terrible sort of peace–is on the rise.
Soon she will have to go out and hunt, for the first time in a long time, risking exposure. And with Ugo missing, it’s a safe bet that somebody’s after her, too.
As some of you may have read in my interview with Louise Marley earlier this summer, Mozart’s Blood is her twelfth novel. Marley’s background as a professional singer lends a satisfying richness to the behind-the-scenes action; the reader is immersed in the clique-y subculture of a professional opera company going about its work. She also offers an interesting twist on vampirism–Olivia and Mozart’s telepathic bonding when they ‘share the tooth’ is the rule, not the exception.
Vampires absorb the memories of all their victims, often to the detriment of their mental health. It is Olivia’s ability to compartmentalize these memories, focusing only on Mozart’s genius, that allows her to survive… at least until Ugo comes onto the scene with a better solution. Survivors of vampire attacks are always turned, and the rule–a sort of rebirth control, enforced by the Countess with ruthless absolutism–is that if Octavia feeds from someone, she must always kill them.
A cold-blooded creature she may be, but Olivia is a fundamentally caring woman, and it is this quality of hers that gives the book its warmth: her affection for Ugo, her sexual interest in one of the other singers, and above all her passion for opera offset the cruel realities of her condition. Mozart’s Blood tells us her life’s story, and Ugo’s (which is every bit as intriguing) in flashback, and both histories are impeccably researched.
I always enjoy Marley’s books, and this novel was no exception. Somehow, though, I found myself wanting an ephemeral ‘something more’ from it; as I read, I had a sense that I’d been more fully drawn into her previous novels. As I wrestled with the question of whether this was just nostalgia for past delights, my first thought was that perhaps those books felt more relevant, politically and socially. But Mozart’s Blood has plenty of political heft: Ugo in particular is born poor in a era where the financially vulnerable have no options at all, and Marley never sugar-coats such topics.
I also wasn’t entirely happy with how the person behind Ugo’s disappearance fit into the story–it had the feel, at times, of a puzzle piece jammed into the wrong spot. But that person’s eventual fate was delicious to behold. I was finally left to conclude that I’d loved Ugo, liked Octavia pretty well, but that they’d both paled a bit, for me, next to the protagonists of other Marley novels: Zahra of The Terrorist of Irustan, and the incredible Magdalene priest, Mother Isabel Burke, from The Child Goddess. And all that means is I may prefer Marley’s SF to her fantasy.
Science fiction Mozart’s Blood may not be, but it is an entertaining vampire novel–original, intriguing, with good historical content, and one that offers a believable vision of how chasing an artistic dream would be even more complicated for an immortal.
One of my buddies from Cafe Calabria is gentleman from Turkey who’s in, as I tend to be, at 6:30 a.m. on the weekends. He’s an early riser and his family are a batch of sleep-ins, so he takes a book, has a coffee and whiles away a couple hours. One day he was reading OSMAN’S DREAM and I told him I’d started poking at the history of Istanbul–in an aimless, I-have-no-immediate-use-for-this-research fashion–but quickly found I wasn’t up to that particular book.
A few weeks ago, months after the original conversation, he gave me THE BRIDGE: A JOURNEY BETWEEN ORIENT AND OCCIDENT, by Geert Mak.
THE BRIDGE is a slender little account of life on the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul. It’s well worth image-searching it: it’s got a car deck and a retail level, is festooned with fishers (whom Mak describes eloquently) and despite being a functional block o’ concrete, manages to convey a little old-World charm. Mak spent some months hanging out with the fishers, the pickpockets, the marginal-stuff vendors of various types and backgrounds, chit-chatting about their politics, their home villages, and their hardships. The book is a documentary about these characters, a little snapshot of the place where Western-leaning Istanbul is connected to the more Eastern-influenced part of the city. It’s a much simpler book than OSMAN’S DREAM, which is a pile of this Caliph, and that Sultan, and then they invaded Mars! OK, not really.
I wasn’t grounded enough in the history, is what I’m saying, and my buddy, with impressive perspicacity, handed me something that’s much simpler, heavy on the atmosphere, and which still manages to convey a sense of an intricate multicultural society, with a capital city that has been full of diversity and compromises for centuries.
I just finished Darrin Hagin’s tenth anniversary edition of The Edmonton Queen: The Final Voyage, a slice of queer Canadian history that just barely intersects with my life: I was living in Edmonton at the time Hagin writes about, and Kelly went to high school with one of its queens, Cleo; we saw hir in a Fringe show last year.
I never went to the legendary Flashback club. I am so not a club person. In my entire life I haven’t once partied until I dropped. By the time the queens in this book were getting up for the day, I tend to be ready for my nap. A single glass of cheap wine will give me a next-day headache. The world of The Edmonton Queen was as much an alien landscape as any I’ve created in my fiction, or I’ve read about. And yet I shared weather, and terrain with these exotic beings. I could have visited, had I been inclined. Say that for Planet Vuvula!
I picked it off our bookshelf partly out of interest (of course!), in part because of that little intersection with our past, and because I am contemplating whether the next mystery novel, The Rain Garden, might include someone from that scene. Or, rather, it does–I just haven’t decided how she fits into the picture.
Hagin’s style flows nicely, I found myself comparing him favorably with John Barrowman’s autobiography, whose prose and content weren’t nearly as colorful. There’s delicious humor and wit. This hit my funnybone especially hard:
12:45 a.m. Meet in the ladies’ can at the pre-arranged time, in the handicapped cubicle. Squeeze everyone in. Sit on the floor, screaming with laughter at absolutely anything. Drop the acid. Pass around the hairspray. Stay until some dyke kicks you all out for reinforcing negative stereotypes of women. Leave in a huff.
What resonated most with me, not surprisingly, was the stuff about growing up queer in smalltown Alberta. As with these queens, that experience created in me a great need to get away, to reinvent, to find and nurture a truer self. The construction of alternate family, its evolution into something as complex and sometimes dysfunctional as any biopham, was familiar, too. As for the slow terrible parade of death that struck Hagin’s Family… well, I have been to a fair number of funerals these past few years.
One of the most interesting things about this anniversary edition, though, is that it has a long and fascinating coda. Hagin chased down the survivors of the Flashback days, and gave them a chance to offer their perspectives on his version of their shared history. He talks about what it was like to have published and then revisited a story that so many people had such a deep emotional stake in. In the process, he reveals the writer-as-Spiderman once again; his afterword is a textbook illustration of that Spidey saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
He told the stories, and he got some things wrong. He saw other things very differently from people who were present beside him in the very same moment. Watching him wrestle with that, and with balancing good storytelling against fairness, provides a deeply interesting behind-the-scenes look at what writing is and how it interacts with the real.
It is also genuinely affecting. You will laugh and cry. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Tor.com’s Urban Fantasy spotlight continues and there are goodies on offer–if you post a comment here by Tuesday, you can win a grab bag of books (including, possibly, mine). There’s an editorial round table discussion on the heroes and heroines of paranormal romance, a story, “Olga,” by C.T. Adams and many other intriguing and delightful goodies.
I’ve spent this morning experimenting with my various electronic gadgets, by way of podcasting my own novelette for this TOR.COM spotlight. “The Cage” is eight thousand words long and takes over forty minutes to read, so naturally I did a few shorter dry runs, testing out bits and pieces of equipment. For one of these tests, I used the six-minute snippet that I read far and wide at Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings in 2009. That’s right, folks, I am finally making good on my promise to record and post the Indigo Springs sex scene. If you don’t mind a few spoilers or you’ve already read the book, you can listen to it by clicking here.
I do have a Rapidfire-sized snippet of Blue Magic, too, and I will post that in the not too distant. It’s not nearly as (cough) romantic.
It’s hot out. I live near a busy street, and I’ve had the windows shut as I made recordings, so that there wouldn’t be too much road noise. A side bonus of the fact that it’s ninety-plus degrees in my office is that the cats didn’t feel a need to contribute–Rumble, in particular, punctuated my last podcasting attempt rather ferociously.
Now I’m going to crack some windows and try to get this place ventilated before I venture out in search of library books and fresh fruit.
On Saturday I finished up Adam Nicolson‘s SEIZE THE FIRE: HEROISM, DUTY, AND NELSON’S BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR. It is not at all a minute-by-minute account of the battle–about which I knew beans and still know almost nothing–and more an analysis of the cultural, economic and emotional context in which it took place.
Nicolson talks about the forces that shaped Navy culture in this century–the long tradition of deep aggression and violence embedded within British culture, the profit motive (many of the officers, particularly, were in the racket to make fortunes that would let them buy homes in the country and live the gentleman lifestyle), the disciplined maintenance rituals that kept the ships in good shape and the immense amounts of money borrowed by Parliament to keep them so. The spending supported the navy in both a direct and an indirect manner: they bought up so much of the world’s available supply of ship materiel that other countries were hard pressed to get their hands on things like wood, canvas and hemp.
His prose is precise and lovely to read aloud. Here, he uses Jane Austen to illustrate how the idea of masculinity had evolved between the 18th and 19th centuries:
By 1805, the femininity of the mid-18th century was being left behind. Exaggerated sensibility had started to look absurd. Clothes, for both men and women, had become sober and simple…. one can see dramatised the shift in values between the 18th and 19th centuries arranged around the two potential heroes of [Pride and Prejudice]: Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley is 18th-century man: handsome, young, agreeable, delightful, fond of dancing, gentlemanlike, pleasant, easy, unaffected and not entirely in control of his destiny. Darcy is fine, tall, handsome, noble, proud, forbidding, disagreeable, and subject to no control but his own. It is a strikingly schematic division. Darcy is like a craggy black mountainside–Mrs. Bennet calls him ‘horrid’, the word used to describe the pleasure to be derived from a harsh and sublime landscape; Mr. Bingley is a verdant park with bubbling rills. Darcy is 19th century man, manliness itself, uncompromising, dark and sexy.
SEIZE THE FIRE isn’t light reading, obviously, but it’s also not dense or in any way a grind. It’s mostly about emotion–how people felt about war, their attitude toward battle, the vital cultural differences between the British and French-Spanish fleets that led to the victory at Trafalgar, and the way the ideas of heroism and honor were shaped before the battle and, afterwards, by it. Nicolson’s analysis is intriguing but never ethereal. He’s writing about a slaughter, and you never forget that; this is a humane book, and a really interesting one. Not only do I recommend it, but I expect I’ll pick up his book about the translation of the King James bible, GOD’S SECRETARIES, in the not too distant.