Book Review: Mozart’s Blood, by Louise Marley

Posted on August 11, 2010 by

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.

Marley-Mozart's Blood

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.

To Nano not to Nan?

Posted on August 9, 2010 by

A long time ago (1994, I think) in an apartment just a few blocks away, I took it into my head to participate in the Three Day Novel contest. It was a great experience: over a long weekend, I wrote something like 65,000 words of dystopian, after-the-eco-apocalypse SF, and duly mailed it in to Arsenal Pulp Press. I didn’t win–nobody won that year–but I was a better writer at the end of the weekend, and I had a finished novel in hand and ready to revise.

The one flaw in my otherwise cunning plan was that I had chosen to write something based on one of my oft-started, utterly frustrating, would-not-gel-for-friggin-love-or-money novella starts. Over multiple failed attempts to make it come together, I’d come to heartily dislike the whole project. But, somehow, I decided the solution was to bust the thing out to novel length. Good plan, right?

As it turns out, no. At the end of three days, I had gone from having an unworkable thirty-page story to revise to having an unworkable 220 page book to fight with.

Oops. It’s trunked now, and good riddance.

In 2004 or thereabouts, I formed a pact to do National Novel Writing Month with a few of my beloveds. The goal this time around was to draft up a literary novel I’d proposed to the Canadian Grant Deities a few months earlier; I’d written that proposal while fully aware that I was hoping to have a contract for Blue Magic by then and I was a little scared of ending up on the hook for two books at once. I know, we should all have such problems, right? But I figured that if I had a draft of the grant novel in hand, I could revise one while drafting the other. (This worst-case-scenario, timingwise, never came about, as it happened.)

This time I picked a novel I was in love with, something I was excited about writing. Much better plan. The biggest concern I had with the whole scheme was that, for several years running, my writerbrain had stopped dead in its tracks each November. This was, actually, another reason for doing it. Losing a whole month out of one’s working year… it’s a lot. I could have usefully allocated the time to research, but I simply didn’t wanna.

For me, Nanowrimo worked out pretty well. I tried to write 2,000 words a day–that put me ahead of the game whenever I needed a day off. I took those days, and still finished a bit early. The month was exhausting, and the book pushed many other commitments to the wayside, but I got the book written as planned. That first draft of The Wintergirls was certainly messy, but my drafts are all messy; that didn’t scare me. The cameraderie and public accountability also worked for me. I posted word counts, was encouraged by blog readers as well as my nearest and dearest, encouraged other… Nanites? Nanners? Nannies? … in their turn, and came out of it with a draft that’s now very polished indeed. This is now my go-to strategy when I’m potentially double-booking myself: get one of the books well underway in November, and hope the rest falls together. I did it again in 2009, and am very pleased with the current state of the resulting book, which I’ve now revised about three times.

Unless other contracts start falling around here like hail, I’m planning to write The Rain Garden this coming November.

What about all of you? Yes? No? Why or why not? Your Nano tales would be very welcome.

Stargate Universe (and other small-screen stuff)

Posted on August 8, 2010 by

While I’m grousing about things that fall flat on the big screen, I should report that I was also disappointed in the Stargate Universe season finale, which I finally saw on Thursday night. I had heard so many raves that I was sure, as I went into viewing the last four episodes, that things were going to pick up. Plot would happen, and someone would finally figure out what to do with Eli and his big adorable brain.

But no. A stack of cliffhangers later, it was all sigh and no sauce. I won’t be tuning in when they start up again.

The other new thing I’ve been watching lately is a Toronto-based cop show called Rookie Blue, which is about a bunch of brand-new cops in their first year on the job. This is a show that combines all of the best qualities of hard-hitting, tough-talking, sexy crime drama with the big-eyed adorability of something like Baby Animals. I mean, really. They’re like these tiny little law enforcement creatures, barely out of nappies and straight into uniform, Oh, honey, you forgot to take bullets to the hostage crisis again? That is SO cute!

Seriously, though, the show has had a few good moments. The female lead (her name is Missy Peregrym, so again I have to say Awww!) has the same kind of appeal Jennifer Garner brought to the character of Sidney Bristow in Alias–she is, simply put, very likable. The show is popcorn: not compelling, but good enough to burn an hour on here and there.

Which is true of many of the things I am planning to watch this fall: Glee (in whose closer I was also a little disappointed), House, Castle, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds and–when mid-season rolls around–Criminal Minds: Reboot, which will have all the Garcia, all the time, plus the smokin’ Janeane Garofalo. If anything can get me off the Lewis/Hathaway track… cough, never mind.

Do you know what you’re watching this fall?

Watching movies at home

Posted on August 7, 2010 by

I have had a membership (they’re the Canadian version of Netflix) for some years now, and its Send-Me-Stuff! queue tends to stand at just under a hundred movies. The top fifteen or so are the things I want right away–currently Inspector Lewis S2* is in the favored position. Everything after number twenty or so tends to have gone onto the list so long ago that when it arrives, kelly-yoyoKelly and I are left wondering which of us added it, and on whose recommendation.

We got Christmas in Connecticut not long ago, for example, and I remember putting that on the list in the spring of 2007, shortly before Kelly went to Taos Toolbox, because Connie Willis had said in an interview that it was wonderful.

Anyway, the corporate deities of random filmviewing sent us I Shot Andy Warhol and Atonement.

The former we’d queued because of Lili Taylor, and she was unforgettable: disturbed, brilliant and thoroughly unhinged as Valerie Solanas. It’s directed in a consciously arty way–very appropriate considering the subject matter–and it was about a little slice of Sixties history that was new to me. Good script, well shot, great performances–it all kept me riveted.

Atonement, on the other hand… well. It opens beautifully. It’s got that chewy, nuanced, ambiguous sort of storytelling that makes you argue about the meaning of every little thing. The first half made me want to go back, and watch again, and dissect. Meanwhile, Keira Knightly does a good job of looking like a Tamara de Lempicka painting, in her shimmering green ballgowns. She’s no Lili, maybe, but the aesthetic effect was far from painful.

Tragically, this film is all build and no payoff. I don’t buy much of anything after the big Atoneworthy sin, and it’s a biggie, is committed.

The cinematography in this movie is stunning–there’s a long shot set on the beaches of Dunkirk that took my breath away, and the things the camerahuman does with water and reflections… oh, they were gaspingly beautiful. But the end of the story falls flatter than a crepe; I was so disappointed. There will be no going back to examine the beginning in detail; the before was nearly brilliant, but the after entirely ruined it.

(*I am shipping Lewis/Hathaway bigtime, my friends, and poet and editor Clélie Rich is entirely to blame.)