I really liked this book! The unique take on the vampire myth was original and enjoyable. It was exciting, and I am very disappointed to learn that this was Butler's last book, as I would have enjoyed a sequel! I really enjoyed this much more than I expected to, really. The characters were strong and sympathetic and the added theme of racism worked well and added a social layer that is missing from most vampire tales. I am curious to learn more about her earlier books!
Definitely well-written - a very compelling read, of the taking-a-long-lunch and staying-up-too-late cause I wanna know what happens variety!
The story works on the level of a vampire thriller, but it also has a bit more than that to it.
A (very) young woman wakes, alone in a cave, horribly injured and suffering from amnesia. Healing, she gradually learns that she is a vampire.
In Butler's novel, vampires are an age-old race that has lived alongside man since the dawn of human history. They have lived in a symbiosis with the humans they feed on. The vampires do hold their symbionts somewhat in 'thrall' - humans become physically dependent on them, and vampires are able to 'hypnotically' compel one who they've bitten to obey orders, keep secrets, or forget things... but in return they receive a long, healthy lifespan, sensual pleasure, and a stable, protected life.
Butler doesn't really clue the reader in to exactly what she thinks of this trade-off, but there's lots there to think about - implications of freedom vs. security, independence and free will vs. happiness?
Especially since right now (in the story) it's not the safest time to be a vampire symbiont. Our protagonist's whole family (both human and vampire) has been violently wiped out. Are the murderers human vampire hunters who have stumbled upon the secret? Or could the guilty party be vampire as well?
The ending of the book sort of turns into an extended "courtroom drama" - which in part seems an excuse for Butler to bring in a discussion of racism and xenophobia... but, even though I'm not really a fan of that sort of literary exposition, it's very well done, and didn't lose me at all.
It's also interesting how Butler challenges the reader with her portrayal of a character who is physically perceived as a child, but who behaves in an explicitly mature manner. It's never in poor taste - but it definitely makes the reader re-examine preconceptions!
There is a lot in this novel to engage with, so I'm afraid I do have to spoil the premise to review it properly. Consider yourself warned.
I'm not a big fan of vampires (as a fictional device; I've never met one, so I have no opinion about them as people), so I can't speak to how original Butler's take on them is. It is a more science fictional take than a fantasy one, and while much of the novel is spent learning how vampire society works, the details about how it got to be that way are realistically vague, because the world-building isn't really the point.
The characters aren't really the point either, and if this book has a flaw it's that I cared very little for any of them. Shori was emotionally detached through most of the novel due to her memory loss, and that detachment infected me through her narration. Many of the other characters were, not quite interchangeable, but vague enough that I had to work to fix them in my memory so I could tell them apart, and I never succeeded in that with Brook and Celia.
The prose isn't even the point; Butler falls on the "transparent" edge of the spectrum, and if I am generous and call the narration simply plain or unadorned, I have to admit that the dialogue is frankly wooden. And while the story moves at the rapid clip suitable to a thriller, I doubt I'll remember the details of it in a week or two.
But none of that matters. Because what this book does well is what Butler always does well: it uses a science fiction premise to explore thorny social issues.
The most obvious issue explored is miscegenation. To use Blade terminology, Shori is a daywalker, and she was made that way through two separate (but linked) acts of racial mixing: her mothers used some human genetic material to create Shori (mixing Ina, or vampire, blood with human blood) and the human they chose was black (while the Ina are white, though not of European descent). Much of the tension in the novel should come from the question of how much (if at all) that mixing is the motive behind the attacks on Shori's family; it doesn't, though, because there is never any other motive advanced that the reader can seriously consider.
The more interesting issue, to me at least, is the way Butler explores the idea of consent. There are plenty of situations in this book designed to make the reader uncomfortable, and all surround what consent looks like and who is capable of giving it. Can Shori consent to having sex, when she looks like a 10 year old girl? How does the fact that she has no memory of any life before the start of the book influence that? Can a human consent to becoming a symbiont despite the physical and psychological addiction an Ina bite causes? Again, how much of a role does Shori's amnesia play in what responsibilities she has to her symbionts? Given the extreme imbalance of power, how much responsibility does any Ina have to his/her symbionts? To other Ina symbionts? What do the symbionts owe each other? Where there are clearly wrong answers with regards to miscegenation, the issue of consent is surrounded by shades of grey. . . and I found that absolutely fascinating.
This isn't the book I'd recommend people start with in Butler's catalog (so far that would be Wild Seed) but what it does it does well, and what it does is something I wish more genre fiction attempted: it makes us really think about right and wrong, rather than falling back on generic grade school morality.
Octavia Butler always keeps me reading and thinking. An interesting take on how vampires could be real, yet not so destructive they kill all humans or convert them to vampires.
Also a truly interesting take on bigotry. The back made me think that it was human bigotry against vampires, but that was really not it at all. When you depend on beings, but you undoubtedly control and protect them, the relationship can easily lead to the slave - master mentalities within humans themselves. Are they just as worthy of respect, or more tools to be used.
I loved this book! It found it really hard to put down, and I was so sad to see it end. It makes me wonder if the author had more books planned to follow this one, before she passed away. I found this an interesting twist on the vampire genre. It was very well written and completely captivating. I'd highly recommend it.