Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Taint in the Blood by S.M. Stirling

Adrian Brézé is a wealthy, handsome man who lives the kind of life that most people can only dream about, with the best of clothing, food and furnishings whenever and wherever he wants them. And yet, he's most definitely not the perfect man. That's what his former lover, Ellen Tarnowski, would tell you. Adrian is secretive and won't share his secrets with Ellen, which is what has brought an end to their relationship and caused Ellen to steal his Porsche and drive it away. But as she careens down the mountain and nearly gets into an accident, she pauses to catch her breath and thinks she sees Adrian nearby, so she gets out to give him a piece of her mind.

Unfortunately for Ellen, it isn't Adrian, it's his sister, Adrienne, and she is not happy with her brother at all. For the Brézés are not human, but Shadowspawn, an offshoot of humanity who are responsible for humanity's tales of Gods, Monsters and Devils. Like most of her family, Adrienne thinks there are too many humans, and along with the rest of the Shadowspawn, is seeking to find a way to either eliminate them or trim their numbers down to an acceptable size. This has been made easier in recent years by the Shadowspawn controlling every government, keeping them at war as a means of Population control.

But wars have become too inefficient, and many Shadowspawn seek a better, more permanent solution. But not all of them feel this way, and Adrian is one of those. For years, he's fought against the Shadowspawn Council to try and derail their plans, but then he retired from the fight because he realized that it was unwinnable. Yes, they had killed a great number of Shadowspawn, but very few of the ones who really mattered, and he was tired of all his work coming to nothing every single time. But his sister, who supports the Council, has always hated him, and when she was a child she used to love taking his toys away, so, to goad him, she does the exact same thing with his ex-girlfriend, who she will torment and torture, and get addicted to her bite and enjoy a oneupsmanship victory over her twin, with the added frisson of showing everyone how weak he is.

But Adrian isn't about to let Ellen go that quickly, or that quietly, and while Adrienne has drunk Ellen's blood, Adrian holds a much deeper link to the woman he loves, letting her act as a spy in his sister's camp while he makes careful plans to get her back, plans that involve his old friend Harvey, whom he once fought the agents of the council with, and who warned him of Adrienne being in the country in the first place.

But Adrienne takes Ellen to her home in California, where many of the humans who serve the Shadowspawn as servants (Known as "Renfields") and sources of food and blood ("Lucies") live. There, Ellen begins to realize that while the older Shadowspawn want to kill off all the humans, who they view as annoying as gnats and entirely too numerous, Adrienne and her allies have much the same plan- only they plan to save some of the humans as breeding stock and food. Ellen finds both plans monstrous, so when Adrian contacts her in her dreams, she passes on what Adrienne is planning, where she is and what she is seeing to him. Only Adrian must block her memories of her dreams so that Adrienne can't discover their link.

But Adrienne isn't resting on her laurels with regards to Adrian. As he tries to get closer to Ellen. Adrienne and her friends are doing their best to have Adrian killed by their Renfields. Meanwhile, Ellen is installed in a house on Adrienne's estate, Lucy Lane, with the other Lucies she owns. They seem to be mostly resigned to their fate, while secretly craving Adrienne's bite. Ellen has to wonder how long it will be until she is just like them, but will she be able to escape her fate of being just another one of Adrienne's Lucies, and can Adrian rescue her before she becomes just as crazy as the other Lucies? And how will Adrian kill his sister, who is just as powerful as he is, and has more allies, and more powerful allies, including their parents, to boot?

I've enjoyed S.M. Stirling's writing before, but this book is the start of a new series. The Shadowspawn have some of the characteristics of vampires, but they are *not* vampires, having none of the traditional vampire weaknesses and only a few of the vampire powers (while most of them do bite humans and drink their blood, they don't have to- they just prefer to. Nor must they avoid sunlight, crosses or stakes. In truth, they are an offshoot of humanity (or vice-versa) with specific powers they made stronger by breeding. You can't become a Shadowspawn if you aren't one- not even by being bitten, and most of them seem to rely on manipulation to control people.

Adrian, of course, is unlike most of the Shadowspawn in that he treats humans like humans, rather than something less just because they don't have the powers and abilities he does. His sister, Adrienne, while coming off as quite evil next to Adrian, is somewhere in the middle compared to those older Shadowspawn on her own side, who want to destroy the entire human race. Or maybe she's more evil because she wants to keep some humans to play with like toys- just as she does her Lucies. It's through Ellen that the story explains the world of the Shadowspawn, allowing large sections of the novel to be almost pure exposition on what human life is like working for, or being a toy of the Shadowspawn, and it's a pretty grim picture.

If you are human, you fall into two roles: tool (Renfield, or someone who provides a service, like bringing the Shadowspawn disposable humans as slaves) or toy/sex object (Lucies). And even if you don't work for the Shadowspawn, you are still part of their plot- they control every human government, causing wars, the better to exterminate the humans they view as annoying cattle or insects.

While this novel is uncomfortable to read when you attempt to imagine yourself living in such a world, it's an extremely well-realized world and it wouldn't take a lot to imagine their world being our world. Thankfully it isn't. And the ending makes me think that we'll be hearing from Ellen and Adrian... and Adrienne, in the future. Probably very soon. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it made me think, and cheer for Ellen and Adrian. I hope we will soon see more Shadowspawn novels and meet Shadowspawn on both sides of their conflict. Recommended.

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