James Asher, former Spy and Oxford Don, first encountered Don Ysidro when he was compelled by the vampire to solve a series of murders among the Vampires of London. Ysidro needed James Asher's intelligence and ability to solve mysteries, and the two worked together to find the murderer and put him to rest. At the end of their adventure, Ysidro should have killed James to keep the secret of the vampires, but in light of all the former Spy had done for him, he elected to keep Asher alive with his memory, and that of his young physician wife, Lydia, intact.
Since that time, Asher has worked with Don Simon Ysidro again, and now, it is 1911 and World War I is brewing. Somehow, it seems, the Germans and Russians have discovered knowledge of Vampires, and is interested in recruiting them to be agents in the coming war. While Don Ysidro knows that none of the older vampires he once knew in either country would be at all interested in working for humans, there are new vampires who are raised and disappear all the time in the hard countries of Russia and Germany who might still retain some human memories and feeling, like love in their country, and decide to do just that. But is Don Ysidro interested in keeping the secrets of vampires safe, or is he really interested in saving his former love, Lady Irene, who has warned Ysidro of the Kaiser's interest, and now seems to have disappeared.
But what really gets them going is the information that a physician interested in blood is also on the scene. Could this man be doing experiments with vampire blood in the effort to create agents with vampire strength and senses, who no normal human agent could hope to match or equal, and none of the drawbacks of being a vampire? In Russia, there is a problem: Two masters, not one, control St. Petersburg, and neither is strong enough or competent enough to kill or overpower the other, allowing vampires and their childer to simply fall through the cracks and disappear or simply be ignored.
Travelling as Professor Van Leyden, James must traverse the dangerous waters of Russian human society, with its interest in mysticism and the occult, as well as Russian vampire society, but be cannot reveal that he is in any way connected with Simon Ysidro, or his real identity And there is a female vampire who seems to be able to go out in the sunlight without dying. Who made her, and are the Doctor and his vampire patron seeking to make more of her for use as agents, or is her ability something unique to her and non-transferable? And what is Ysidro's real purpose in returning to Russia and Lady Irene?
It's been fourteen years since the last "James Asher" novel, and the time shows. While Barbara Hambly's writing is just as strong as ever (one might even say stronger, since she has been responsible for the Benjamin January mystery novels in the meantime), it was a bit of a struggle to remember what the last novel was about. I still do remember the first novel, as it made quite an impression on me when I first read it. Hoo boy, did it make an impression.
To start out with, Hambly's vampires are not the current stereotype of brooding, tortured loners looking for love and to escape their bleak existence. No, these harken back to old school vampires: cold, inhuman and above all else, able to pass as human by being almost perfect mimics of what humans are like. But all their seeming is just that: a pretense that they carry out only to feed. Don Simon Ysidro is an OLD vampire. He's been one for so long that he's gone very pale, even though he was bronzed and tanned in his human life. He's able to appear charming and courtly, but mainly because that is part of his pretending to be human, and probably something drummed into him when he was actually alive. He's still more than capable of being ruthless and cutting his losses, even when it involves people he knows and seems to have some feeling for.
James Asher is very human. He doesn't really want to help Ysidro, because he's getting old, and he'd rather spend time with his lovely wife and be the professor of Philology that he seems to be. But the idea that Germany and Russia might have vampire agents on their side, and love for the country he served for so long, impels him to try and do something about it. But he knows he's no match for a vampire in power, which is where Ysidro comes in, acting as muscle to his brain, intuition and logic. But can he trust Ysidro in a foreign country, and with a woman he seems to love?
I have to say that, as a book, it's not as good as the previous books in the series at holding my attention and getting me interested in what was going on. The early part of the book was better than the later parts, which seemed to dissolve in a welter of characters I had no interest in and didn't care about doing stuff that left me cold. I'd not recommend this book, but I would recommend the first in the series, which I felt was the best. Go read "Those Who Hunt the Night" instead, and only read this one if you are desperate for something to read. It just doesn't have the magic of the first one.