Blood and Ice

Written by Robert Masello

First published in UK in 2009 by Harvill Secker


Crow character_001I must say, the nineteenth century characters proved a lot more interesting than the modern day ones. For instance, Michael Wilde feels more like an everyman and a blank slate than anything though he does start out promising. He is a photographer with a girlfriend in a coma due to a hiking accident, drawn out of his depression and (not unjustified) self-blaming by an assignment in the Antarctic. He bonds with Eleanor once she’s out of the ice but he doesn’t really develop much as a character. Even though he’s one of the main narrators, it feels like this isn’t really his story. There was no visible development in his character, which is a shame because there was a lot of potential there.

Darryl isn’t much better. He serves more as a comic relief character at first with his seasickness and general geekery. However, he does contribute a lot of science stuff to the story (perhaps a bit too much but I’ll get to that later) but the thing is he doesn’t do much else. I don’t think I read a bit about his backstory or his motives (beyond avoiding mockery) and, even though he provided an excellent solution to the main problem, he remained just that, a means to an end.

The real development comes from Eleanor Ames and Sinclair Copley, the two nineteenth century vampires frozen and awoken in the twenty-first century. First off, Eleanor starts as a sheltered girl that’s nonetheless very capable and capable enough to work at a hospital for gentlewomen. She’s not too shocked by the bad behaviour of her charges but is naive when it comes to men. She’s not perfect and she has a few moments of vanity and selfishness but, overall, she becomes a caring and adaptable individual. Though initially shocked by the advancements made in the modern day, she comes to terms with her surroundings quickly and that adaptability, along with strong moral principles, is probably what saved her sanity when infected. She did fall for Sinclair, which causes most of her problems but, by the end of the book, the heat of romance has worn off and she has become a wiser person. She is certainly my favourite character in the book.

Which is more than can be said for Sinclair Copley. He starts out bad as the classic aristocratic rake, loving alcohol and prostitutes, disapproved of by his father and taking a shine to the naïve nurse he contrived to meet after a fight. It’s probably a good thing he was sent off to war when he did as he would have become completely unlikeable as he was. When he does go to Crimea and finds himself involved in the Battle of Balaclava, he becomes traumatised into a state of hypervigilance and paranoia. It would be easy to say that his vampirism had made him more possessive than loving towards Eleanor but I think that’s more of his true personality emerging. By the end of the book, he can no longer trust anyone but Eleanor and his inability to adapt proves fatal.

In the end, this is Eleanor and Sinclair’s story so the other characters were almost unnecessary.

5 out of 10 drops

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Crow character research_001This is one of the most science-heavy books I’ve read so, boy, did I need to do a lot of fact checking. So much so that I think I’ll just stick to the essentials to prevent this being ten pages long. I think the first question we have to ask is whether the biology of Antarctic icefish vital to the vampire ‘cure’ is accurate. The short answer is yes, Antarctic icefish do have no haemoglobin and antifreeze proteins in their blood that allow them to survive in the perishing waters of the South Pole. In fact, their blood is white as a result. However, while most produce this protein in their blood, some Antarctic fish have been found to contain antifreeze proteins in their skin too so the vulnerability of skin-to-ice contact becomes somewhat shaky. Still, it can be explained by Darryl simply not having the right fish to hand and being pressed for time.

What can’t be explained is the adherence to the inaccurate clichés around flat-lining. When a patient was dying in the middle of the book, flat-lining as an ominous continuing beep is present, even though that beep is purely fiction and more a sign that a cable has been knocked loose than of death. Still that’s just a little nitpick.

It seems clear that the author did enough research on vampires to pick out an obscure one, the Kara-Kondjiolos, a Turkish myth of a vampire witch who rode on uprooted trees at night looking for victims. And, that’s pretty much all I can find about it. I do know that the author doesn’t follow that myth and portrays it more as a mysterious scavenger prowling the battlefields for victims that we don’t see much of, only seeing the consequences of it biting Sinclair. Apart from that, vampire lore isn’t strictly followed, choosing to follow a scientific explanation for blood sucking and the consequences of abstaining.

Now, onto the meaty nineteenth century stuff and I feel confident in saying that the author saved the bulk of his research time for this. Yes, ‘Crimean fever’ (or Varna fever, as it was also called) was a big problem in Florence Nightingale’s hospitals and she herself suffered chronically from it for the rest of her life when she returned to Britain. And, it turns out that malaria can take years to kill a person so the account of an old soldier suffering from it for years would be accurate. The medical beliefs of the time are accurate too. Though Florence Nightingale was a follower of the Sanitation Movement, the miasma theory was still prevalent in the medical profession around 1854 and germ theory was only gradually starting to gain ground so it’s quite natural that Eleanor would still believe in it.

Speaking of Nightingale, it turns out that, despite being hailed as a national hero, the officers and army bureaucrats did resent her presence at the time and tried to make as little mention of her and her nurses as possible in their reports so, while I haven’t been able to find any sources that state the accusations of nurses volunteering for the sake of husband-hunting among the soldiers, it is believable. So is Eleanor’s assertion that Nightingale didn’t want women to become doctors. Despite all she did, she still considered women as inferior to men and even criticised early women’s rights activists.

Point Adelie itself seems to be an original creation, as is the whaling town of Stromviken. However, both are believably described as research stations and abandoned towns. Point Adelie has the right number of amenities and harsh safety rules of a station in the Antarctic and, amusingly, the book even gets the slang right. The abandoned whaling town is both accurately described and creepy with all its whale and seal remains along with all other personal effects scattered around the place.

And, I’d better stop there. There are loads more stuff I could talk about but I’ve gone on long enough. Apart from a few minor hiccups, it’s obvious that this is a very well researched book and, for the most part, it’s woven into the story well.

9 out of 10 drops

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Crow character originality_001Unlike most of the other vampire books I’ve reviewed, this story has a much higher emphasis on science and the explanation behind vampirism is very similar to Night World, whereby an absence of haemoglobin is forcing the blood to actively consume red blood cells in order to take vital oxygen to the organs. Unlike Night World, however, Blood and Ice offers a neat solution which is gained from the Antarctic fish I mentioned earlier.. The vampirism itself is highly infectious and can be transferred through a simple bite (which seems rather impractical to me). It can affect a person psychologically in various ways and draws not on classic mythology but on obscure Turkish myths.

Speaking of Antarctica, Point Adelie in the Antarctic is certainly a unique setting for a vampire story and a very good one too. The sense of isolation and constant danger around them is so great that adding vampires to the mix would make a perfect horror story. it does make a good setting for a vampire story in general. It certainly offers a valid explanation as to why the characters can’t simply run to the police when things start to go south. Sadly, the horror elements are very downplayed but the story manages to hold your interest with depictions of the old whaling town and the research station itself.

Half of the story takes place in the modern day and half during the Crimean War and the narrative switches back and forth rather well. However, the story does fall into the trap of loading us with a lot of recognisable historical names and, of course, the charge everyone thinks of when the Crimean War is mentioned. I get rather irritated when this happens as I feel this can be a sign of laziness on the author’s part. However, the historical events are nicely fleshed out with a healthy dose of realism to make the scenes more interesting so I’ll let this slide.

An original setting and an original story that steps close to but never quite falls into clichés.

8 out of 10 drops

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World Building

Crow world building_001If it’s one thing there’s a lot of, it’s world building. In fact, reading it a second time, I think there’s a bit too much of it, especially in the scientific descriptions and the nineteenth century segments. One clumsy line in a nineteenth century brothel scene, for instance, informs us of the (disgustingly young) age of consent in Victorian England in a way that doesn’t feel like something the character would naturally say. However, as I’ve said before, the scenes still feel very well rounded and realistic with the inclusion of some facts that not many would know, such as the officers’ initial rejection of Florence Nightingale and her nurses. The descriptions of battle and the deplorable conditions the soldiers endured are also well described with any hint of Victorian romanticism squashed and the officers displayed as the upper-class fools they were. Yet, it never feels like a one-dimensional condemnation of war, more like a natural disillusionment on Sinclair’s part.

On the other hand, the modern day Antarctic scenes fall into the trap of info-dumping, especially during Darryl’s segments when the narrative assaults us with science and instils an urge to skip large segments to get back to the story. However, as Darryl is a scientist who loves his work, this is semi-excusable and the science could be fascinating at times. The way the research station is described feels real. Despite all the workers’ efforts to make the place more cheerful, the reader is never allowed to forget how dangerous and isolated the place is with constant safety tests and tight regulations on the characters’ movements.

Despite a fair few info dumps, the author succeeds in painting two worlds in a realistic and nuanced light.

8 out of 10 drops

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Crow story_001The story switches back and forth between modern day and the nineteenth century almost chapter by chapter and, to prevent confusion, the author very kindly puts in times, dates and years but, in the latter case, only in the nineteenth century parts. I suppose it was to keep the narrative fluid enough to allow the reader to project their own modern day year on the story. However, the various product names scattered everywhere (such as camera models and fizzy drink brands) defeat that purpose. The story stops switching eras when Eleanor and Sinclair thaw out, which is understandable as it may cause confusion in the reader to keep doing it. However, their chapters are so taken up with flashbacks that they might as well be in the nineteenth century.

While the nineteenth century scenes were interesting to read, the split storyline left little room to build up the threat of Sinclair and the other vampires. Indeed, the threat of the vampire that turned Sinclair was only given one scene to be introduced before the turning so there’s no time to be properly unnerved, even though the setting was very promising.

The story itself is a take on a man-accidentally-awakens-monster story when Michael discovers Eleanor and Sinclair frozen in ice in the waters off Antarctica. He takes them for preserved corpses at first but the truth is slowly revealed through well-paced hints.

Well, the truth is revealed for Michael, at any rate. I think most readers would have guessed what was happening long ago, just as they would have guessed what Eleanor and Sinclair were once they were shown drinking something suspicious before being thrown overboard. And, the readers would have guessed what the crazed vampire that appears later on was pursuing. However, they turn that cliche on its head slightly by killing said vampire rather than giving him what he wanted.

While the interweaving stories were interesting enough to keep me reading, it could really plough on sometimes. Not just during the info dumps either but some scenes felt plain awkward and, worse, unnecessary. Speaking of unnecessary, the whole inclusion of Michael and Darryl’s POV sometimes felt like it didn’t need to be there. This was Eleanor’s story, after all, and their lack of meaningful character development made them feel more like extras than main characters. Michael was the worst as his promising plotline of a girlfriend in a coma and the subplot of adopting a weak skua chick. Both fell by the wayside when Eleanor entered the scene.

The worst offence the story commits however is being unfocused. It’s a risk authors run when they tell two stories in one book and tell it from various points of view. There’s no real feeling of an ultimate goal or a lesson the characters learn about themselves or life. While I like the nineteenth century, I can’t help but think that this story might be better if it was split into two books with the nineteenth century half of the story first and the modern day half as a sequel. Both would get the in-depth exploration of character and focus this story deserves.

This is a very promising concept but I know it could have been done better.

5 out of 10 drops

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Overall = 35 drops – A Negative


2 thoughts on “Blood and Ice

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