Written by Jennifer Armintrout
Published in 2011 by MIRA Books
This is definitely the best part of the book. The characters are not only interesting but they are only human (psychologically speaking). They make mistakes and they live with the consequences.
Let’s start with the main vampire and male point of view: Graf McDonald. He’s definitely not the cliché tragic hero who’s unbearably conflicted about his bloodlust. He is arrogant and completely unashamed of what he is. I love vampires like that. Not only that but he doesn’t lose that attitude throughout the course of the book. He warms to the female human lead but, when he hears of a vampire treating a human mistress badly, he still thinks they were careless rather than cruel. He’s an interesting, exciting male lead who really isn’t as bad as he’d like everyone to think.
I do like Graf a lot because of his character and character development but Jessa Gallagher is easily the best developed character. She becomes Graf’s cynical and very reluctant landlady after he stumbles in Penance. She had a charmed life before the events of the book. She was homecoming queen and graduated from college in Mathematics but, when the loss of her family brought her back to Penance and she became trapped there with a community that hates her, she responded by becoming tough, no-nonsense and self-sufficient. However, she is only human too. She’s hasn’t been allowed to mourn her family and is still hampered by an ill-advised crush on a married man. She had ambitions, flaws and a strongly written character.
Speaking of her ill-advised crush, Derek starts off as an unlikeable character and only gets worse as the book goes on. He is a hard drinker, a coward, an adulterer and like a more adult version of Gaston. Like Jessa, he had a charmed life but he became so self-entitled that, when he didn’t get his way, he turned nasty. However, he stops short of being a true moustache-twirling villain. He shows regret but no strength of will to change his ways. In that respect, he makes a very believable villain that, despite how hard he tries, can’t make you feel sorry for him.
Two more characters deserve a mention: June and Becky. June is the voice of reason in Penance and, though not in an official place of authority (which she really should be), holds a lot of influence over the town as the owner of the main meeting place. It would be tempting to make her a maternal figure who will stick by Jessa and Graf through thick and thin but, excellently, she isn’t. In fact, her sordid past with vampires clouds her judgment and makes her do something rather foolish. However, in the end, she shows her worth when she’s brave enough to admit she was wrong and to turn the tide in Jessa and Graf’s favour.
Becky is anything but reasonable. She serves as Jessa’s foil (and perhaps the girl she could have become if Derek married her instead). She is consumed with spite towards her former best friend, refuses to use what intellect she has and has given herself over to drink, drugs and sex in equal measure. Despite acting aggressively possessive of Derek, she jumps at the first chance to leave him. It’s lucky she’s not in the main action very much. She would have got too annoying in high quantities and most of her redeeming qualities were revealed in hindsight. Her main purpose in the story to me is to highlight the double standards present in Penance. She’s much more reprehensible than Jessa by smoking and drinking while pregnant and trying to sleep around and, yet, Penance appreciates her simply because, unlike Jessa, she’s funny.
The other characters are a roll call of small town America stereotypes: the Elvis lovers, the psycho-Christian minister, middle-aged women that allow small slights to fester into a full-blown grudge, etc. Not many are likeable but all are believable and that is the author’s strength. Whether we like them or not, the characters are the best part of the book.
10 out of 10 drops
We aren’t given a precise date but we’re led to assume this is set in the modern day when Graf displays a Lady Gaga ringtone (vampires playing Lady Gaga, really?) and a TomTom sat nav (though this feels more like name-dropping than a display of good research). He’s also driving a 1974 De Tomaso Pantera L which is a real sports car and (in my completely unprofessional opinion) does look very nice. It was an interesting to decision to pick 1967 as the year Graf was turned. Not only is it fairly recent, it’s when an infamous riot broke out in Detroit, where Graf was living. It’s also when anti-war protests escalated and the culture of the 60s we’re familiar with started to emerge. It could be just a coincidence but, perhaps, the author connected Graf’s turning with the beginning of a cultural shift, hence the title ‘American Vampire’.
The homemade stuff in Penance is also accurate. While tobacco could theoretically grow in Ohio, it’s much more likely that someone was secretly growing marijuana plants so it makes sense that the denizens of Penance would be more likely to smoke it.
Regarding vampirism, it’s clear that the author has done some research on the vampire genre. The most unsubtle one is a reference to Anne Rice’s novels with a disparaging comment on the incest subtext in Interview with the Vampire, which felt more like the author speaking. Graf has some of the usual vampire specs as in fangs and an aversion to sunlight. Near the beginning, Graf uses the excuse of polymorphic light eruption to cover up the latter which I at first assumed was a fictional illness but turns out to be a real and common minor skin complaint. Always a good sign when a story teaches you something.
The author also shows her research in the science of vampirism by pointing out that fangs are not precision instruments and that it would be better to take blood from her wrist rather than her neck, claiming that there is more oxygenated blood in that area. I’m not sure if that’s true (it would make more sense to send more oxygenated blood to the brain than the hands) but, in a later passage, Graf remembers his maker telling him to aim for the smaller arteries in the neck rather than the main one as ‘it makes less mess’. A nice little indication of some biology research done on this topic.
As for the monster, unimaginatively named ‘It’, we know little. I would presume that the monster is based on the minotaur since it’s humanoid and has a bull-like head but it’s described as being a disgusting mismatch of other creatures so I can assume it’s an original creation. There’s little on what the summoning ritual involved (apart from the standard blood sacrifice), only that it went wrong somehow. Still, the story is fine without those details.
So, it is clear that the author has given enough thought on her work to make it believable and I love the little biology facts associated with vampirism.
8 out of 10 drops
Graf is a classic vampire in the sense that he drinks blood and can’t go out in direct sunlight without painful burns but he is an original vampire character in the sense that he is the main character and is not the monster. He rather plays the role of hapless reluctant hero who saves the town (from the monster, at least), though he does it more out of selfish motives than any burgeoning sense of heroism. His maker, Sophia, is more of a classic vampire woman who lives the high life of admirers buying her extremely expensive luxuries and throwing huge parties for her and her ‘children’. She flirts with the cliche of witnessing massive historical events as she relocated to America at the first sign of unrest but it’s thankfully never mentioned that she witnessed the main events, only that she wanted to take advantage of the chaos.
Of course, Graf and Jessa fall in love in spite of their initial bad first impression of each other. Goes without saying. However, in this book, their progression to love feels a bit more natural and certainly more readable without any purple prose in sight. I also love the reverse of the norm by making the bite non-romantic and even quite scary. I also like the idea that vampire blood can be harmful rather than beneficial to humans. If consumed too much, it can drive a human into an insane ‘ghoul’ which only needs to be put down.
The emphasis is not on Graf’s vampirism or on his budding romance with Jessa but on the town trapped within itself by an unknown monster. A monster which is suitably scary, especially when it isn’t seen. The way the monster is built up and described is very good, as is the mystery of how it got there and how it can be stopped. What is truly Jessa’s enemy however are the community worthy of a Stephen King novel. Overblown grudges, social conservatism and religious fever is allowed to grow unchecked, driving the townspeople to unreasonable violence. It’s playing on the old ‘people are the real monsters’ cliche but, when the town does turn on Jessa, it’s still a shock.llyob rule re that a blood sacrifice was needed, that a Goth girl collected the information and that the conjurer learnede only l
The monster seems to be an original creation though it’s still ridden with cliches. The needs for a blood sacrifice to bring it into being isn’t a novel idea and simply naming the monster ‘It’ really isn’t very imaginative. Really, I know the people of Penance had more pressing matters to think about but couldn’t they at least have given it a better name?
There wasn’t much scope for originality but the book managed to add some interesting elements to the vampire lore.
7 out of 10 drops
At first, we are introduced to an enviable world of immortal jetsetters and vampires aren’t the only monsters in this world. In the first chapter, werewolves and witches are mentioned but we don’t see them in the book. Later on, the concept of ‘ghouls’ is introduced, along with the idea of vampire blood being harmful rather than beneficial to humans. The only thing that’s missing is the knowledge of how vampires are created and this almost feels like a deliberate choice on the author’s part. I’m not sure why.
But, we have no time to think about vampires before Graf and the readers are hurled into Penance. After five years of isolation, the town is just hanging on but is only a shadow of its former self. The author very nicely describes the various ways people have made do with what they had, both healthy and unhealthy. Only a few maintain a voice of reason and try to organise social events while others seem to have completely given themselves over to drink, drugs, sex and occasionally religion-fuelled violence. The town politics are writ large in their imprisonment and, with the local governing body acting on instinct and very often making things worse than better, it’s a miracle this town held on as long as it did.
The only major gap in the world building is the dark magic involved in summoning It. We only know that a blood sacrifice was needed and that the conjurer learned ‘be careful what you wish for’ the hard way. I really would have liked to know at least where the information came from or what culture the ritual derived from. It feels like a major oversight in what is otherwise a well-created world.
7 out of 10 drops
The narrative alternates between Graf’s and Jessa’s point of view and I think this works very well. Jessa’s narrative helps build up the world around her and Graf’s point of view lets us have an outsider’s point of view. It’s not that original to tell it from the vampire’s point of view but Graf’s point of view is rather enjoyable, especially when he sardonically sums up his situation in ‘Deliverance’.
Just how bad Penance has become isn’t thrown in our face. It’s slowly built up and the revelation that a girl was burned alive was dismissed at hyperbole at first so, when the full story is told, it still hits hard. As does a trial scene where incidents taken out of context and past grudges are used against the defendants. It’s easy to share their anger and outrage as the farce goes on.
The story runs the risk of being a back-and-forth formula of Graf saving Jessa from the monster with a bit of romance on the side but it diverts from that by adding other difficulties and ensuring that enough twists occur to keep interest. There’s a lot of action and it doesn’t continue too long, allowing the readers to focus on the simmering tension in between the fights. It’s in these periods that It seems the most intimidating. When It is discussed, we learn just enough to scare us and leaves just enough blank to let us draw our own conclusions, which, I believe, is the secret to horror.
If I do have one criticism, it’s that a little too much time is devoted to squabbles between Jessa and Graf. Still, it’s not a major problem and I especially think I like the fact that Graf’s vampirism being revealed to Jessa nice and promptly without risking any of the characters becoming deliberately stupid.
The story kept my interest throughout for the most part and the conclusion was very satisfying too.
8 out of 10 drops
American Vampire is a great overlooked modern vampire novel. The characterisation is close to perfection, the setting has a good feeling of desolation and the story keeps you engaged all the way. If you haven’t read it yet, go out and pick it up immediately.
Total 40 drops = B Negative