Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

Cover art for The Queen of the Damned, featuring a white sculpture of a creepily twisted woman with the text laid over the image
Back in the day, I reread Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles every single April. They were my favourite books in all the world and, as such, an important part of my life. I looked forward to these month-long wallowing sessions with the sort of obsessive focus that made all other books I read immediately before and immediately after pale in comparison.

This sort of intense, regular reading has one major drawback: it wasn’t long before I had the entire series all but memorized. I couldn't quote them wholesale or anything, but key lines, all the beats, and the emotional tone were as familiar to me as my own mind. And, as such, they became... well, not stale, but less compelling than something I couldn't mouth along to.

Horrified, I decided to take a little break. I’d let the Vampire Chronicles rest for a year or three so I could once again approach them with the love and enthusiasm they deserve.

That was nine years ago.

Oops.

I mean, it’s not like I totally ignored Anne Rice during that almost-decade. I’ve mostly kept up to date with her new releases (I still need to get to OF LOVE AND EVIL and THE WOLVES OF MIDWINTER), and I’ve dipped back into her bibliography here and there. I used INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE to help me ease back into the regular reading world after I discovered Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series in 20081, and I devoured THE MUMMY just last year2. I also revisited the first two Vampire Chronicles on audio, with many thanks to Simon Vance for his excellent performance3.

I had such a good time with the audios of IWTV and TVL that I wanted to experience THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED the same way, but my library doesn't own the production. So I dithered around until I absolutely needed to read something awesome and wallowsome and familiar.

I plucked THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED off the shelf not quite at random, but with less foresight than one might expect. These days, I try to read from my TBR as much as possible so I can get to a place where I feel free to pluck books off the shelves whenever I please. (TBRs have their good points, but they do tend to expand at an alarming rate unless you keep on top of them.) As soon as I peeked inside the front cover and discovered it'd been nine years since my last reading, though, my course was clear. To hell with la TBR; I had to reread THE QUEEN OF THE DAMEND next.

Best. Decision. EVER.

For those of you who require something resembling a summary: THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED probably doesn’t work as a standalone novel. It follows close on the heels of THE VAMPIRE LESTAT, which ended on a cliffhanger, and it’s heavily interested in illuminating the vampiric mythology Rice developed in the first two books. There might be enough for a new reader to pick up on, but I know it so well that I’m not really qualified to evaluate that.

So, yeah. Read INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE LESTAT first.

Then launch straight into this one, please, because it is awesome.

The first two books follow your basic fictional autobiography pattern; which is to say, they’re first person accounts of long lives. In each case, Rice nests stories within stories. IWTV is an oral narrative with a third person framing story which occasionally intrudes on the action. TVL is a written account in the first person, with two major pauses during which other characters tell their own tales. Both books are reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, in structure if nothing else.

THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED also tells multiple stories, but it does so through a mix of third person and first. We get Lestat’s part of the story in his own words, while every other character’s account comes to us in the third person.

Normally, books that mix first person and third almost-but-not-quite annoy me because there’s no context to it all4. If we assume the first person narrator is writing their bits down, how can we account for the inclusion of the third person elements? Anne Rice, who almost always bolsters her narrative choices with in-world explanations, gives us a concrete context for her mix of perspectives: Lestat gleaned all the third person stuff from everyone else’s mind and compiled it for the the reader. (He ostensibly does this with their permission, but I’ve never been too inclined to take Lestat’s word at face value. He's an unreliable narrator with a vested interest in casting himself in a certain light.) Easy and effective.

This excites me way more than it should because THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED is the only book I've ever read that actually explains its first person/third person blend. Thank you, Ms Rice!5

Issues of context aside, the blend of first person and third gives us a fresh perspective on Rice’s vampiric world in that it allows us to view it from multiple angles. Aside from Lestat, we spend the most time with two mortals, Daniel and Jesse, and with Khayman, an ancient vampire plagued by occasional amnesia. Daniel is already familiar to anyone who’s read IWTV; he’s the boy from the framing story6, and he’s spent the last twelve years trying to fit into the vampire world alongside Armand (who flat-out refuses to turn him). He’s a frustrated outsider who barely understands what he’s been thrust into. His segments are part update on a couple of familiar characters, part tantalizing hint as to what’s really going on.

Jesse is my favourite. She’s a mortal agent of the Talamasca, a group of psychic detectives who investigate supernatural phenomena around the globe, so she’s perfectly positioned to observe and comment on the action. She also comes equipped with a large, peculiar family, and anyone who’s read the previous two books will immediately recognize their true heritage. Jesse is part insider, part outsider, with both a fascinating backstory and some keen insights into the story at the book’s core.

I know I just said Jesse was my favourite, but Khayman is probably the character from whom I most want more, more, more. He’s the one who knows everything, if only he could remember, and that makes him absolutely fascinating. I’ll always be sorry Rice hasn’t written an entire book about Khayman because I’m with all the characters: I want to hear about Troy (and everything else he's ever done. Khayman's an interesting guy).

Rice also lets us ride along with Pandora and Marius as she moves all her pieces into place, though their perspectives fade into the background after they’ve given us a few key facts. These multiple points of view result in a thick, complex web of story that’s as much about who these people are as it is about what’s happening to them. Rice has this wonderful, wonderful talent for taking the reader inside her characters’ lives in such a way that no bit of backstory feels extraneous. Even those details that have little bearing on the plot are still important because they establish character. They allow us to feel for these people, and to make their journey our own.

It’s the sort of fiction I eat straight from the jar. If I could ensure that every book I read was as rich and wallowsome as this, I’d be pretty fucking happy.

As the story rolls along, we also move away from the straight third person and back into first person nestled within third, a la IWTV, as we hear from the ancient vampire Maharet. She lays out the full story for us at such a time that it feels like a long wished-for answer rather than an infodump. Rice alternates between Lestat and Maharet (and whoever narrates the framing portion of Maharet’s tale) during this segment, and it’s worth noting that I found Lestat’s perspective by far the least interesting part of the book.

Lestat, for those of who don’t know, was for many years my favouritest of favourite characters. Anything I find more interesting than Lestat is worth gushing about.

Friends, the whole thing is perfect! I mean, I know that’s not strictly true, but I’ve now sped past the too-familiar-to-frequently-reread phase and entered the too-familiar-to-greet-with-anything-but-unalloyed-glee portion of the proceedings. I love this book to fucking death. It was exactly what I needed, and it’s left me wicked eager to move along to THE TALE OF THE BODY THIEF in the coming weeks. It’s been nine years since I read that one, too, and it’ll be interesting to see how my perspective on it has changed during my looooooooong break.

Links

While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read THE QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, you can try:

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  1. I reread IWTV that June partly because long experience has taught me that the only appropriate follow-up for an awesome book is another awesome book, partly to see if there was any chance I could reread the entire series again (nope; I needed a bit longer), and partly because that was the last year mortal Louis and I would ever be the same age. I have this weird thing where I like to spend time with characters when we’re at the same chronological stage of our life's journey. I did the same thing with THE VAMPIRE LESTAT when I was twenty (though I’d have reread it that year anyways, since this was well before I burned out).

    As a sidenote, this is the last year Felix (from Doctrine of Labyrinths) and I will ever be the same age again. Sadness.

  2. This happened during my blogging break so I never wrote about it, but OMG you guys. It was so awesome! I’d only read THE MUMMY once, fourteen years before, and I remembered it as being somewhat less engaging than Rice’s other books. I was delighted to discover a painfully gorgeous, absorbing story beneath that bandaged cover. For years, I’ve longed to read vintage Rice for the first time, but my teenage self’s must-read-everything-oh-god-oh-god attitude made that impossible. Turns out, leaving such a long gap between readings gave me almost the same experience.

  3. Years ago, I listened to a short sample of one of the books on Audible, just to see if I might be interested in it. I turned it off almost right away because Simon Vance had a British accent, and I absolutely hate it when actors adopt British accents when they play French characters. (Recent adaptation of LES MISERABLES, I am glaring at you with all the fury I can muster.) Turns out, he does attempt a French accent during the actual performance (except when he’s voicing a non-French character). Thanks, Simon Vance.

  4. THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD by Ellen Kushner is a notable exception to this rule. There’s absolutely no context for the presence of Katherine’s first person recollections alongside everyone else’s third person perspective, but the book as a whole is so frickin’ awesome that I’m willing to overlook it.

  5. Really, though, Anne Rice is probably the reason I’m so obsessed with the context in which first person (or first person/third person blended) stories exist. She led my young self to expect that yes, there would always be an in-world explanation for an author’s narrative decisions. Sadly, this is not the case.

  6. The first time I read TQotD, I said, "Huh? There was a boy in IWTV? I don’t remember no boy."

    Then I realized the boy was part of the framing story, and I felt stupid.

3 comments:

  1. One day I really should read more Anne Rice... I haven't read most of her books!

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    1. I can only agree with you (on your need to read more of her books, that is). I know she's not for everyone, but I want everyone to at least try to read her. She's been one of my favourite authors for half my life now.

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  2. Nine years! I think we've been conversing in the blogosphere for about that long. I went back to see when I started Tip of the Iceberg and found that I've been blogging and stalking people since June of 2006. Geesh! Had no idea it has been that long.

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