The big news in vampire fiction lately has been, of course, the latest book in the Twilight series: Breaking Dawn. Tweaking the fundamental nature of vampires isn’t new (see this rousing discussion from two weeks ago) but the nature of those tweaks is the difference between simplistic Mary Sue fantasies and vampire stories that have some heft. The Opposite of Life by Narrelle M. Harris falls into the latter category. And though the book takes its cues more from modern conceptions of vampires than old-school Dracula-types, Harris manages to keep vampires firmly in the scary and dangerous zone.
Through a series of unfortunate coincidences, protagonist Lissa Wilson keeps coming across the bodies of mutilated people at the clubs she frequents. Including her unfortunate date… Assuming that the killings have something to do with her, she begins investigating. Inquiries, luck, and intuition lead her to a nightclub full of vampires. (I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me!)
Lissa is a young librarian who is not so young as to be stupid but young enough to be somewhat self-centered and prone to bursts of acting rashly without thinking. Her voice is strong and carried me through the book, and liking her will make or break the story for you. She’s very Gen-Y, which might make her point-of-view an acquired taste for some. But if you like your heroines smart and curious and imperfect, you’ll like Lissa.
She hooks up with Gary, a vampire charged with finding out who’s behind the killings. His interest is less personal, but just as urgent. After all, the vamp community survives by not drawing too much attention to itself. Leaving behind a bunch of bloody bodies and puncture marks in the neck isn’t exactly in line with this goal. Gary allows Lissa to help him, not necessarily because she’s needed, but because it’s obvious she isn’t going to let the whole thing go and return to her normal life.
I appreciated that Harris’ vampires, though not “traditional” in every way, aren’t just lonely superpowered humans with a tendency toward emo tears and sparkling in the sun. (Though the sun doesn’t burn, it just weakens them–more and more if they stay in it too long.) Harris takes the opportunity to explore ideas around what it means to be undead. Her vampires are not only mentally stuck in the era they were created, but find it hard to learn new ways of thinking and being. They drink human blood not just for sustenance, but in order to feel closer to being alive. If not for that, everything would just be dull and lifeless (pun intended). Being “turned” is not glamorized, nor is the “fabulous” life of the dead. Not to say that being a vampire doesn’t have its perks. But whether they outweigh the drawbacks isn’t clear cut.
This plays out prominently in the interactions between Gary and Lissa and showcases the complex issues both have to face as they learn more about the killings and each other. Still, Harris rarely falls into cliché, particularly when it comes to the personal relationship between the two.
As a reader burned out on vampires, I particularly appreciated the author’s pragmatic approach to the mythos. Coupled with a heroine who doesn’t veer off into badly-thought-out-Buffy-clone when faced with adversity and a particularly rich and engaging urban landscape (Melbourne, rendered perfectly, according to those in the know) there is a lot to like about The Opposite of Life.