Nancy Baker,
The Night Inside
(Penguin Books, 1993)
(re-released as Kiss of the Vampire in 1995)

Blood and Chrysanthemums
(Penguin Books, 1994)

Novels about vampires are all the rage these days, a timeless fascination reignited by Anne Rice and handled in various guises -- and often, in my opinion, in much better style -- by countless modern writers. Ontario's Nancy Blake has entered the list with a pair of novels about graduate student-cum-vampire Ardeth Alexander.

The first book, The Night Inside (later reprinted as Kiss of the Vampire), certainly isn't the standard horror fare where undead creatures craving blood wreak havoc on some unsuspecting village -- although it might seem that way at first. And, unlike cult favorites like Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake and Tanya Huff's Vicki Nelson, it doesn't set the vampire up as a hero battling various supernatural foes. Instead, it shoves Ardeth -- your average, unassuming University of Toronto graduate student -- into circumstances which would leave most folk gibbering in mindless fear, and lets the reader watch as she discovers and takes the only reasonable escape.

It introduces us to Dimitri Rozokov, a centuries-old vampire recently reawakened and forced into an appalling half-life, denied even the rationality needed to know what he is doing or why. Together, Ardeth and Dimitri form an unusual alliance. OK, let's be plain: Ardeth becomes a vampire, but that's hardly a secret; the cover art makes that much plain from the start. But Baker gives us something Huff overlooked in her otherwise excellent "Victory Nelson" series (also set, by the way, in Toronto) -- a peek into a new vampire's first stumbling steps into the night, untutored and unprepared for dealing with an unfamiliar set of needs, strengths and restrictions.

Ardeth is a protagonist I found myself liking from the start, then disliking, and gradually learning to like again. Throw in some nifty plot twists, violent revenge, sinister plots spanning generations and a touch of undead romance, and you have a good vampire thriller on your hands.

The second of Baker's books is startling in that it largely lacks anything resembling a plot. Oh, there is various character development as Ardeth and Dimitri have predictable lover's spats and separate, and there is some interesting insight into the lives of Fujiwara Sadamori, a mysterious, much older vampire from Japan.

Blood and Chrysanthemums can almost be viewed as a vampire soap opera, dealing as it does with love, separation, infidelity (or perceived infidelity, anyway) and a mysterious figure from the past. There are some useful tips for rock climbing and hitchhiking. And there's the added treat of watching a young vampire try to find herself, to get in touch with her feelings about her old and new lives and the people involved in both.

But a plot? No, not really. Still, I enjoyed the book anyway. Sure, it's mostly character development, a far cry from the action, tension and drama of The Night Inside, but it's good character development. And did you ever read a book or watch a movie and wonder what happened to the characters after all the action was over? Baker answers that question for anyone who cares.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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