Sunday, 9 May 2010

Futile Flame, by Sam Stone - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Gabriele Caccini, "Italian by birth and vampire by nature", is on the road with great-many times over-granddaughter and lover Lilly. Pursued by a mysterious being with the ability to sap their strength from a distance, they search out another of their kind, Lucrezia Borgia, whose death in 1519 is revealed to have been the moment her brother, Caesare Borgia, turned her into a vampire. Most of the book is then given over to an account of Lucrezia's seduction and rape by Caesare, and the consequences of his actions. For the most part this is quite literally a bodice-ripper, with more rape than a Richard Laymon novel, though the last quarter takes a detour into wholly unexpected territory.

Stone’s vampires are very tough. They are described as eternal, and, while not invulnerable, regenerate quickly enough to survive immolation. They are pained by sunlight, but not destroyed, and have chameleon powers. Visible in mirrors, they use their lungs to breathe air and blood flows through their bodies. Their bites tend to produce instant orgasms in their victims, and though they feel slightly bad about eating people they don't let it stop them. Three quarters of the way into the book it’s revealed that Gabriele and Lilly can fly, though I’m guessing this wouldn’t have surprised me had I read Killing Kiss, the previous novel in the series. Their advantages over other literary vampires are balanced by their reproductive difficulties, with, it seems, only those possessing a certain gene being able to survive the transformation.

That, and the notion of Lucrezia using her fangs to rape others as she has been raped, are the only slivers of originality in the book, though admittedly that wouldn't matter so much if this was the kind of thing I really loved to read. There's nothing here that you won't have seen a hundred times before. Even the final part of Lucrezia's story, though surprising in this context, offers little that's new when considered in isolation. Unfortunately the clichés extend from the plot to the prose: skin is generally olive (apart from one man who is "arrogant and shifty and of mixed race, though I can’t tell what mix"), tears are salty fluid, waves crash gently, bodies ache with desire, breasts are full and pert, and the frequent sex is all "soft folds", "pulsing warmth", "female moisture" and gushing orgasms.

Written in the first person present tense (aside from the flashbacks, which are in first person past tense), the book takes itself very seriously, and like its central figure is completely humourless. There's also a tendency to overdescribe everything. For example one typical passage reads:
"Here there is another television at the bottom of the bed on a rich mahogany unit with a DVD player and stereo: all the media conveniences any visitor could want. The bed is plush, covered in rich brown and cream cloth, with cushions resting on the brown velvet-covered headboard. Either side of the bed are two mahogany side tables. To my left is another mahogany unit, bigger than the one holding the television. I open it to find a fridge and safe. As I close it I spot two more doors, one leading to a full sized bathroom, again in black and white, which contains a bath as well as separate double shower cubicle."
The layout of these rooms never becomes an issue in the story. Later we learn that Gabriele "has OCD", which is the "curse of the vampire brain", something that's been suggested in other vampire stories. Though this curse isn't apparent from his actions, perhaps the over-description is a deliberate reflection of his character, as in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. If so, it never goes on quite long enough to become funny, but does go on long enough to make the book a bit of a plod at times. On the other hand, some things could perhaps have been described better; I reached p. 43 before realising with a shock that Gabriele was male, which had the unfortunate consequence of making an interesting relationship (between two female vampires, one brooding, one giggly) much more conventional (brooding bloke, giggly girl).

For a small press book the number of errors isn’t unusual, but there are more than you'd expect in a book that credits three editors: may for might, laid for lay, complimentary for complementary, incongrous, obsurd, too lapse in my duties, chaise lounges, bi-product and so on. But they wouldn’t have affected my enjoyment of the book, had I been enjoying it. If you were disappointed by Anne Rice's decision to “write only for the Lord", this may fill the gap. If Anne Rice bored you to tears, best stay clear.

Futile Flame, by Sam Stone. Murky Depths, pb, 220pp. Amazon US. Amazon UK.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think that maybe Stephen Theaker should sit down and read the Killing Kiss before making a posting like this one. I like Sam's Books, I thought that Sam does a good job with her books.. I totally disagree with your review. The comments you made are very rude and without presidents since you have not read the First book, Killing Kiss.

  3. Her publisher sent me this book for review so I read and reviewed it.

    You are quite right, though. My comments are entirely without presidents.

  4. Not even Obama? But I doubt he'd be stupid enough to send a vampire book for review to someone who isn't interested in that sub genre. There's actually a fair amount of accuracy in the review, but one man's poison is another man's night on the town; horses for bridleways, etc. There are people who absolutely love Sam's writing and have already pre-ordered Demon Dance - the final book in the trilogy. Really? Oh yes!

  5. I've nothing against vampires - I'm a huge fan of Buffy and Angel, and I absolutely loved Kim Newman's Anno Dracula when I read it last year.

  6. So what you're saying is, this is a bodice ripper that could have been written by Richard Laymon? Her prose is over-described but doesn't describe enough ... And anyone who reads Anne Rice is boring?

    Is that it?

    Only as I recall Anne Rice sold millions of books so that's a helleva lot of boring people ...

  7. I did not recognise Ms Stone's work in this review as I find her writing sensuous and intelligent and far from being a bodice ripper. But of course Mr Theaker is perfectly entitled to his own opinion.
    I do however take issue with the comments about the quality of small press books. Six mistakes? Does this not happen in work produced by large publishing houses? Like a friend's book produced by one of the biggest of the internationals, whose American edition contained 360 mistakes including the word 'beard' being spelled 'bread' all the way through an epic historical novel!

  8. Not really, Abi. I'm saying that it's a literal bodice ripper (bodices are ripped at pages 63 and 172), that there's more rape than in a Richard Laymon novel (p.21, p.64, p.66, p.70, p.113, p.115), that the prose in this book is sometimes a bit dull and clichéd, and that people who really love po-faced vampire novels may well enjoy this, despite its flaws, in the same way that I enjoy say Primeval, even though it's nowhere near as good as Lost or Doctor Who.

  9. Roisin, glad you changed your mind about posting. I'd been wondering what you had said!

    If you've read this book you'll know that bodices are indeed ripped in it, not to mention opened, unlaced, stretched and shredded. Calling it a bodice-ripper is simply descriptive.

    I guess my experience on typos is different from yours - I tend to find that small and micro press books tend to have more mistakes. This one doesn't have that many (though there are more than I've noted in the review, and some that I've noted appear more than once), but three editors being credited makes the mistakes more notable.