A Taint in the Blood, by S.M. Stirling
May 17, 2010
Adrian Brézé is a Shadowspawn, one of the long-lived powerful beings who are the source of most of the world’s myths and supernatural lore. Adrian once fought side by side with humans against his own kind, but in recent years he’s tried to live a more reclusive life. Then his evil twin, Adrienne, stole his girlfriend. Ellen, who knew nothing about Adrian’s powers or thirst for blood until she was snatched away by his sadistic sister, now finds herself prisoner in a world where not even her thoughts are private.
Cutesy twin naming schemes aside, this had potential to be an interesting series. It’s going with that whole “all your human legends are based on simplifications and misunderstandings of our reality” thing, but squeezes in a few interesting ideas about the purity of Shadowspawn bloodlines, evolutionary adaptations of the species, and shapeshifting’s relation to DNA.
If Stirling had gone for an action-oriented resistance story, this could have been a good mix. Unfortunately, the most promising elements are glossed over in favor of trivial details, surprisingly vanilla kink, and talk about Ellen’s feelings. Inconsistent pacing and a poor sense of the story’s timing make it difficult to settle into. Constant descriptions of food, and to a lesser extent, clothing, bog down the plot. Yes, we get it, Shadowspawn have heightened senses so sensual nuances are more important to them. (And just in case someone didn’t get that, Adrienne condescendingly spells it out for us towards the end.) That doesn’t mean that an intricate menu of every single damn meal placed in front of the characters doesn’t get boring as hell for the reader.
Adiran is undeveloped for a hero. Ellen has more depth, but sadly she’s as unrealistic as she is uninteresting. Adrienne’s evil is demonstrated again and again (and again) by the mental and physical torment directed at the group she’s claimed as her playthings. But the author pulls this back quite a bit, many of the most invasive attacks are only discussed or thought about after the fact. Of course we get to see a lot more of the foreplay to Adrienne’s cruelty, which sexualizes and sometimes even glamorizes the abuse.
Ellen’s reaction to some of the things that happen is disappointing in the extreme. At one point she teases the man she loves with the suggestion that she might like sex with him while he took the form of his rapist twin. I like to think that I’m not judgmental about what consenting adults want to get up to, but that was an unnecessary line that seemed to trivialize the whole situation. It kind of made me want to throw the book across the room.
Adrienne is able to read Ellen’s mind, which I think severely weakens Ellen’s character. It makes moments of disturbing intimacy, which I suppose was the point, but it also forces Ellen into a passive role which does not fit what I look for in a heroine. She’s only able to act out through Adrian’s interference and Adrian’s protection, she has little real effort that she can claim on her own. Even her day-to-day survival as a captive is partially based on her status as Adrian’s lover.
I’ve been keeping up with Stirling’s post-apocalyptic series, because beneath the “wet dream of the SCA” surface is an interesting old-style adventure plot. But I won’t be reading any more of these.