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In Association with
James Lovegrove
Solaris paperback 7.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Vampires are probably at the top of their arc of popularity right now. I'm not one to read much into these things (who am I kidding!) but maybe their current popularity is a product of disarray in mainstream culture. We live in a world where the nature of the media makes the hypocrisy and double-think that underlies society plainer than ever, and under these circumstances it's deeply appealing to wash one's hands of it all and become a creature of the night.

The alternative is to turn yourself into a moral paragon, an unshakeable monument of rectitude that will pursue truth and righteousness at the expense of all else. These types are also common in fiction - the vigilantes and rogue cops who won't play along with the politicians and corporate interests and allow us to frame our narrow definitions of good and evil into universal truths that play out unopposed in their fictional milieu. This latter is what Redlaw offers us. In this alternate present there's been an influx of vampire immigration from eastern Europe. Officially they're known as 'sunless' and are housed in inner-city sink estates where they're kept docile with regular supplies of cows' blood to keep them out of the way of ordinary, decent mortals.

John Redlaw works for S.H.A.D.E, one of those unlikely acronyms that turn up in these types of books, here standing for Sunless Housing And Disclosure Executive. Given the basic premise, I half expected Redlaw to have a job like the Wikus character in District 9 - a sort of civil servant/ social worker - but instead he's a hard-man copper. SHADE works to keep the vampires in their estates and away from the living through the medium of indiscriminate violence, armed with the types of anti-vamp weapons that will be familiar to anyone who's seen a Blade movie or that John Carpenter film Vampires with guns that fire wooden stakes, garlic gas grenades, and holy water bombs.

Even putting aside the questions such a policy raises - I mean, why in the middle of the city and not somewhere rural, safely away from the civilian population? - I had a bit of trouble figuring out what sort of organization SHADE is exactly. They sound a bit like the police, and are referred to as 'officers', but police don't have captains in the UK. His boss is a Commodore, but that's a naval rank. So, are they separate entirely from the police or something else entirely?

Neither could I quite figure out what Redlaw's role was, exactly, aside from kicking ass as it crossed his path. I couldn't even tell if he wore a uniform or not; when we first meet him he's described as wearing "a long overcoat... a high shirt collar like a priest's one that went all the way up to the jaw-line." Is that a uniform? It's never really explained, but then he identifies himself with a badge everywhere he goes, so I suppose not.

And it's not just Redlaw: there's very little description of the actions and nature of SHADE at all. Aside from Sergeant Khalid's turban, I don't recall being shown any other clothing, either, so I'm still not sure if this is a uniformed force or not. There's something a bit sloppy about all this that put me immediately on my guard, but I was happy enough to accept the highly contrived setting. In the first few movements at least, Lovegrove kept the action moving so there wasn't much time to ponder these mysteries, and this sort of questionable stuff has never handicapped similarly outlandish entries in the vampire genre, from Anne Rice's moody homo-eroticism to the witty genre play of Kim Newman and all ports in between. In fact, we SF and fantasy fans are always up for a bit of contrived world building if it pays dividends in other respects. Unfortunately, as things go on we don't get that here.

The plot is a very unsophisticated bit of melodramatic conspiracy guff. The villains of the piece are a venal Tory politician and a moustache-twirling industrialist who seem to have stepped out of a satirical comedy circa 1981. Giles Slocock MP is a slightly less subtle character than Alan B'Stard and the gimlet-eyed plutocrat Nathaniel Lambourne would be an embarrassment in a Roger Moore-era Bond movie. They go through the motions of their ludicrous plan, and Redlaw goes through the motions of thwarting them, but none of them are believable enough to give us the emotional charge that we look for in seeing a good villain get what's coming to them.

There's an attempt, I think, to sketch some character growth in Redlaw from vamp hater to protector. He is forced into an alliance with Illyria, a glamorous Albanian vampire babe when his enemies contrive to have him ejected from SHADE. She's another stock character - the sexy but unattainable ass-kicking hottie that comforts a certain kind of nerdy readership - and the mechanical Defiant Ones plot ticks though its gears with all the regularity and charm of a cuckoo clock.

The plot never offers enough surprises or twists, and Redlaw never wormed his way into my affections enough to really make me care about what happened to him. In fact, he's one of those gruff and impervious middle-aged tough guys that don't have a past or any apparent connections to their world, and everything that doesn't bounce off them just seems to make them grit their teeth and become even more goddamn hard-arse.

So, if not world-building, if not plot, if not character then what are we left with? Style perhaps..? Well, while it's never actually bad in this respect, Lovegrove's prose doesn't aspire to do anything more than deliver its story efficiently. What remains is theme, then, and it's here that this book comes badly unstuck. Given the riots of the summer gone past, the vampire riots at the heart of this book strike a superficially current note. This was published in October 2011, when the embers of the summer riots were barely cool but it's hard to believe that it was written and published that quickly (despite a few signs of hurried composition). The riots in Redlaw are also somewhat different from the 2011 summer riots, because they are quite explicitly race riots.

I suspect you've already noticed that - hilariously! - Redlaw's vampires are like East European immigrants. This section from page 23 outlines how we're supposed to see them:

They crept along, some on all fours ... He was surrounded by pallid, contorted faces, and gnarled claw-like hands. Noses sniffed greedily at the odour he exuded, the raw thick throb of life. The creatures own stench was unfathomably foul - partly decomposed flesh mixed with fresh blood.

When this first occurred to me (very early on) I actually thought this might be an interesting path to take. Dracula, after all, is at least in part a novel of xenophobia, and H.P. Lovecraft raised it to a level of transcendence. Careful treatment and a sure eye could have really done something with this aspect of the book, but unfortunately Lovegrove deploys neither.

The problem is that they are never anything more than a plot device existing only as a way of moving the plot along. They are not villainous or heroic, just part of the environment to be used by outsiders. When they riot, it's not a protest against their appalling treatment, nor because they are unrepentant predators whose bestial nature finally outs like murder (to view it from the left or right, I leave the choice to you). Instead they are simply pawns who react like automatons to the manipulations of their superiors, be they paragon or fiend. As with many of the explanations for the summer riots here, the conspiracy plot in Redlaw serves not to build sympathy with the rioters but to rob them of all agency.

It's a very white middle-class approach to 'the race problem' that made me a bit queasy. It's something that the oppressed do not have any hand in, or any hope to alleviate. Public institutions can't be trusted; politics is entirely corrupt - they are all self serving and all of them are sexual perverts and hypocrites for good measure - and the police, in the shape of SHADE, are just as bad. Left to the powers of the state - to democracy and institutions operating under public oversight - all will fail. All that stands between the lower orders and extinction are Redlaw the übermensch and the aristocratic Illyria (who turns out not to be a vampire as such, but a 'shtriga', a kind of super vampire vastly superior to the stinking proles).

It has a distinctly fascistic whiff: the common herd unable to exercise power over their own lives rely on their betters to protect them and lead them. What about the baddies..? Why international financiers, of course! Think about that one for a second or two! Of course, I don't think that this is really what the novel is trying to 'say', as it were. I don't doubt that the author thinks he's making some kind of vaguely lefty comment about capitalism (at least I hope so). In fact, I don't think it's really trying to say much of anything in particular here while he gets on with the business of bloody action and teeth-gritted Boys' Own tough-guyism.

The trouble, though, is that the whole thing is so lazily put together - the contrived setting, the poorly imagined SHADE, the outdated and clichéd characters going through their creaky and unimaginative generic routines - that these creepy messages seep in to the poorly thought through satire from the structure and nature of pulp fiction. It's the kind of fascistic morality that's inherent in this type of Nietzschean pulp heroism, but which is usually mitigated by ironic awareness, ambiguity or simply fine adventure writing.

Here, there's nothing of the sort. There's just a complete lack of interest, not even in providing something gonzo or out-there or even slightly interesting and new. Everywhere there's wasted potential because Lovegrove simply can't be bothered to make the slightest imaginative effort, and if he can't be bothered to make the effort then neither should you.

Redlaw by James Lovegrove

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press