For fans of The Roman Mysteries, Caroline Lawrence has just released the first book in a new childrens' mystery series, The Western Mysteries, which I've reviewed over at Fantastic Reads. Thanks to Caroline for sending me a review copy of the book and to Ali for hosting the review!
Thanks also to Hasan from Three Pipe Problem, who kindly sent me a copy of a very different Roman history-based book. I'm not sure if I've read any Anne Rice before; I might have done. What happened was, a long time ago (it must have been about fifteen years ago I think) I was staying in a hotel in London with my parents. I had my own room in a really nice hotel that was decorated like an old-fashioned living room and had a shelf of books in it. I've always had trouble sleeping and I picked up a book at random, which turned out to be a romantic story about a vampire. All I really remember is that it involved a trip to the opera in the late nineteenth century, and possibly also to the ballet. Yes, definitely the ballet. Or maybe I'm mixing it up with that episode of Angel. Anyway, I got halfway through the book, fell asleep, and the next morning we left the hotel and I never finished it. I assume that the book must have been an Anne Rice, but I didn't bother to check at the time so really, it could have been anything.
What this means is that I came to Pandora with only the limited knowledge of Anne Rice's world that you can get from watching Interview with the Vampire a few years back, and with a confused head full of Buffy, True Blood and Twilight. (Yes, I've read Twilight. All the first three, not the fourth. I really like the first two, the third one got too weird. There's nothing wrong with a good trashy read from time to time. I've been re-reading Sweet Valley High recently as well). Pandora is apparently one of the 'New Tales of the Vampires' and I get the feeling it's aimed at a loyal readership who are familiar with Rice's world and her characters, beyond a vague knowledge that Lestat is Tom Cruise (yum). No one sparkled, obviously, but I did occasionally get a bit lost trying to work out which rules applied to these particular vampires and which didn't!
Tom Cruise as Lestat. Yum.
As far as I can tell, Rice!Vampires are extremely similar to TrueBlood!Vampires. However, while Harris may have taken inspiration from Rice's vampires to create her own, there is one crucial difference between the two sets of books - Harris knows how to find the funny. Her series knows full well how daft it is and her characters are self-aware, her heroine's narration dry and often hilarious. Rice perhaps puts herself at a disadvantage, funny-wise, by writing from the point of view of the vampire, but that's not the only issue. Pandora, narrating her own story, makes frequent references to ancient comedies that Rice obviously loves as much as I do, but none of that humour comes through in her own story, which is told is a dry and terribly pompous manner. I'm afraid this made the book occasionally hard-going for me, as I have a tendency to avoid anything that entirely misplaces its sense of humour, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy the book at all - the story was well paced and usually interesting, and the characters reasonably well drawn, especially the anti-heroine.
The story follows Pandora, formerly Lydia, a Roman vampire who's taken the name of the woman from Greek mythology who unleashed all sorts of evils on the world by opening a jar (very Symbolic). Rice has clearly done her homework, and name-checks a wide variety of ancient sources, including Suetonius, Tacitus, Apuleius, Ovid (lots of Ovid), Plautus and so on. She ties Pandora the Roman vampire's story into the story of Tiberius and Sejanus and also to Germanicus, which gives it a nice sense of being firmly located in history, and her characters behave in a reasonably Roman manner for the most part (though I'm not sure why a Greek has the very Roman name 'Flavius'). The only thing that's missing is a sense of what made ancient authors like Ovid or Apuleius so successful - that missing sense of humour and fun.
I was surprised to realise that the book focuses almost entirely on Pandora's human life (partly because of a misleading bit of blurb on the back). Much of this story might simply be a novel about a woman's misfortunes under the reign of Tiberius. This allows the story to take its time and really explore Pandora's character and situation, which is nice. The problem with this approach emerges at the end of the novel, at which point Rice suddenly rushes through two hundred years of history in a hurry to get Pandora to where she is in the opening, twentieth century sequence (a story which, I get the feeling, is designed to fill in blanks in earlier novels that I haven't read). Not only is this section horribly awkwardly narrated in places, the narrator urging readers not to bother remembering all the names she keeps throwing at them, but insisting on mentioning them anyway (just leave out the names if they're that unimportant) but in her rush, errors start to creep into Rice's research. Suddenly, we get 'monks' a good couple of centuries too early, a description of second century emperors in general that better fits third century emperors and a truly bizarre spelling of the word 'deities' (as 'dieties' - Slim Fast fanatics?!).
'Pandora's' overview of the way social history developed during this period clearly follows the classic assessment of E. R. Dodds in his most famous scholarly work, The Greeks and the Irrational. Dodds argued that rationality ruled hearts and minds during the Classical Athenian period in the fifth century BC and again during the Roman Republic but that, from the second century AD onwards, society crumbled into growing 'irrationality' and religious fervour, finally culminating in the success of Christianity. His argument is still widely accepted today, but it's one that I am less convinced by than many others, and that I have argued against in my thesis, as I don't believe any particular century in the ancient world was that much less rational than any other century. It's a popular analysis, though, and it fits with Rice's preoccupations in this book, much of which is concerned with working through arguments about faith, religious fanaticism and rationality.
Pandora's 'conversion' to vampire is connected to the mystery cult of Isis and Osiris, a subject I've written about a few times here - but it's also intimately connected to Rice's vampire mythology, and I get the definite feeling that there's a whole lot going on here that I won't fully appreciate without reading more of Rice's books. Still, going just on this book, the Isis connection actually works rather well. Mystery cults were so secretive that they offer great ground for authors to play in, since it's virtually impossible to prove or disprove anything you say about them. Isis is particularly suitable for a vampire story, since bringing her husband back to life and conceiving a child by magic from a dead body with no vital male organ is such an important part of her mythology - it fits beautifully with the vampiric themes of unlife from death and non-sexual (well, metaphorically sexual) reproduction. I also liked the use of Near Eastern names and others for Isis and Osiris, which I assume relates to Rice's other books but which also parallels the ancient habit of conflating different gods together quite neatly.
Vincent Perez as Marius, Pandora's lover and sort-of-maker (there are three different vampires involved, it's complicated), in the movie version of
Queen of the Damned. Which I haven't seen, but even if I had, I'd probably just be even more confused!
For the most part, this is a fun enough, if slightly pretentious, novel about a woman struggling to survive in Tiberius' Rome and Antioch. Then at the end she gets turned into a vampire. Pandora is a strong character and her story brightened up a dull afternoon sitting in my car waiting for the breakdown repair man, but characters arguing about religion and faith in novels isn't to my personal taste, and I need a bit more self-deprecation in my first-person narrators. I also wanted more about Flavius, the one-legged philospher-vampire, but perhaps he belongs in another book as well. I'm sure there are other readers, though, who will revel in Pandora's struggle to find meaning, her encounters with strange dark temples and vampire queens who sound more like mummies to me (Vampire Mummies? Has anyone written about those? Now there's an idea...). I certainly get the sense that knowing this story will enrich Rice's other novels for regular readers, and that if I ever read any more of her work, I'll probably have a greater appreciation for this one.