Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly
Barbara Hambly is what started me down my Forgotten Female Fantasy path, so it only seems right that I read a book of hers that I didn’t know existed: a murder-mystery urban-fantasy set in Victorian London. The twist? Those being murdered are vampires, and the person attempting to solve the murders is an agent of the crown and, well, a person—not a vampire.
[If that sounds familiar to Kim Newman’s 1982 Anno Dracula, that’s because the high-level concept is very similar. Though I’ve read Anno Dracula, it’s been some time since then, and I’m struggling to remember if many other elements are similar. I’ll have to re-read Anno Dracula out of curiosity.]
Apparently Those Who Hunt the Night is the first in a series that follows James Asher, agent of the crown turned mild-mannered professor, but my book store only offered the first in the series.
Hambly doesn’t sugar-coat her vampires. They act reprehensibly, and, with one exception, they make it clear that the relish living off of human life. The vampire we get to know the best is Ysidro. He’s the oldest vampire in London, and of noble Spanish heritage. Though different from the other vampires in temperament, he’s still 100% vampire. He toys with a woman’s life in front of James merely to prove the power he holds over humans.
From the very beginning, Hambly makes it clear that there is no Twilight-vampire alternative: they live off of the life of humans. Animal blood will hold them for a time, but without human blood, they die. Thus, it was no surprise that Ysidro doesn’t have a character arc. He is what he is, and as he’s the oldest vampire in London, he’s had centuries to prove how monstrous he’s willing to be.
And yet ... I like him? I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a few subtle ways that Hambly makes the reader connect with Ysidro without actually making him a sympathetic character.
The most consistent is that she regularly compares Ysidro to other vampires, and he’s always depicted as being different, or the odd vampire out. Everyone roots for an outcast.
A more subtle mechanic is Ysidro has that old-school nobility idea of ... not honor, but responsibility. For example, since he’s the one who has employed James, he feels responsible to keep him safe from the other vampires. It’s based in a deeply ingrained character trait more than any seeming fondness for James, but it still somehow makes him likable.
Ysidro’s perfect characterization, complete with a long back-story that crosses into not only a different culture, but a different time, highlights another of Barbara Hambly’s skills: she’s a historian, and historical knowledge—and relative historical accuracy—effortlessly flows through her fiction. It would be easy for this information to begin to feel tedious, but Hambly is better than that. To me, how real history affects her fiction feels like puzzle pieces clicking together.
I love, too, how Hambly gives us the unexpected. In a novel set in Britain, a primary character is Spanish and, on the whole, not terribly knowledgeable about England. Another delightful juxtaposition is Brother Anthony—a vampire who was a devout catholic in life. Though he continues to subsist on humans, he’s also constantly looking for atonement. He’s, by far, my absolute favorite character in the book. Everything about him is good. I won’t say another word, lest I spill any of the magic of his portrayal. But damn. He’s the sort of character that sticks with you long after you put the book down.
I know I mentioned Hambly’s historical accuracy as an asset to Those Who Hunt the Night, but, oddly enough, I’m also counting her historical inaccuracies as assets.
Victorian times weren’t exactly a time of enlightenment for England’s women. Though women made great strides during this time—and every other time in the history of humankind—they were barred and berated and mistreated in every profession they sought. Yet Barbara Hambly broke with a realistic portrayal of women in the 1800s by making Lydia—the female lead—a begrudgingly-accepted doctor. It works, it makes the story more interesting, and it omits juggling a woman who would have significantly less to add to the story/plot.
I’ve read a few reviews where people complain about the style of Hambly’s writing in this book—specifically her use of similes and metaphors—but I rather like them. For example, at one point she describes pearls gleaming on a pair of crimson cloves like maggots in meat. Those gloves are worn by a beautiful vampire woman, and the simile strikes me as James recognizing the deeply ugly truth of the beautiful woman and her beautiful clothes.
Lest you think I’m fain to ignore the less-stellar aspects of my favorite author’s writing, there were a few things about Those who Hunt the Night that I didn't like. The most severe were seemingly disjointed cause and effect statements. Let me use an example from outside the book.
In the song Adultery by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goat’s side project The Extra Lens, the protagonist says to, presumably, his mistress:
“And I should've known you'd come my way, by the dogs sprawled and sleeping on the driveway”
Those two phrases don’t seem connected. Why would dogs sleeping in the driveway indicate that anyone is coming over? In a song, it’s a fantastic little line that makes the world of the song seem bigger than the few words given to us. In a book, it makes me feel like I missed something and that I don’t actually understand what’s going on.
While I did enjoy the book despite this, it did take a good deal of the mystery out of the murder-mystery. I worked with the big pieces of information dropped in my lap, but all the little guesses and hints that make up a mystery were lost on me.
Any maybe this is why I didn’t love the conclusion, though I suspect no matter what it would have felt like it lacked conviction. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it didn’t provide an emotional conclusion to the story I read. Like, the story wraps up, but not in the way I expected or wanted. Luckily, there is one particularly amazing thing that takes place during the final showdown that more than makes up for the somewhat disappointing mystery.
Regardless, I’m glad my nerdy book store had this on the shelf. It’s not perfect, and it’s perhaps not for everyone—one’s got to be willing to give the slow, exposition heavy start the benefit of the doubt before vampire fights become a thing—but there are certain things in this book that are sublime, and on the whole, I found it to be a damn good book.
You might enjoy this book if you enjoy:
- Books without a romantic plot
- Books set in Victorian times
- Urban fantasies
- Books about private investigators