Gifts of Blood by Susan Petry
Gifts of Blood is a compilation of stories by the late author, Susan Petrey. Originally scattered across numerous periodicals, her friends decided to aggregate all her known works into one book, with the proceeds of the sale going to a scholarship focused on sending young writers to a writing conference that Petrey herself wanted to attend but couldn’t afford.
I knew none of this when I picked up the book. All I saw was that delightful cover with the dream-like stag, and back-copy discussing a little-known sort of vampire—the Varkela—that exchanged healing for a little bit of blood.
Seven of the nine short stories revolve around the brothers Spareen and Vaylance, young Varkela men trying to find their place. Set in the Russian steppes in what I think is the mid-to-late 1800s, the brothers must navigate a rapidly changing world where old-world superstitions are dying.
These stories are full of interesting—yet bizarre—ideas and mythology.
For example, at one point, someone’s soul-creature climbs out their nose and scampers away. My first reaction was a wrinkled brow. It was so random and so … weird. The more I thought about it, though, the the more I realized that mythology is weird; most of the point of it is to explain the unexplainable. The superstitions and beliefs of the Varkela feel right at home on the Russian steppes of a bygone era.
Aside from truly understanding her world, Petrey has a deft use of language. At one point, Spareen looks up to the Milky Way and it’s described as corn meal sprinkled across a loaf of dark bread. It made me want to kiss the book for how beautiful it grounds me in Spareen’s head while painting a lovely picture.
What these stories boast in world-building, feel, mythology and ideas, though, I think they lack in plot. The underlying tension in most of these stories is that someone is hungry. Being honest Varkela—not filthy vampires—our protagonists don’t steal blood. This leaves on one means of sating their hunger: healing sometime and earning their fee. Sometimes that means a straightforward task, like setting a broken bone. Sometimes it means trying to cure a complicated new disease. Sometimes the story wanders away from this opening premise, but the underlying similarity is still there, and there still lies, to me, the primary tension of the piece.
I also felt like the characters were perhaps a little loose, but in time I began to wonder if I just didn’t know them well enough. For example, in one story Spareen gambles away his horse—a creature he cares deeply for and raised from … foalhood, I guess? He takes his bad luck with aplomb; I was clawing at the bus seat in horror. But, well, his horse is pretty ill-tempered to folks other than Spareen, and Spareen doesn’t shy away from a fight. In the end, he walks away with his horse, and seems none-too-surprised by this turn of events, which made me wonder if gambling away his horse was a bit of a shtick on his part.
Another thing I struggled with, and perhaps this is my fault for reading the book cover to cover in a short period of time, is that every short story introduces Spareen, Vaylance, and the plight of the Varkela.
It makes sense to do this in short stories, published independently of each other. Even knowing this, though, I found reading the same introduction grating—especially because they all varied slightly, often introducing one new concept in a paragraph of familiar ideas.
As I kept reading, though, this slight irritation was replaced by a thought: these short stories all felt like they revolved around a novel, a true novel, that addressed the plight of Sparren, Vaylance, and the Varkela. There’s so much going on—from a mysterious disease that kills most young Varkela women, to a Varkela-turned-Christian—that I found myself looking between the stories for missing pieces or means of tying everything together.
Outside of the stories of the Varkela are two unusual little pieces which are the most complete—from a traditional viewpoint—of all the stories. There are arcs and conclusions and the emotional closure you expect at the end of a piece of fiction.
The Neisserian Invasion, though ending a bit abruptly, tells a story outlining the affect of STIs on an alien invasion. It’s strange and funny and a little gross and also has a fantastic tone.
Spidersong tells the story of a mythical type of spider called a ‘lyre spider’ that forms an unusual bond with a human musician over their shared love of music. It’s sweet and, strangely, also a bit gross. But in a sweet way. It’s, uh, hard to explain.
The stories of Gifts of Blood are never perfect (though I think that Spidersong gets close), but I’m reminded (again) that stories needn’t be perfect to be worth telling. I understand why Susan Petrey’s friends wanted to put out this compilation to celebrate her work. And like them, I’m saddened by the loss of what could have been.
If this book sounds interesting to you, you can find it on Amazon.
Cover art by Tim Hildebrandt