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“I am a vampire and a murderer. Whatever else I do in this world, nothing will change that. I can fight on the side of the angels until doomsday, but I’m still damned.”

Some months ago I spotted this book on the shelves of a bookstore in Wollongong. I knew I had to read it, for the title alone. However, I was not prepared to pay thirty dollars for the dubious pleasure. I am a bad taste nut. Two of my favourite shows are Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. I have my limits though. So it was with great relief that I spotted this book in my local library.

Nathaniel Cade was a sailor on a whaling vessel in 1867. Upon reaching America, he was found in the ship’s hold feeding on the bodies of two other crewmen. He was arrested and sentenced to death, only to be pardoned by the then President of the United States Andrew Johnson. Cade was committed to an asylum for the rest of his days. This, believe it or not, is a story not too dissimilar from actual events.

However, in this universe, that was only the official tale. Cade was instead pledged to serve the office of the President and defend the country itself from threats both internal and from ‘out there’. He has acted in this capacity for over a century and his existence is highly classified.

Now Cade’s services are being called on to protect America from a new threat, an army of unstoppable soldiers created by a conspiracy between Muslim extremists and a familiar foe from the days of the Third Reich. His new partner, Zach Barrows, is a brash and overconfident White House staffer with a lot to learn. The cocky young man has been drafted in to replace Agent Griffin, the vampire’s liaison with the White House for over thirty years and his only friend. Griff has been diagnosed with cancer, leaving Cade to break in his new handler while also looking to prevent the greatest terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11.

This is a very silly book, but also a readable one. Partly this is due to Christopher Farnsworth dropping various easter eggs for fans. Zach comments that Cade’s lair resembles the Batcave;  the two carry recognizable aliases such as Agent Cushing and Agent Lee (although for the joke to really work, the names should have been reversed); there is an enemy operative named G. Morrison; and the evil Nazi scientist at the centre of the plot is a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West.

Also, in fairness to Farnsworth, the plot does race along at a steady pace, retaining the reader’s interest until the climactic finale. By then several problems have already sprung up though.

Firstly I find the post-9/11 references somewhat offensive. The Muslim extremists behind the plot to attack America are not just Islamofascists – they are Satanists also. Cade berates himself for not stopping 9/11 from happening, as he was delayed by an opponent with a flaming sword. This is nonsensical, as the attacks on the Two Towers were due mainly to a failure to properly monitor intelligence on the activities of Osama bin Laden. Implying that an otherworldly force of some kind was acting in concert with the terrorists both excuses the failures of that administration, as well as offers up the basic fantasy that America’s other war, here named the War on Horror, supersedes the current conflict in the Middle East. The mixing of fantasy with this very real tragedy is, to my mind, inexcusable.

Sadly toe-curling chauvenism is evident with the female characters that appear. There is also the issue that this is derivative of other franchises, such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Farnsworth’s epilogue to Blood Oath sets up a number of plot-threads for a sequel, but a movie is apparently also in the works. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Zach character’s role is identical to that of Agent John Myers in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy.

I would have preferred it if Griff had been the main character and narrator of the story. He vanishes for large sections of the book and his relationship with Cade struck me as a more interesting one.

To sum up this is a perfect book to read on a plane journey. Keep your expectations low and your brain on silent.

I did not feel bad about what I had done. The priest had been a man who had probably tortured many people to death in the name of a god whose doctrines were supposed to be of peace and love, and respect for life. I went out onto the rock, picked up his rifle, and turned away. I felt nothing at all.

Neal Asher’s name is one that I have heard before, but I cannot pin down anything specific I may know about him. He is clearly a science fiction writer, one with ambitions that go beyond cyber-fetishism or mediocre aping of the New Weird set such as China Mieville. In fact just today on the train home from Sydney, a fellow was sitting beside me reading another of Asher’s books, Gridlinked. It appears I have been remiss in my sf studies.

In the far future humanity has fled Europe in the wake of new ice age. The arctic shelf drove their migration to the great continent of Africa. Earth itself has been left behind by the human race, having discovered space travel and setting about colonising other worlds. Those roaming the wild landscape of Africa are the unfortunate few abandoned by their fellow man. Worse again, the decision was made to cull the human race, to ensure its population growth would not overwhelm the sole remaining continent fit to support life. Vicious creatures from selected periods in Earth’s history were introduced into the wild. Woolly mammoths roam the prairie and even genetically modified humans have been created, such as the Great African Vampire. The individual responsible for this is a mythical figure, more machine than man known as The Collector.

The Collector wears human flesh, but beneath the surface ‘he’, has only a brain to remind him of what he once was. Over thousands of years old, he has guided and controlled the destiny of the surviving tribes of humans left on Earth, cataloguing the new species of creatures that have evolved thanks to his meddling. He feels little but contempt for humans themselves and only intervenes if the possibility of extinction rears its head. However, despite his self-appointed position as judge and executioner of the human race, there is another like him roaming the wild. A creature referred to only as the Silver One. It has begun hunting mammoth to draw him into a trap that may end his centuries-long existence on this decimated Earth. Despite knowing this, the Collector heads off in pursuit of the Silver One, perhaps even curious at meeting the possibility of his own non-existence.

The chase between the Collector and the Silver One at one point began to tickle a memory at the back of my brain. It took me a few chapters to realize Asher is attempting what appears to be an exploration of Mary Shelley’s themes from Frankenstein. Here we have a man-made machine seeing fit to judge humanity’s right to survive, a being of pure intellect who has escaped the mortal bounds of flesh. There’s some Terminator thrown in there as well for modern sf fans. Asher also includes a degraded version of Christian fundamentalism, the depraved worship of the so-called Drowned God. The Wachowski Brothers wrote a comic some years ago that pitted Frankenstein’s Monster against a similarly tyrannical version of the Church, titled Doc Frankenstein.

So there is some fun to be had here, picking up on references to Shelley’s work, as well as some musing on Asher’s part as to the consequences of interfering with the human genome. However, the themes of religious fundamentalism versus scientific inquiry hit the reader like a sledge-hammer. The ending dissolves in a hi-tech blood bath above the Earth’s surface and the immortality of the Collector himself renders his conflict with the gun-toting fundamentalists somewhat moot. The action also veers wildly across centuries, pushing the narrative further and further into the strange future history of this depraved Earth.

Overall I found this to be an interesting novel, but not a wholly satisfying one.

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