Warnings for major plot spoilers.
Vampires: they are everywhere. Not in the literal sense, of course (or are they?), but as a feature of the popular literary landscape. Since the Twilight Saga became incredibly popular (whether or not it’s deserving of this popularity is another matter entirely), vampires feature prominently in novels, television shows, movies, and video games. I suppose this can hardly be helped: they are a fascinating subject for authors – not least the great Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and Anne Rice, author of the Vampire Chronicles. In some ways, one might say that many of the contemporary interpretations of what vampires are stem in some way, shape, or form from these two interpretations (although Rice did base her vampires, in part, on Stoker’s interpretation). Of course, there are the extremes: the Twilight Saga pushes the concept of the vampire as a romantic ideal (which began with Rice’s books) to one end of the scale, whereas novelists like Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist push farther back than even Stoker did, because in Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In it’s obvious that he drew more from the older, folkloric interpretations of a vampire is.
For my part, I enjoy a good vampire story. I started out by reading Dracula when I was in high school, more or less the same time a friend got me into the Vampire Chronicles. When I gained access to the Internet, I started digging through the folklore surrounding vampires; to this day it’s the older side of the vampire mythos that I enjoy the most (which is why I enjoyed Let the Right One In). But every now and then I like to read something a little less serious than Let the Right One In: the Black Dagger Brotherhood novels, for instance, are a particular favorite guilty pleasure of mine, and though I’ve read the Twilight Saga I purged those from my home library as soon as I could, they were that terrible.
It’s because of this desire to read something involving vampires that’s a little less terrifying and a little more something-else than just a romance that I picked up The Blood Gospel, first in a series titled The Order of the Sanguines and written by Rebecca Cantrell and James Rollins. The plot begins with an earthquake ripping through Masada, the ancient Jewish fort famous for falling to the Romans – but only after its entire populace committed suicide rather than surrender. The earthquake reveals a chamber hidden deep underneath the fortress – a chamber containing a secret that a great many dangerous people would gladly kill for. Caught in the middle are Dr. Erin Granger, an archaeologist; Sgt. Jordan Stone, a member of the US military; Rhun Korza, a mysterious priest who is more than what he seems. The three of them find themselves at the crux of events as a secret Catholic sect and an even more ancient prophecy collide, leading to an artifact that could drown the world in blood – or save it.
This novel, for the most part, follows the pattern made popular by Dan Brown’s novels (though the true originator – and still the best-written – is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco): an ancient secret is on the verge of being revealed to a world that is not ready for it and/or may be destroyed by the revelation, and it is up to a small group of variously-skilled and knowledgeable hunters to go after that artifact, all the while dodging attempts upon their lives by the other party that wants the artifact and/or secret for their own ends. I find such plots enjoyable in their own way, and since a lot of novels slot quite neatly into this structure, it takes world-building and writing style to distinguish a novel instead of making it just another copycat capitalizing on Brown’s success. In some aspects, The Blood Gospel does well enough – functional, but not something to blow one’s mind. In others, though, there were times when I could not decide whether to laugh or roll my eyes at what I was reading.
One cannot expect much in terms of characterization from these novels, though I do appreciate it if the author or authors attempt to at least make them endearing. In this respect, Cantrell and Rollins do an okay job of making the lead character sympathetic, at least, which is more than I can say for some other authors who write this kind of novel – although they do mess up once in a while. I rather liked Dr. Granger’s past: it’s made clear throughout the course of the book that her family lived in a compound that practiced a very fundamentalist, cult-based kind of Christianity, and that this has left her deeply mistrustful of the Church. It would have been to interesting if the writers had chosen to explore this aspect of her history more, but this does not happen: instead, Dr. Granger begins to “find faith” again, and while this is a lovely sentiment, it does not quite seem to fit in with what has happened to her. This does not sit very well with me, mostly because it appears to have happened rather too quickly for my tastes.
The next most interesting character history is Rhun Korza’s. In many ways it might be said he is the main protagonist of the novel, and he is quite a “dark and tortured” character, constantly living wrapped up in his guilt for past sins. Again, as with Dr. Granger, his past could have potentially made him a very interesting character, but his past, as it is related in the novel, did not quite make me feel as if he deserved all the “dark and brooding shadows” the authors have endowed him with. To be sure, destroying the woman one loves, and her family along with her, is cause enough to feel a great deal of guilt, but this kind of thing has been played up before. I was hoping he would have some other cause for guilt, some other reason to be so dark and brooding and tortured, but the reason the authors have given is so commonplace that it has lost almost all its power.
In fact, the lone character whom I found most intriguing was not even one of the protagonists. When Korza, Granger, and Stone make their way to Russia, they run into none other than Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin – who, as it turns out, was a former teammate of Korza’s, but who has since been excommunicated from the Order and the Church for committing a very grave sin: that of turning children into vampires like himself, beginning with the tsarevich Alexei Romanov. His reasoning for this is heartbreaking, and moreover reasonable: he wanted to save the boy from dying due to his hemophilia. As for the children who were stuck in Moscow during the siege, he turned them in order to sad them, since the Church did nothing to help the citizenry of Moscow when the strigoi descended upon the besieged populace and began eating them. Another thing that I liked about the way Rasputin is written in this novel is that his motivations are very gray, and his relationship with Korza even more so.
One of the problems I had with this novel is the concept, especially as it was presented in the first half. A few days ago I watched the movie Priest (based on the Korean manhwa of the same title created by Hyung Min-woo), mostly because I stumbled across it while channel-surfing, and since it had Paul Bettany in it dressed in a very flattering black duster that showed his waist off to excellent advantage, I thought I would watch it just for kicks and giggles. Priest is a terrible movie, but I thought, at the time, that the concept was rather intriguing: a war between the Church and vampires has resulted in the Church creating an entire secret group of men and women called “Priests,” who, through rigorous training and superior weaponry, are capable of fighting the vampires on their own terms.
The thing is, the above concept is almost exactly the same as the concept for the Order of the Sanguines as presented in The Blood Gospel, save for the fact that members of the Order of the Sanguines are strigoi (the term used for vampires in this novel) who have turned away from their baser, more brutal instincts and chosen to serve the Church in the fight against their more wicked kind. Even the concept of the Belial – a mysterious, powerful entity who is behind the attacks against the trio of Granger, Korza, and Stone – is extremely similar to the concept for the antagonist in Priest. These resonances between the movie and the novel were so strong that I sometimes stared at the book in surprise and exasperation, wondering if I had really read what I had just read. Of course, this could just be a product of reading the novel far too soon, when the movie was still fresh in my mind, but I do rather wonder if either of the authors were aware of just how similar their book would be to the movie when they started conceptualizing. Given that the manhwa‘s English translation and the movie came out in 2011, and The Blood Gospel came out just this year, it does make these similarities seem a little suspect. I rather doubt either author intended for it to be that way, but there they are, nevertheless.
Fortunately, the similarities peter out a little – or at least don’t matter so much – by the last three-fourths of the novel. At this point the plot gets increasingly more concerned with Korza’s past and his connection with Bathory Darabont, as well as actually figuring out where in the world the article they are trying to find is in the first place. It also helps that Rasputin was introduced at this point (though his association with the Catholic Church is entirely incorrect, and is a flaw of research here, since he is supposed to be Orthodox Christian, and therefore is highly likely not to have had any connection to the Catholic Church), and I have already mentioned that I like the way he is portrayed here. The rest of it is, of course, typical fare for a novel of this kind, and it is easy to just let all of those aspects glide by and enjoy the ride – insofar as one can enjoy it.
Overall, The Blood Gospel is not too terrible a read, all things considered, though it is not without its problems: certain character histories could have been made more interesting, but are otherwise functional for the purposes of the novel. The main issue is that the core concept itself might be entirely too familiar to people who have read the manhwa Priest or seen the movie of the same title, and this familiarity could interfere with any initial attempt to engage with the novel itself. This does pass towards the end, fortunately enough, though this shift may come a little too late for some readers. This is definitely one of those “hit or miss” kinds of books, because it depends entirely on the reader’s tolerances whether or not he or she sticks it out to the very end. For my part, it’s gotten me interested enough that I might pick up the next book when it comes out – or not.