Reviews: lush, erotic, Gothic fantasy in A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood,
S.T. Gibson,
Orbit Books,
Hardback,
Published October 2022

My in-built book radar started pinging as soon as I was offered a sniff at this book, and I am happy to report that instinct is still steering me to books I find I absolutely love. Fair disclaimer at the start: a lifelong Gothic fiend, I am a sucker for a good vampire tale, although to be fair, that also means having read a lot of them, I can also be quite critical – as with, say, fantasy, it can be too easy for new novels to simply trade on well-worn generic tropes. Which makes me all the more delighted when I find one which is taking a fresh angle (while still maintaining a number of the elements you would expect), and, even better, that approach also has a lot of socio-cultural relevance to debates in our own contemporary society.

Constanta is a simple peasant girl in Eastern Europe; her family and village are all but wiped out in an attack, while she is abused and left for dead – until he shows up, like carrion, attracted to the leftovers of the slaughter field. This darkly handsome, powerful nobleman offers her a choice – she has to ask him, he will not compel her (shades of Louis and Lestat) – an offer of a new life of power and privilege, or to slip away into the darkness, just another anonymous victim of another small battle, which history is sadly replete with.

It isn’t much of a choice, and unsurprisingly Constanta chooses life – in her case immortal life – and her battered, abused body heals itself, raising her from certain death, and, satisfyingly, allowing this previously powerless peasant woman the overwhelming strength to take revenge on those who harmed her and cut down all those she knew and loved, while at the same time quenching her new-born thirst for human blood.

In the following chapters we see Constanta settle into her new life – her noble husband, centuries old (a serious spin on the older man / younger woman dynamic!) seems so sophisticated to her, wise, well-read, intellectually curious, so keen to look after her and make her happy. We see, from Constanta’s perspective, the passing of years and centuries, of the two settling into a life together, both domestic and, of course, vampiric, the home scenes contrasting with the depictions of the pair hunting and feeding on humans across various European centuries

Cracks start to appear in her husband’s mask though – his temper, a callous, arrogant streak he tries to keep hidden beneath his cultivated persona. She slowly, across time, comes to realise he used his greater age, experience, power and wealth to impress her when she was most vulnerable and impressionable. Like many in such relationships, she often convinces herself this is all in her mind, or if something offends him, it must be her fault (and he is an expert in ensuring she does – this man could use the entire North Sea supply for his gaslighting).

Across the decades, then centuries she starts to see him more for what he is, as their family grows – a second ‘wife’ with the strong-willed Spanish noblewoman, Magdalena, who challenges him intellectually as well as physically, and much later, Alexi, a young Russian. They become, in effect, his harem, there to satisfy him, and god forbid they act outside his precious rules and wants. This creates an interesting dynamic, not just between the lord and his harem, but between the three of them, Alexi, Magdalena and Constanta.

As the ‘original’ (she finds that there were in fact some before her, who have vanished) Constanta feels, understandably slighted by these later additions, but at the same time, she also feels a kinship – I found this far more realistic and satisfying emotionally, more like real groups of friends and families, the push and pull of love and jealously, possessing but also wanting to be possessed, while other times desiring freedom. And then there’s the sex, centuries of sex; male, female, bi, in a group or pairs, wonderfully lush and erotic – even in later years as Constanta questions everything in their lives, the sex and the hunting as shared and enjoyed and binds them together. The eroticism hinted at in the likes of Interview With the Vampire is out here in full, earthy form.

The story is written from Constanta’s perspective, as if she is writing a series of letters to her husband, who is never named, a deliberate choice, I am sure, and a part of her, now older, wiser, more assured, coming into her own power and realising she doesn’t have to be what he wants, that she can be herself, make her own choices. Dowry drips in deliciously decadent High Gothic, sensual, erotic, dark; it doesn’t shy from serious subjects like spousal abuse and male abuse of privilege either, all areas we’ve all been increasingly aware of in recent years (as we should be), or why some remain so long in such relationships, and I think this very much added to the novel’s power and in drawing the reader into it emotionally.

A deliciously decadent, erotic romp in some places, a darkly, deeply emotional tale in other places, as much a tale of a survivor of abuse as it is vampiric novel, nodding its head to Bluebeard or the 1970s films like The Velvet Vampire, as much as the influential Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. Perfect reading for the dark autumn and winter nights.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Easter zombies

The Easter holiday weekend, when we remember Jesus Christ who died then rose from the grave, walked out of the tomb as an Undead, munched on some passing disciple’s brains and so gave birth to the zombie genre and set the scene for the horror messiah Saint George of Romero. And praise also to the Catholic Church who took time out from buggering young children to create the myth of Transubstantiation where they held that the wine and the Host wafer literally became the body and blood of Christ when taken at services, giving life eternal, thus also promoting both the cannibal horror sub genre and of course the vampire. Where would modern horror be without Jesus and the Catholic Church, eh?