I was pretty excited to read Bloodshot. I first encountered Cherie Priest by way of her Southern Gothic novel Four and Twenty Blackbirds several years ago. Since then, her name keeps popping back up in my consciousness, both as a writer of several acclaimed steampunk novels I haven’t had the chance to read yet, and as a Person Who Says Interesting Things on the Internet. So when I heard she was dipping her authorial toes into one of my favorite subgenres, urban fantasy, I knew this was a book I wanted to read. Bloodshot did not disappoint. In fact, I may gush a bit, because this book is darn near flawless.
Priest introduces an unforgettable heroine in Raylene Pendle, a vampire who originally died in the Roaring Twenties and makes her living as a world-class thief. She’s survived all these years by being paranoid and over-prepared — yet improvises far more than she cares to admit. She scorns her fellow vampires for getting too attached to humans — but secretly loves the urchins who squat in the old warehouse she owns (or at least one of them). And she’s the daughter of a brilliant detective, so she blames her genes for her inability to pass up a good mystery. As she relates all of this, her voice is so sharp and immediate, you’ll think she’s telling you the story personally over a glass of wine. She’s funny and snarky and prone to fourth-wall-breaking, and strikes a great balance between being good at what she does and occasionally being allowed to mess up.
In Bloodshot, the first novel in a new series, Raylene is hired by another vampire, Ian Stott, to steal some government documents. Several years ago, Ian was captured by Uncle Sam and subjected to secret experiments that took his eyesight. The records, he hopes, will reveal what was done so that the damage can be repaired. Raylene takes the job — which, of course, turns out to be far more complicated than she expected. The plot is rife with tension and action. Just when you think Raylene might get a break, she finds out she’s been tailed again and has to escape by her wits one more time. The nail-biting suspense carries over to unconventional scenes, too. Who knew that a scene where the protagonist isn’t even present, but instead trying to talk someone else through a sticky situation over the phone, could be so riveting?
Often, a plot with constant action falls short on characterization, since there isn’t much time to develop character, but Priest avoids that trap. No matter what Raylene is narrating, her personality shines through.
The solution to the mystery is properly difficult and yet makes total sense. It’s the kind of solution that you don’t see coming unless you’re way more on the ball than I was — and yet when it becomes clear, you slap your forehead and say “Of course!” To my mind, that’s the best kind of solution. I don’t like it when I guess the bad guy 5 pages in, but I also don’t like books that never quite make sense even when all is revealed.
The prose is excellent. You’ll find plenty of humor here, along with vivid description. Priest’s descriptive writing never becomes heavy or flowery; instead she employs just the right amount of description to create just the right image for the reader. Here’s a passage that gives good examples of both the humor and the descriptive prose:
I gave three quiet cheers for Minnesota. In Seattle a dusty inch of anything white and chilly means the city lapses into full-on panic mode, as if each falling flake crashes to earth with its own individual baggie of used hypodermic needles. It’s ridiculous.
But the city before me was shiny and dark, hard-frozen around its edges and glinting from the ice that coated the corners of buildings like cake frosting made of crushed glass.
If you like that little sample, don’t hesitate another minute. Bloodshot is an awesome book, and I can think of very few urban fantasies that match it in plot, character, or writing style.
Cherie Priest’s Bloodshot is fun. It’s not a long read, under 100,000 words. It is not Priest’s best book, (I still think that’s Boneshaker) but with summer coming, this witty urban fantasy would be a good choice for an upcoming vacation.
Raylene Pender, the first-person narrator, is a vampire and a master thief who is hired by another vampire, Ian, to steal some mysterious papers from a government facility. The papers contain information on the mysterious subject of a secret government experiment: Ian himself. The caper turns out to be more complicated, and more personal, than Raylene expects.
Priest seems to be still working out both the biological and political systems that support her vampires. Her vampires are only “mostly dead.” Raylene talks about the fact that her metabolism still works, just very slowly. This is an interesting if risky choice. Priest goes on to tell us about the almost-obligatory vampire “Houses,” which function like mob families. Not all vampires belong to a House, though. Raylene doesn’t, and Ian doesn’t. They function mostly as backstory.
Raylene narrates with a breezy, blog-like style that works most of the time. She is supposed to be a flapper, turned into a vampire in 1929, but there is no 1920s sensibility here. She is a Millennial from her stylish ankle-boots to her “wee laptop.” That isn’t really a problem, although I have a hard time believing someone who came of age in the 1920s wouldn’t retain some of those memories and those ways of speaking. Raylene does have a memory of meeting Dashiell Hammett when she was young that’s a very nice touch. Priest could do with a bit more of that in the sequels.
Raylene paints herself as a loner, and won’t admit protective feelings for the two street kids she has basically adopted, rationalizing that they are the early warning system on one of her secret warehouses, but her need for human connection is clear throughout the book. The scenes with the children are suspenseful because Raylene cares about what happens to them, and we do, too.
Priest takes us from Seattle to Atlanta and then to Washington DC. She introduces us to parkour, an extreme sport that mixes urban exploring with base jumping. There is enough action and mystery to carry the book, and I liked the parkour sections, especially the cat-and-mouse scene in Raylene’s dark warehouse.
The reader will have to consciously suspend disbelief at times; less about Raylene’s vampirism than about the prodigious amount of swag she has kept over the decades; less about the secret “government project” than about the sketchily defined vampire hierarchy. At several points, Priest chose physical descriptions, like the cold air scorching Raylene’s lungs, that made me forget Raylene was a vampire.
Bloodshot is set squarely in familiar territory with a few refreshing twists, like another vampire’s ability to control the weather, and Adrian/Sister Rose. Adrian/Sister Rose is the most intriguing character in the book. Generally, the principle characters — Ian, the client vampire, the two kids, Adrian and Raylene herself — are well-drawn characters. Since this is the first book of a series, I assume they we will see more depth as the books continue.
Priest isn’t interested in re-inventing the vampire mythos here. She just wants her readers to have a good time. Put on your climbing gear, bring your night-vision goggles, and enjoy the trip.