Prisoner of Midnight (2019) is the eighth novel in Barbara Hambly’s JAMES ASHER series, which began in 1988 with Those Who Hunt the Night. It has been nominated for the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. I had never tried this series before, but having enjoyed her (non-paranormal) BENJAMIN JANUARY mystery series, I decided to give Prisoner of Midnight a shot.
(And now that I’ve read it, I can say that there are some common themes. Both series feature a fiercely intelligent male/female pair solving crimes, and explore prejudice as both a cause of violence and an impediment to the investigation.)
Hambly weaves enough backstory into the narrative that a new reader can catch up, and it’s smoothly integrated, so longtime fans of the series won’t have to skim long infodumps. Here’s the most important stuff: James Asher is human; he’s worn a lot of hats in his life but is currently a British spy during WWI. His wife, Lydia, is also human, and a doctor. They’ve been separated by the war for some time. They used to be close to a centuries-old vampire, Don Simon Ysidro, but there’s been a falling-out.
As Prisoner of Midnight begins, James receives a letter from Lydia. Don Simon has contacted her in a dream, telling her that he is being held prisoner, in intense pain, on the ocean liner City of Gold. Lydia can’t let that happen, so she decides to go on the voyage too, even though that means prolonging her and James’s separation.
Traveling as the guest of her horrible Aunt Louise allows Lydia to stay in one of the ship’s four ultra-luxury suites. She quickly deduces that Don Simon is being held in one of the other three, so she spends a lot of time with this elite group of guests. They’re awful: mind-bogglingly racist and classist. (Even the mostly sympathetic Lydia has a jarring moment of Jewish stereotyping in her internal monologue, though later she helps the man she was stereotyping.) She is supported in her investigation by James, who does some poking around of his own and sends her information by wireless.
The situation becomes more complicated when Third Class passengers start dying — and their injuries look like vampire marks. Lydia finds a volatile brew of ethnic and religious tensions in the lower decks too; there’s a variety of migrant groups who distrust each other for all kinds of reasons.
At times, the pace seems to flag, and I think this is mostly an effect of the constrictions of the ship. There are long stretches of time when Lydia can do little but wait (and hang around with horrible people). However, there are also lots of good red herrings, and the constant threat of torpedo attack. And there are flashes of truly haunting writing. Most of them have to do with the war, but there’s also a really great one late in the book about Don Simon’s isolated state.
Prisoner of Midnight resolves the immediate plot, but leaves some big threads hanging for the next book. Readers who’ve been following James and Lydia all along will probably get the most out of it, but you’ll probably also find it enjoyable if you like the BENJAMIN JANUARY series (especially Dead Water, which was also set on shipboard) or if you like your vampire novels with a heavy dose of mystery.