Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
Every so often, I find a book that I just fall in love with. When I do, I want to shout it from the rooftops, tell everyone I know, sing its praises high and low.
The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith is one of those books.
The book description, courtesy of the Pyr Books website:
In the year 1870, a horrible plague of vampires swept over the northern regions of the world. Millions of humans were killed outright. Millions more died of disease and famine due to the havoc that followed. Within two years, once-great cities were shrouded by the gray empire of the vampire clans. Human refugees fled south to the tropics because vampires could not tolerate the constant heat there. They brought technology and a feverish drive to reestablish their shattered societies of steam and iron amid the mosques of Alexandria, the torrid quietude of Panama, or the green temples of Malaya.
It is now 2020 and a bloody reckoning is coming.
Princess Adele is heir to the Empire of Equatoria, a remnant of the old tropical British Empire. She is quick with her wit as well as with a sword or gun. She is eager for an adventure before she settles into a life of duty and political marriage to a man she does not know. But her quest turns black when she becomes the target of a merciless vampire clan. Her only protector is the Greyfriar, a mysterious hero who fights the vampires from deep within their territory. Their dangerous relationship plays out against an approaching war to the death between humankind and the vampire clans
Vampire Empire: The Greyfriar is the first book in a trilogy of high adventure and alternate history. Combining rousing pulp action with steampunk style, Vampire Empire brings epic political themes to life within a story of heartbreaking romance, sacrifice, and heroism.
The Greyfriar is a compelling blend of steampunk, alternate history, paranormal fantasy, and romance. The story hooked me in right away: when Princess Adele’s convoy is attacked by vampires, she is rescued by the Greyfriar, a legendary warrior in the battle between humans and vampires. But the vampires continue to pursue them, wanting to use her to start a war between humans and vampires. Adele is eventually captured, meeting two very different vampire princes: Prince Cesare, who views humans as nothing more than food to be subjugated; and Prince Gareth, who seems to almost idolize humans.
The story alternates between scenes of high action and adventure and quieter scenes where the characters are given greater depth and complexity. And what characters they are! Most of the characters, both lead and supporting, are incredibly complex, which makes the emotional connections seem that much more real. Some of the scenes between Adele and Gareth, especially, are just heartbreaking. When Gareth shows Adele his “library”—a trunk of about 15 human books that it’s taken him years to accumulate—and sees the momentary shock on her face at its meagerness, his shame and sadness are palatable.
But this is Adele’s book, and her journey is what propels the story along. When the story begins, she is a spoiled, naïve—though not bad-natured—19-year-old princess. She has a very narrow, rigid view of the world, and her time with the Greyfriar and as the vampires’ prisoner begins to show her just how limited her perspective has been. She grows up a lot during the story, realizing that things are not as black and white as she had believed them to be.
The world building in this book is also amazing. One of my worries is that people will hear “Vampire Empire” and think, “Oh, it’s just another vampire book.” But the Griffiths (a husband-and-wife writing team) have managed to take a lot of familiar elements—vampires, steampunk, alternate history—and combine them in a way that feels totally unique. The book does not shy away from making vampires as brutal and cruel as they can be. Most humans have fled the cooler climates because vampires have taken over, treating humans as nothing more than food. And even Gareth, the only truly sympathetic vampire in the story, battled against humans in the Great Killing 150 years earlier (a facet of his history I hope to see more of in future books). Vampires, now securely at the top of the food chain, have become complacent. They consider themselves above things like creation and art, choosing instead to live off of the ruins of human civilization. Humans consider them animals, but they are animals that are stronger, faster, and harder to kill than their human counterparts. The political and social evolution of this world in the wake of the vampire invasion seems realistic and believable. I’ll confess, I envied the world building in this book a little. When I read about alternate worlds that seem so complex and well-realized, I always wonder, “How did they come up with this stuff?”
That said, for all its virtues, The Greyfriar is not a perfect book. As well as most of the characters are developed, the primary antagonists—Prince Cesare and Adele’s fiancé, Senator Clark—seem curiously one-dimensional. The alternating points-of-view in the story, as well as the strength of the writing and characterizations in other parts of the story, make this relative weakness more noticeable.
But this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story at all. If I were to list my top 10 favorite reads of this year (so far), this would easily make the list. (No small feat, since I’ve read 129 books this year.) This is one of the few books I feel has something to offer for almost everyone, and one that I will very strongly recommend.