Saturday, 10 March 2012

Review of M.T. Murphy, Lucifera's Pet (M.T. Murphy, 2009, Smashwords Edition)



I like reading books and being able to say ‘that’s not what I was expecting’, and mean it in a good way. And that was exactly my first thought after finishing Lucifera’s Pet. It really wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do mean that in a good way.

On first glance, M.T. Murphy’s tale of a centuries-old all-powerful vampire, who battles to retain her power with the help of a werewolf familiar (the eponymous ‘pet’) sounds like well-trodden ground. Lucifera Romana has been a vampire for nearly two millennia, and, at the beginning of the book, is a ‘master vampire’ with a reputation for brutality and ruthlessness. She is also fantastically beautiful, though it appears that most vampires have never actually laid eyes on her. The book begins a werewolf killing and eating a mugger who was foolishly trying to rob him, which sets the scene for the violence that will follow in the rest of the book. In the opening chapters, this beautiful vampire and killer werewolf are set up as being of a fairly familiar type. Lucifera, for example, has a name that sounds like ‘Lucifer’, and is described thus:

‘After all these years living in a thousand different places, her husky voice still has a hint of an accent. Spanish? Romanian? No one can really guess her origin beyond the fact that she is not from around here.’

The werewolf, on the other hand, is more ‘urban’ – despite his Irish accent, he appears to be more at home in the Los Angeles setting than his vampire companion – and less aloof and disconnected.

The first part of the book, narrated from several different first person perspectives, tells of a battle between Lucifera (or, rather, her minions) and another vampire, who, it seems, is her nemesis. There is betrayal, double-crossing and violent assaults, which sets up the world of Lucifera’s Pet as a cold, calculating and unfeeling one. No matter how loyal or long their service, no-one can rely on the protection of their ‘master’.

There are some issues with Part I, which are a result of Murphy’s unusual story-telling technique. Each chapter has a different narrator, and I was a little confused at first. In the first three chapters, there was not enough difference between the narrative voices, or enough signalling of the shift in perspective, for me to work out who was narrating what. Murphy’s decision to use this unusual technique is a bold one, and I must admit that I was not convinced at first. In addition to this, Chapter Two is rather misleading. Given that this chapter – of all those in Part I – has the most intriguing backstory for its narrator, and names the speaker in the very first sentence, I assumed that this particular narrator (Christopher) would be one of the main characters. In fact, I almost forgot a lot of the details of the wolf and the vampire in the preceding chapter, as I was automatically reading them as secondary to Christopher.

Despite this, though, the quality of writing and the vividness of description and detail encouraged me to keep reading – and I’m really glad I did. By the end of Chapter Seven (the final chapter of the first part), the shifting perspective stops being confusing and becomes a really compelling aspect of the story. And in Part II, Lucifera’s Pet really comes into its own.

Without giving away too much of the story, the second part of the novel focuses on the vampire and her werewolf, offering much more of an insight into their relationship and their respective histories. The narration, again, shifts between first person voices, but this is restricted to Lucifera and her ‘pet’, and the story alternates between the two. The chronology also alternates, shifts and converges, but this is very much a strong point of the story, as it resists linear progressions for the protagonists – they do not simply move from ‘good’ human at the beginning to ‘bad’ supernatural being at the end. It also allows for some of the story to remain untold, giving the overall narrative of Part II a rather light touch.

Characterization is also a real strength of the second part of Lucifera’s Pet. Though the two eponymous characters appear to be very much ‘of a type’ in the opening chapters, the expanded version of their history gives them more depth and complexity. We learn about each of their lives prior to becoming a vampire/werewolf, but also of their initial transformations, adaptation to their new lives and, eventually, their meeting. Some things, which had previously seemed a little clichéd or stereotypical, are revealed as more nuanced – one important instance of this is the explanation of how Lucifera came by her name (which I found a charming detail, and somewhat unexpected).

There are unfortunately some slightly clunky anachronisms in this part of the book. The language that Mickey (which is, we find out, the werewolf’s name) uses during his childhood in eighteenth-century Ireland can be excused by the fact that this is a retrospective reflection, told as his life is ‘flashing before [his] eyes’ in the present day; however, the Ancient Roman ‘Romana Trading Company’ in Lucifera’s story didn’t really sound very authentic to me. I should probably also mention that there are a couple of minor editing errors (specifically a bit of inconsistency in capitalization). Nevertheless, these are, to some extent, mitigated by the engaging writing style and by how believable the characters and their motivations seem to be – their immortal supernatural status notwithstanding.

One detail I particularly liked, which I think gives a good indication of the subtlety with which Murphy draws his characters, comes shortly after Lucifera is transformed into a vampire. In an earlier chapter, it has been made quite clear that, as in many other vampire novels, a lack of remorse is part of the vampiric ‘curse’. When Lucifera goes on her first killing spree, she appears to have jettisoned human feelings. And yet, when faced with slaughtering the only woman who has previously trusted and supported her, she has a moment of pause, and decides to use her new powers to make the woman’s death as merciful as possible. She says:

'I took no pleasure as I tore the soft flesh of her neck. Her impending death troubled me far more than the others had. I wondered if she would haunt
me.

Then her blood hit my tongue. All my misgivings were washed away by that delicious nectar. Sulpicia spent her dying moments reunited with her lost family in her mind. I spent those moments with my face buried in her warm flesh, stealing her life one drink at a time. Merciful death never tasted so sweet.'

This combination of mercy and brutality, kindness and selfish desire, is typical of the way Murphy explores the moral grey areas of his characters. Though it doesn’t make his protagonists ‘good’ – and they really aren’t – it does make them, ultimately, sympathetic and kind of likeable.

Part III of the novel returns to the point at which Part II ended, in present-day Los Angeles, and continues the battle between Lucifera and her ‘master vampire’ rival, Emil Vladu. However, this story now has more layers as a result of what has been revealed in the central portion of the novel. As the story resumes, the implications and significance of various interactions seem clearer.

Overall, Lucifera’s Pet is a well-told and well-crafted story, with an individual story-telling style and some enjoyable characters. It doesn’t really offer any significant departure from the standard vampire and werewolf mythos – silver is toxic to both, crucifixes are a problem, and lycanthropic transformation is a painful but exhilarating experience. I did enjoy the fact that, in this world, werewolf blood (though rumoured to be poisonous to vampires) seems to be more of an aphrodisiac than anything else. Despite this, though, the conditions of being a vampire/werewolf in Lucifera’s Pet are similar to those found in other novels and films.

This is not a criticism, though, as Murphy’s characters are interesting enough not to need dramatic ‘new’ traits. Additionally, given the recent trend for ‘explaining’ vampirism or lycanthropy through spurious pseudo-science (it’s a virus that transforms DNA being a popular explanation at the moment), it was nice to read a novel that steered clear of any real rationalization, and just asked us to accept that these creatures exist. Lucifera and Mickey don’t seem to really care where vampires and werewolves come from – and it’s easy to go along with that.

Lucifera’s Pet is a strong recommendation for vampire and werewolf fans: a mixture of ruthless, bloody violence (why nip at the neck, when you can tear out the throat?), compelling and (almost) tender relationships, and a handful of sex scenes makes it an engaging and readable book that will appeal to fans of darker urban fantasy. It is self-published, but compares well to many traditionally-published titles (and is much better than some). Though it was first published a couple of years ago, I definitely encourage you to look out for this one.

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