Sometimes an author will be lucky and sell a book very quickly. Other times she can spend ages shopping it around before finding a buyer. As I know Roz Kaveney quite well, I’ve known for some time that she had a fantasy series for sale. It took a while, and now I know why. Roz is just too smart. Let me explain.
When a major publisher jumps at a book it is generally not because it is brilliantly written, but rather because it is competently written and appears to have huge commercial potential. There are parts of Rituals that are fabulously commercial, and there are other parts that will go mostly over the heads of a lot of readers. Heck, some of it went right over mine.
For the most part, the Rhapsody of Blood series, of which Rituals is the first volume, is about Emma Jones, magical trouble shooter. We first meet her she is a student at Oxford. Her tutor invites her and her roommate, Caroline, along to a swanky party that is being thrown for a visiting Tory MP. Unfortunately the sleaze in question turns out to be a demon in disguise, and he bites Caroline’s head off. Emma is saved from an equally grisly fate by the arrival of Mara the Huntress, a supernatural being from the Dawn of Time who specializes in killing badly behaved immortals. Emma, you see, is fated for great things. Well this is a fantasy novel, after all.
There, however, all resemblance ends. Emma is not heir to the throne of a magical kingdom, nor is she a mighty warrior. Her powers, such as they are, are all about talking to people. She quickly grows into a sensible, upper middle class professional woman with a fine line in cutting dialog. Supernatural beings quickly learn to fear and respect her. And if they don’t then Emma probably has something useful in her handbag that can get her out of any sticky situation.
Caroline gets to come along for the ride. She’s dead, of course, but ghostly sidekicks are a fine tradition in fantasy fiction, and being a ghost has its advantages. To start with Caroline doesn’t have to grow old. Also she has access to an unlimited supply of fabulous outfits which she can change into with a snap of her fingers. Early on she declares her undying love for Emma, and while sex is a little difficult when you are incorporeal, it isn’t impossible.
The chapters featuring Emma and Caroline owe a lot to Roz’s fondness for Joss Whedon and his gift for snappy dialog. They are, in places, very funny. And if that was all that there was to the book then I suspect that it would be selling in absurd quantities by now. Roz, however, is a very clever and very well educated person. Consequently what she writes is packed full of knowledge, and references.
The Emma & Caroline chapters are interspersed with chapters featuring Mara the Huntress. Mostly these are from earlier times in the history of humanity. They feature people like Montezuma, places like Atlantis, and a couple of wily chancers called Jehovah and Lucifer who have done rather well in their careers in godhood. If you love history and mythology then you will probably be fascinated by the secret history that Roz is building. If you are not then you might get a little bored. And there’s a small danger that you’ll be squicked out by some of the gory bits. The series isn’t called Rhapsody of Blood for nothing.
In fact the title is important. Mara’s professed purpose in life is to help the weak against the strong. What this generally boils down to is hunting people who use the “Rituals of Blood” to achieve godhood. That’s fantasy-speak for “people who get rich by exploiting others”. Some of those people might be greedy, arrogant elves. Some of them might be proud vampire lords. Some of them might be bankers or aristocrats. All of them probably vote Tory. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
For example, in this extract Emma meets Elodie, a cute young vampire princess whose fangs are still growing:
“You poor dear. Teething those must really hurt.”
“It’s part of the price of blood.” The girl recited a speech that she had clearly learned by heart. “Learning to live with pain is what fits us for rule.”
“Ah,” Emma said noncommittally. Why was it, she wondered, that upper class people are so keen on telling you how their problems make them superior?
Roz’s philosophy is not simplistic, however. There’s a key moment in the book in which Mara gets into a dispute with a godling called Nameless who has been her apprentice and has decided to quit. The source of his dissatisfaction is that Mara doesn’t seem to have a plan for doing Good. She just turns up where there is trouble and judges each situation on its merits. You may not realize why this is important until much later, but it is.
There’s a character called Morgan in the book. I don’t think she’s based on me. It is a common enough name for a goddess. Also she has brown skin and an inexplicable fondness for bland English food. On the other hand she has ambulatory luggage that suits me much better than the thing Sir Terry came up with, and a Brazilian toy boy, so perhaps a little of me has rubbed off on her. Whatever, I wish I had her talent for avoiding US border controls. Other characters include the aforementioned vampire princess and a pair of skateboarding drag queen art snobs who make Ru Paul look like a middle aged, balding truck driver.
Overall I very much enjoyed the book, even the bits about classical music (a subject on which my opinions are a lot closer to those of Caroline than those of Emma). But I’m a history and mythology geek who loves clever books. I am probably close to an ideal reader for the book. I hope it finds many other readers too.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository
You can also buy the book direct from the publisher. That will doubtless be better for them and for Roz.