Let’s review a vampire novel! Albeit a slightly unusual one.
From my Cold, Undead Hand (or, Chevonne Kusnetsov vs. the Sharp Teeth Krew) has vampires prowling near-future New York, infiltrating all levels of society in a well-worn vampire conspiracy. Chevonne Kusnetsov and a cell of clandestine resistance fighters are out to stop them by any means.
I listed Marshall’s first novel, Lupa, as one of my favourite reads of 2014 for giving a penetrating look at how history can personally affect us. I’ve since read her second novel, The Everywhen Angels, a conceptually interesting and oddly structured critique of the “magic school” YA subset so popular after Harry Potter that, in retrospect, is more fun to think about than it is to read. It’s wildly uneven, but explores issues I’ve never seen other YA novels with this scenario address. Both books are thematic outliers from the mainstream, and I might find Marshall’s writing compelling because those themes just happen to resonate with me.
I didn’t expect the next book to be a straight-up action-adventure young adult novel, but “straight-up” is the wrong phrase. Undead Hand takes the all-too conventional narrative motif of the hero’s journey and tells it in a non-standard way, shifting the usual focus by the end. The elements are familiar to start out with: Chevonne is a teenage vampire-slayer, she has an old mentor whom she aptly nicknames “Stoker”, there’s a vampire overlord opposing her; but the story beats are skewed, off-kilter, and continually goes back to a practical concern: What would all this crazy stuff going on actually do to somebody that young?
Undead Hand is short, not even the 50,000 words mandated by NaNoWriMo. I read it in an afternoon. The narrative is as terse and efficient as its hero. Mainly, this is because Chevonne is so disconnected from those around her thanks to her line of work. She’s withdrawn from her single mother and only has two friends at high school; her mentor dies at the novel’s outset and the necessities of living in a resistance cell means that her vampire-hunting companions don’t form meaningful relationships. Which means we’re mostly in Chevonne’s head, and being a teenager who’s coping mechanism is to dismiss or repress her emotional response, she’s not prone to self-reflection or dwelling on events at length. As you might expect, a big part of the story is finally seeing the shell she’s built for herself crack.
Juxtaposed against her vampire-hunting adventures is the tale of 19th-century Swedish vampire hunter Anna Lund, as related through a journal Stoker gave Chevonne before his untimely demise. We get that story in bits and pieces. Anna’s training in Russian-ruled Helsinki at first mirrors Chevonne’s story and then branches off in another direction entirely. Chevonne uses Anna’s chronicle to work through her own experiences and to draw inspiration to face the struggles ahead, even when later revelations re-frame Anna’s story as more of a cautionary tale than something Chevonne should imitate. That mingling of narratives through time is familiar from Lupa, the conclusions and effects are rather different.
Yet most surprising for a seeming “chosen one” story arc is how the story de-centres its protagonist. Chevonne is a vampire slayer from a long line of vampire slayers, counting Abraham van Helsing as a distant relative, yet her great epiphany isn’t about her own importance, but her insignificance (another motif I’m quite find of). She ultimately acts on the periphery, given incomplete information, and has to evaluate what that means for her and the people around her. And that’s a devastating thing to learn in its own way: What, exactly, can a teenager do in a situation like this?
THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS VAMPIRES.
This is the government’s official line throughout the novel. It has, apparently, always been the official line; the first great contagion in the 18th/19th century was dismissed as rural superstition, a misconception the vampires were all too happy to encourage. In the post-oil scarcity future they’re making a comeback and being far more efficient about it too—new technologies allow them to effectively pass themselves off as human beings and enter civic office.
This means that, in the press and in the law, Chevonne is a member of a terrorist cell carrying out covert operations to kill vampires that might or might not result in human casualties too. Chevonne’s high school has its own faction of vampire sympathizers called “True Believers”; one of Chevonne’s two friends is one. The parallels with terrorism become explicitly clearer; by the end, the resistance fighters are committing out-and-out treason.
Undead Hand is casually brutal. The clipped, compressed writing during action sequences helps that sense; there’s an abruptness to character death (and make no mistake, the already small cast gets thinned considerably by the end). The resistance indoctrinates its members in the usual ways: you don’t “kill” vampires, you “dock” them, you’re made to forget they were human (once) even if they still display human traits. Dehumanize and destroy. Chevonne insists to herself she hasn’t killed, not yet, but Anna’s journal complicates that conviction, and Chevonne’s aware of that.
It’s a thought-process that leads to one resistance fighter resorting to out-and-out torture: ostensibly to extract information from a vampire, though from the way she goes about it, it’s clear that’s not her primary motive, or even a motive at all.
Marshall never really shies away from those parallels, and one scene nearer the end hammers it home in a way that devastates Chevonne. It’s the most effective element of the novel, another way to see the increasingly unclear divide between human and monster as the violence escalates between them.
Whether any of these actions are justified also comes into question when the resistance ends up failing, on several occasions, in spectacular fashion.
Undead Hand isn’t without flaws. The overarching vampire plan relies on a simplistic and frankly insane outcome (though, in all fairness, it works). The “future speak” can get distracting, and the approach to profanity is just plain weird: Chevonne is fine saying “slut”, “bitch” and “damn”, but also says “fer rice cakes”, and “meck” in place of “fuck.” Considering just how old the word “fuck” is, I don’t see a replacement catching on, even in an oil-scarce and vampire-haunted future.
It’s not exactly profound either—there are plenty of interesting ideas, but scaled down in ambition from her last two novels, and while the book brings up some heavy themes, it’s too short to go into much depth; we get tantalizing glimpses instead of thorough deconstructions. On the other hand, it’s a fun, quick read with a definite pulp aesthetic, a well-thought-out setting, and a willingness to question its own genre assumptions. The last is still pretty rare in this field, and I’d like to see more authors take that approach.
Review copy provided by the publisher.