Tanya Huff, Blood Price (Daw Books, 1991)

Tanya Huff has developed at least two ways to approach the genre of horror/dark fantasy. One, as evidenced in The Keeper's Chronicles, is smart, topical, zany, and — well, smart-alecky. The other, which begins with Blood Price, is equally smart, just as edgy, brittle, and leads to a slightly more "white-knuckle" reading experience.

Vicki Nelson, an ex-cop who earned the nickname "Victory" on the force for her phenomenal arrest record as a detective, has left the Toronto Metro police force because of failing eyesight — her peripheral vision is becoming progressively restricted and she has no reliable night vision. Now a PI, she is a near-witness to the first of a series of brutal murders — the victim's throat has been torn out and his body drained of blood. Mike Celluci, Vicki's friend and sometime lover, is the detective in charge. The tabloids have a field day with the reports of "vampire" slayings — until a night-shift nurse is murdered by her neighbors with a stake through her heart. As much as Celluci wants Vicki to stay away from the case, she winds up being hired by the first victim's girlfriend to find the "vampire."

Equally concerned by the references to vampires in the press is Henry Fitzroy, a novelist who writes bodice-rippers under the name "Elizabeth Fitzroy." As he says to Vicki shortly after abducting her from the scene of one of the murders, Elizabeth, his half-sister, had an equal right to the name — he never approved of his father's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, so as far as he was concerned, they were both king's bastards. Henry happens to be a vampire, and has survived for over four hundred years by not calling attention to himself or his fellows. He is not happy about the killings or the publicity they are generating. Henry was at the scene because, under the impression that the killer was a vampire, he felt impelled to take a hand. Arriving just too late to prevent the murder, he nevertheless knows what he and the police face — someone has summoned a demon.

There is really nothing new about this novel — the detective who becomes involved in spooky crimes has a history going back to the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. That the crimes would actually involve the supernatural — well, one can go all the way back to Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians, if not before, for that little wrinkle. The plot is not really very complex, and because the point of view shifts from Vicki to Celluci to Henry to Vicki's client and the killer, the reader knows long before the climax who is up to what — Nero Wolfe this is not. Guess what — it doesn't matter.

Victory Nelson, in fact, is a character with whom we've become familiar: the tough, quick, smart, streetwise detective; she is a modern-day archetype. Celluci is another one — equally tough, equally quick, equally stubborn, with a temper that matches Vicki's. They have their quirks — they are not complete stereotypes. The same goes for Henry — he has, after all, had over four hundred years to learn urbanity, but he, like the other characters, is intensely realized. (Even the minor characters are drawn deftly, and manage to become real people in just a sentence or two, aided by Huff's ear for sharp, realistic dialogue.)

There is a strong thread of eroticism in the Blood series, which seems to be almost unavoidable in dealing with vampires. Blood Price shows the strong attraction between Vicki and Henry, but one feels the book really was conceived as the first of a series — there is major development still to come, but the tension generated from a combination of true "blood lust" and — well, the regular kind, serves to jack up the intensity of the action. In this book, the relationship remains unconsummated — there is as much fear as attraction here, and there is, after all, the complicating factor of Celluci.

One overriding problem among contemporary SF writers that Huff does manage to surmount — almost — is the "bad guys." Very few writers of fantasy really deal with them effectively. Part of this may be the perceived requirements of a genre that demands that good and evil be easily identifiable. I think that another part of it is that most writers of fantasy try to make "evil" a motivating factor and so tend to overdraw villains. It's almost axiomatic that evil is accomplished more by chance and warped priorities than by consciously setting out be wicked, and Huff almost manages to pull that off: the bad guy in Blood Price has absolutely the wrong motivations, but he's a caricature, and that largely undercuts his realization as a character. (Interestingly enough, while he is grossly bad; the demons are not nearly so close to being cartoons, and are much scarier.) Fortunately, our encounters with him are few and brief.

Huff is a good writer, has a deft touch with psychological conflict and the ability to pace a story effectively, and she succeeds more often than not in avoiding the overdone late-twentieth-century angst to which too many fantasy heroes — and heroines — these days are prone. It's an enjoyable, although lightweight, series, and this is a good lead-off. The characters are engaging, the plot is tight, the action is fast, and there is obviously more to come.

[Robert Tilendis]