“The only vampire you can trust is one you’ve just nailed to the floor with a wooden stake.”
Dark Roots is a contemporary Gothic vampire novel with an urban fantasy twist that makes it perfect for crossover fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Tim Burton’s Wednesday or Dark Shadows. Although it’s clear Valiant has a firm knowledge of nineteenth-century Gothic classics, there’s a contemporary spin to his approach that goes beyond Dark Roots‘ modern setting and draws on a rich camp horror tradition of intertwining modern and historical setpieces. The sumptuous atmosphere and genre-appropriate melodrama draw comparison to Hammer Horror, and like a Hammer classic this short and fast-paced novel is full to the brim with dark family secrets, double-crosses, and mouldering crypts. This is Carmilla seen through a Google Glass darkly.
While Dark Roots could use a longer wordcount to give some of the early worldbuilding room to breathe and add more opportunity for the characterization of our protagonist and his friends, those looking for a tight and plot-driven Gothic romp will be well-served by taking a peek into the be-cobwebbed corners of Dark Roots.
Our main character is a young man named Harlan who works for a somewhat mysterious organization called The Van Helsing Society. As the name would suggest, the Society’s job is to hunt monsters of all kinds (vampires, werewolves, and all your favourite beasties). At the start of Dark Roots, the Society is a central focus and a mystery is introduced early on when one of the Society’s higher-ups (someone sympathetic to orphan Harlan’s hunting methods) suffers a conveniently-timed stroke and is removed from duty to recover. When a nemesis of Harlan’s takes over and bars Harlan from entering the Society’s library, he retreats to his adopted father, Eli. Harlan knows little about his background, and it is the secret of Harlan’s ancestry that proves the main focus of Dark Roots. While staying with Eli, Harlan is hired to investigate a possible vampire infestation in the area of London’s Highgate Cemetary, in a mansion called Thornhill Manor. What he discovers at Thornhill is far more personal than he expects. As soon as he arrives, he meets a second invitee–a young photographer named Sebastian. The two are introduced to the lady of the manor–a woman named Lyrica whose wardrobe is straight out of a Victorian period piece–and are invited to sit with her over several evenings during which she promises to explain Harlan and Sebastian’s secret family history. There’s one splinter in the coffin though–Lyrica is a vampire, and as a hunter, it’s Harlan’s job to protect civilian Sebastian from the inherent danger she poses.
“I hope I’m not being insensitive when I say death never goes out of style.”
For me, the highlight of Dark Roots was the story-within-a-story narrated by Lyrica. This was to Dark Roots‘ credit as we spend the majority of the novel in what amounts to Lyrica’s POV (she has a virtually photographic memory of her past, complete with conversations from over a hundred years ago–vampirism does have its perks, after all!). It’s in Lyrica’s Thornhill Manor, too, where Valiant showcases his scene-setting chops. For anyone unfamiliar with Gothic, it may seem strange to compliment a writer’s description of furniture, architecture, and pattern/texture, but in a genre marked by the aesthetic, these elements are crucial to get right and Valiant nails them. From Lyrica’s costuming to the dank crypt below the manor, Thornhill is the quintessential Gothic mansion.
There’s a splash of Anne Rice to the frame story structure, which shouldn’t surprise given that Valiant dedicates the novel to Rice in a moving tribute, and the format is used effectively. Since Lyrica’s tale is recounted over several nights, this gives Valiant opportunities to have Harlan and Sebastian investigate Thornhill’s dark crevices and hidden corners.
“Helping others get rid of the darkness that stalked their lives usually meant I didn’t have time to dwell on my own.”
The character-focused reader in me would have liked just a little more interiority from Harlan in these moments, especially since when Valiant does give us those lines they really sing. Given how world-shakingly personally Lyrica’s story ought to be for both Harlan and Sebastian, more time spent sitting with their emotional and interpersonal reactions would have deepened the book’s impact. Although Lyrica’s passages were my favourite parts, the dominance of her story over Harlan’s does mean we get less of a sense of him as a person. Nearly as soon as we’re introduced to Harlan in the novel’s opening, we’re snapped into Lyrica’s story and the mystery of Harlan’s origin, but for the mystery to have the gut-wrenching impact it ought to, we need to know Harlan a bit better first.
Overall, the novel’s openining sequence almost gives a sense of Dark Roots as a different sort of book (one more firmly rooted in the urban fantasy setting and focused on the politics of the Society), and the frame story of Harlan and the hunters could have been a little more integrated with the Thornhill plot. Just as an example, having Harlan investigate Thornhill on behest of the Society (instead of under his own steam) and moving his mentor’s stroke to the end of the novel as setup for a future book may have ramped up the stakes a little more and made the focus of the story clearer from its opening. As is, there’s quite a bit of space devoted in the opening pages to a rundown of the Society’s history, but since it’s Harlan’s past and the mystery of Lyrica’s relationship to Harlan that are the heart of the book, some of this might have been more effective if woven into the story gradually or moved to a later volume.
Once Lyrica’s tale is finished, the last quarter or so of the book is spent with Harlan. There’s an almost madcap quality to the action in this later quarter, and one particular sequence involving a hidden underground lair was especially zany and delightful. I started to get more of a sense of each of the characters here, which suggests some fun relationship dynamics to come in Dark Roots‘ planned sequels. Although there could have been more build up of the final “big bad” and their relevance to both Harlan and the larger narrative, the novel’s conclusion established a new status quo that promises some deliciously fun and unlikely partnerships between former enemies.
Dark Roots kept me entertained throughout, which is no small thing, and with this debut novel Valiant has demonstrated he clearly has the skills to weave a captivating story. I’m looking forward to watching both Harlan’s story and Valiant’s impressive craftmenship develop with future installments.
Make sure to check out Dark Roots for an atmospheric contemporary vampire story that promises a wider world of fun to be had in the larger series. Lucius Valiant is one to watch.