Just finished Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat (spoilers)

Yeesh, it’s been awhile since I finished a book this quickly!  There are also a handful of surprising confluences from other precedents in Anne Rice’s body of work to be found in this most recent story.

If you’ve been an Anne Rice reader for awhile you have probably noticed that, every now and then, something like The Mummy, or Ramses The Damned or the Sleeping Beauty books will come along that offer a stark contrast to her more dense and sprawling works.  Also, if you’re an Anne Rice fan, you probably love her most when she knocks the breaks off of being sprawling and dense.  Not that the faster, energetic and shorter stories are bad- I and others appreciate them as novel departures.  Really, we’ve mostly gotten used to think of them as different, and sometimes alternating patterns in her work.

Now I don’t quite consider Blood Communion to be the same sort of fast paced-story as The Mummy or the like but this book went by so quickly and it was so action-driven and concise that I couldn’t help but be reminded of that kind of story.  It also reminded me a little of Lasher with how quickly the plot moved and the sequence of the threads resolving (Lasher is quite the unique book among Rice’s bibliography as well).  I mean, let’s not mince words, while Anne Rice shines when she’s ambitiously philosophical she is also very good at quick-moving thrillers.  These kinds of stories are undeniably enjoyable.

That being said, while I enjoyed Blood Communion there were a few things that I found difficult to get behind.  While we still haven’t gotten into spoilers yet I want to mention that this book shines best when you know nothing about the plot in advance.  If you want to read Blood Communion and get the most out of it, you might want to stop here.

First off, her treatment of the story’s apparent villain gave me pause.  This is something Anne Rice has typically been very good at.  Favorite examples that come to my mind are Akasha, Lasher, Gregory Belkin, Santino, Patronia and Lestat.  While the Brat Prince is on a very different and openly heroic path in these new Prince Lestat novels, Lestat has often been at his most compelling as an antagonist.  So I do think it’s fair to place Lestat on that list of compelling villains.  Owing perhaps to her deft footing in gothic storytelling, Anne Rice does a great job at villainous characters that are destructive and evil while still eliciting emotional, and sometimes moral, sympathy.

In genres like gothic fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc. that have many firmly established tropes, the situating of protagonists, antagonists and compelling motivations can be botched very, very easily.  Last spring I read the Lord of The Rings trilogy for the first time and I was as impressed with Tolkein’s delicacy as I was with his vibrant and immersive world building.  Tolkein was quite deft at fleshing out characters in archetypal, mythic story arcs in which the mythological framework itself may have boxed in a less talented writer.  Often, the simplest things are the hardest things…and the most impressive things when they go well.  Anne Rice is good at the simplest things.

One of the biggest failings of the Queen of The Damned film is it’s total simplification of Akasha.  One reason for this had to be because the studio was afraid that a villain specifically targeting men might alienate part of the anticipated demographic.  The movie version of Akasha did not have the Utopian ambition as book Akasha, which was central to one of the Vampire Chronicles‘ huge themes: moral optimism versus moral pessimism.  Three books into the Chronicles, we have met Lestat and Marius and have experienced their belief that the Enlightenment has opened the most important and liberating horizons for the West and humanity’s greatest steps forward are still ahead of us.  Akasha’s certainty that humans need a firm, authoritative hand to keep them in line makes her the ideal counterpoint.  Lasher and the Taltos are also slam-dunk antagonists: when Michael Curry brutally murdered him and Rowan Mayfair shot and killed Emalaith my heart was absolutely broken.  Rowan and Michael’s actions made sense but the pathos evinced by the Taltos made those actions hurt miserably.

In many ways, Benedict and Rhoshamandes fit this pattern.  Back when Prince Lestat first came out, Benedict and Rhoshamandes were my favorite new characters.   One reason is that they were a sympathetic pair of lovers and they were pitted against all of the main characters.  I was also intrigued by how many of Rhoshamandes’ fledglings ended up with the Children of Satan and how Lestat himself is descended from Rhoshamandes, through Benedict and Magnus.  If there was going to be more New Tales of The Vampires, I would have loved a Rhoshamandes novel.  In all honesty his role in Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis was disappointing but that novel had enough innovation and substance to make up for it.  Rhoshamandes’ expressed hatred for Amel at the end of the Atlantis novel was fully consistent, though, and held promise for the future.  Between Blood Communion and the last book, it seemed that Rhoshamandes had transferred his animus from Lestat to Amel and could potentially target the Children of Atlantis.  Lestat extracted a promise from him not to do this but who knew how binding that would be in the end, especially considering Rhosh’s prior conflict with Lestat.

This brings us to his role in Blood Communion.  What Rhoshamandes does in this story hinges entirely on how we know about his growing rift with Benedict and how we are made to believe it.  Before we learn about this in earnest, we hear Kapetria tell Lestat that Rhoshamandes has been stalking and menacing the Children of Atlantis, barely stopping short of open threats of violence.  Then Benedict appears at Court, offering Lestat the gift of a gilded throne.  Benedict explains that he intends to end his life and gives reasons that seem to refer directly to alienation from Rhoshamandes.  He says that “two is not enough”, that a relationship with a single individual with no outside input can never be sufficiently nurturing, that vampires transformed in youth or childhood never truly extricate themselves from relying on their adult makers, and that certain wounds can bring forth a rage that is “primitive and catastrophic”.

The context for these remarks is clear: Benedict and Rhoshamandes have always relied exclusively on each other and have never truly wished for any other companionship.  Benedict, like Armand, was also transformed early in his youth.  Benedict’s words indicate that he can never really exist apart from Rhoshamandes but so far has never needed to.  Only one thing, in the thousand years these two vampires have been together, has ever driven a wedge between them: Rhosh’s increasing violence and single-minded anger ever since Amel was stirred to action and Lestat’s ascendance to the rank of Prince.

What also lends context to this is Rhoshamandes’ behavior pattern before Amel, during the events of Prince Lestat, instigated the modern day Great Burning.  Rhoshamandes has never tolerated conflict or aggression and has avoided it at times to the detriment of himself and his fledglings: he would rather abandon his holdings in France when he was attacked by the Children of Satan than take action against them and even allowed them to capture his fledglings Allessandra and Everard.  This makes a bit of sense in light of the fact that Rhoshamandes had found his true love in Benedict and had ceased to desire anyone or anything else, but there is something else that explains it more.

In Prince Lestat, we learned that Rhoshamandes was a pirate in his human life who ran afoul of Akasha’s Queen’s Blood army and was press-ganged into an existence as a vampire warrior.  During these early years Rhoshamandes and Nebamun- the modern day Gregory -were neck and neck for supreme military authority within the Queen’s Blood.  Rhoshamandes was clearly very successful in the wars between the Queen’s Blood and the rebels of the First Brood and was even clever and driven enough to assist in Nebamun’s escape and achieve his own.  Between his human life and his early existence as a vampire, we know that Rhoshamandes is no stranger to conflict, has no fear of it and is a force to be reckoned with in battle.

If someone is a seasoned and capable warrior yet avoids combat at all costs, what does that look like?  Do the claims of other characters, alleging that he is a coward, seem credible?  Not really.  Rhoshamandes’ long-established behavior pattern seems to be the product of his experience as a pirate and a Queen’s Blood soldier.  He has, perhaps, learned first hand that he wanted his warlike existence behind him.  Then, under the influence of Amel, he murdered Maharet, essentially bringing him back into something that was long behind him.

I realize that I’m relying a lot on what is unsaid, but I believe these unsaid things speak rather loudly: after a long life of combat, Rhoshamandes lived a private and largely peaceful existence.  Him breaking this pattern, that has been the rule for most of his existence, seems very telling.  It makes sense that it would cast a large psychological shadow and that, while he may understand that Lestat himself did not directly and maliciously cause this return to older things, Rhoshamandes would continue to associate this event with Lestat.  If Rhoshamandes met Benedict in the midst of his long non-violent stretch, what did they see reflected in each other?  How did that precious, sustaining reflection change once Rhoshamandes was tempted back into violence?

All of this may be unsaid but I find it hard to read the first three Prince Lestat stories and not be aware of them and I think they supplement Benedict’s explanation of his suicide profoundly.  For Benedict and Rhoshamandes, two seemed to be enough, and had been enough for a thousand years.  Perhaps, after the murder of Maharet, Rhoshamandes felt banished from Benedict’s love as a consequence of his remorse and self-loathing.  Violence was something Rhoshamandes had put behind him and perhaps he could not “undo” the results of having crossed that gulf again.  If Rhoshamandes was haunted by guilt and self-hatred over the death of Maharet, then how must he have felt when Benedict had to beg for his maker’s life at the end of Prince Lestat?  Rhosh walked them into the first circumstance where separation was a genuine possibility.

For eons, Rhoshamandes had found his peace in solitude and passivity.  This reversal, perhaps more than his temporarily removed arm and humiliation before all other vampires, was likely more than he could bear.  He could never go back, he had ceased to be the person he saw reflected in Benedict and lapsed further into anger.  Benedict was referring to a growing rift between them before his death and few other things seemed to be a likely cause.  Two things changed for them in the last three books: Lestat is now the vampire monarch and Rhoshamandes has lapsed back into a previously suppressed violent state of mind.  If, during that time, these two lovers are being estranged, there’s only so many apparent reasons.

Tragically for Benedict, he needed Rhoshamandes more than Rhoshamandes needed him, and the neglect brought on by Rhosh’s self-loathing was more than he could bear.  As he said, “two is not enough”, especially since Benedict had been transformed as a relative young adult, if not child, he has never been able to learn to exist on his own.  This destructive journey into solipsism left no room for Benedict and he did not know how to go on.

To the best of my understanding, this is how the rift between Benedict and Rhoshamandes happened.  The possibility that this was brought on by Rhosh going down a path of solipsism due to self-loathing is also evidenced by the fact that Rhoshamandes held Lestat solely responsible for Benedict’s death.  Because of Lestat and Amel, Rhoshamandes returned to violence.  After the death of Benedict, Rhoshamandes doubled down to the point of attacking Gabrielle, Louis and Marius in order to cause Lestat as much suffering as possible.  If Rhoshamandes’ arc revolves around a belief that oneself is violent and evil beyond redemption, it would certainly make him a perfect opposite to Lestat’s frequent rejection of self-hatred.  In this respect, the role Rhoshamandes plays in the plot of this story works well.

Does it rub me the wrong way at all?  Maybe, and maybe not even for good reasons.  The tragic fate of Benedict and Rhoshamandes tugged at my heart-strings, certainly, but I also have to cop to an admittedly childish disappointment that we may not get any more stories with Rhoshamandes and Benedict, save through flashbacks.  I’m allowed to not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it works.

At the same time…I’m not sure how this elaborates on another long-standing pattern in Anne Rice’s writing and in the Vampire Chronicles: tragic love.  While The Vampire Armand may remain my favorite story in the Chronicles, I found the romance between Lestat and David in The Tale of  the Body Thief to be the most painful and therefore, perhaps, the most tragic.  Lestat was not able to love David on purely consensual and nurturing terms.  David’s love for him played a subtle role in his temptation to be human again, the only form of existence David ever wanted.  When Lestat realized he truly did not wish to be human, he also refused to let David go as a result and took him into vampirism against his will.  I think the dynamic between Armand and Marius is also very poignant and complicated, and I don’t believe I have to go into the emotional roller-coaster of Interview With The Vampire.

Are there any happy love stories in the works of Anne Rice?  Totally.  Tonio and Guido, Morrigan and Ashlar, even Armand and Daniel had parts that were very touching and sweet.  Even Lestat and Nicolas and Lestat and Gabrielle.  But there is certainly a strong pre-occupation on the ins and outs of unhealthy relationships and why people sometimes do the worst things to those they love the most.  No way do I think this has to be positive all the time: stories about adversity are vitally important and nurturing.  Everyone suffers and we live better when we know that suffering does not have to destroy us.  I think this is part of the sustaining function of dark fiction and dark art in general.

As a set of stories about resisting despair and destruction, this is very natural territory for the Vampire Chronicles.  This is even more true for the last three books in particular, in which Anne Rice says she wants to open doors (paraphrasing an interview).  I think these particular doors could have been opened more effectively if we had more recent moments with Lestat bonding with Gabrielle, Louis and Marius.  One of my favorite chapters in Prince Lestat is when we meet Sevraine in her golden caves with Gabrielle and Eleni and Allessandra, and it’s a very powerful moment for Gabrielle and her son as well as Amel.  I think Blood Communion could have benefited from more scenes like that beforehand, we also could have gotten a better look at the current state of Louis and Lestat’s report.  Louis had an important role in the plot of Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis but we’ve never really seen him attempt to co-exist with and love Lestat on the same scale as Interview With The Vampire.  

I don’t think these nit-picks constitute a genuine weakness, but with the dynamics between Benedict and Rhoshamandes so recently established, the delicacy and passion of Lestat’s attachments may be overshadowed.  This, though, is something of a circumstantial issue in the placing of these events in the bigger context of the Chronicles.  Lestat’s various relationships and all of their nuance have been very thoroughly established, it’s just that so many of them happened so long ago.

Even this, though, could be seen as a careful implementation of an older trope.  As I said earlier, Anne Rice is very good at the simple things, and mythology and archetypes and ancient tropes can, for many of us writers, be treacherously simple.  This is something Anne Rice does well, and in so many classic tragedies and landmarks in gothic fiction we see the incremental revelation of the antagonist’s background.  Perhaps, for certain kinds of detective fiction and horror, this is the fundamental plot dynamic.  In this respect, the heightened visibility of Benedict and Rhoshamandes makes perfect sense, and as witnesses to the destruction from Lestat’s perspective, we are well-placed to understand Lestat’s passion for moving the Court and all vampires to transcend self-hatred.  In a genre in which we see Erik the Phantom die in the arms of the Daroga, Victor Frankenstein murdered by his creation and Carmilla staked and dismembered by the family of her lover, this plot structure is well precedented.

Nonetheless, on a purely personal and subjective level, I was saddened to see Benedict and Rhoshamandes die, especially since we’ve already seen so many relationships between characters in the earlier Chronicles turn fatal.  And I wish the parallels between Rhoshamandes and Lestat- who turned Claudia into a vampire as an uncomprehending child and transformed David violently and against his will -had been more front and center. Lestat himself has been the most dangerous and possessive of lovers, which makes his current misery even more significant.

We see Lestat deeply and spiritually shaken in a way reminiscent of Memnoch The Devil and Queen of The Damned and, arguably, Blood Canticle, and this lends necessary gravity to Blood Communion.  Lestat’s sense of ambiguity and moral nausea with the introduction of the Court’s public executions is also well placed in this regard.  But I felt that Lestat did not exactly have the same feeling of momentous change at the end of Blood Communion as he did with Memnoch The Devil and Queen of The Damned.

Since I’m almost finished with this review I feel the need to mention something that I just wasn’t sure where to place in the rest of this.  When Gabrielle is abducted by Rhoshamandes, Lestat spends a somnolent daytime in the loving embrace of Gregory, Nebamun that was, and has a very interesting dream.  Lestat is aware in this moment that each and every soul is a planet unto themselves and one travels from planet to planet by looking at them.  This very strongly resembles an early moment in Dante Alighieri’s Il Paradiso, when Dante realizes something similar under the guidance of Beatrice during his first encounter with Heaven, when they travel from place to place by thought and attention.  I could probably keep writing for awhile about using that reference in that particular moment but I’ll try to be brief.

Legendary pilgrims such as Dante, Orpheus and Gerda in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen have gone on profound, visionary odysseys prompted by the loss of a loved one, journeys of revelatory spiritual import.  The significance for Lestat in his moment of debilitating grief is obvious and Lestat has himself made such pilgrimages in prior stories.  Like Gerda, Lestat brings his loved ones back to the land of the living.  The significant departure the Andersen story makes from Orpheus’s fatal separation and Dante’s divestment of his human sinfulness stands out.  If anything, we can agree that Anne Rice’s ambitions in these new stories are at least that much of a mythic departure from traditional gothic fiction and it’s this ambition that makes her one of my main inspirations and heroes as a writer myself.

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