I think my reading experience here suffered from a case of inflated expectations. I’d heard nothing but praise for Octavia Butler and so my expectation was that even if the subject matter wasn’t what turned my crank personally, this book would introduce ideas from outside my comfort zone and the writing itself would be excellent.
Instead it was… okay? The prose was utilitarian, the characters didn’t much grab me, and “startlingly original”* isn’t the word I would have used for the plot.
* cover blurb from the Washington Post
The main character, who we later find out is named Shori, wakes up naked in a forest with burn scars all over her body, soft spots in her skull, no memory of who she is or how she got there, and some very vampiric symptoms. Through some rather uninspired plot progression, she nets herself a few humans to feed from, finds her father for some much-needed exposition, and establishes that there is a group of humans hunting down and killing her people.
It doesn’t get interesting until the end — the last quarter of the book is essentially a courtroom drama with Shori going up against the parties accused of killing her family, at which point alllll the vampire politics come out. Even so, vampire Councils and vampire politics are things we’ve seen before, and Butler does it well, but doesn’t exactly do it new.
Vampires in fiction, I am convinced, need ambience in order to work, and there is no ambience in this. Might be intentional, since she goes the “vampires as different species” route (in that they reproduce independently of humans and have their own continuous history), but without the ambience they’re just… not all that interesting. Details are the death of romance when it comes to vampires, and she might have been able to pull it off if she’d introduced any truly novel ideas with her world-building, but it comes across as — at best — a moderately intelligent exploration of existing ideas. Vampires’ attitudes toward humans, both their own thralls and free-range humans; vampire social structures and how they weather the centuries; how they’ve existed alongside human society, etc.
And in more nitpicky complaints, there is also a preponderance of mundane description that isn’t relevant to the plot and doesn’t do anything to establish characterization. It’s like describing someone’s living room by saying that they have a couch and a coffee table, rather than pointing out the stack of library books that are all about the Tea Party and riddled with post-it notes.
In short — ::shrug:: I’d rather read Anne Rice, for all her problems, because at least the emotional stakes are higher and the prose is prettier.