Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review -- 33 A.D.

Title: 33 A.D.
Author: David L McAfee
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Vampire Mythos
Price: $ 14.99
Paperback: 276 pages
Publisher: Coelacanth Press
ISBN: 978-0982630709
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner

Our story starts out with vampire assassin Theron sent to kill a traitor of the vampire nation. Apparently vampires have been around for thousands of years by this point, and, there is some dissent and subsequent "conversion" to humanity due to the teachings of a particular preacher by the name of Jesus, who is roaming around gathering converts to his Faith. The Vampires, who have had an uneasy alliance with the Romans, cannot allow that to happen. And Theron has to kill Jesus too.

I don't normally read in the vampire genre anymore unless the premise moves beyond the conventions of the day. I think the last really different vampire story I read was The Golden by Lucius Shepard, which was a brilliant existentialist piece wrapped up in a murder mystery, but after that, Anne Rice's melancholia just wore me out. If it's whining, pining, or vampire romance, I don't want any parts of it unless it makes some profound philosophical statement. I want new mythos, not the same old stale clichés. I was hoping when I accepted the story that it would be something along the lines of the Pontius Pilot meta-fiction in Master and Margarita, but sadly, it was not. Sadly for me; those who like mainstream action/thrillers will no doubt love this book.

This is a plot driven, action based story, obviously, written to the mainstream writing conventions. There is a lot of repetition, and by that I mean that certain plot points are addressed over and over and over again throughout the course of the story. Now for some it won't matter, but for me, I can remember what happened two pages ago, so it really slowed the pacing for me. I also noted a few minor historical and linguistic innacuracies that hampered my suspension of disbelief a little bit, such as the awkward use of modern day idioms, for instance: "run like the devil" when actually, "the" devil did not exist as a concept in mainstream Judaism at that time even though the Hebrew Apocrypha represents the devil as one who brought death into the world. However, I doubt that modern expression would have been used. The Greek term Diavolos would have referred to "a" devil, not "the" devil. The modern Devil or Christian Satan, would not have existed in the state we know him at that time. The older Cabbalist literature still list him as an agent for God: an angel named Ha-Satan. So the modern idiom seems glaringly out of place, almost hokey, and the term Lucifer in Latin means Morningstar and has nothing to do with evil. The Christian usage of the Devil didn't come into being until about 400 years after Jesus death. This is why we have to pay particular care when using modern language in historical fiction. It might be nitpicking, but this sort of stuff really stops a reader in their tracks, but onto the story...

The first two chapters are nothing but hack-n-slash. We get the mission, the basic premise, and an introduction to our main character Theron -- the vampire assassin -- who pretty much has all the depth of a fighting pit-bull. There is a lot of rending flesh, blood spatter, and rolling heads, but beyond that, it's not very interesting.

In chapter 3 we are introduced to a clandestine romance, a stolen kiss wrapped in the secrecy of the night. The Roman Legionary, Taras, and his young Hebrew maiden, Mary. But this secondary plotline doesn't really go anywhere and is absent for most of the book. We don't get an accurate or in-depth picture of their relationship or their love for it to have any affect, and so it just seems like a plot device without any substance behind it. After that the narrative moves back and forth for a while from Theron to Taras where we get dribs and drabs about their respective lives before we discover that they are both assassins. Yes, it is a familiar plot device, the duelling assassins, but then we get a brief glimpse of Vampireville, and I do mean brief, if not a bit clichéd: We have portals, of course, because the vamp compound is hidden somewhere almost on a different plane of existence, where the crotchety elder council curmudgeons attempt to rule the world from some Goth dungeon. Again, as far as mythos goes, there is nothing new here ... except the Lost Ones. I did really like the imagery and the idea of the Lost Ones, so bravo for that skin-crawling bit of mythology: rotting corpses with bugs eating them is just what I was looking for, too bad there wasn't more of it.

Anyway, back to the plotline: Theron is unable to kill Jesus himself, and so the next best course of action is that Jesus should be framed for the murders Theron just committed and then his death sentence can be delivered by proxy. So he has to get everyone to believe that Jesus is a delusional liar and is really preaching for a Jewish uprising against Rome. Jesus has to be crucified, as requested by the council. They want brutality, and, one has to work with that particular history. In this way, the Vampires or Bachiyr will get what they want: the commoners will abandon their faith in the one God and side with the Romans who are weak with their pantheon of gods and already more or less under vampire control. Anyway, I won't be putting any spoilers into this review for those who want to read it. Pretty much it's one of those stories where everyone is trying to screw everyone else to get ahead and further their own interests. Everyone is plotting and everyone is a lying conniving bastard, which actually works for this type of story. You know Jesus is going to die anyway, but you keep reading to see who gets their comeuppance. Theron wants to be a member of the council someday, but he makes too many mistakes. Taras just wants to marry Mary, leave the army, and live a normal life; Marcus wants his brother's death avenged; and Gordian, who is a little freaky weird, just wants his twin-brother to like him again -- not like in good way, but like in really creepy incestuous way. You see, they haven't been all that close since his brother went vamp on him, and he will do anything to get him back; plus, immortality doesn't sound like a bad thing. As for the brother, he just wants to get some respect, and Theron is in his way.

If you want to delve into the themes, I felt justice was the prevailing one in that justice doesn't always mean right and getting to the truth of a matter is always a subjective ordeal. In the one scene where Marcus has to deliver the news of his brother's death to his brother's wife and children, this thought runs through his head when his young nephew demands admission to the crucifixion because he wants to watch Jesus die:

"He disliked having to hurt his sister-in-law like this, but he reminded himself that life sometimes hurts. There were times when the best you could hope for was to stand up and keep moving."

He does acquiesce to the boys request because he believes the boy should have the opportunity; since Didius was his father, the son deserves to see justice served, so I loved this statement with regard to life in general at that time. Nicely done! It truly shows the callousness of the world. We also get a broad thematic view of corruption by power and racism among other petty idiosyncrasies of humanity. Yes, racism, including religious racism. It's there; it's just subtle. Never once does the author go soapbox with his themes or moral views. In Literary works that's expected, but this is a thriller, so it's best to stick to the plotline, which McAfee does. The only time the Faith/Forgiveness and Good versus Evil themes seem to come to the forefront is when Theron engages Jesus in conversation around the mid-point of the book, but then it's back to the hack-n-slash fight for power. However, for me, probably the most disturbing part of the narrative is while mutilated, tortured, and murdered Jesus is being cut down from the cross, Taras' future wife Mary is at home worrying about which blouse she should wear for her trip to Rome. So, if you are looking for sympathetic characters, you won't find any in this story. If you are the type of reader who needs them, then you probably won't like this book.

To sum it all up: from the cover, I was expecting a Vampire Story: monsters, blood and guts, and a whole lot of mythos and world building, but what the book turned out to be was more of a period political/religious thriller with vampires thrown in for good measure. The world building was thin, and the mythos was pretty much standard fare. I was expected to just accept that vampires cannot get to people with faith with no justification to back it up, and apparently, the potency of that faith has something to do with it too, since Theron didn’t have any trouble killing a whole lot of faithful Christians in the epilogue. It just seemed a contrived solution in order to justify a plot point. If the author had had Theron make an attempt on Jesus and then subsequently become befuddled because he couldn't get near him, then, his "setup" plan would have come from a place of real desperation, and that would have been more believable than just a pat "oh we can't touch people with that much faith." Sorry, my impulse was to ask why? and want for an explanation. How did that come about? Faith in what specifically? People were faithful to a lot of Gods back then. Now, this is not the first time Christian Vampire Mythology has been used in this way: Dracula 2000 comes to mind, but it was explained that God made Judas a vampire as punishment for betraying Jesus, and so the fear of Christian icons, the faith, and the stake thingie are justified and explained. Same with the Movie version of Bram Stoker's Dracula: Vlad, The Impaler, is made a vampire as punishment for renouncing the Church, so it all makes sense. But in this story the Vampires already just exist, with no history, and the Christian Mythology/Faith issue is just thrown in before Christianity is even a breath on anyone's lips, and so it just doesn't ring genuine. If it had, the ending of this story would have been all the more potent. If the author was trying to say that Jesus’ one God was the only true God and thus imbued his followers with some sort of magical protection, he didn’t quite execute well enough on that theory, and that, along with the use of modern day idioms: running like "the devil" and the use of the term "hell" which also did not exist until 725AD in the Northlands, really threw me right out of the story. If the author had said "a" devil then it would have been authentic, but The Devil as we know him, again, did not exist at that time. As for Hell, if he has used the Greek term Tartaros, which is part of Hades -- no, Hades is not hell -- that would have been more accurate. Other than those major issues, there were some fiddly formatting and editorial issues as well that were obvious enough not to go unnoticed, but mostly it was the inaccurate use of religious terminology and modern idioms that dropped the rating, because every time I ran across one, I really lost a feel for the time period.

All that aside, the storyline is tight, and the characters are basic non-emo military men types who come off most of the time devoid of emotion aside from sheer brute anger, but that's to be expected. You won't find loveable whining pinning sparkly vampires here, so don't look for them, but if you like HBO's Rome, sans the sex but with all the hateable backstabbing characters, the twisting plot turns, and all the political intrigue you can stand, then you will probably love this book. As a conspiracy/assassin story it works very well, but as a vampire story, it just falls short of what it could be. There is nothing wrong with wrapping the vampire mythos up in another genre. Shepard did very well with his genre bending The Golden, but what we got there was a balance struck between the vampire story and the detective who-done-it. The balance was a little off in this one, which made all the vampy stuff seem overly cliché and contrived. I define a true vampire story as one where "the essence of being a vampire" is integral to the story. It wasn't in this book. The "Secret Society" could have been anything: zombies, aliens, Nazi-ninjas, or North Korea -- whatever. Some might think by this review that I didn't like the book, but I really did like it, a lot, just not for what it was billed to be. So, if you just want to read a mainstream period action/political thriller story, I give this a thumbs up, but if you are expecting a 33AD 30 Days of Night or something along the "vampires are real monsters" like the cover sort of suggests and not just humans with pointy teeth and an agenda, you might be disappointed. I just didn't think there was enough genuine vamp in this vampire story. I was looking for new mythos here, but what I got was an engaging political thriller set in 33 AD. Not that that's a bad thing for those who like political thrillers and dog fights. It just wasn't what I was looking for based on the cover art.

8/10 Period Political/Religious Thriller
5/10 Vampire Story

This book was reviewed from a PDF provided by the author.

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