Monday, May 3, 2010

Review: a vampire suffragette in Alaya Johnson's Moonshine

I first heard about Moonshine when I was on a 2009 convention panel with its author, Alaya Johnson. The central conceit--in 1920s New York, a woman battles for the rights of vampires much as other suffragettes stood up for women and immigrants--fascinated me. My own vampire novels, Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood, also draw parallels between the racial and gender tensions of the 70s and the identity crises faced by my vampires.

According to Johnson, Moonshine was originally titled Vampire Suffragette, which is a much more accurate, if unwieldy, title. Zephyr Hollis is a Montana girl trained to kill vampires (and various additional creatures grouped under the name "Others") who has a change of heart and begins fighting for their right to co-exist with humans. A genie named Amir wants her help in tracking down the mysterious vampire gangster Rinaldo, who is flooding the city with Faust, a blood-based drink that leaves vampires addicted and vulnerable to the sun.

The book works because of the narrator's delightful, spunky voice. Zephyr is a compelling character, and her drive to help others (and Others) is blessedly devoid of self-pity or martyrdom. She stays true to her principles no matter what. Whether teaching a night class for vampire immigrants, helping the father of a part-fairy child get the illegal surgery his offspring needs, or defending an injured vampire from an angry mob, Zephyr demonstrates remarkable courage and resourcefulness. Some of her language seems disconcertingly modern, though (her use of "fuck," for example, or the word "clone"; at one point she threatens to kill "all your sorry asses" and says an opponent "face-planted into the cold rock").

The one big disappointment for me--and it's a matter of my own expectations rather than a failure by the author--is the overall lightness of tone. After talking with Ms. Johnson, I expected something darker and heavier. The dreariness of Zephyr's existence and the inherent hopelessness of her cause(s) are glossed over by clever banter and rollicking action scenes (since she's been raised to be a slayer--here called Defenders--there's a lot of swordplay). Zephyr's voice never allows the true despair of the ones she tries to help to come through, and thus her nobility seems somehow...shallow. She remains outside the true tragedies around her. Further, romance is a big element of the story, and while I have nothing against that (and it's handled well here), it again works at cross-purposes to the depth I expected. A male hero can have a cause so important it makes romance incidental; why not a female hero?

But this is judging the book against standards it never tries to meet in the first place. Moonlight is a fun read, with an engaging heroine and a world rich enough to sustain several subsequent adventures. If those adventures grow darker, make the parallel between immigrant and Other more tied to reality, and break down the barriers between Zephyr and her charges, then so much the better. But at least next time, I'll have a better idea of what I'm getting.

Moonshine will be released May 11, 2010.


Jordan Castillo Price said...

I've been eager to read this book ever since Alaya talked about the premise on that panel! Funny thing, I think your take on the tone of the piece actually makes it more appealing to me! I like social commentary to be there, but with a light touch.

Alex Bledsoe said...


That's what I meant about judging it by unrealistic standards. I think you'll enjoy it!