Welcome to Vampire Valentines!
This blog series in honor of Valentine’s Day is where I fangirl throughout the month of February about some of my favorite takes in multimedia on vampires, dhampirs, and their blood-sucking ilk.
“My name is Don Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadena Ysidro, and I am what you call a vampire.”
This line never ceases to send chills down my spine. I picked up a copy of Those Who Hunt the Night in a book sale, although I no longer remember exactly which one. Probably the same one where I found an omnibus of the first two books in the Winterlands Quartet, also by Barbara Hambly. Although vampires were not really my thing, I probably thought that if the author wrote a dragon novel, her vampire novel must be pretty good too. (Such is the logic of an 11-year-old.)
My copy of Those Who Hunt the Night (originally called Immortal Blood) is a solid Gothic hardcover with an unusual, heady scent to the pages that has long since faded, and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it. I am fairly certain that this book is the one that got me interested in vampires and vampire books in the first place. The story is a historical gothic mystery with a major supernatural element: vampires. In the beginning of the 20th century, James Asher is a professor of linguistics and folklore and a retired British spy who wants nothing more than to live quietly with his wife Lydia, a keenly intelligent medical researcher. However, he finds himself recruited by Don Simon Ysidro to discover who (or what) is killing the vampires of London.
How vampires and vampirism is handled in the James Asher series is very interesting. While Ysidro expresses disdain for Bran Stoker’s fairly recent novel Dracula, there are some things the story got right. While vampires may not be able to turn into mist or bats, they do have powerful psychic abilities to turn aside the attentions of humans, to mesmerize them or walk in their dreams and implant false memories and make them into unwitting cats paws. This psychic power is fueled by drinking the deaths of humans, not just the blood. While they can live off blood alone for a while, even the blood of animals, without a true kill their powers weaken and they become slow, stupid, and prone to make mistakes that get them killed. Religious symbols have no affect on them, but silver and certain plants like garlic and whitethorn can burn. The process of making a new vampire, a “fledgling,” is not as simple as merely biting a human and leaving them alive. (I won’t say any more because you learn more about masters and their fledglings over the course of the series and it’s fascinating.) Vampirism itself is presented as being at least partially the result of some kind of mutating virus that drastically changes living cells. It’s about as close to a scientific explanation of vampires in the early 1900s as one would receive.
But all this is academic and learned through the fascinating character of Don Simon Ysidro himself. I will admit that, especially in Those Who Hunt the Night, it is very clear that the author loves the character as much as I do because there are a lot of borderline-purple prose descriptions and descriptors attached to him. That might be off-putting for some readers, but frankly, I loved it because Ysidro is ultimately an enigma. Cool, calm, collected, and utterly opaque… which just makes me want to learn everything about him. It’s hard to read emotions off of him, if he even still has emotions at all, and his true motivations are often mysterious, or at least more complicated than the little he’s willing to say. It’s very clear that Ysidro used to be human, but definitely isn’t one any more. As the series progresses, you learn more about Ysidro’s past and unlock more of his underlying motivations, which just sets my little fangirl heart all pitter-patter.
Now, Those Who Hunt the Night came out in 1988 and for a long time, that was all there was. Then, in 1995, a sequel called Traveling With the Dead was released, although I didn’t discover it until a few years after it was published while perusing the library stacks. I eagerly read it… and found myself very disappointed. In fact, I hated the book. It had a very annoying secondary character who I felt was an unwelcome distraction and made Ysidro look rather, well, villainous. It didn’t help that at the end of the book it was stated that Lydia had fallen in love with Ysidro. To me, this felt like it came out of the blue and threw an unwelcome romantic complication. By that point, I’d already grown to loathe the “girl must choose between two guys who love her” trope that was prevalent in the relatively new genre of Young Adult fiction, and I was furious at this development. I determined never to read Traveling with the Dead again, and felt a bit of trepidation when I recently discovered that Barbara Hambly had written six more books in the series, starting in 2010.
However, after reading both the Winterlands Quartet and the rest of the James Asher series, I found an interesting parallel: Barbara Hambly seems to like writing three-way relationships. In Winterlands, you have the witch Jenny and her dragonslayer husband John who are both completely devoted to one another. But Jenny also has a very deep, complex relationship with the dragon Morkeleb, who loves her. It isn’t sexual, but it is intense and can be a bit awkward for John. A similar thing happens in the James Asher series between James, Lydia, and Ysidro after Traveling with the Dead. After reading it again as an adult, I still dislike the book, but can see more of the threads and accept it (which is good because events in that book have emotional repercussions throughout the rest of the series, so you can’t really skip it). Like with Jenny and Morkeleb, the relationship between Lydia and Ysidro isn’t sexual, but more like the lady being protected from afar by a knight in the old chivalry romances. Yes, it sometimes makes things a little awkward between Lydia and James, but there is no risk to their mature, deep-seated, very human love. Now that I’m older, I’ve learned that the word “love” covers a great deal of territory, one that allows for this odd, three-way relationship. The only lingering annoyance that I have with the series as a whole is that after each adventure, there’s a point where they push Ysidro back out of their lives again, even after he’s helped them, because “he’s a monster” and that got a little tiresome through sheer repetition. But each time they come a little closer and the bond between the three of them grows a little more, so even that isn’t really a bad thing.
So if you like cool, enigmatic Spanish nobles who have been dead since the 16th century, then I recommend checking out Don Simon Ysidro in the James Asher novels by Barbara Hambly.