BLOOD MATTERS by Aviva Bel’Harold

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

I have had a hard time with this review. I enjoyed so much of my time of reading this book and wanted to rate it even higher than I do now. However, there was one particular aspect that was so completely horrifying to me, so disappointing, that I cannot rate higher, in good conscience. As is my tradition, I will address both those things I enjoyed and those things I disliked. After I do that, I will go into detail about this one terrible part of the experience and – against my tradition – include quite a few spoilers so I can discuss the problem accurately. Basically, in order to fully explain why I had such a knee-jerk reaction, I will have to spoil the entire ending. I will warn again when that particular section starts, but be aware there are spoilers ahead. Ultimately, I believe this is a good book that failed itself in becoming great.

It took me some time to determine whether or not this book was fantasy or science fiction. After all, it is a vampire novel. What really sealed the deal for me was the clear work the author put into the process of the parasitic relationship that created the vampires of the novel. While no vampire novel can entirely avoid the supernatural, the parasite and the logic of the world in which it lives definitely had the tone of science fiction to me. A basic run down is this: the parasite starts in every host as a single-celled organism that travels through the blood stream and, as it settles in the heart, it begins to multiply and use up the blood supply of the host in order to do so. At the point that it runs out of blood, it then requires blood from other humans to complete and sustain the transformation. If the host dies, the parasite transfers, through touch, to a new host and starts the process once again.

One of the things this scientific bent to the vampire tale provides is a delightful lack of angst. Not that there is no angst in the novel, but that it does not over power or even equal the sense of curiosity and exploration that comes with the new abilities. This is a novel about discovery as much as it is about its major themes of heroism and humanity. The human host continues in her life for as long as she can and tries her best to function normally and the parasite does not attempt to interfere with that. The change of circumstances happens in stages and feels very organic.

The characters are well humanised and made approachable by a diversity of perspective. It’s amazing how, depending on who is the lens the narration is written through, the parasite, called E.V., and the host, known as Brit, can be two separate beings or a third, singular character. It took a little while to get used to the different narrative lenses, but allowing the story to be told through several sets of eyes made for a good deal of sympathetic perspective. I think the story was served well by the fact that though it was mostly (and understandably) told from the perspectives of Brit and E.V., others were allowed in to really fill out the edges of the picture.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the shorter chapters. All seventy-seven (!!) of them. I am generally not at all a fan of the short chapter, I feel like it fragments the narrative. However, in this case, it served as a beautiful echo of the perspectives of E.V and Brit. E.V.’s memories barely stay with her from host to host, but Brit helps in discovering and preserving them in her human mind as a full, complete narrative. The narrative device of short chapters verses a long arc mirroring the two main characters was one of my favorite bits.

The thematic discussion of heroism (which is main theme of the book, as I perceive it) was quite good. E.V. seems to feel she is a bit of a hero. As a parasite, she improves the health, function, and visage of the host body. They are faster, stronger, more beautiful, less needy. But in order to do this, she must take. Brit, as she discovers her new powers, chooses to use them to cull the bad people from her town. But, in doing so, she takes away the lives and opportunities of so many people. Both of them are play-acting at being a hero and convincing themselves that they are heroes, while neither of them really are. While I found the resolution of the discussion contained some deeply problematic things (this is the big spoiler I talk about later), I did enjoy the eventual conclusion the manuscript came to.

The secondary discussions of ‘what is it that makes one human’ (a vampire novel must) and ‘the many ways love can be felt’ were nuanced and extensive. I enjoyed the multi-thematic nature of the novel and I am truly glad to say that the discussions weren’t heavy-handed or didactic.

As for my dislikes, the first I need to mention is the simply weird pacing problems. I would be convinced that several days had passed and then read a reference to an action five chapters past as earlier in the day. This isn’t particularly unreasonable with seventy-seven short chapters, but it is disconcerting when the perception is so different from the narrative. Similarly, I would thing a short time had passed – a few days, a week at most – and discover that months had gone by. I wonder if this is a vampire novel problem, as both Stoker’s Dracula and Meyer’s Twilight also had these issues of pacing, though to wildly different degrees.

Another weird aspect was the inclusion of a biblical phrase as a large part of the mythology quite suddenly at the end. After having spent so much of the book writing a detailed individual mythology and science, it was more than a bit odd to see an established mythology (one that didn’t feel like it really fit all that well) play such a large role in the raison d’être of the vampires. I was largely confused by the inclusion and I still think it was a poor choice, though it certainly wasn’t a book breaker by any means.

Many of the “bad people” Brit targets are pimps and the prostitutes often seem to end up being collateral damage. I dislike them being lumped in as bad people (with little remorse for killing them), as a vast majority of illegal sex workers are victims themselves. At best it seems insensitive and at worst it looks like sex-shaming and has shades of victim-blaming. Either way, it felt like a very negative and dismissive treatment of sex workers and I would have liked that to be more nuanced. I also find it ludicrous that in a town that supports over 200 pimps and sex workers that Brit couldn’t find a goodly portion of muggers or robbers (or, if she could, that they didn’t show up in the narrative).

There is a scene (really, Brit’s first taste of the false heroism she takes on) in which a girl is threatened with rape. Brit steps in and saves her and the next day the girl is at school, bright, bubbly, cheery, and entirely unaffected. This sat very poorly with me. It seemed to brush off rape, or the threat of it, as a casual thing, and that disturbs me. I think it would have served the narrative, one proved to be so good at nuanced discussions, to have added a little, or even a lot more nuance to this scene.

Okay, so that’s the base of my review. As you can see, compared to what I enjoy, most of my complaints are minor. I hope you understand that while this next part addresses a major complaint at length and, though it does taint my over-all experience of the book, I did enjoy the vast majority of my time in this world.

From here on out MAJOR SPOILERS. DON’T CONTINUE IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM.

We good? Fantastic.

There was an entirely gratuitous rape in the book. Entirely. There’s no excuse or purpose that I can suss out. In my explanation, I first have to credit Maggie Stiefvater, an author of YA literature herself, for helping me create my criteria for what makes a gratuitous rape in literature. She wrote a beautiful article about rape in fiction two years ago and it perfectly captures the feeling of being faced with an unnecessary rape: “I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me.” You can find it on her tumblr and twitter. The criteria are:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?
2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?
3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?
4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?
5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?
6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

So, I will be answering each of the questions about Blood Matters. First, I need to set up the context of the rape: A male parasite (in a male host) feels that he needs to repopulate the world with parasites to cull the human herd. Since E.V. is the only remaining female parasite, she is the one he chooses. The process by which he does this first includes the male parasite leaving his host body (therefore killing it) to join E.V. in Brit’s body and fundamentally changing E.V’s DNA to replicate in such a way as to create little parasite babies and also to jump into a new (male) host and have the host bodies have sex, so the parasite babies can attach to each sperm deposited and then go infect the world. Oh, and he fully intends to do both acts whether E.V. and/or Brit intend to go along with it. And, sure enough, he does. Got it? Now to the questions:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?

Quite simply: never. He already has the sperm, so there could have been all sorts of ways to accomplish that aspect, if it must needs have sperm. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of several ways that, if the female parasite had been in a male body, this could have been pulled off just fine without rape (which means that totally could have happened in a female). These ways are: asexual reproduction; only the parasites needed to have sex and since it is established that they can remove blood through skin contact, skin contact would be the full extent of the necessity, rather than invading a body in any way, shape, or form; changing of the DNA to be compatible with flaking skin cells; combining the sperm with the baby parasite hoards OUTSIDE the body. So, in this aspect, the rape was gratuitous.

2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?

Yes. And how you can take a phoenix-like, parasitic, practically eternal being and reduce her to her girly bits is BEYOND me. Holy reproductive terrorism, Batman. Not to mention, E.V. is considered an It – a non-gendered entity – for the vast majority of the book. About two-thirds of the way through, her female-ness is impressed upon her by the man!parasite who would eventually perpetuate the rape. Her female status literally exists to serve the rapist. So, in this manner, the rape is gratuitous.

3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?

Not in the least. At no point after the rape were the implications discussed. Though shock might be considered a factor, both Brit and E.V. were a little two engaged with reality afterwards for me to feel as if that was a valid interpretation of the after-effects of the rape. Basically, much like the threat of rape from earlier in the novel, it is not discussed much at all. This is especially confusing considering the elegant discussions about heroism, love, and humanity in the script. In this way, the rape is gratuitous.

4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?

Hell. Yes. Several. And while I am almost positive that these were unintentional, it is still a fact that this rape both confirms the cultural expectation of the inevitability of rape as well as the cultural perception that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. The manuscript does this by having the female character(s) commit suicide shortly after she/they are raped. The suicide served the discussion about heroism and how the nature of the hero is to give, not to take, but it could have been accomplished (SO SO EASILY) in a non-problematic way by simply not including rape. Also, since the male parasite has to transfer hosts to a new male host – and it chooses Brit’s human boyfriend – there is a bit of playing into the ‘men can’t help themselves, they’re animals’ when the boyfriend tries to fight off the control of the parasite and fails. Also, the responsibility of getting away is left with the girls. This plays into the cultural perception that women don’t do enough to avoid being raped. In this way, the rape was gratuitous.

5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?

Yes. This choice – and it was a choice, not an inevitability – feels lazy, especially since E.V. was considered a sexless being until two-thirds of the way through the manuscript (she inhabited both men and women!). This choice didn’t feel like intent, rather it felt unexamined. In that way, it is absolutely gratuitous.

6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

Yes. After spending an entire manuscript being the acting party (parties), suddenly these women – during the climax of the story no less – become the party acted upon. They are turned into Victims or Sidekicks in their own story. It is especially frustrating, then, that their return to action is to commit suicide to prevent the little parasite babies from entering the world – an act completely about the rape, making them victims to the end. Again, this scene qualified the rape in Blood Matters as a gratuitous rape.

As you can see, this rape was entirely gratuitous by these guidelines. And yes, I realize these are guidelines of my own making (though adapted from another’s), but I hope I’ve demonstrated how truly unnecessary this was. This was an extremely disappointing way to end an experience I had so enjoyed. I don’t know what to think. The fact that all of the problematic aspects, unintentional though they might have been, in this circumstance were missed by both the author and the editor BAFFLES me. I rate the story highly because the writing was so good and the story showed a true understanding of craft. But the lack of understanding of this vital component really made the experience forever tainted.

I will continue to watch the author’s work. I will even continue to read it. She is talented and I believe she can (and hope she will) do better. To her credit, and I do hope I’ve made it clear that I give her plenty, she did not depict the rape in graphic terms. The reader knows how and when it happened, but she did not deem it necessary to show it. I *very much so* appreciate that and know that I would not be able to rate this work so highly if it were not true. I hope that, in future works, this author will prove me right and earn my trust again^. I certainly want her to be able to.

B- (excellent world building, interesting characters, successful narrative device, nuanced thematic discussions; casual attitude about the threat of rape, lightly treated rape, romanticized suicide, odd insertion of biblical mythology, weird pacing at times)

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^I am not so arrogant as to believe the author hopes to gain my trust in particular, certainly not on a personal level. If I trust an author, I enjoy their books more and I hope I can get there with Bel’Harold’s books one day.

Honest and Straight-Forward

This is a review for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I won two books for the month of May. I’ll post the review of the second book (and it’s series mates) in mid-June. This is a review of Regine’s Bookby Regine Stokke. It’s a collection of blog posts, comments, letters,photos, and journal entries of a girl (and her family/friends) as she fight an aggressive cancer, which eventually takes her life. It is a narrative of true events.

It’s difficult to rate a review a book that chronicles true events. This isn’t a fiction or a invention, this is a deeply personal narrative of the struggle for one girl to come to terms with death while fighting, tooth and nail, for life. This is NOT something I can really review. But it is something I can recommend. This book started as a blog and was published as a book, supplemented by journal entries, letters, comments, and pictures. It did its best to portray a full picture of the author of the blog, a seventeen year old girl who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. In every line, you can see that Regine TRIED, with each last ounce of what was left of her, to push back a disease determined to kill her. And by my view, she managed it. She eventually died, but she died after having definitively lived – and after having taught others how to live. I’m truly impressed by how she shared what she felt openly and with an intimacy that felt personal and yet didn’t intrude on her private life. I was surprised, and gratified, to hear the views from other friends and family, because it indicated how much she held back without betraying those parts she had chosen to keep to herself. This book was tasteful and tender. I would highly recommend reading it.

A (good writing, fantastic editing and translation)

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