This is a crow-eating review. Or, considering the kind of carrion eater that lives in Christine Cody’s post-apocalyptic world, a giant-gargoyle-bird-eating review. I had a terrible time getting into Bloodlands, it took me several weeks to read it, and I fully expected this to be a negative review. Instead, I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s been a while since a book pulled the rug out from under me so satisfyingly.
Bloodlands is set in the American West of the near future, after a number of disasters have devastated the climate and caused society to splinter. The heroine, Mariah, lives in an underground warren with a group of other misfits and her extremely bright Intel Dog, Chaplin. Her existence is shaken up by the arrival of Gabriel, a vampire on a quest that leads him to the enclave. Gabriel’s arrival coincides with an eruption of violence in the area; the henchmen of an intimidating neighbor, Stamp, are being picked off.
I had trouble getting into the world-building at first. Christine Cody, a.k.a. Chris Marie Green, has lots of interesting ideas, but employs a fair amount of infodumping to reveal them to the reader. And since technology is one of the things that’s gone badly wrong in this future, at times the book almost seems to lecture against technology. For example, only bad guys speak Text, a dialect whose speakers pronounce words the way they’d spell them in a text message.
I had trouble with the hero, Gabriel, who at first appeared to be a standard Vampire Stalker Guy. He comes to the New Badlands to search for an old girlfriend who has run from him, and then once he meets Mariah, his interest in her is a dangerous mixture of regular lust and bloodlust. I had trouble with Mariah, whose tragic past made her sympathetic but who was so prickly that she kept even the reader at arm’s length. Her fears were understandable but I wished she could push past them in certain situations, and she seemed to have a particular hangup that set my inner feminist’s teeth on edge. I had issues with the villain, too, who was more restrained in his villainy than I expected. It felt unrealistic that he wouldn’t aggress more decisively than he did.
For about the first half of Bloodlands, the focus is on the cautious development of a relationship between Mariah and Gabriel. Her chapters use first person narration, and his are in third person. The two characters slowly begin to let their guard down and reveal more layers of their character, to each other and to the reader. This connection is at first facilitated by the dog, Chaplin, who is a full character in his own right and has his own agendas and schemes. Meanwhile, the violence between the enclave settlers and Stamp’s posse is escalating, and becomes a more prominent plotline in the latter half of the book.
As the story unfolds, odd little moments and inconsistencies begin to appear. The reader begins to wonder whether all is as it seems, or if one of the protagonists is [SPOILER here, highlight the text if you want to read it] an unreliable narrator [END SPOILER]. Then we reach the big twist. It’s a doozy. It’s the kind of twist that casts new light on the entire book. Character traits that annoyed or confused me were explained and reinterpreted through this lens. Everything made utter and total sense. If you’re reading Bloodlands and finding it slow going — if things don’t quite add up or the characters are bugging you — don’t give up. I thought I was reading one book, and now I see that I was reading another book entirely, and I like this second book much better.
Bloodlands, in the final analysis, is a tale of forgiveness, acceptance, and redemption — of oneself and of others. It builds slowly, but the twist makes the journey well worth it. Bloodlands is the first in a trilogy, and the three books are being released in rapid succession, so readers won’t have to wait long to learn what happens next to these complex, damaged characters.