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Monday, October 07, 2013

Ulrika the Vampire: the trilogy complete

High hopes
The first volume of Nathan Long's Ulrika the Vampire series- Bloodborn, which I reviewed back in 2010, exceeded expectations sufficiently to ensure that picking up further volumes was a no-brainer for me. Volumes 2- Bloodforged, and 3- Bloodsworn, were duly added to my Warhammer Fantasy fiction bookshelf last year. I didn't know what to expect from these books but my hopes were pretty high after the first volume. Would Nathan Long be able to sustain my interest and excitement as he further developed the tale of the tragic destiny of one of my favourite characters in my favourite fantasy world?

Vivid characterisation
Freshly blooded and still bearing emotional hallmarks of her human identity- a proud young women of position, mature beyond her years by virtue of her martial experience, Ulrika chafes under the yoke of her new elders and betters- the Bloodlines: creatures for whom a year passes in the blink of an eye; who have nothing better to do than bicker, scheme and intrigue while human generations live and die as pawns in their powerplays, and as their prey and cattle. Among these, her new kind, Ulrika finds herself cast down to the status of a mere infant. Intrepid and independent she instinctively rebels against this subservience, launching herself on a quest to survive without surrendering to total damnation.

This is potent stuff. I mean to say: an already competent warrior now capable of preternatural feats of strength, agility and endurance thanks to her undead sinews, Ulrika is now also a truly fearsome monster: a bloodsucking shapechanger who can literally shred her foes in a berserk fury of claws and fangs, and who feasts on the blood of her foes to feed, heal and regenerate. Not the beauty who so tormented poor Felix’s inarticulate heart then. And not the easiest of protagonists to humanise if you’re actually going to do justice to her true bestiality.

Tragic danse macabre
I have to say that Nathan Long pulls this off magnificently. At the heart of his success is the tragic pathos of Ulrika’s doomed quest- which doom Long foreshadows in Bloodforged just to make sure we don’t miss the point. It would be easy- in novels as introspective as the Ulrika the Vampire series, to play this as the adolescent angst of the hugely popular teen vampire genre (some 75 million search hits on google); and there exists a certain snobbery which would expect little better of work-for-hire pulp adventure set in a world of magic and monsters invented for the purpose of selling toy soldiers. Lovers of ripping yarns whose tastes run to the dark, the macabre or the fantastic would be ill-advised to pass up Long’s Ulrika novels on these grounds though, naturally enough.

The relentless action and numerous plot-twists of these dynamic stories means that Ulrika is most often justifying her actions, both before and after the event- this decision/action/consequence loop is a strong antidote to cheap angst; and the Warhammer Old World grounds and populates the story in a rich and diverse setting rich for intrigue and desperate adventure.

Richness of setting
The Bloodlines are crucial here. A dark nobility living in the nights and shadows of the human world they are- to Ulrika, the legitimate authority of her new life exactly as she herself was the legitimate authority in her old life. Ulrika’s rebellion then immediately strikes at the very concept of the honour she seeks to uphold in her quixotic quest. This contradiction develops as Ulrika finds herself caught up in an accelerating inter-Bloodlines conflict with nothing less than the Empire itself at stake, in the course of which she makes and breaks vows and promises, changes alliegances, begs for one more chance, and generally goes her own sweet way about things so often that you can only imagine it ending with her outcast, uniting the warring Bloodlines on one point at least: that Ulrika is a renegade beyond redemption ruthlessly to be put down at the first opportunity.

Conclusions
I've written before about my general lack of interest in the vampire craze. Personal fondness for the character of Ulrika aside, I really like the Ulrika the Vampire trilogy because it shows what you can do with a vampire character who is a strong protagonist in a setting which allows her to give full reign to her terrible powers, and which gives her little choice but to do so. The result is a rattling good read with a very convincing treatment of a character whose grip on her already lost humanity becomes ever weaker the harder she struggles to hold on to some vestige of it. I would recommend this trilogy wholeheartedly to fans of dark fantasy, vampires or the Warhammer Old World. Unfortunately only Volume 3 is currently in print at the Black Library (the other 2 are in ebook), but all 3 volumes are widely available on Amazon. ;)
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