Bad Bishop by Irene Soldatos (book review)

January 11, 2017 | By | Reply More

Telling tales about benevolent supernatural beings is a popular concept in many modern novels. Often, these are long-lived or immortal, some having seen many centuries of life. Less often do we see the early life of these people. Jasper Kent populated the Russia of the Romanov’s with the threat of strigoi, power-seeking vampyrs who wished to dominate the world through the Romanov line. John M Ford placed his vampires in the time of the Princes in the Tower but one of the few writers to explore the life span of a vampire and the issues that changing customs throw up is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro with her novels of the Compt St German. Each of her novels is set in a different historical time from Roman to present. Irene Soldatos has chosen to set her supernatural novel in the 12th century, giving scope for future novels to cover different historical periods.

Bad Bishop’, the title is a chess reference, starts with a bang or at least a beheading and a corpse of the Duke found in his locked bedroom. After that, the novel becomes frustrating for a number of reasons. After setting up an intriguing mystery, the plot jumps back fourteen years to Spain and we are introduced to a new set of characters, Kyrus, Atreus (both supernaturals) and Amarante, who is about to become one. It is quite a while before the murder that piqued the interest is returned to. While the word vampire isn’t referred to, they prefer the term ‘algul’, they have features that most would recognise as such. They feed only on blood, though they have no need to kill their prey, have extremely long lives but can be killed by beheading or fire and have issues with sunlight, it saps their strength rather than kills them. They also have other qualities, depending on the blood-line they belong to. Some are shape-shifters. The important thing is that Soldatos has defined their parameters and sticks to them, though she doesn’t always divulge all their qualities until we see the characters in action.

The structure and direction of the plot have clearly been thought out in great detail. There are enclaves of these people scattered throughout Europe, some of which permit mind to mind contact, which allows news to travel quickly. There are hints that events in the human world have continued as our history records but that seems to impinge little as the algul are primarily concerned with their internal politics and there is frustratingly very little interaction with humans. For me, this is a mistake as it is the potential relationship between what is effectively a secret society working as a minority in a complex human social and political world that is the interest. The fact that this relationship is absent adds to the feeling of disconnection between the historical landscape and that of the algul enclaves. Our supernatural beings appear to have a hierarchical network territories that threads through European society but doesn’t seem to impinge upon it. Except for the European place names this could have been any invented fantasy world.

There are a large number of characters and viewpoints, an issue is that the point of view has a habit of wandering and it is not always clear who the new character is when the scene changes. This makes it difficult to hold all the affiliations in mind and reduces tension. One result is that it becomes unclear where sympathies are meant to lie as the algul seem to lack emotion and passion. It isn’t clear if this is a deliberate trait of their kind. All give the impression of living solitary, largely intellectual lives without the need to interact with each other. If this is a consequence of long life, it is not clear and it would be expected then that younger inductees would more volatile. Everyone is far too mannerly and speech patterns are similar. Since they speak, between themselves at least four different languages with Latin being the common tongue, it would have been useful to include inflections of the languages to indicate when they switched from one to the other. This is a problem that many authors have, especially those writing in historical periods. Languages usage changes with time and attempts to be authentic can sometimes alienate a reader. Fortunately, Soldatos hasn’t filled her pages with irritating modern colloquialisms, a failing that some, often American, authors resort to due to sheer laziness. Here, there is a different issue. Not only do the characters have very formal modes of speech but there is a tendency for them to lecture each other rather than have conversations.

For too much of the book, the initial, startling action is forgotten in favour of domestic detail providing the background of Amarante and her development, first as a human scholar in Toledo, then as part of the algul enclave in Mainz. Even when she is sent out to attempt to broker an agreement between factions, it isn’t clear who the protagonists are and where the peril is. The feeling is that although Soldatos knows exactly what she is attempting to achieve, this hasn’t been communicated to the reader leaving a sense of confusion and frustration.

Bad Bishop’ would have been a more satisfying book if the momentum of the beginning had been kept up and the action that finally arrives had been put in earlier. Perhaps the problem lies with trying to handle such a large canvas of characters and ideas. While there is mention of William having conquered England nearly sixty years previously, the momentous event in human society hardly touches the supernatural network. It is almost if that side of history is a mere footnote and isn’t taken into consideration at all. A pity, as there is no sense of peril from discovery by humans, especially the church. All the plot focuses on is the internecine struggles between the branches of the supernaturals.

The other problem is that the characters are usually emotionless and logical in their daily dealings with each other. Atreus, as blood-father to Kyrus, shows only the anxiety towards the latter that a father would towards a son, only where there is a threat of danger. Ordinarily, there isn’t a sense of affection between them. Similarly, between Kyrus and his ‘blood-daughter’ Amarante, there is no obvious affection. Their relationship seems purely intellectual. Most novels dealing with supernaturals have a strong sexual element. This is missing here.

While it is refreshing to have a novel of this kind set not only in the past but largely on the European mainland, important characters are too shadowy and it is not easy to know who to care about much of the time. The one that has most presence when on stage is Roscius, who spend much of his time in the form of a crow. There is a good story here but it has tended to get lost amongst the words and the initial murder never does quite fulfil its potential.

Pauline Morgan

January 2017

(pub: Hadley Rille Books, Kansas. 2015. 482 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK), €17.00, $19.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-9971188-0-3)

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Category: Books, Fantasy, Horror

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