Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness. By Nahoko Uehashi. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
A Taste for Red. By Lewis Harris. Clarion. $16.
The Strain. By Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. William Morrow. $26.99.
The second of Nahoko Uehashi’s 10 Moribito novels to be released in the United States, Guardian of the Darkness retains the intensity and the appealing blend of Eastern settings and Western fantasy traditions that made the first book, Guardian of the Spirit, such a pleasure to read. But this volume is less of a progressive adventure and more of an attempt to recapture and understand the past; it moves at a less headlong pace, but delves into the inner life of the protagonist, Balsa, in ways that the first book did not. This does not mean that Guardian of the Darkness lacks action and adventure – Balsa is, after all, a fighter and a female bodyguard. But it does mean that there is a level of thoughtfulness here that enriches the story and takes it beyond traditional young-adult novels – and beyond the TV series based on Uehashi’s work. Indeed, every section of this book refers to darkness: “Into the Darkness,” “The Advancing Darkness,” “The People of Darkness,” “Facing the Darkness” and, as an epilogue, “Beyond the Darkness.” This is no mere conceit – there are dark forces aplenty as Balsa makes her way back to her native land, Kanbal, only to discover that the evil King Rogsam, who tried unsuccessfully to kill her in the earlier book, has now laid a different sort of trap for her. The king had sent eight assassins after Balsa and her now-dead mentor, Jiguro; now he has framed both Jiguro and Balsa for the assassins’ deaths, putting the young guard’s life in peril. Nor is this all: a conspiracy touching on the mysterious Guardians of the Darkness imperils the existence of Kanbal itself. Having returned to Kanbal seeking reconciliation with her past – her meeting with Aunt Yuka, who has not seen her in two dozen years and believes her dead, is particularly affecting – Balsa instead finds herself in the midst of conflicting clan loyalties, at odds with Jiguro’s kin, enveloped in myths and legends of her homeland, and pursued always by Rogsam’s enmity. It is only, finally, through allowing herself to endure a real-yet-unreal battle with Jiguro’s own shade that Balsa can begin to come to terms with herself, her life and her calling. In lesser hands, this climactic scene could easily deteriorate into melodrama, if not silliness; but Uehashi, having established a world in which such a thing is possible, follows the sequence through to its logical conclusion, resulting in a powerful and affecting end for this story.
A Taste for Red moves toward what might be called the lighter side of darkness – at first. Lewis Harris’ first novel seems like a fairly standard vampire (or vampire-wannabe) story: Svetlana Grimm starts sixth grade at a new school after her parents move, and tries to cope with the kids and social pressures there while also handling her own oddities – such as sleeping under her bed every night, eating only red foods, and occasionally hearing other people’s thoughts. Svetlana is sure she is a vampire, but she isn’t sure how or why. And her suspicions and uncertainties only become heightened when she encounters the science teacher, Ms. Larch, who also seems able to read people’s thoughts – including Svetlana’s. So far, so good – but what Harris does next is to darken the story considerably. What if Svetlana isn’t a vampire? What if she and Ms. Larch aren’t potential companions but potential enemies? What if some but not all the oddities in Svetlana’s life are relevant to who or what she is? And this is where A Taste for Red starts to get really interesting, and a great deal more serious. Instead of the romanticized version of vampires that is all too common in books today (especially ones for young readers), Harris’ novel takes a strong turn toward the dark and distinctly unpleasant side. There is no overt gore or anything exceptionally scary here – the book is for preteens, after all – but there is an increasing sense, as A Taste for Red progresses, that a vampire is not what Svetlana wants to turn out to be. The trouble is that she also does not much want to be what she finds out that she actually is. How she discovers that, what she does with the knowledge, and where circumstances lead her, are the elements of a story that gets steadily more interesting as it becomes more intense, and that moves toward its conclusion (and the likelihood of a sequel) with impeccable logic.
Logic is frequently missing, but melodrama is plentiful, in another vampire story – this one decidedly for adults. The Strain, the first book of a planned trilogy, is about (yawn) a vampire war against humans. Guillermo del Toro, director of the outstanding film Pan’s Labyrinth, ought to be too good for this sort of potboiler, which perhaps is more heavily influenced by Chuck Hogan, author of Prince of Thieves and other dramatic but formulaic novels. “Dramatic but formulaic” certainly describes The Strain. There is the airplane that arrives at its destination, then falls into a sinister silence requiring intervention by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is the elderly Jewish professor who has waited his whole life, even through the Holocaust, to confront the evil that he knows will appear. There is the dedicated CDC doctor trained to confront biological threats, but not the virus that creates vampires. There is description like this, involving the old professor, Abraham Setrakian: “His malformed hands began to ache. What he saw before him was not an omen – it was an incursion. It was the act itself. The thing he had been waiting for. That he had been preparing for. All his life until now.” There is dialogue like this, when Setrakian meets the CDC physician, Dr. Eph Goodweather (yes, Goodweather): “‘There is much you will need to let go of, Dr. Goodweather,’ said Setrakian. ‘I understand that you believe you are taking a risk in trusting the word of an old stranger. But, in a sense, I am taking a thousandfold greater risk entrusting this responsibility to you. What we are discussing here is nothing less than the fate of the human race…’” Oh, ho hum. Give the authors credit for fast pacing and a pretty good sense of the horrific, and The Strain still gets a (++) or (+++) rating, depending on how often you have read this sort of thing before and how tolerant you are of reading it again. Even many fans of horror novels (and films) will give the book the lower rating, though, because the dialogue is so often so laughably predictable. “‘Don’t demonize the sick,’ said Nora. ‘But now…now the sick are demons. Now the infected are active vectors of the disease, and have to be stopped. Killed. Destroyed.’” Well, with verbiage like that, with vampires that “turned feral” and “backed up on [their] haunches,” with the entirely typical use of silver (not just bullets – needles work, too) and fire as weapons, it is inevitable that the action will lead to the lair of “This Thing. The Master.” And so it does, but of course the Master escapes (so there can be two more books), and the scene promises to shift – at least from time to time – away from New York City, where The Strain takes place, to other environs. The Strain is immensely uncreative but is entertaining in its own frenetic way – sort of like a not-very-thoughtful vampire movie, which is perhaps what the authors want this book and its planned successors to become.