Sweeter Than Wine by L. Neil Smith

Sweeter Than Wine by L. Neil Smith

Published by Phoenix Pick, 2011.

ISBN: 978 1 60450483 5

150 pages

Review by Mark Yon.

Ah, vampires. Anyone else notice there’s a lot of them about? Sometimes I do think that it must be getting quite crowded in the un-dead realm, what with those sparkly types and the other nastier more traditional types, to the degree that with so many about, it can be claimed that they are getting just a little bit… ordinary.

It also becomes quite difficult to spot an interesting one, one that steps out beyond that of the un-dead mass.

But I enjoyed this one. Combining the urbane with the un-breathing, a love story with something quite horrific, it is a murder mystery with a vampyrric slant.

The story set up’s pretty straightforward. J Clifford is the sort of guy you wouldn’t notice much about if you bumped into him in the street. No major debts, (in fact, all bills paid), nice to children and his small-town neighbours.

In reality, he’s a ninety-year old who was turned into a vampire in World War Two after a sexual liaison with a fantastic looking young girl. Now, in the twenty-first century, he’s a twenty-something-looking guy living a seemingly-respectable life as an unlicensed private investigator in New Prospect, Colorado, with a cat named Fiddlestring.

All’s well and good, it seems. But the appearance of Surica in his life threatens to upturn everything, For Surica is the girl who turned J (there are no other letters in his first name) in France in 1944. And now she needs a favour. But is Surica really in need or, in fact, a vampire guilty of a number of nasty serial killings? As we also follow ‘The Traveler’, moving around the US, leaving a trail of victims behind him, what is he up to?

What we have here is a clever little urban fantasy about the prizes and perils of being a vampire. There are some advantages to being a young-looking immortal, after all.  It’s told with wry humour, and flows with a depreciating tone that is so beloved of urban fantasy. Mixing astute, acerbic commentary on life with a crime setting is not new, but it is done well here.

On the downside it’s a lonely, haunted, isolated business and often violent and messy.  

Neil’s vampire keeps some of the traditional vampire tropes and ignores the rest. J prefers to use a syringe, rather than a bite. In the manner of Matheson’s I Am Legend, vampirism is a symbiotic virus. Here it protects the vampire from disease, aging and injury, makes them strong and allows them to grow parts of the body back. In Smith’s version of vampirism, being bitten can actually improve the victim’s life: they become healthier and less prone to disease, and usually remember nothing about being the vampire’s meal.

Like many of the traditional tropes, on the downside, the virus is destroyed by ultraviolet and garlic and even onions and leeks can make the vamp queasy. Silver objects can act on vampire skin like salt on a slug, so are usually handled with gloves. J can go out in the daylight but usually wears sunscreen and a big floppy hat on sunny days. He can eat food (and does so regularly and with relish throughout this novella), but needs topping up with fresh blood usually about once a week.  Crosses don’t really work.

This is a story you could read almost in one setting. The rapid style drags you in and keeps you reading. Logically written and intelligently inscribed, it’s thrilling, sexy and funny, very much in the Dresden Files type vein. Though I would say that it’s adult in nature and tenor, it’s not as sexplicit as some, nor as sweary as others.

There is the odd misstep. J has a band of helpers in the story, who know of his existence as a vampire. I’m not personally convinced that you could keep such a major secret as this covert by so many for so long, but they have their uses in plot development here. There’s also an incident with a woman wanting a divorce who comes to see J in his capacity as an investigator, who ends up getting a tirade from J about why she shouldn’t. This will sit a little uneasily with some readers and can come across as a little bit ranty. 

Similarly, it must be noted that Neil has won the Prometheus Award four times, an award often seen as libertarian in tone. There are some elements of that here. Whilst some may dislike the right-wing value-bias, I didn’t find it a major issue. Whilst it can’t be denied that the libertarian stance is there – and J does like his guns – it’s not a berating Heinlein-esque type lecture that puts so many readers off.

Quite fun and a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed this a lot. Vampires can be fun as well as sparkly, and this is an unexpected little gem.

Mark Yon, September 2012.

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