Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review of Silent Knife by David Nurenberg

I've actually got a bit of history with this one. Full disclosure, this novel, released last year on the White Wolf imprint, was something I've read a few times in the past few years. I've was a beta reader on one of the early drafts and I reread another version of the novel put up as a serial on the White Wolf website.



It's inspiring to see the book finally reach print, especially after all of the various versions appear to have improved and refined the story.

The plot of Silent Knife is steeped in the mythology of the World of Darkness, the fictional noir universe of White Wolf's many role-playing games. Silent Knife focuses more or less on the Masquerade, the treacherous and Byzantine politics of the Vampire world. Ariadne, the eponymous protagonist, is a relative newcomer to this world, changed into a vampire barely a decade previous, negotiating the relentless demands of her Prince, Liliane, during a full-scale rebellion. The leader of the rebellion, Roarke, possesses arcane powers unusual for the undead and legions of followers eager to upset the balance of Liliane's vision of a New Jerusalem. Although young by immortal standards, Ariadne is an important warrior for her Prince, possessing rare talent with the blade, and a predator's instincts for the hunt. As the body-count rises, Ariadne stumbles upon a remnant of her own old life, a man named Andrei she once loved. Even though the mortal who loved Andrei is long dead, she risks everything to be with him, to dream of some better life outside of Boston.

Nurenberg is a big fan of China Mieville and the most compelling parts of this novel stem from a similar impulse towards detail and world-building. Silent Knife's alter-Boston is a place invested with Lovecraftian cosmic horrors and the hidden machinations of powerful forces. Like Mieville, Nurenberg doesn't just want to tell a story. He wants to bring his metropolis to life, filling it with hordes of characters, living and dead, and weaving a grand spectacle of blood, sacrifice, and flawed redemption. I am not a big fan of fiction set within pre-defined universes but I appreciated Nurenberg's attempt to breathe new life into the genre. He chose atypical characters as vampires: the obsese, mordant Bourne is particularly vivid, a former labor organizer, embraced as a kind of sadistic joke by his philosopher sire, condemned to see history's pattern repeat again and again, without having the ability to change any of it.

This is the overall theme of the book, characters trapped a few steps outside of redemption, lurching towards acceptance. The tragedy of the story is that each character seeks that redemption from the same thing most likely to condemn them. Ariadne regains some measure of humanity by reigniting an affair with Andrei, but that humanity dooms both of them in a world that feeds off of mortals. Bourne can't help but long for Ariadne even though his unrequited desire for her, serves only to drive him deeper into fury and revenge. Liliane's vision of a shining city on the hill leads to unspeakable sacrifices, and ceaseless carnage.

While I wish the novel was a few dozen pages and one or two sub-plots shorter, overall I think this is a fresh and seductive portrait of Boston noire. Like the city, it's a tapestry at once intimate and personal, but also panoramic and cold. 
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