054 – Blood Rights by Kristen Painter

Blood Rights cover The lacy gold mapped her entire body. A finely-wrought filigree of stars, vines, flowers, butterflies, ancient symbols and words ran from her feet, up her legs, over her narrow waist, spanned her chest and finished down her arms to the tips of her fingers.

Born into a life of secrets and service, Chrysabelle’s body bears the telltale marks of a comarré – a special race of humans bred to feed vampire nobility. When her patron is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect, which sends her running into the mortal world…and into the arms of Malkolm, an outcast vampire cursed to kill every being from whom he drinks.

Now Chrysabelle and Malkolm must work together to stop a plot to merge the mortal and supernatural worlds. If they fail, a chaos unlike anything anyone has ever seen will threaten to reign.
Argh this book. I really feel like this was a book I should have liked – we are, for once in a YA title, given a reprieve from teenage angst and high school drama, and the traditional formula of “girl meets boy, must discover what boy is/how this relates to her”. Blood Rights creates a very detailed, unique world and just drops us in to the middle of the story – both things I typically enjoy – and features a hero and heroine who are genuinely relatively equal in terms of strength and competence, also something I’m usually left wishing for.

Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly boring.

There are other issues I had with the book that inflamed my rage a bit more, and we’ll get to them, but by and large I really feel that my biggest problem with the book was that I just did not care. Not even a little. Not for the plot, not for Mal, and not for Chrys. It took nearly a week and a half to finish Blood Rights – on my lunch breaks – because I just could not summon up the will to read it at home. It didn’t suck me in.

This is pretty unfortunate, because Blood Rights had the potential to be a good book. The world is fairly rich and detailed, and the take on vampires is distinctively ’90’s retro – in that, you know, they are actually evil. Another review mentioned that Rights‘ world was very reminiscent of “Vampire the Masquerade”, and I’d have to agree. It struck me as something of a ’90’s mash-up – bits of Blade, Masquerade, and Buffy. The vampires are more often than not adults (no immortal high school students here!), sophisticated, rich, and generally unfriendly. They don’t want to cuddle and snug and chastely romance you – they want to rip open your throat and drink your blood.

I enjoyed the ideas here, and while they’re not exactly groundbreaking, they’re ideas that are not very widely-explored in YA. Blood Right‘s world and focus felt more mature than the last few vampire books I’ve read; the stakes were higher, the characters more experienced, and the world a bit grittier.

Unfortunately, “more experienced” doesn’t always mean “more interesting”. The spark of life, of individuality, was totally missing from these characters for me. For example, Mal was Angel. I don’t mean this in the usual archetypal, brooding, loop-him-in-with-Stefan-and-Edward-Cullen kind of way, I mean that I would not be surprised if the character was able to trace his lineage back to an Angel or Buffy-based fanfic. He is a vampire who rampaged across Europe and was then cursed to feel remorse for all the people he’d killed, in this case by having all their voices trapped in his head, and their names magically tattooed all over his skin. When he learns that any human he kills following the curse being put into effect will end up being bound to him as a ghost, he stops drinking human blood all together.

So yeah, pretty much season-one Angel, except he only metaphorically lost and then regained his soul. Also, vengeful ex on hand to make the heroine’s life a living Hell? Check. IDK, even with his curse, Mal in general was just…flavorless. Another angsty and tortured but inherently noble vampire love interest to add to the ever-growing list. Boring. I honestly cannot think of a single trait or personality quirk that would differentiate Mal from any of the dozens of vampires like this that populate this genre.

Chrysabelle, on the other hand, was more actively problematic for me. I just could not get down with her, and I have to put it down as a combination of a) not being able to relate to her, b) the stock personality, c) her frustrating decisions, and d) the way the book utterly worships her.

I mean, I totally started out on her side. A “vampire geisha” who had killed her “owner” to escape a life of servitude? How could I not be behind that? That’s like tailor-made to be relevant to my interests. But as a character, Chrysabelle took all that inherent sympathy and just ground it into dust. Her default personality is the usual hard-headed, sharp-tongued, deadly beauty, and her emotional and physical reactions to the plot were pretty much what you’d expect from a character like that. But that’s the problem…they all felt so…rote. Like Mal, there was nothing in her to make Chrysabella feel like a unique individual. There was no aspect of her personality that I could relate to, and I never believed that she was or could be a real person. She was a character at least, and at worst, a doll or prop.

It doesn’t help that she is constantly objectified, and her will subject to change for the sake of plot contrivances. We hear endlessly about her beautiful blonde hair, her flawless, creamy skin, the honed perfection of her body, and even how awesome the strap of a sword looks nestled between her breasts (twice). If we’re in Mal’s head, we’re pretty much continuously oogling Chrysabelle, and even in Chrys’ narrative, we get a description or two about some part of her body, usually the signum (the golden tattoos all over her body that the book summary references). It gets old, fast. I can appreciate a beautiful heroine, but the book just cannot get enough of her ~speshul snowflake~. Even among the comarre she’s special – she’s more experienced than most of the ones we see, her “blood rights” were sold for more money than everyone else’s, she has more signum than everyone else – and oh god, those damn signum.

I really wish that the idea behind the signum, which I initially saw as presenting the comarre’s bodies as a literal “gilded” cage, had been followed through on. It’s a fascinating idea – the signum exist purely to make the comarre and their blood more appealing to their vampire Patrons. It’s no wonder the comarre would despise them, considering the pain they have to endure to get them, and what they represent.

But I really feel like the narrative just did not follow through on this idea. We couldn’t go for a whole chapter without hearing about how gorgeous the sigum are, how the glimmer in the light, how they make the comarre glow, how they make the comarre just so goddamned beautiful. It bothered me, because instead of getting a feeling of revulsion for the signum and what they represent (again, enduring incredibly physically painful alterations for the sake of appealing to SOMEONE ELSE), I got the feeling that we’re supposed to be impressed by them. Because they’re cool and beautiful, and how gorgeous and mysterious do they make Chrysabelle, eh?

But…no. Not good! Branding, ownership, property, BAAAAAAD, not pretty, baaaaad. *sigh*

As the story progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to continue to even empathize with Chrys. The majority of the book is spent on the abandoned freighter that Mal makes his home, with Chrysabelle as a sort of half-prisoner, half-unwanted house guest. For reasons that are never adequately explained, Chrys is sent to Mal for help escaping – or dealing with? – the persecution of the noble vampires, who believe her responsible for the death of her Patron (owner). Unfortunately, in an earlier, unrelated incident, Chrys also nearly killed Mal (lol SMALL WORLD), thus her presence on his boat is initially regarded with hostility…until shit gets weird.

It’s at this point that everyone, really, is subjected to a pretty laughable level of plot contrivance to justify the events that must occur for the story to continue. Mal, due to his curse and subsequent refusal to feed from a human being, relies on stolen(?) blood bags for sustenance, but for reasons that, again, are never really explained, his supply has not been lately delivered. He is starving and weak, which gives the (evil) voices greater power over him. Fi, the sole ghost bound to Mal after his awakening, has the ability to turn herself corporeal at will, and uses this ability to bleed herself dry to feed Mal in emergencies. She decides this qualifies as – and sidebar, that’s one of those things that just seems fundamentally at odds with being a ghost: being able to not only turn solid, but bleed blood that a vampire can feed on. ANYWAY, this leaves her sick, and apparently on the edge of…IDK, dying? I’m honestly not sure what the big crisis is with Fi, she’s already dead, and sure, she might be sick for a while after this, but what’s she going to do, die again?

Luckily, it turns out that Chrysabelle’s body, after being used to feeding a vampire for nearly a hundred years, over-produces blood, which makes her sick. That could be an interesting idea, if it didn’t manifest in the most absurd way I can think of: she literally gets drunk on her own blood, undresses, and tries to seduce Mal into biting her.

*facepalm*

I pretty much immediately thought of this:

Love Celeb

It was just that level of DURR to me. And even worse when you think of it in terms of what the comarre are a thinly-disguised stand-in for:

“Oh, Mal, I’m just so horny from not having sex in a long time, I need your penis to drain me of my excess orgasms right now or I will become physically ill.”

Except Chrysabelle is not an actual courtesan, of course, it’s just the blood her Patron was after, so she is literally a hundred-year-old virgin, because God knows we can’t have a YA heroine who’s teh sex before finding her One True Love.

At any rate, you see where it’s going with this – Chrysabelle’s excess of blood is just a plot device to excuse transferring her “blood rights” to Mal, in what stuck me as an unnecessarily circuitous sort of way. Chrys passes out and goes into a weird, feverish, “excess blood” coma, while Fi is still in her weird, ghosty, “not enough blood” coma, and some random vampire doctor who we get interesting backstory on but never see again comes in and decides a blood transfusion between the two is the only way to fix things. Thus, Fiona gets better – so much better, in fact, that she becomes human again, and apparently this is no big deal for how impressed everyone is by it – and, having been the first being to “ingest” Chrysabelle’s blood since her Patron died, acquires Chrys’ “blood rights”. But Chrys decides that Fi doesn’t count, because IDK girl or not vampire or something, and since Fi was bound to Mal as a ghost, she decides it’s really Mal who now owns her blood rights.

I just…what? This might make more sense if they had established anything about how blood rights work, but in-text it comes off as silly contrivance to justify Mal staying with Chrysabelle. The worst part is that Chrysabelle, while initially horrified, quickly starts insisting that now Mal “owns” her, and her problems are his. SMUGLY. Even though Mal insists he doesn’t want her rights, doesn’t want her, offers to let her go, and do whatever he needs to give the rights up, she doesn’t let him. Chrys insists the only way to get back her rights is for one of them to die, and obviously he’s not going for that.

That was pretty much where the book pretty much cemented my disinterest in Chrys. One minute she’s all “I’m mine and I control my life now” and gung-ho about the freedom, the next she’s TOTES COOL with being owned again. It’s not like the “blood tie” between her and Mal restricts her physical movement. Even if he formally “owned” her, we’re never given any good reason that they could not part ways, never see one another again, and go on to live perfectly normal lives. But because Chrys wants his help and Mal won’t give it, she parks her ass on his boat, refuses to leave, and says “U own me now u gotta help LOL.” SMUGLY.

We are not friends anymore, Chrysabelle.

So yeah, that’s the majority of the book right there. Chrys and Mal on Mal’s boat, arguing about whether or not he’s going to help her. It’s chock-full of “sexually tense” scenes meant to further Chrys and Mal’s relationship, but as with the characters themselves, it never sparked for me. It’s predictable: typical slap-slap, kiss-kiss, with both characters feeling but refusing to acknowledge any sort of mutual attraction – attraction which, by the way, can’t be normal attraction, but must be once-in-a-lifetime “I’ve never felt this way before, not even with my wife attraction”. It’s not until the last hundred pages or so that the plot ever makes any sort of progression, thanks to a well-timed kidnapping perpetrated by the designated villai. Oh kidnapping, you old stand-by plot device, you!

The book’s villain is Tatiana, a powerful “Tepes” vampire who is after Chrysabelle’s Patron’s position and a ~mystical ring` he possessed. Like Chrys and Mal, she has joint custody of the narration, and several times we’re swept away from the glamorous freighter to see what’s going on on her end. This actually didn’t bother me as much as it seemed to everyone else, mostly because Tatiana was about as interesting to me as Mal and Chrys, and Tatiana had the added benefit of a little world exploration. It’s through her that we learn about the vampire Council and the motivation for her evil deeds (which is to say, none). I also understand it, structurally, because if we spent all our time with Mal and Chrys, not only would we be even more bored out of our skulls, but Tatiana would come out of nowhere and be even more one-dimensional. Which isn’t to say she isn’t one-dimensional already – no amount of tragic backstory can fix that – but it could have been worse.

My biggest problem re: Tatiana is not with her, but again, with the way her character is treated. About halfway through, we’re subjected to a truly awful sequence in which Tatiana is brutally raped by the group of evil fallen angels that she is in league with. For days. Upon her return, she’s immediately physically healed, and her only emotional reaction when her boyfriend brings up the subject is to snap at him to “never ask her about it again”.

Two things, both of which are also touched on in a review of Blood Rights by Renee, over at Fangs for the Fantasy – the only review of Blood Rights, btw, that I’ve come across to bring this up:

1) As Renee says, what a way to have a character just “get over” a long, brutal series of rapes without any evidence of physical or mental trauma. She almost immediately resumes her evil ways, and I believe actually has sex with boyfriend in the same chapter. Yeah, that’s totally how surviving rape works.

2) Why was that scene even necessary? The only thing it served to do was a) prove how “evil” these angels are, to treat even their allies in such a way, and b) I’m also with Renee in feeling that the sequence read as if Tatiana deserved this. As if this was her due, for daring to want to acquire power in the first place.

It’s all around a really terrible sequence, an insensitive and pointless portrayal of rape, and I don’t think the book would be any worse off for its removal.

The second issue I have with Tatiana’s portrayal has to do with something Mal says towards the end, when it’s revealed that – SPOILER – Tatiana is actually his previously thought dead wife, Shaya.

I made you what you are. […] I saved your life. They would have hung you. Yet this is how you repay me.
He’s referring the tragic, shared past, in which they were viciously attacked by noble vampire. Mal was turned, and turned Tatiana/Shaya as well, but refused to turn his dying child, which TatiShaya never forgave him for. At any rate, yes, Tatiana, you horrible person, he did what any decent human being would do and saved your life – or, alternately, condemned you to a terribly eternity as a soulless monster, depending on who you ask – how dare you hunt down some chick you didn’t even know had ties to him to pursue your own insane bid for power.

To which Tatiana replies “Well, I did not kill you, just gave you your metaphorical soul back and chained you up in a dungeon for like a hundred years”, which actually kind of worked out better, if you think about it, because Mal was admittedly an indiscriminate killer incapable and uninterested in preventing himself from doing it again, so basically, yeah, a serial killer.

What bothers me is not that Tatiana is called out for this, but because the book singles out the harm Tatiana did to Mal, specifically, and vilifies her for it. Chrysabelle – and thus the book – are quick to say “Oh, you horrid woman, how dare you suggest that locking Mal away for centuries was doing him a favor”, and completely fails to react so viscerally to any of the other utterly horrible things Tatiana has done. All that matters is the harm she’s done this male character. Similarly, the book is also quick to ignore and absolve Mal of what he did to put himself in such a dire situation in the first place. It hefts quite a bit of the blame onto and condemns his “unfaithful wife”, and when you look at how she’s portrayed (hyper-sexual, power-seeking, bitchy), especially in contrast to Chrysabelle (virginal, dragged in to a power struggle, kind) it gets a bit suspect.

Speaking of virginal Chrysabelle, there’s one last aspect of the story that I’d like to talk about, and that’s the questionable issue of race. There are the obvious issues – the Italian crime lord who prefaces every sentence with gratuitous stock Italian phrases, like “molto benne” and “mamma mia”, I shit you not, or the only Asian the book encounters, a textbook ex-yakuza Dragon Lady I’m pretty sure was just Roulette in a cameo. Both were painted as vicious, tempermental, and untrustowrthy, which is squicky enough, but it gets worse when you consider Chrysabelle, the comarre, and their power of super-whiteness.

As I mentioned before, we hear numerous times, in detail, about how gorgeous Chrysabelle is, and it bugged. Initially just because it was annoying, but then because we learn that all comarre look like Chrysabelle: blond, white, flawless. Keep in mind, the comarre are specifically bred to look a certain way, and they are continually described and referred to as the height of physical perfection. They are a status symbol in the vampire world, like a goddamned Porche, for their beauty and exclusivity.

I didn’t quite understand why this all bothered me so much, until Renee, once again, put it into perspective:

In many ways, this book amounted to an overt celebration of Whiteness. The comarré not only are dressed all in White, they are all White. Their bodies are tattooed with signum – an inlaid gold to purify their blood. We are constantly told about how these tattoos play off Chrysabelle’s blond hair along with how they make her skin glow. The characters are in constant awe of her and this coupled with the fact that the comarré are set up as the saviors of mankind.

On the other side of the equation of you have the antagonist Tatiana. Painter actually refers to her as a gypsy, which of course is a slur, and so from the start Tatiana is dehumanized in comparison to the ever so White Chrsyabelle. For those who are unaware, the correct term is Roma and not gypsy. Much of the negative character traits attributed to Tatiana, can be traced directly to the social denigration of Roma women. Mal tells us that she was almost executed for theft, she is also clearly unrapeable as her response to the sexual assault shows, she is angry and treacherous. These characteristics placed up against Chrysabelle’s blinding Whiteness help serve to cast Tatiana into the role of ‘unwoman’ and evil. We have seen Whiteness constructed as good while racialized bodies are either erased or placed in a negative light time and time again, and so while the White equals good and of colour equals bad binary is not new, it is tiring and racist. Roma are a historically oppressed group in Europe, and this casual demonization of a Roma woman, to serve a plot line serves to falsely substantiate many of the negative social stereotypes in existence. Painter’s choice of Roma antagonist loaded with horrible racist markers may not have been intentional, but it certainly was damaging and a reflection of her prejudices.
That, that so much. With such a specific look so prized in the comarre, people of color – and Hell, even people with different colored hair – are automatically excluded from this elite group, and thus relegated to social or moral positions that are inherently lower. It’s skeevy.

Occasionally I have to decide whether or not to recommend a book with questionable social issues because it was entertaining or unique. This is not one of those times. I was bored out of my mind with the story and the characters of Blood Rights, and the questionable portrayals only make it easier for me to decide what to tell you guys, and what to do with it, myself. I just got nothing from this book at all, and I don’t think this is a series I’ll be keeping up with.

One Star


 

5 Responses

  1. Kayla + Cyna

    January 4, 2012 5:43 pm, Reply

    This would probably be a good decision. *nods* I mean, I’ve seen bad contrivances to keep a couple together, but too much blood makes me horny? Just lol.

    Yeah. The general level of fail here is pretty disappointing :/

    OH WELL THERE’S ALWAYS MELISSA MARR<3

  2. lhipenwheHSL

    March 11, 2014 3:53 pm, Reply

    Thank you for writing this. I threw the book at the wall when I read the part where Chrysabelle felt so *sorry* that the poor ickle serial killer Mal was locked up, not for the people he murdered. Looking at the reviews on Goodreads, I was ready to despair, but you made me feel a bit better about it. Again, thank you.

    • Cyna Cyna

      April 13, 2014 2:42 am, Reply

      Ugh I hear you, man. The love for this one drove me up a wall, I remember being so relieved to find Fangs’ review. SO I’M GLAD WE COULD HELP, BASICALLY. *bad book solidarity brofist*

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