22 December, 2021

Review: Vampire Flower Language

Vampire Flower LanguageVampire Flower Language by Angela Castir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The problem with most romance stories is that the plot tends to revolve around a conflict that the characters see as big, but that the reader sees as small. This is because romance authors want there to be tension with the characters not being able to get together, but for the reader to desire them to be together anyway. The easiest way to achieve this is to set up a comedy of errors: a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they been truthful, or, if the story is from before the 1990s, a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they just had access to a mobile phone. Occasionally, the problem is a love triangle, so the conflict is because the characters aren't polyamorous; or the problem is that they live in different worlds. These stories are slightly better because they don't rely on the characters holding the idiot ball, but they never seem to reach the level of rational fiction, where the characters are thinking properly, and the conflict stems not from their errors in thought, but in differences in value.

Angela Castir (or, rather, the two-person-author team that calls itself Angela Castir) expertly navigates this hole by creating a rational romance story where the plot doesn't revolve around silly misunderstandings. (Don't get me wrong: misunderstandings do occur, but they are appropriate to the characters.) Instead, the tension of the romance story comes from the disconnect between the worldview of a baseline human during world war 2 and a very, very old vampire. Their story is realistic and sweet; heartwarming and heartwrenching. I expect fans of general vampire romance to be blown away by the sheer competence of the surrounding story and events; I expect fans of rational fiction to be blown away by the fact that the author was able to create a romance story in the ratfic genre. Regardless of where you come from, I expect you'll enjoy this story.

The remainder of this review has spoilers; please stop reading here and start reading the story itself if you haven't already. It's worth it! [Seriously, spoilers are ahead. Do not read further before reading the story itself.]

I love the themes present in this book. A gay romance in this time period would historically be seen (by humans) as entirely inappropriate in society, but the focus starts on vampire society instead, where the tension is a romance between a vampire and a human being considered inappropriate. The reader starts out thinking that this is the allegory: the inappropriateness from vampire culture's point of view mimics the inappropriateness from human culture's point of view. But by the end this reader expectation gets upended: the more important allegory here is of understanding. Can a relationship where people love each other persist when their values don't match? To what extent must those values change in order for the people to have a meaningful relationship?

The protagonist's sister is not okay with homosexuality, to the extent that she eventually refuses to be close to her brother, even while loving him; this matches the protagonist's refusal to be close to his partner, even while loving him. Seeing this parallel is what causes the character to update toward being more comfortable in his relationship, so that he does not make the same error that his sister does. More importantly, at the reader level, we now see that the value mismatch which we thought was a huge divide for the majority of the book should instead be considered a minor hurdle. It's not just the characters who update on this revelation: the readers are intended to update as well.

The Julius storyline introduces a truly alien alien: a character whose value function seems to be set in the way an AI might. As the reader is given access to Julius' internal thoughts, this seems like the scariest part of the story. A slightly misaligned AI, valuing its expectation of one's happiness rather than a person's stated goals, can easily go wrong. You see this manipulation occur freely and easily with Red (a mere human), and it is only because William (the vampire) is more competent that things do not immediately fall apart. Even so, William's competence is not sufficient to be immune to Julius' machinations; I expect that Julius was given away by their previous owner on purpose for this reason. When the story jumps ahead in the epilogue, we see that Julius has been somewhat reigned in, not by William's competence, but by Red's morals being forced onto Julius. We readers don't see Julius' internal state in the epilogue, so it is left ambiguous whether the situation is actually better or worse here, but its appropriate for the story to end here anyway, as the story we've been following is not Julius' story, but William and Red's story.

I was enthralled by the worldbuilding, but my favorite part of the book was how characters would ask questions that I, too, would ask if I were in that situation. This allowed me to partially self-insert myself into the story, a feat that is exceedingly rare in romance novels, given that I am poly and asexual. I really appreciated the way that characters sought out information. What I didn't like was that so much of that information remained hidden, even to the end! I recognize that further stories in this world are going to be told, and so it is appropriate to leave dangling threads. But it was unsatisfying all the same. I am left wanting more!

One note I would give to the authors for future stories: please consider restricting the reader's point of view to a single character. Although it would have made for a different book, had the entire novel been written from Red's point of view, then that could have included a mystery element for the readers: is William sincere? Should we also want Red to run away? But by letting us see into William's mind, this possibility is lost completely. I recognize that's not what you were going for, so it's unfair to complain about this. But this could have been done at least with Julius and it would not have changed the story too much. By letting us see into Julius' mind, we get access to knowledge that cuts the tension too much. I honestly believe it would have been better to never allow us access to Julius' thoughts, so that readers could be honestly divided on whether Red's or William's point of view were best. This would have added to the tension of the split that occurred. I hope in your next book you take care to only allow the reader access to more limited points of view to allow for more mystery in your story beats.

Even if this weren't an exceedingly well written book, I would still recommend it for the novelty of being in the rational romance genre. However, this book is genuinely well written, with rational characters and tension that realistically flows from the worldbuilding set up by the authors. I enthusiastically recommend this to anyone interested in either rational fiction or vampire romance.

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