Doesn’t Come with a How-To Manual: Blood Oranges by Kathleen Tierney

The flap copy of Blood Oranges, the first novel by Caitlin R. Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney, reads like the copy for a fistful of other contemporary paranormal novels—if they had been put through a refracting lens and reduced to their component parts, pointing up the ridiculousness imbricated in their very terms. Siobhan Quinn, our protagonist and narrator, is a junky and an at-first-accidental “demon hunter” who gets bitten by a werewolf and a vampire in the same night; her life doesn’t really pick up from there.

Blood Oranges is a strange (and unmistakably fun) project, a parodic urban fantasy that at once vivisects the tropes of the genre as it currently stands and also employs them with vigor and a backhanded, wild immersion. Kiernan has described the trilogy that Blood Oranges begins as a sort of pause—between The Drowning Girl and the next Kiernan project, there are these books, by “Kathleen Tierney.” This is not a useless description; in fact, it makes a great deal of sense, because this is quite firmly not a Kiernan story, though Quinn’s opinions on her own genre frequently reflect those of her creator. The introductory author’s note makes that hilariously obvious.

There are two angles from which I might discuss a book like Blood Oranges: how it functions as a parody, and how it functions as a narrative. An entire book of meta-commentary and cutting jokes would wear thin, no matter how clever, and a narrative that is on its face exactly what the genre demands isn’t much of a parody—but to my distinct pleasure, this book does succeed reasonably well on both fronts. Playing out the inherent tension between the sharp-edged pastiche of urban fantasy and the authentically fast-paced action narrative that it accompanies, Blood Oranges reads as a coherent and recklessly fun romp that nonetheless has sardonic, witty offerings for its audience as well. It is not—and is not intended to be—high-end literature; again, there’s a significant reason these novels will be published under “Kathleen Tierney,” though the pseudonym is very open.

The dual engagements of Quinn’s story, full of gore, monsters, mystery, and action, and the underlying or entirely overt upbraiding of the genre itself, make for a read that careens back and forth in the best way between wicked meta-commentary and honest, frank, disorderly action/adventure. The structure, plot, and tone are all full of the tropes and tribulations of the paranormal/urban fantasy genres in a deeply intentional and over-determined way that occasionally treads close to full-on camp, without ever quite tipping over the line. (Gary K. Wolfe describes the tone of the book in a recent review in Locus as “Kiernan having some evil, exasperated fun with the whole paranormal romance juggernaut;” that’s so spot-on that I felt the need to mention it here.)

As someone who has spent quite a lot of time in their life reading urban fantasy—across all of its definitions, and yes, even a little of the paranormal romance stuff—I can safely say that Kiernan has her finger jammed firmly on the pulse-point of all the silly, weird, idiosyncratic things that make the genre so very popular (and, as Blood Oranges makes clear, laughable). The first person narrator—who, realistically, would likely not be a good writer, as Quinn is not—is not a kung-fu genius, or a Buffy-clone, or particularly pleasant, powerful, or sexy. The monsters are monsters, even when they’ve got a compelling magnetism, and the intrigues read as so frequently slimy and bottom-barrel that they end up being much more believable than the usual mysteries one finds in the genre. The highly productive balance struck between Kiernan’s precise, intense prose when it is directed toward Quinn’s imprecise and wandering narration is one that readers familiar with her usual work will likely find amusing and delightful. I most certainly did; while Quinn’s voice is concrete and entirely believable (though she herself is entirely un-believable, as she makes clear to the reader repeatedly), the control required to manage it, knowing what a familiar reader knows of Kiernan’s style, is impressive.

The strange thing, in the end, about this novel, is that it satisfies on both counts. It manages to be a deconstruction, a frank and hilariously mean conviction, of an entire popular genre; it also manages to tell a story well at home within that genre in a way that snags the reader’s attention and drags them through to the end without a reasonable place for a pause in the tension. I can’t deny that I’m eager to see what happens next for Quinn—I’m curious about Mr. B, I’m curious about the maneuvering of her world and life, I’m curious about what the hell a werepire ex-junky who has developed a reputation in the world of the nasties is going to do now that the mess driving Blood Oranges is sorted. The world-building is infectiously intriguing; though Quinn claims not to be a good writer, the descriptions of such monsters as Evangelista Penderghast are remarkably eerie and sear themselves readily onto the mind’s eye. (A minor aside: unsurprisingly, I’m also a fan of the queer landscape of this Providence—the majority of the characters are some flavor.)

So, it’s a parody, sure, but it’s not merely a parody. That would be too flat; it wouldn’t hold through a whole trilogy. It’s also a high-energy, filthy, unpleasant and honest romp in a version of our reality that’s even less nice and welcoming than the real thing. Good and amusing stuff, Blood Oranges, and I look forward to the next installment. (And, once these books are done, the next Kiernan project, too. It’s rare for an author to have the range for both romping satire and the sort of masterpiece that is Kiernan’s last novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, but she very much does.)

Blood Oranges is published by Roc. It comes out February 5th.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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