So it’s summer (at least here in the northern hemisphere), which means the days are longer, the nights warmer, and readers are busting out their beach reads. So what do I cozy up with as my first pick of the summer? Saltwater Vampires by Aussie YA author, Kirsty Eagar.
If you didn’t find the ocean a tad bit creepy before (and you should, just think of how many people have died in there), you certainly will now. Sign on here for bloodsuckers, revisionist history, secret societies, and of course—some killer waves.
I adore a good spin on history. In fact, there’s something almost comforting about blaming creatures of the night for some of the atrocities that humankind itself has committed over the centuries. One such being the mass murder of over 140 men, women, and children on an island off the Australian coast in 1629. Following the wreck of the Dutch East India Company’s ship, Batavia, there was a mutiny among the leadership and survivors were left stranded on small islands awaiting rescue. Jeronimus Cornelisz, left in charge of the survivors, lead a murderous group of men to systematically kill off anyone who challenged or annoyed them. Kirsty Eagar, being of slight genius, twists this brutal reality into just the sort of ritualistic feeding frenzy that would be needed to transform oneself into a vampire without the explicit presence of a vampire.
Not being up on my Australian history, and being a giant nerd, I eagerly reveled in the historical crossovers of Saltwater Vampires, spending a not insignificant bit of time reading up on the facts behind the horror. For my part, I will admit that the inclusion of a good historical note was missed.
Kirsty Eagar creates in Saltwater Vampires a hypnotizing vampire lore that is at once standard and original. With nods to the basic rules, such as not being able to enter a home unless invited, and (mostly) becoming a vampire by sharing a vampires blood, Eagar adds her own rules of play. Reflections so horrifyingly accurate to the lack of soul vampires cannot bear to see themselves, the potential for supernatural terrorism, and most importantly, the idea that when one’s sire is killed, you will revert back to mortality. Eagar’s action is fast-paced and engrossing making both the prologue and ending chapters of the book gripping, but it remains that much in the middle falls flat.
Saltwater Vampires follows two major plots until their inevitable intersection. In one, Eagar draws us into the world of the secret vampiric society of Piravem a world where apprentices compete ruthlessly for the chance to be made immortal. In the other, a group of normal high school students have a run in with ancient vamps gone of their rockers on their summer vacation. Sadly, though the former was a much smaller part of the overall plot, it was also much more intriguing to this particular reader. Watching two teenage boys struggle to regain their mortality while simultaneously dealing with the everyday drama of girls, family, and catching waves just didn’t quite do it for me.
I wanted Eagar to rev up the creep factor. I wanted Jeronimus’s obsession with Lucretia Jans (historical and fictional Batavia passenger) to shine through enough to read as a true motivation in his actions. I wanted the ocean—that body so ancient it renders mortals meaningless—to become a token of fear for reader and characters alike, rather than remaining a beacon of life and comfort to those who grew up on its shores. I wanted an ending that would send one last chill of uncertainty down my spine.
I did find it surprising, and somehow a little charming, that the bitten boys of Saltwater Vampires never once questioned their desire to remain mortal. Struggling against these creatures who would (and had) given everything to become immortal, Eagar highlights the vast gulf between death and a life worth living. Our main character, Jaime, never contemplates or weighs his decisions, other than to believe that he really has no choice in the matter at all. Eagar’s vampires and Piravem are painted as weak despite their supernatural powers as they are a stark contrast to the right and good of a group of kids willing and ready to do what’s necessary. While vampire Jeronimus would have us buy the notion that the world is neither good nor bad, but wholly indifferent, Jaime and friends push all grey areas to the boundaries of black and white.
It’s become somewhat of a standard belief here among the YA reading crowd that there is something magic in the waters of Australian YA authors. However, I’m beginning to feel that magic only extends so far as to boost their contemporary powers, and not lend them so much in the speculative fiction department. I’ve often heard Kirsty Eager’s work highly praised, and while Saltwater Vampires was fun and readable, it lacked the oomph that has been credited to her contemporary work. The world building aches from the insane amount of info dumping by characters who really have no reason to either know or share what information they have, and characters remain detached from the reader despite her efforts to make us care about their lives. Moreover, it seems that while Kirsty Eager had all the ideas in place, she just doesn’t quite yet have the execution to go with them.
Still, Saltwater Vampires, despite its flaws, is a fun and gritty way to kick off the summer. I do hope that Eagar someday ventures back into the darkly creative world of speculative fiction, because she has the tools to rock it if she can get them straightened out.
See you at the beach!
Saltwater Vampires is published by Penguin Books Australia.
Heidi Frederick has a completely rational and justifiable fear of the ocean, but enjoys a good book on the beach. You can read more from her at her blog, Bunbury in the Stacks, or stalk her on Twitter.