Review: A Taint in the Blood

Posted: August 20, 2010 by in Books We Like...and Hate (3/5 single_star) Meta: S.M. Stirling, Urban Fantasy

Shadowspawn used to rule the Earth as gods. But you can get kind of lazy when you’re immortal and nearly indestructible. After thousands of years of cross-breeding with humans, today’s Shadowspawn posterity isn’t as pureblooded, making for all kinds of problems. Even worse, humans have over-populated the Earth and kind of taken over things. By the time you get around to dealing with the issue, you have to do something drastic, say, another plague to wipe out all the extra humans so you can reestablish yourself as the one in charge.

Adrian Brézé may not be pureblood Shadowspawn, but he’s got enough that his ability in the Power is stronger than most, and he’s decided that the blood is no excuse to treat the human race as sheep. The only problem is that the other almost-purebloods not only outnumber him thousands to one, they would never agree with him to leave humans alone. After years of trying to help the Brotherhood, a group dedicated to the eradication of Shadowspawn, he retires from the civil war. Unfortunately, his sister Adrianne decides to yank him back into Shadowspawn politics by kidnapping his ex-girlfriend. As he works to save Ellen, Adrian discovers the dismaying plans the Council has for the human race.

I’m not sure why, but S.M. Stirling decided it was his turn at a vampire urban fantasy series starting with A TAINT IN THE BLOOD (Amazon). His successful Change series (Amazon) has garnered him a well-deserved following, the post-apocalyptic stories grim yet hopeful. Now, instead of a retro Dark Ages setting, he tries his hand at magic and demons. Most of us are getting tired of all the blood-sucking out there (Gaiman thinks so too), but if it’s going to stick around, the writing might as well be decent–and fortunately Stirling will force those vampire wannabe writers to step it up a notch, especially in showing how much vampires really are monsters. It’s about time.

Stirling’s big strength in all his books is world building. Here he takes the traditional vampire lore and twists it into a shape that’s more interesting than most urban fantasy. There’s the history and origins of modern-day ‘demon cannibals’ who are born not made, mix in Shadowspawn proclivities and lifestyle, add a pinch of killing methods and details about warfare, and fold in the rules of the Power and how to work around it. Then you bake it into something that looks like a regular cake, but is actually a lava cake filled with chocolaty goodness (couldn’t help myself, the novel is filled with all sorts of foodie details).

This book has all the clichés. There’s the main character Adrian, the wealthy and brooding immortal who’s trying to break away from his evil family and their ‘humans are only good for food’ attitudes. There’s the grizzled mentor Harvey, thrice divorced, who carries around his sawed-off shotgun with silver bullets and used to work with Adrian for the Brotherhood. There’s the plucky heroine Ellen with the body of a goddess (she’s a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe…), who endures torture at the hands of Adrian’s sadistic sister while she awaits rescue. Have we read all this before? Sure, but not written with this much tongue-in-cheek and depth at the same time.

Yet, while TAINT is better than your average urban fantasy, it has its flaws. The most petty being that Stirling is italics happy–between all the telepathy and PoV character thoughts it got to be a little ridiculous. If you want me to get more serious, then I could complain about how poor Ellen must suffer Adrienne’s sadist tendencies, and unfortunately we end up having to watch, including one incredibly unpleasant S&M scene. While Adrienne is a deliciously evil villain, the constant sexual abuse witnessed first hand and talked about among her blood herd of ‘lucies’ got redundant and overbearing.

Stirling tries his hand at urban fantasy and vampires in A TAINT IN THE BLOOD, but the over-the-top cruelty and unlikable characters turned me off.

One thing that starts out as a strength but ends up becoming a problem later is the pacing. Like his other novels, Stirling starts TAINT at a sprint, and blabs about back history along the way, hoping you can keep up. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t, but the action is enough to keep you reading even if you don’t 100% know what’s going on. The action does get breakneck enough that readers will stumble and have to re-read when transitions are light on explanation; on the other end of the spectrum is a big gap of time that’s glossed over, and even includes a hokey ‘Rocky trains for the big fight montage’ reference. It kind of felt like Stirling rattled off this book one weekend and had a lot of fun writing it, throwing together interesting concepts along the way, but didn’t bother to go back and smooth it all out. What starts out as interesting world building by the end leaves some holes about how the magic works, which is pretty crucial to the plot. Add to that some contrivances, and you read the climax thinking, “What the…” or “That should not have worked.”

I really wanted to like TAINT because I enjoyed Stirling’s Change Series novels, but while it’s well written and interesting, its over-the-top cruelty was difficult for me to read. The novel could give romantic vampire urban fantasy the jump start it needs, forcing realism and excellent writing into a usually fluffy and melodramatic sub-genre, and could attract readers who usually wouldn’t pick up this kind of book.

  • Recommended Age: 18+, this book is for adults only
  • Language: Yes, and it's relatively frequent
  • Violence: Between the fighting, sexual abuse, and torture there's a lot and it's graphic
  • Sex: There's quite a bit and the talk can get crass


  • B says:

    This is a book that i liked and hated. Sadly I think I only liked it because I am a big fan of the Change books.

    This book was not a good example of what Stirling can do. The man is a very good author and I wish someone on this site would review the Change books (and have emailed a request in)….but Taint in the Blood was just not that good.

    While the Villianess was evil and incredibly sexual abusive the reaction of her victim was far to tame and just not believable, so it took away from any emotional impact…and I just kept thinking “ya ya we get that Adrienne is evil, can we move on?”

    All the foodie references were annoying as well. It seemed like every page had a paragraph about food.

    • Vanessa says:

      THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL comes out next month, so who knows, maybe the EBR Overlords will give the thumbs up to review that. I agree, though, that this isn't the best representation of what Stirling can do.

      • B says:

        I will go buy The High King for sure. I have all the others in the series.. even the old Island in the sea of time stuff.

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