Melvin Burgess, Bloodtide (Tor, 2001)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

‘Asher Black has a completely different writing style, layered and intricate, as you will see in his review of Melvin Burgess’s Bloodtide.’ — The Green Man Review

This is a tale about rival factions in a London of the future — a prison — a divided London: divided from the technologically advanced world by a no-man’s land populated with halfmen who eat anything that comes out of her; divided in two by rival gang families who run all the illegal commerce; divided between the wealthy elite and their impoverished subjects, between pure human and human-halfman mix, between the choices of extraordinary people and the fate imposed upon them by the reawakening gods.

It is a London that begs to be united by a ruler who can deal with the halfmen, break out of London, and take on the outside world. It is the divisions, man-made and god-sanctioned, that ensure nothing goes quite as planned.

The book is as egregiously flawed with inconveniences as it is absorbing and rewarding. One is almost ready to say, in the author’s words, that “somehow the squalor only added to its glory.” The reader must get used to Bloodtide’s poetic devices before being able to settle into the story. From chapter to chapter it changes from third person (past tense) to first person (past tense) to first person (present tense). In the first person, it may change awkwardly from simple present to present-continuous tense in the space of two sentences. It is sometimes grammatically licentious, or the punctuation dubious, to the point of drawing more curious and repeated attention to the text and its possible meaning than to its content.

Toss in that the first two characters in dialogue are Siggy and Signy, and it’s a recipe for almost intentional confusion. It’s important to keep track, since each first-person chapter is titled after the person speaking, resulting in lots of chapters entitled either “Signy” or “Siggy.” The narrative voice in the first person varies between chapters from dramatic to interior dialogue. The tone is sometimes that of a private letter or a diary, sometimes a dialogue between character and reader; sometimes it is like a newspaper report, and sometimes it is reminiscent of a series of historical accounts by participants and witnesses whose faces and voices are disguised. The initial frigidity of some early chapters, hampered perhaps by soliloquy, doesn’t seem promising, but the emotional depth does come as one continues reading.

Patience results in finding characters that are intriguing and emotionally compelling, even if it is their interior thoughts rather than spoken dialogue which makes them so. Halfway through the book one isn’t jarred any more by the various alternations. The plot, as they say, “thickens” into a complex story of fascinating events, the anticipation turning the pages to a dramatic if disappointing end.

In fact, an advantage to the author’s device is that the mistaken assumptions, flawed or limited perception, and complex psychology of each character can be seen through their accounts of events described quite differently by others. What the author achieves is a certain rejection of narrative interference, and the competition for the reader’s cognition of alternate versions of the drama. The tecnique begins, in other words, to pay off.

The best aspects of the story are the beauty and pain of its affections. The author twice captures so well the thrill of an initial sexual encounter. Those were the only times I laughed during the tale, but I laughed long and in delight. He shows us how it is to be attracted to a person one hadn’t wanted to like, and later illustrates that just because a man is cognizant of a woman intentionally reassuring and encouraging her lover, it isn’t any less effective. The treatment of infatuation, the confusion over what is love and what is loveliness, is sophisticated and precious. The reader is also given a long look into what it is like to love and make love to someone for whom love exists “side-by-side with resentment for the same person in the same heart.”

One sees into the mystery of how sex can be good, even with someone one despises, and the possibility of hopelessness even if surrounded by love. Further, one sees into a husband who really loves the woman he has chosen to make suffer, and into the torn psyche of a wife who realizes that it is truly so. Through her eyes we see her ruler “breaking first his own heart” in making himself break hers. I was particularly pleased at this complex presentation of cognitive dissonance at work in the lives of these and other characters. For these elements alone, I wouldn’t have missed Bloodtide.

It is amusing to read the descriptions of the “halfmen,” genetically brewed mixtures of human, animal, and machine. Looking at one such homunculus, a character says, “there was quite a bit of dog in the brewing of this one.” More than once, the reader is treated to a narrative by a pig-woman, even if it is nearly hamstrung by too much “Oinky” and “Groink”, and the monologues of a dog-man are fascinating. I smiled when, as he put it, a certain human “was even polite enough to let me smell his butt.” The author has made sure to do what is absolutely necessary in a book featuring talking animals … he has given them some human emotional depth. The pig-woman begins to be a whole person the reader is hard put not to love.

This tragedy is full of epic elements. The sword in the stone (in the land and its hopes) is, in Bloodtide, Odin’s knife in a shaft of impermeable glass (in technology and its dreams). The treatment of prophetic succession of rule is reminiscent of David and Solomon, the one having too much blood on his hands, the other divinely chosen yet finding only vanity. The princess in a tower and marriage of treaty are here, and the exploration of her feelings is brilliant: “I’d been lonely for a long time, only I hadn’t noticed, because I was in love.” As chattel in a hopeless but inescapable marriage, we hear not a shrill and simple “this ain’t right” but a sentient voice, mixed feelings, and difficult thinking: “You love whoever is there because it’s human to love. We have no choice. It’s like breathing.”

And there is the Oedipal son, whose mother sings him “secret lullabies of hatred and revenge.” But the twists in the plot are so often unexpected. It is blood that follows the reader through the story until, like the princess of her prince, one can’t believe that the gods are capable of inflicting so much pain.

Though Bloodtide is marketed as a “dystopian vision that will rank with the twentieth-century classics!” it isn’t a dystopian novel in the sense of modern classics like those of Ayn Rand (Atlas ShruggedAnthem), Zamyatin (We), Orwell (1984Animal Farm), Huxley (Brave New World), or Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451). In a dystopian novel we expect a utopia that either fails or becomes a monstrous mockery of the humanity it was claiming to save. This book has no real utopia, in the sense of a planned human paradise, only the visions of consolidated power of a succession of warlords. Nor is the social commentary so biting or prescient, even though it is a tale of dehumanization and the madness of rulers, with a perceptive handling of totalitarianism.

It is certainly a post-apocalyptic setting, something on the order of Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog, and its society suffers under various forms of tyrrany, but calling it a “dystopian vision,” besides being too much hype, is unnecessarily inaccurate. It needn’t be a dystopian novel to justify its lovely post-modernization of an Icelandic saga.

It is lovely, but it leads to a bricked-up wall. The story ends abruptly, the only obvious point being that there is no point to the characters’ lives. Human nature doesn’t change. Fate is fate. The gods will do what the gods will do. The world will always be ruled by the muderous and tyrannically ambitious. The author has set up the tale in the form of an epic romance, and so has made a kind of promise in order to keep the reader involved, but he closes it in the end as a naturalistic mood study that leaves the reader dangling like a severed limb. This is not why people read.

Personally, I don’t regret having read Bloodtide because so much of it is so rewardingly genuine, the depth of its human experience so striking, and its characters very much worth knowing. But I do recognize when an author is yanking my chain, tantalizing me with something he’d planned to ruin in front of me like the sadists in his tale. He ends it all by poisoning the reviewer’s well with a quotation that, loosely paraphrased, runs “I can’t please everyone. At least it kept your mind from evil. If you aren’t satisfied, it’s because you never will be. If you found it pointlessly gloomy, it’s simply because you’ve chosen misery, so I’ll leave you to the misery you’ve chosen.” It’s an ad hominem against anyone who would find something to criticize. It’s as though the author knows he’s failed at something crucial and must insulate the tome against any searching review.

It’s not that we demand a happy ending, but rather that we expect it to have meaning — something that underscores the justice we see in its claimed inspiration, the Volsunga. In this regard, one wonders if the author has missed the subtleties of the Volsunga Saga entirely. Would that Bloodtide had left us saying:

Now may all earls
Be bettered in mind,
May the grief of all maidens
ever be minished,
for this tale of trouble
so told to its ending.

Jon Foster’s jacket art, featuring one of the halfmen of the story, is intriguing and appropriate to the mood of the novel. On the other hand, rather than making facile the reading, one notices the text’s typeface a bit too much because, while most of it is in bold, it occasionally changes to unbolded for the stretch of a paragraph, for no apparent reason. Coupled with the author’s constant tense changes, it is perhaps just too much about which to be curious.

Still, awaiting the patient reader is as much bittersweet substance as there is difficulty and unresolved thematic conflict. If I knew in advance what was waiting for me, which is the purpose of a review, I would buy and read Bloodtide.

Tor’s excellent Web site is here but no sample chapter for Bloodtide is provided currently. The author’s Web site suggests reading, for background, the Volsunga Saga at the Berkeley Online Medieval Library.

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