Fortitude Scott has a sucky life. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his housemate, his housemate stopped paying rent months ago, his job at the Busy Beans cafe pays barely enough to keep him afloat, and his coworkers are unbearable – plus, he’s a vampire, but without any of the perks. In fact, Fort is more of a fledgeling vampire: sure, he occasionally drinks blood (though only his mother Madeline’s, and only under duress – the rest of the time, he’s a vegetarian), and his elder siblings, Chivalry and Prudence, can’t go out in the daylight, but until Fort transitions, he might as well be human – no super strength, no rapid healing, and definitely no supernatural cool factor.
Oh, and when he was nine years old, Prudence brutally murdered his human foster parents in front of him on Madeline’s orders, because Fort made the mistake of telling them what happened when he went to visit his biological family.
Somewhat understandably, then, Fort is hardly jumping for joy at the prospect of one day becoming a vampire himself. As much as possible, he keeps away from his family and everything they stand for; but when Madeline tempts him with an invitation to meet, for the first time, some vampires to whom he isn’t related – thereby raising the possibility that not all of his kind are monsters – Fort’s curiosity gets the better of him. The decision quickly ensnares him in vampire politics of the bloodiest kind, and with no one else to back him up, Fort is forced to look for support from an unlikely source: Suzume Hollis, a dangerous kitsune with a wicked sense of humour whom Madeline has paid to keep him safe. When a young girl is threatened, can Fort and Suzume save her without jeopardizing their own lives? Or will they be trapped by yet more vampiric power games?
About two months ago, I wrote a blog post detailing my frustration with the prevalence of werewolf and shapeshifter stories that justify sexist, alphahole behaviour on the inaccurate grounds that, as it’s reflective of real wolf behaviour (it’s not), then it can’t be problematic. On reading the post, debut author M. L. Brennan offered to send me a review copy of Generation V in the hope that I might like it, as she’d tried to write her shapeshifter character, Suzume, along different lines. Not being one to turn down free books, I promptly agreed – and despite some misgivings, I’m very glad I did.
Brennan’s vampire mythology is one of the most original and creepy I’ve encountered for some time
In contrast to the myriad UF novels available which portray vampires as glamorous and sexy, their monstrousness either excused by or juxtaposed against their soulful personal histories, Generation V is shockingly bleak and amoral. Brennan’s vampire mythology is one of the most original and creepy I’ve encountered for some time: rather than simply turning humans with a bite or two, vampires here can only reproduce by living long and growing strong enough to create themselves a Renfield – a human host whose blood is regularly replaced with their own. Such transfusions allow the Renfield to father or mother the vampire’s children via a sort of mystical genetic surrogacy, but also has the unfortunate side effect of turning them insane, like Jack the Ripper. Fort, therefore, has three sets of parents: Jill and Brian, the human foster parents killed by his sister; Grace and Henry, the Renfields who are technically his biological parents; and Madeline, his true mother. Apart from being genuinely eerie, the difficulty in both creating and maintaining Renfields is one of the better explanations I’ve ever encountered as to why vampires, if they existed, wouldn’t simply overrun the planet; in Brennan’s setting, their numbers are few, and though their lives are long, they aren’t immortal.
As part of transitioning into full vampires, however, they also lose something crucial: compassion for human beings.
As part of transitioning into full vampires, however, they also lose something crucial: compassion for human beings. Fort’s brother, Chivalry, though a monogamous and devoted husband to his procession of beautiful (and, crucially, willing) human wives, eventually kills all of them by feeding from them exclusively. Prudence shows no remorse for her murder of Jill and Brian. And when the visiting vampire, Luca, turns out to be a paedophile with a deranged Renfield in tow, nobody but Fort cares about the horrific abuse being suffered by his young captive, Maria – or at least, not enough to violate Madeline’s offer of hospitality, which includes Luca’s right to hunt and do as he pleases in her territory.
For me, this is the weakest part of the story; not because it’s poorly written, and not because it doesn’t serve a very specific narrative purpose (highlighting exactly how callous and inhuman vampires really are), but because I have a strong personal dislike of stories that make the damselling of pretty, helpless girls their central narrative focus. And as much as I dislike the trope normally, I especially take umbrage with its deployment in volume one of a mystery-style series, for the pure and simple reason that it happens far too often. Thanks to the prevalence of benevolent sexism, our culture views women, and particularly pretty young women and girls, as being inherently more precious and vulnerable than other people, and as a consequence, when storytellers want to invoke the sharpest pain and sympathy from their audience, the default response is to put such girls in danger. Which is why, if you were to sit down and watch just the first episode of every major procedural show that’s either airing currently or which has been on in the past decade, you’ll find that, overwhelmingly, the very first victim and/or person-to-be-saved – the one whose initial death or endangerment hooks you as a viewer – will be a young, probably white woman. And having noticed this pattern, I am thoroughly sick of it.
That being said, my objection here is more to the presence of a trope I find personally irritating than to any actual narrative wrong-footing. Yes, it’s annoyingly cliché that the girls Luca targets are pretty young blondes, and yes, it’s annoying that Fort keeps talking about how only he can save them (even though, in fairness, this is probably true), but as an actual plot element, it functions well. Brennan has an excellent knack for pacing, structure and situational logic, so that even though the plot is fairly straightforward, it never feels undernourished. Instead, the comparatively simple events are fleshed out with world-building and character development – a smart move in a first novel, and one that Brennan manages to achieve without info-dumping all over the place. Her world-building is original and clever, detailed enough to give a sense of depth and potential, but not so needlessly ornate as to clog up the narrative, and that’s a combination I’m always going to appreciate.
Fort is a wryly realistic narrator. […]Brennan has made a visible effort to convey Fort’s attraction to the women he encounters without actually sexualising or objectifying them.
As to characterization, Fort is a wryly realistic narrator. Despite having one of the darker and more tragic UF backstories I’ve encountered for a while, his voice is burdened with neither melodrama nor melancholia: instead, his humour is self-deprecating without feeling like an endless parade of one-liners, and as a result, he ends up coming across as both real and very grounded. Though I bridled at the phrasing of some of his more flippant asides, the genuinely problematic remarks were few, and ultimately didn’t push me across the line of making me dislike the character (though of course, YMMV). More positively, Brennan has made a visible effort to convey Fort’s attraction to the women he encounters without actually sexualising or objectifying them, which was a pleasant consideration. Even so, Suzume is a very sexual character – as well as being Fort’s bodyguard, she also works as an escort, along with her sisters and cousins – and while her portrayal as such felt respectful in terms of gender, it also felt mismanaged in terms of race. We’re told that Suzume’s grandmother, Atsuko, belonged to a famous family of kitsune geishas before moving to America, thereby making the escort agency a modern extension of the same principle. But by making Suzume both a kitsune and a descendent of geishas, it felt to me like the Captain Ethnic trope at work, and given the highly stereotypical characterization of Asian women as either martial arts experts or sex workers, the fact that Suzume ticked both those boxes bothered me throughout.
On the other hand, though, in terms of personality, her characterization was not only multi-dimensional, but made good use of the worldbuilding and her status as a kitsune. Rather than being a shapeshifer in the conventional sense, as she angrily points out to Fort, “I’m not some were-critter. I’m not some woman who can turn into a fox when she feels like it. I’m a fox who can become a woman. Try to remember that.” (pg. 185). Though it’s easy to mistake her initial antics (using her looks to manipulate men into buying her food, changing all of Fort’s passwords without permission) as a tactless extension of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the narrative never condones her actions or tries to explain them as cute. Instead, we’re explicitly told that Suzume represents a different type of character altogether. As her grandmother Atsuko puts it, “If the situation becomes dire, she will abandon you to your death and refund your mother’s money… She is clever, and she is strong, but she is a trickster, a nogitsune, and if you choose to trust her when the situation is no longer amusing, but is threatening, you will rue the outcome.” (pg. 131). Not only do I love the trickster archetype, but there’s an unfortunate dearth of female tricksters in literature. In this context, Suzume’s sexual teasing and the dark, sometimes cruel or selfish nature of her pranks doesn’t feel pejorative or lazy, but rather a carefully considered expression of her trickster-status. Coupled with the fact that, as promised, there was neither sexism nor misogyny in her family structure – in Brennan’s setting, all kitsunes are female, and Suzume was shown to have a strong, familial network of sisters, aunts and cousins – on balance, she’s definitely a compelling, complex character.
Generation V is a well-written, originally world-built and solidly characterized first instalment.
The secondary characters, however, are almost uniformly awful, and often in stereotypical, unpleasantly gendered ways. The women are sexually manipulative, jealous and greedy, while the men are arrogant, domineering and sexist, and while that’s not universally true, it was true often enough to bother me, especially when exacerbated by Fort’s occasionally gender-essentialist asides about masculinity and femininity. This was something I ummed and aahed about while reading the book, and ultimately, I think, it boils down to personal preference as to whether you’ll count this as a positive, negative or neutral choice. Quite purposefully, Brennan has written a crapsack life for Fort, complete with a cast of terrible, selfish people with whom he is forced to interact. The main cast is racially diverse beyond the presence of the kitsune, including a dark-skinned elf, and it’s clear that Brennan is an author who thinks about issues of representation regardless of whether she always gets it right. So while I personally didn’t like her use of gender stereotyping in the secondary characterization and Fort’s thoughts, it wasn’t necessarily unrealistic, and different readers will have different reactions to it.
On balance, then, Generation V is a well-written, originally world-built and solidly characterized first instalment in a series which, whatever its flaws, I’m definitely interested in pursuing further. Though problematic in places, Brennan has a lot of compelling ideas, and more than anything I’ve read in a while, her storytelling made me think long and hard about the difference between personal preference and objective quality, whether we can ever really draw a line between them, and the extent to which they overlap without our noticing. Human beings are fallible creatures; we don’t create perfect things, but when we try, we often create interesting ones, and sometimes, that’s even better.