Minion by L.A. Banks
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
I have no particular interest in vampires. In fact I would go so far as to say I find very little genuinely interesting about them. Yet I keep coming back to vampire stories. I’ve watched the entirety of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, but this is due to my fascination with the characters more than the monsters. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is one of my favorite videogames, but this is more out of respect for its gameplay and storyline. Nosferatu is one of my favorite movies, but that’s due to my admiration for the eerie aesthetic of German expressionism. I really want to read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series, but that’s due to my ambition to be familiar with all horror genre touchstones and my appreciation for Tananarive Due as an author.
So I guess I can’t say I dislike vampires because I keep returning to media centering on the dang creatures for one reason or another . I get why people like the vampire myth—from the whole horrific/elegant dichotomy to the number of metaphors (queer especially) that can be assigned to it. Perhaps it’s our culture’s over-saturation with vampire narratives that’s gotten me so disinclined toward them.
But okay, I knew from the start of this series that I’d have to read a number of vampire stories. So far I seem to have avoided them. N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon contains a vampiric priest sect called the Gatherers, who rely on something called dreamblood rather than real blood, but that ultimately ends up being a very different concept altogether. There’s one story in Crystal Connor’s …And They All Lived Happily Ever After!, but in that vampirism was treated more like a disease outbreak.
So this, L.A. Banks’ Minion, first novel in the 12-part Vampire Huntress Legend series (even if the 12th novel is confusingly called The Thirteenth), will be my first strictly vampire-centric novel in this review series.
Minion starts out promisingly. Damali Richards is a young spoken word artist and, inconveniently, vampire huntress, chosen from birth to defend the hapless denizens of the world from the creatures of the night. Blessed with extraordinary physical strength and other, mostly unexplored supernatural abilities, she’s supported by a group of Guardians who are similarly chosen and blessed with extrasensory powers.
Bank basically throws you into the thick of it right from the start, which I actually quite enjoyed. Too many origin stories out there anyway—sometimes it’s better to get right along with it.
The aesthetic here is bleak, dangerous, urban—dirty alleyways, lonely warehouses, low lit night clubs hosting the raw poetics of underground hip-hop artists. The style is playful, with “s” replaced at intervals with “z” and slang casually thrown in both the dialogue and in the narrative. Some readers are probably peeved by this, but I really don’t have much respect for “respectable” grammar and spelling (all this formalism you see here is purely out of habit, I assure you), so I went along with it, enjoyed it for what it was. There is still the occasion cringe-worthy bit of dialogue or stretched-too-far metaphor—a problem we all face after watching TV dominated by Chris Carter, Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin for the past decade or two—but otherwise the rhetoric fits the style and tone that the story demands.
The characters, while not terribly distinguished from the outset, are nevertheless sympathizable and eclectic. It’s the first in a series and Banks introduces almost a dozen characters right off the bat, so she did what she could under the circumstances. The psychologically draining effects of vampire hunting are what centers character development in this first novel—from seeing friends and significant others “turned” vampire to the simple tragedy of having to sacrifice their normal social lives in order to uphold good against evil. Very much like Buffy. The more diverse cast however gives the hunters’ particular troubles and gripes a less homogeneous flavor—while sexuality and longing for reckless abandon are still present, they aren’t expressed in the suburban sass manner of Buffy. The characters in Minion are much more frank, less awkward.
My greatest disappointment with this novel is that it fails as a self-contained story. Now I don’t expect all conflicts to be resolved or anything like that. I know it’s part of a large series, and the particular story arc begun in Minion operates as a trilogy with the following two Vampire Huntress Legend novels. But there’s simply nothing to drive it on its own. It exists half as establishing the universe and half as setting-up a future conflict. It holds up the succeeding novels, but can’t hold up on its own weight.
For most fiction—especially genre fiction—the action rises, climaxes, and then we settle into a conclusion. Minion works at a flat line for the most part—enjoyable though it is at times, the lack of build-up gets tedious. And then it begins to develop more of a plot as concurrent narratives concerning Damali’s awakening as a vampire huntress and Damali’s ex-partner Carlos becoming more involved in a shadowy criminal vampire organization begin to take root. Finally, we’re getting somewhere. But then the novel ends abruptly. A cliffhanger, stay tuned for the next one. Now novels can end in cliffhangers, sure, but there was no absolutely no pay-off for the (rather delayed) build-up at all. Nothing to make us feel like we reached a climactic point in the overaching story to justify a cliffhanger. And as Minion didn’t have much by way of narrative build-up anyway, the ending feels more like a graceless cutoff.
On its own, then, Minion is not a good novel by any stretch of the imagination. But I have been reading reviews and see that the Vampire Huntress Legend gets much better as the series progresses. Like Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, Banks is using Minion as a means to set up her universe, get a feel for the characters, the overarching conflict, the aesthetic, etc. I can’t recommend it on its own, but then it could be the relatively weak foundation for a much stronger story to come.
I may not be particularly fond of vampires, but I found that the characters and the sense of doom looming over them as a result of the as-yet underdeveloped plot interested me. That may be enough to have me return to this series one day. I’ll figure out why I keep coming back to you, vampires. Just you wait.