We are halfway through the book, so in fine tradition of this blog, let’s talk about how the story can be salvaged.
OK, more seriously now. Unlike, say, Dresden Files, where the core idea was fine, but the book needed some tweaks in plot and world-building, as well as a massive fix in characterization in order to not be terrible, this book is shit from top to bottom. The only not terrible parts are the remnants of VtM, but of course they can’t remain unchanged unless we want to turn it into a proper fanfic.
So, instead of tweaks and fixes, this book requires a complete breakdown and rebuild. Let’s try it.
First, it needs to be divorced from VtM because seriously. Fortunately, VtM is actually a pretty organic setting. If you were asked to come up with a vampire society existing in a shadow of modern humanity, it would likely be something similar to Camarilla. Clans are also pretty natural component of vampire society, VtM just makes them really big, with founders lost to the ages instead of just a bunch of vampires all descending from one person. Sabbath, too, is easy to conceive when you think about possible vampire antagonists who would be worse than Camarilla: savage, monstrous, rejecting any and all remnants of their humanity, thinking they should rule over humans openly rather than hiding. Even ghouls have a prototype in Renfield.
As such, similarities are not an issue. Just piling off the trademarks would mostly solve the problem. I would also probably make the vampire government more fractured. Let’s say each city is mostly independent, with leaders interacting only when the need arises. So we have a bunch of powerful vampires on top, then the vampires they have created, the vampires those vampires have created, etc. Each generation obeys its predecessor. Each clan has duties traditionally assigned to it – business manipulation to ensure the society has all it needs, administration, military force, spy network to monitor both the mortal world for signs of trouble and other vampires. A simple but organic structure. The plot doesn’t really requires anyone to leave Moscow so far, the trips just wasted time, so the world outside can be left vague.
Now, to the nature of vampires. At this point there are all kinds of vampires in fiction: living corpses animated by blood, normal people with unusual powers and addiction, carriers of a science fiction virus, victims of nanomachines, son, etc. All kinds of traits were ascribed to vampires over time, and I do believe there is no one “real” vampire package. What traits you pick mostly depends on what you want to do with your vampires. For example, each victim turning into another vampire is good for a horror story about a stranger coming to a small town, and suddenly vampires everywhere. It’s less good when you want to write about a secret society of vampires since then you’d have to deal with questions like “why not everyone is a vampire?”
So, in order to decide what traits vampires should possess in your story, first you should decide what role do they play, what they are, narratively speaking. Often, vampires are connected with sexual aggression and taboos, but it’s not always the case. Folklore vampires served as a metaphor for plague. Some authors linked them to addiction.
In this book, vampires are ubermenches. They are designed to be better than humans in everything and be higher than us on a food chain. Their only true weakness, that of holy power, is also the one that, in the context of the story, can be used only in climatic battles, mostly by people who partook of vampire blood, stealing some of their power. So let’s turn it around and make vampires a metaphor for corruption in the system, parasites that feed on people they consider “lesser.” Since the book is set in Russia, I have no problems believing that people in charge are all a bunch of ancient inhuman bloodsuckers.
So, what traits would be appropriate for such a role? Well, first of all, they are dead. The sensations of flesh, be it pain or pleasure, are unknown to them. They like to surround themselves with fine expensive things, but they themselves are hollow. They don’t truly sleep, don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t fuck, don’t rest. A typical apartment of a vampire is a beautiful tomb: everything is in its place, everything arranged to appeal to the finest aesthetic tastes, and everything is devoid of any and all signs of life.
Their status as the dead goes further than that, however. They can’t create art, for their minds are touched by a haze making them more and more detached from the world as time passes. Every experience is perceived by them as slightly unreal, especially considering that their bodies don’t feel anything, either, and so they can’t put anything worthwhile on paper. With time, other intellectual pursuits become unreachable for them, for only blood lust feels truly real, and that is what occupies their hearts and thoughts.
Super-strength, super-speed and fast regenerations are common vampire traits, and there is no reason to remove them. They make for exciting battles. They just shouldn’t be so overwhelming that a human hunter wouldn’t stand a chance to at least escape and fight another day.
I like the idea of vampires turning into mist. There is something perversely appropriate about them being ephemeral creatures that can’t be struck down unless you know what you are doing.
An image of corpses lying on the ground and people just walking past them is one of the very few good ideas in the book, so let’s keep their hypnotic abilities. Instead of pure brainwashing, however, they would be based on conformity: most people neither expect nor want to find a corpse on their path, so they don’t see corpses marked by vampires. Many people trust or at least respect authority figures, so vampires can command obedience by behaving like they are in charge. And so on. As long as you don’t question what you see, your world would be preserved. You will die thinking everything is as it should be.
The fear of sunlight is a great trait on many levels. It’s symbolic, since the light is associated with the truth, it’s alienating, giving us some strawberry angst from vampire protagonist, and the setting of a night eternal in a big city is just cool.
Also, vampires being unable to enter without an invitation. Doesn’t apply to other vampires’ lairs and public places.
Vampires being killed by destroying their heart or head is fine, too. Fire is also fine. Nothing symbolic, just giving hunters a fighting chance.
Now, about the holy power. Instead of some silly mental power preserved in silver and gold, it’s simply a power of belief. Belief in a great purpose, specifically, belief that there is something more than day-to-day life struggle. For many, God serves as that purpose, but other kinds of beliefs are fine, too: various religions with one or many gods, or without gods at all, humanitarian philosophies, utopian dreams, etc.
That is an anathema to vampires and allows those who have such beliefs to resist their powers and ward off or even destroy vampires with symbols of faith.
That’s about all, I think. Let’s talk now about the characters and plot.
So, we have our main characters: Pavel and Elena (because seriously, you have a sister of a vampire who wants to kill vampires, and you use her as a punching bag? Darth Vader finds your narrative choices… disturbing). Their parents are dead because vampires like to target isolated people with no strong bonds. The siblings themselves are estranged. Not sure yet about the exact cause, but it should be something that would drive a wedge between them without demonizing either. Perhaps an inheritance dispute, perhaps just lots of small things that suddenly got huge after their parents’ death.
Either way, he is a security guard, an adult, and Elena is in college. The first time we see them, Pavel is in a hospital, paralyzed in a car crush, which, unknown to him, was organized by vampires. Elena visits him, and at first we see them behaving like a family, with Elena concerned for Pavel and Pavel being glad to see her again. As the conversation progresses, however, old grudges resurface, and Elena leaves after they start shouting at each other.
After a few days of paralysis, Pavel is approached by a vampire offering him a way out. In exchange for eternal life, eternal health, the cure for paralysis, Pavel would become a troubleshooter for vampires. In a moment of weakness, Pavel takes the deal.
So far, the book was mostly about Pavel training, so let’s preserve it, but instead of being about Pavel learning cool stuff, it’s about him being dragged down to the level of other vampires. His first victim, killed in a frenzy of blood lust, haunts his dreams and waking hours. This sin is something his sire hangs over his head constantly, to remind him there is no way back. He is not taught how to drink blood without killing people because the higher ups want him to kill more, even if it makes things slightly difficult for them. Then there is his training, which is about making him disinfected to killing, making him willing to kill on command without a second thought. There is no scene about him killing forty people, because again, it’s fucking absurd, plus cruelty tend to lose its edge when you up the scale, but there is a scene of him killing a homeless person. Why? Because he is ordered to do it.
His story is a story of a person being grind down by a cruel system in an attempt to make him its part, a cog in the machine. The attempt at this stage is mostly successful, but there remains enough humanity in him to make him sympathetic. He refuses to kill children, getting into troubles with his sire, he couldn’t go through mind control, it makes him sick, he is genuinely horrified by the things he does, but thinks there is simply no way out: even if he left the organization, he’s still a monster, still a murderer.
Meanwhile, Elena discovers the secret world of vampires on her own. Mysterious disappearances nobody talks about happen on her campus, she see things nobody else can see. I am normally uncomfortable with touching religion in fiction, but some for of solid faith should be given to her.
Eventually she discovers the vampire on campus and manages to kill him, nearly dying herself (perhaps with a help of a more experienced hunter arriving), but that would be just a start of her troubles. Her face is now known to the vampires, she is proclaimed a criminal by the police and has to live on the run.
Much like Alexei, she ends up making questionable decisions, but instead of a contrived scene with a boy wonder vampire, she simply faces hardships of a system turned against her. She has to change her location often, can’t show her face to anyone without getting paranoid over it, can’t hold a job… She needs money to survive, so she turns to stealing, justifying it with a greater cause. She doesn’t want to hurt innocent people, but she does, in the end, either to cover her tracks or simply to survive.
She either finds or maintains contact with a more experienced hunter, who provides exposition about the secret world and how to find and kill vampires. Slowly, her whole life starts revolving around the hunt.
Her story is a story of a person rebelling against the cruel system and being grind down by it in retribution.
At some point Pavel and Elena would meet again and try to tell each other about their struggle without revealing their respective secrets. Naturally, the attempt at communication fails, and they feel the rift between them increasing with each passing day.
Meanwhile, vampires of unknown origin start to appear around Moscow. There are no stupid tattoos, they are unknown because their faces aren’t known, simple as that. Unlike in the books, though, their origin isn’t some kind of grand mystery. It’s a banal power play by a rival council trying to expand its influence into Moscow. Pavel is thrown at them as a part of troubleshooting force, Elena encounters a few in her hunts.
That’s it for now. I’ve brought the protagonists to their lowest points, and they’ll have to wait until the end of the book to climb up. It’s less detailed than what Farla normally does, but I can’t really lean on the book in this case, so only general outlines of some ideas and narrative threads have survived.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of The Masquerade. There is at least one more wtf moment lying ahead.