Nancy Baker,
A Terrible Beauty
(Penguin, 1996)

"The food was good, the wine even better. He sat on the floor, his back against the chair, and devoured the meal, vaguely surprised that he still had an appetite. He drained the bottle of glass after glass of rich, red comfort. It looked like blood, he thought with a laugh, and drank it anyway."

Nancy Baker's previous vampire novels, The Night Inside and Blood & Chrysanthemums, are tales of gothic horror set in modern Toronto which never let you forget the unreal nature of certain characters. That's not the case in A Terrible Beauty, which is an elegant dance of sensual imagery and dark, colorful prose.

It's never a mystery from readers that Sidonie Moreau is a vampire, and yet it's easy to overlook that fact at times while reading. Despite the trappings of many period vampire novels -- the isolated manor house, the absence of mirrors within, the reticence of servants and nearby townsfolk to talk, the obedient wolf pack in the surrounding forest and the odd sleeping habits of the manor's mistress -- A Terrible Beauty avoids the usual plot devices of the genre. There are no anonymous victims found on the moor or in the alley, throats gaping and drained of blood. There are no strange transformations or sinister familiars. Our mortal hero is neither stalked by or a lover of the vampire.

Sidonie is, in fact, a polite and gracious host when young Matthew Donovan comes to stay in the Moreau manor. He has been summoned -- or, rather, his aged father has been -- to make right certain wrongs done to a young Sidonie Moreau 20 years before. With his father, Simon, too ill to make the journey and his brothers, Peter and Gabriel, too wrapped up in other responsibilities, it falls to Matthew, the ne'er-do-well artist and layabout of the family, to make the trip and pay the debt. He, of course, assumes that the young woman who greets him is his hostess's daughter. Knowing of his father's brief affair in the past, he even comes to believe that she may be his illegitimate half-sister. He wonders if she is mad.

The truth, when she finally reveals it, shocks and terrifies him. But he also realizes that there is no escape; even if he could make his way off the island and through the vast wilderness to civilization, he knows she has the means to pursue him and, if not physically harm him, to destroy his father's reputation and fortune or to harm his friends in his stead. And so he stays, making use of the gorgeous surroundings (and his hostess's absence during daylight hours) to ply his craft as a painter.

But the elegant dance develops a deadly cadence. Matthew and Sidonie continue to share polite dinner conversation (she never dines, of course) and almost-friendly fireside chats. By day he reads and paints and explores his surroundings -- motivated by a maddening desire to find her hidden resting place, which of course eludes him. And every night, she asks for his blood, which he denies.

The nightly ritual, with sometimes startling variations, carries a mix of pending horror and strange courtship. She never tries to force him to comply, and their relationship grows into something approaching friendship. If not for her hunger, Matthew would probably be having a wonderful time.

A Terrible Beauty is a psychological thriller, not an action-packed horror adventure. This is a character-driven story, their lives and personalities taking shape even as the forms coalesce and find definition on Matthew's canvasses. Even so, without the usual pulse-pounding plot, the suspense is devastatingly real, the characters breathtakingly realistic (yes, even the vampire) and the novel a non-stop page-turner. As the end drew near, I had no clue how the character conflicts would be resolved, and my heart pounded to know the answers.

Yours will, too. But to find out, you'll need to read the book.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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