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Friday, April 20, 2012

David Wellington's LAURA CAXTON SERIES

Author:  David Wellington
Plot Type:  Horror
    13 Bullets (2007)
    32 Fangs: A Final Vampire Tale (2012) (FINAL BOOK)

NOTE:  I read the first four books several years before I began writing this blog, so I'm going to have to break one of my own rules here and use the back-of-cover summaries for the first four books. For the fifth novel, though, I have included my own full review.

     In this world, vampires are a rare species, almost unknown to the general public. The premise of the series is that with one exception, all vampires were destroyed back in the early 1980s. The U.S. government is holding the surviving centuries-old vampire, Justinia Malvern, prisoner in a highly secure facility where she is being studied by scientists. The courts won't allow Malvern to be executed because no one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she is responsible for any human deaths. Although Malvern is in a weak and desiccated state, she still has a spark of undead life, a wealth of cunning, and an unquenchable thirst for life.

     The heroine of the series is Laura Caxton, who starts out as a Pennsylvania State Trooper. Soon, though, she is assigned to assist Special Deputy Jameson Arkeley (U.S. Marshals Service), a legendary vampire killer—the man who captured Malvern. This dark and violent series graphically describes many blood battles with vicious vampires. These vampires are bloodthirsty, Nosferatu-like monsters—no sexy boyfriend vamps anywhere in sight. Strong enough to bend steel with their bare hands, they also have the power to drastically change their physical appearance and can heal their own injuries, no matter how severe. 

     They can be killed only by destroying their hearts, which is difficult to do because their skin is rock hard and impervious to most weaponry. In the early years of their vampire existence, they maintain a high level of physical beauty, but as they age, their bodies deteriorate. Here is Laura's description of an aged vampire: "The vampire jumped up onto the jagged lower edge of the broken window...His skin was the color of cold milk, his eyes red and dully glowing. He had no hair anywhere on his body, and his ears stood up in points. His mouth was full of row after row of sharp teeth....His body was emaciated,...thinner than any human being she'd ever seen. His skin stretched tight over prominent bones, and the muscles on his arms and legs were wasted away to thin cords. His ribs stuck out dramatically, and his cheeks were hollow with starvation. His skin was dotted with dark patches of decay and in some places had cracked open in weeping sores." (from 99 Coffins)

     In this world, vampires don't procreate through their bites. Instead, a vampire can gaze deeply into the eyes of a human and plant the vampire curse in his or her mind. To activate the curse and turn that person into a vampire, the human must choose to die, either by suicide of by freely putting himself or herself in mortal danger (e.g., suicide by cop). These vampires can resurrect and influence anyone they have bitten to death in the past. Those resurrected humans are called half-deads and are generally used by a vampire as disposable minions or soldiers. Clara describes them as "decaying corpses given brief animation by the power of the vampire who slew them." (from 32 Fangs)

     The series follows Laura's adventures as she is promoted, demoted, and imprisoned—fighting vampires all the way. The "2" rating for sensuality is based on a few romantic kisses between Laura and her girlfriend.

     This is a great series with fully developed characters and compelling plots. We watch Laura change completely, from the naive and relatively innocent apprentice in book 1 through her gradual transformation into the cynical and single-minded vampire killer of the later books. Malvern's complicated relationships with Arkeley and Laura are fascinating in the same way that an eyewitness might be hypnotized by the sight of a trainwreck—or a murder. The books are available in a variety of formats: print, e-book, MP3, and CD-audiobook.

     And one last bravo: The cover art is fang-tastic! Kudos to Barbara Sturman for her chilling head shots. It's hard to choose, but I believe that the gaping, sharp-fanged maw that adorns 99 Coffins is my favorite.

              NOVEL 1:  13 Bullets               
     Laura Caxton thought she was just a State Trooper working highway patrol. Tonight she's going to find out her true destiny: hunting down the immortal, nearly invulnerable predators that haunt the night searching for our blood. Her only ally is Jameson Arkeley, a U.S. Marshal who has devoted his life to hunting down vampires, long after everyone else thought they were extinct. The two of them are the only chance the nation has—assuming they can survive the night. This is the book that first sank its claws into me and kept me reading into the wee hours, looking over my shoulder all the time!

     All the official reports say they are dead—extinct since the late ’80s, when a fed named Arkeley nailed the last vampire in a fight that nearly killed him. But the evidence proves otherwise.

     When Caxton calls the FBI looking for help in the middle of the night, it is Arkeley who gets the assignment—who else? He’s been expecting such a call to come eventually. Sure, it has been years since any signs of an attack, but Arkeley knows what most people don’t: that there is one left. In an abandoned asylum she is rotting, plotting, and biding her time in a way that only the undead can.

     Caxton is out of her league on this case and more than a little afraid, but the fed made it plain that there is only one way out. But the worst thing is the feeling that the vampires want more than just her blood. They want her for a reason, one she can’t guess; a reason her sphinx-like partner knows but won’t say; a reason she has to find out-or die trying.

     Now there are only 13 bullets between Caxton and Arkeley and the vampires. There are only 13 bullets between us—the living—and them—the damned.

               NOVEL 2:  99 Coffins               
     Laura Caxton vowed never to face them again. The horror of what the vampires did is too close, the wounds too fresh. But when Jameson Arkeley, broken and barely recognizable, comes to her with an unfathomable, unholy discovery, her resolve crumbles.

     Arkeley leads Caxton to a tomb in Gettysburg recently excavated by a local archaeology professor. While the town, with its legendary role in the Civil War’s worst battle, is no stranger to cemeteries, this one is remarkably, eerily different. In it lie 100 coffins—99 of them occupied by vampires, who, luckily, are missing their hearts. But one of the coffins is empty and smashed to pieces. 

     Who is the missing vampire? Does he have access to the 99 hearts that, if placed back in the bodies of their owners, could reanimate an entire bloodthirsty army? How did the vampires end up there, undisturbed and undiscovered for 150 years? The answer lies in Civil War documents that contain sinister secrets about the newly found coffins—secrets that Laura Caxton is about to uncover as she is thrown into a deadly, gruesome mission of saving an entire town from a mass invasion of the undead.

     An all-out war between humans and invincible predators is about to begin, and Arkeley makes a life-altering decision in order to win the battle. This book overflows with more excitement and suspense than any novel I've read in years. 

               NOVEL 3:  Vampire Zero               

     One man stood between them and us. U.S. Marshal Jameson Arkeley—the country’s foremost authority on vampires—taught police investigator and vampire fighter Laura Caxton everything she knows about monsters. After a bloody war visited upon Gettysburg by an army of vampires, Arkeley gave up his own life to save others. Except he didn’t exactly die...

     Arkeley accepted the curse and is now a vampire himself. What’s worse, he’s the savviest vampire ever—he knows all the tricks better than anyone. Caxton is now faced with the task of destroying him. But Arkeley knows all her tactics too; after all, he taught them to her. Caxton realizes she must finish Arkeley before he succeeds in his quest to exterminate his own family, one member at a time. But even more important, she has to prevent him from becoming a beast exponentially more dangerous—a Vampire Zero.

     Laura is all alone now, facing the most dangerous vampire of her career. She's always been willing to give up her life to end the threat—but fate has other sacrifices in mind. This book features the final showdown between Laura and Arkeley. We've been awaiting this confrontation since book 1, and its everything I hoped for.

               NOVEL 4:  23 Hours                
     Laura has lost everything: her lover, her career, even her freedom. At least she should be safe when she's locked up in a maximum security women's prison cell…Right?

     In the next 23 hours, there will be no reprieve, no mercy, and no time off for good behavior. When vampire hunter Laura Caxton is locked up in a maximum-security prison, the cop-turned-con finds herself surrounded by countless murderers and death-row inmates with nothing to lose...and plenty of time to kill.

     Caxton’s always been able to watch her own backeven when it’s against a cell-block wallbut soon she learns that an even greater threat has slithered behind the bars to join her. Justinia Malvern, the world’s oldest living vampire, has taken up residence, and her strength grows by the moment as she raids the inmate population like an open bar with an all-you-can-drink supply of fresh blood. The crafty old vampire knows just how to pull Caxton’s strings, too, and she's issued an ultimatum that Laura can’t refuse.

     Now Laura has just 23 hours to fight her way through a gauntlet of vampires, cons, and killers...23 hours to make one last, desperate attempt at protecting the world from Justinia’s evil.

               NOVEL 5:  32 Fangs: A Final Vampire Tale               
     As the story opens, Laura has escaped from prison and is hiding out in the hill country of southern Pennsylvania in a community of witchbilliespractitioners of the ancient art of witchcraft. While she is hiding from the police, she is also setting a trap for Justinia Malvern, the ancient vampire who has become the sole focus of Laura's life. At this point, Laura is alone, without friends or family. In the meantime, Laura's former lover, Clara Hsu, and her one-time partner, Glauer, are still working for the U.S. Marshals, under the command of the egotistical and ineffectual Special Deputy Fetlock. Fetlock and the U.S. government refuse to admit publicly that Malvern is still alive. Their story is that Malvern perished in the fiery battle at the prison that climaxed the previous book. Clara and Glauer continue to believe that Malvern survived the conflagration, and they are working hard to prove it. When the two are attacked by Malvern's half-deads, they know that they are right.

     The plot follows three main story lines for much of the book. The first follows Laura and the witchbillies as they prepare for the coming battle with Malvern. The second follows Clara as she and Glauer build their case, with Clara hoping desperately that she will soon be reunited with Laura. The third, which is inserted in italicized sections throughout the book, follows the story of Justinia Malvern, from her human childhood through all of the key chapters in her life up until the present time, including previously unknown information about the events that took place in the first four books. This is, essentially, Malvern's biography. 

     A loose end from Vampire Zero is picked up when Arkeley's surviving son, Simon, makes an appearance at Laura's hide-out and gets involved in the proceedings. To move the plot along, Wellington has Clara make a number of annoyingly inept decisions, but for me, that was the only weakness in an otherwise well-conceived plot.  

     By now, Laura has made a full transition from the inexperienced and naive state trooper of 13 Bullets to the persecuted prisoner of 23 Hours to the less-than-human vengeance machine of this book. She has no time for her human side—no emotions, no love, and no regretful memories. The sole purpose of her existence is what she sees as the final event in her life: her destruction of Malvern, once and for all—accompanied by her own death. Here, she explains this to Clara: "I do this...because somebody has to....I do this because Malvern is...evil and the world can't handle evil things. It always underestimates them. It always thinks that if it just pretends the bad things don't exist, then they'll just go away. The world functions by denial and wishful thinking, and that's why the world runs red with blood. I do it so people can keep being stupid and not have to pay for it. So people can be weak and it's not a death sentence. I do it...because nobody else can." 

     Here is an unforgettable verbal portrait of Justinia Malvern as she leads her climactic attack on Laura and the other mortals on the witchbillies' mountain: "Her skin...seemed illuminated by a spectral lambency as if a spotlight was focused right on her. She was wearing a white gown that flickered as if it were licked by gentle flames....She wore an eye patch over her empty socket, a black triangle of silk emblazoned with a red heart. Her one remaining eye burned down on the clearing like a laser beam. She was not touching the ground. Her bare feet pointed downward and cleared the earth by a good foot and a half. She was floating down the mountain, her hands lightly outstretched at her sides. There was a smile of utter benevolence, of pure compassion on her lips." Talk about nightmarish visions!

     32 Fangs is a terrific finale for a fine series as we empathize with Clara, Simon, and, especially, Laura—all damaged irrevocably, albeit in different ways, by their associations with Malvern. Wellington is inventive in the way he gathers the surviving characters in one place to set up the final confrontation and loops the key element in the story—the titular 32 fangs—directly back to Congreve, the very first vampire Laura ever met (and killed). Right down to the final moments, we can't predict what choices Laura will make as she faces down her undead enemy. Although this book could be read as a stand-alone, I strongly recommend that you start back at the beginning of the series because Laura's long, emotional history with Malvern is extremely important to an understanding of her character.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a pre-publication copy of the book that I received from the publisher via NetGalley. I received no promotional rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

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