Queer Book Club: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard


YA coming of age novel about Pen, a Portuguese-American girl who is struggling for a place to fit, being a masculine girl and a lesbian. She hangs out with Colby and some other boys, but Colby’s brand of macho bullshit starts to grate when Pen talks to Olivia, and gets an insight into the harm he does to the girls he picks up and throws aside. Then, when Pen finds Blake, a girl she really likes, she has to define her own way of loving girls and negotiate her own sense of masculinity. In the background, her traditional Portuguese family are making life hard for her and her brother, Johnny, and nothing they do is good enough.

This is a quick read, and pulled me in from the start, especially the creepy friendship with Colby. Girard does a good job of portraying a really messed up power dynamic there. I could relate to tolerating misogyny as a teen, in some mistaken attempt to compensate for gender issues. Pen’s unreconstructed approach to her gender and sexuality stuff felt realistic and believable, and Girard highlights, through the action of the story, a lot of problems with traditional messed up gender roles and relations. Colby is on a massive power trip, and uses women like objects. Olivia ends up pregnant, with no support. Pen’s parents want her to fit in and not attract trouble—to act like a “nice girl”. Throughout, Girard plays with the different ideas of what it means to “man-up”. Even Johnny, Pen’s supportive older brother, still has some stuff to work through around solving problems with violence.

I had a small misgiving that a lot of the issues raised stay implicit, bubbling below the surface of the action, whereas by the end, I wanted some of the characters to be having a more explicit dialogue. I don’t expect a 16 year old character to have everything sussed, but given she goes looking for info online at one point in the story, I would have thought Pen might trip over some gender or feminist theory along the way. I guess, I felt like a bunch of problems were thrown up in the story, but only the most tentative road-map is offered out of them. At one point, Colby sexually assaults Pen, and that’s brushed over and never really named for what it is, even though it’s not shown to be okay. I think there’s a danger in being too subtle about some of this stuff.

My only other misgiving was, the students all attend a Catholic school, and I would have expected at least some of them to have internalised more guilt (about gender, sexuality and abortion). Those internal obstacles are not so easily jumped or reconciled, particularly at 16 when school and family are your whole world. Don’t get me wrong—the characters do have plenty of internalised prejudices, but the religious side is given a very light touch. Maybe there wasn’t space to fully explore those aspects. It was a niggle, rather than a deal breaker.

Overall, I think this book is on point flagging up problems, showing how misogyny and toxic masculinity function in practice, but doesn’t completely follow through with pointing the way to solutions. The characters are well realised, and it’s an enjoyable and compelling read. The relationship between Blake and Pen is sweet and healthy, and there’s no contrived narrative drama thrown in the way to create tension, which I liked. Blake is comfortable with being bi, which is also cool. It’s interesting that Pen never gives herself a gender label, other than girl. I’ve seen a few reviews stick different gender label on her, but it’s not there in the text, so I’m not going to. It’s testament to the complexity of this book that it’s been an absolute pain to review, and I’ve ended up saying so much.

Queer Book Club: The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

the-rental-heart-coverA collection of short stories, which vary from fairy tale re-imaginings to original magic realism and steampunk stories. There’s a lot of meat here, to get your teeth into—the sort of short stories that leave you thinking. There’s also a lot of originality and imagination on show.  A good chunk of the stories have queer characters (I especially noticed the bi visibility).

One of the highlights for me is the title story, ‘The Rental Heart’, in which the main character employs technology to have relationships without the risk of a broken heart. I also enjoyed ‘The Coin-Operated Boy’, a tongue-in-cheek steampunk story. (Although I kept getting the Dresden Dolls song of the same name lodged in my head.) ‘Matroyshka’ is an original twist on Cinderella, with a self-involved spoiled princess not getting what she feels she deserves. The settings vary from fantastical to modern day.

The collection includes some of my favourite elements of magic realism, with the magic representing intangible aspects of longing, lust, love and the stand-ins for love. This is definitely an adult collection, as there are a few smuttier bits.

With short story collections, there are always bound to be some I like more than others, but this is a really solid collection with no real low points. I’d definitely give more of Kirsty Logan’s work a look on the strength of this collection.

Queer Classics: Funeral Games by Mary Renault


The final part of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, Funeral Games begins with Alexander’s death, and concerns the fallout that follows as his people vie for power, and to fill the huge void he leaves.

I found the action of this fascinating—the politics, the way that things fall out, the lengths the different characters will go to in order to achieve their aims, the sheer venality of it all. I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Persian Boy, which is by far my favourite. Funeral Games sees a return to the multiple third person points of view of the first book, and lacks the central driving emotion of that, so it’s my least favourite of the three.

Women, again, come out quite badly, though they get more screen time. Although, to be fair, everyone comes out badly, except Bagoas and Ptolemy. No tool is left unused in the bid for power—murder, manipulation, lies, deceit, the rewriting of history and war are all employed, with disastrous and tragic results. I did lose my temper at one point with Renault when something very silly happens to Eurydike (one of the key players in the power struggle) to thwart her bid for power. I won’t spoil it, but it drove me nuts and left me feeling incredulous.

Reservations aside, it’s still a fascinating study of a power vacuum. Politics don’t get any more vicious than this. Overall, I love the trilogy, but this isn’t the high point for me.

Queer Classics: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

the-persian-boy-coverSecond in Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, The Persian Boy follows the story of Bagoas, the Persian eunuch who Alexander falls in love with, and is entirely from his point of view, in first person, unlike the other two books in the trilogy.

Oh, my heart. I loved this book. The detail, as Bagoas follows Alexander’s campaigns across the world, is breathtaking. I could have stayed in this world forever. It’s such a huge story, and Bagoas can only tell a small part of it, but I like that his perspective is limited in that way. It makes the story much more personal.

I also loved the main character. It’s quite unusual to have a male lead who is feminine and submissive, and that makes a nice change, especially given the subject matter of the story. It’s such an inspired choice by Renault. Whilst, in the first book, Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion seems to draw strength from the fact Alexander can be his relaxed, private self around Hephaestion, his relationship with Bagoas seems to allow him an outlet for his role as a divine hero, someone who is admired, as well as for his love of Persia. I think Renault shows how the two relationships complement each other, and Bagoas comes to accept that, despite his jealousy of Hephaestion. The relationship also highlights the racial tensions that Alexander faces from his own people, as he embraces the culture of a foreign land.

I hoped, all along, that Bagoas and Hephaestion might come to more of an overt understanding, but they do come to understand each other, in a way that is left unspoken. This is one of the ways that Renault captures the morality and behaviour of the time. In a modern book, the two would have inevitably had a heart to heart, but given the differences in the roles and statuses, and Bagoas’ own conservatism, it makes sense that they don’t.

My only major criticism is that this book doesn’t treat women particularly well, in the small space they’re given. To an extent, it reflects the times, but I think there’s also some prejudice on Renault’s part. Queen Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Darius III, is the only female character who comes out with any real dignity or strength.

So, lovely flexible gender representation on one hand, and not on the other. If you can get past the female characters (as I say, they play a tiny part), it’s an amazing book. I guess it’s going to be a subjective thing whether that’s a deal breaker, or not. While I admire this book a lot, for all the reasons I’ve said, I may not go on to read any more of Renault after this trilogy, because that could get grating. These generally seem to be considered her best, anyway.

Queer Book Club: Nevada by Imogen Binnie


Nevada is the story of Maria, a young trans woman living in New York, struggling with her relationship to her body and her inability to be emotionally present in any of her relationships. It’s also about James, who lives in a small town in Nevada, and spends most of his time checked out on marijuana. When Maria’s girlfriend announces she’s been having sex with Maria’s friend and colleague, Maria wakes up to the fact she’s not really happy with any part of her life. I really wanted to read some more counter-culture books with trans characters (because I’m not a middle class teen and I’ve never been to a prom), and Nevada fits the bill.

This book is sharp and funny. I was genuinely laughing out loud a few pages in. Maria has a head full of queer and feminist theory, but treats it with irreverence and humour. Except when she doesn’t, then you get a full steam thought-diatribe on whatever’s wound her up. It’s a contrast to the wide-eyed innocence of trans people waking up to themselves in other trans novels I’ve read. Maria has access to other queer people, to support groups, to theory. It doesn’t necessarily make her life easy. It doesn’t solve all her problems. She’s still got all her hang ups about her body, and various self-protection strategies she’s built up as a child, which she can’t now drop in order to connect to other people and be present in her own life. So the humour is dark and the narrative is often on the edge. It feels intense and there’s a lot to process, but in a good way. The characters are frustrating, but for a reason—they spend a lot of time avoiding reality, avoiding emotions, avoiding making connections or facing tricky situations. They’re not role-models, they’re people. (Although I still wanted to scream at Maria for all the drunk driving.)

The style took me a little while to get into. Maria’s thoughts come full pelt all the time and the style is very naturalistic and conversational. There are a lot of fillers (like, anyway). It was fine once I’d got used to it, and I think the trick is to just go with it until it starts to flow. There are no speech marks, which works until the chapter where both James and Maria are thinking and talking at the same time, and then I lost the thread a bit. There were more than the average number of typos in the version I read, but it doesn’t distract too much. Weirdly, as I don’t often get hung up on this stuff, I thought a few times it’d have made more sense written in first person.

About halfway through the story, the point of view flips to James, a 20 year old stoner in small town Nevada. I didn’t realise this was going to happen, so I was a bit disoriented. His story soon joins up with Maria’s and you get a perspective from someone in a very different place with their gender identity. There’s a lot of reflection on the specific problems faced by trans women who are attracted to women and how patriarchal ideas about female sexuality and women’s bodies and men’s bodies feed into that.

The story doesn’t really have a resolution, which is a little unsettling, and maybe that’s the point. There’s this echo/not echo pattern with Maria and James. I guess that jagged feeling at the end is deliberate, in that Maria’s struggle, and both their struggles, don’t have a resolution. They’ll go on muddling through, dealing with some things, avoiding some things, making a shitty mess of some things. It would be naff if Binnie had tied a neat bow around it. However, there is still something a little unsatisfying about the end. I wanted to go back to Maria one final time.

I liked the story for its humour and realism. The characterisation is very strong. I liked that Maria wasn’t a wide-eyed innocent, she wasn’t a victim, but she still struggled. I liked that she’s trans and lesbian and punk. That her transness isn’t fit neatly into middle class America. I was still a bit unsure about the shape of the narrative towards the end. I was okay with the lack of resolution, but Maria gets kind of abandoned , which feels a bit odd when the whole first half is about her. Still definitely worth a look.

Imajica and Gender


Clive Barker’s Imajica is an enormous multi-dimensional fantasy horror novel which mostly focuses on the story of three characters : Gentle, Judith and Pie ‘oh’ Pah. I’m hungry for horror fiction at the moment and particularly for queer horror fiction, which is why I picked up a copy. Rather than attempt a review, which would likely be  dissatisfying for such a huge and complex book, I thought I’d focus on gender, because, after leaving it to mull for a while, that’s what’s scratching at the back of my mind. Imajica both delighted me and annoyed me about gender, so here goes.

Imajica has a few queer characters, but I want to focus on Pie, because Pie is androgyne and I get very excited about the few rare non-binary characters I come across. Pie’s pronoun is “it” in the book, so that’s what I’m going to use. I know people vary on how annoying they find “it” as a pronoun, and likely, if it really flips you out, this is not the book for you. Pie is a rare type of alien species who is androgynous and usually appears as whoever the beholder desires. Only as he falls in love with Pie does Gentle begin to see Pie’s true form.

Pie is portrayed as exotic, and I guess that’s a little problematic (I’m writing about gender and I’ve already used the ‘p’ word *waves pompoms*), but I did overall enjoy how it was written. And, y’know, it may be problematic, and on the other hand, Pie is a gender divergent character who’s an object of desire in a cool and non-creepy way, so that’s quite nice. (With the proviso that this is Barker, and you don’t read Barker if you don’t want a bit of freaky sex and psycho-sexual mess.)

Although Pie first appears as an assassin, it is a very gentle character—insightful, patient and wise, and devoted to Gentle for better or worse. There’s a theme in the book that we love the people we love, not the people we ought to love, and that’s definitely true of Pie. Overall, I like Pie and I cared what happened to it a lot, and for me, that’s what’s important. Although its story is intrinsically tied to Gentle’s, Pie has its own history, its own tragedies and victories, and I think the character is well drawn.

So, what niggled me about gender? Here’s Barker with this cool non-binary character and I’m mostly very excited and happy. But there’s an idea about gender creeping around in the background. I can see it lurking there, as I’m reading, and my old gender radar is blipping a little. I’m getting twitchy. There’s a god in this multi-dimensional world, and he represents maleness, and he has a big old phallic pillar and whatnot. He’s tried to destroy all the goddesses and destroy a bunch of other stuff. A few characters opine that men are really intrinsically destructive—that’s what they do. And when the goddesses roll up, they’re all creative and fecund. It feels a lot like an essentialist gender narrative, and a tired one. But this is the very early 90s, so, more like the 80s. One of the reasons this stuff winds me up so much is I grew up with those narratives at that time, in all their sucky and limiting glory. For a while back then, that’s what feminism looked like. (Let’s face it—for some people, it still does.) But, having said all that, Judith and Gentle both overcome the gendered suck-fest that is their unhealthy hetero relationship pattern by the end of the novel, so things aren’t all awful.

Overall? I flat out hate essentialist gender narratives. I think they’re unhealthy and hurt people. There is that lurking at the back of the novel, and it comes to the fore much more towards the end. But then there’s Pie, offering a third way, and to an extent, that does redeem things for me, but it doesn’t completely expel my creeping discomfort. I was left with two separate feelings about the way Imajica deals with gender—one involving joy, and the other, eye rolling. They exist side by side, largely unreconciled.

Queer Classics: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault


This is the first of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, a fictional account of Alexander’s early years. I’m glad I read this as my first novel of the new year, because it’s excellent. This is a bit of a modern classic, as it was originally written in 1969, but was re-released in 2014 by Virago, with a shiny little intro by Tom Holland (author of Rubicon, my favourite popular history book). This is very much my kind of thing—historical fiction, ancient world, gay relationships. If you enjoyed Miller’s The Song of Achilles, you will probably like this.

The story follows Alexander from boyhood, where Renault charts his messy relationships with his parents, showing him trapped between their mutual enmity, often fought over or used as a weapon against the other. As Holland says in his intro, Renault doesn’t try to make the characters like modern characters—their morality is quite different—but the psychology is well drawn and complex.

As Alexander grows older, he begins a committed relationship with fellow warrior, Hephaestion. He seeks to echo the bond between Achilles and Patroclus he so admires in his favourite story, The Iliad. Their relationship is touching, but also far from simple. Renault gives insights into both their worries and inhibitions by deftly managed head hopping. It’s not a steamy relationship, so don’t expect anything like that. Alexander is unsure of physical love and doesn’t often seem very interested. There’s some ambiguity as to whether this is just his nature, or whether it’s a reaction against his father’s philandering.

I found the story immersive and captivating. From the personal relationships to the complex and often messy politics, and the ways those things intertwine, I was completely gripped from the first to the last page. When I finished, I was sorry to leave Alexander’s world. I’ve already ordered the next two books from my local library.

Happy New Year and 2016 in Books

Happy New Year to my readers. Lots of love to everyone for 2017 and all the challenges ahead.

I resolved to make 2016 a year of books, so here’s my year in books.


Here’s my Goodreads overview for 2016.

Next year, I plan to do plenty of reading, again. Maybe I can top this year. Making time for books has kept me sane. In 2017, I’d like to read more horror and more speculative fiction and counter-culture fiction with trans characters. Recommendations, as always, are welcome.

In 2016 I published two vampire novellas and finished the first draft of a 1920s horror story I’ll be editing and completing in the New Year.

I’ll see you on the other side.


Top Five Queer Fiction for 2016

Part of my New Year’s resolution to read more in 2016 was to seek out more books with LGBT+ characters. Here are the five fiction books with queer characters I read this year that I enjoyed the most. I’ve kept it to this year’s releases (but see my review index for a wider choice). There are tons of other books in this category I wanted to read and didn’t have the time or money for, so it’s a bit of an arbitrary selection, but all the books here are worth a look. In no particular order. Links to my original review in the titles for a full picture. Recommendations welcome in the comments, as I’m always looking for more.

EveryHeartaDoorway coverEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

YA speculative fiction novella about teens who have visited other worlds through magical doorways, and returned to find they no longer fit in this world. I’ve chosen this one because I love the premise of the different types of magical worlds and the diversity of characters was very well done. Kade, one of the supporting characters, is probably my favourite trans characters this year.

guapa-coverGuapa by Saleem Haddad

Adult contemporary novel about a young gay Arab man navigating his way through the various conflicting aspects of his identity, hopes and desires. I’ve chosen this for the complexity achieved in how Haddad conveys these conflicts.



beloved-poison-coverBeloved Poison by E.S. Thomson

New Adult Victorian gothic mystery about a young woman apothecary who lives her life disguised as a man so that she can practice her family trade. Lots of gory surgical details and creepy atmosphere.



eileen-coverEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Adult literary novel about a young woman in the 1960s who is inspired to leave her loveless life by a crush on a glamorous colleague. Chosen for the in depth character portrait.



The Raven King coverThe Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

YA paranormal mystery novel about a group of teens who set out to discover the mystery of the local ley line and the ancient Welsh king rumoured to be buried on it. Only the final book in the four part cycle was released this year, but I’m just going to use that as a reason to stick it all here. I didn’t realise these books have queer characters until I was well into them, but I love the way it’s done. These books border on a guilty pleasure, but miss it by some original writing and inventiveness.

Gods and Insects: New Gothic Novella

gods-and-insects-cover-9by6-thumbnailMy new gothic horror novella, Gods and Insects, is out today. This is a sequel to Love is the Cure. To celebrate the new release, I’m offering the first book free for 5 days (until next Tuesday).

If you’ve read the first one, this one is a little bit different: it’s all from one point of view, Asher’s, with a more traditional narrative structure, and more than twice as long. Asher is the youngest vampire from the first book. This new book follows his ill-fated attempts to find his place in the vampire world. There’s more horror, freaky blood trips, gay and bi characters, a trans vampire (yay). At its heart, the story is a tragedy, and a fall (in the biblical sense).

Here’s the first chapter of Gods and Insects to whet your appetite. You can buy the ebook on Amazon (and download the first one for free until next Tuesday). There will also be a paperback edition to follow soon. I hope you enjoy the read.


I should have fed before my shift. Now my skin is on fire with the need, my nostrils full of the scent of my co-worker’s blood, as I try to keep my distance in the enclosed space of the coffee shop counter. The tick of the clock on the wall echoes round my head, mocking me. Still forty minutes to go. And then I have to feed somehow. I botched the last one four nights ago; lost control of the guy I was feeding from. I’m no good at mind tricks. He tried to run and I had no choice but to—

The door opens to the night and the swish of tyres through the spring shower. My eyes are drawn to the man who enters. I can tell he’s one of my kind straight away. He has that presence the older ones have, somehow bigger than his physical body, straining against the limits of geometry. And the absence of the animal scent that mortals have, which most people don’t even notice. He joins the queue behind two drunk students and a weary looking woman in surgical scrubs and a coat. My eyes flick to him constantly, as if magnetised.

When it comes to his turn, I’m on my guard. He walks up to the counter and flashes me an amused smile, dark eyes twinkling. His skin is light brown, his black hair short, and he looks a little older than me. He has killer cheekbones. Even in this confined space, he moves like a dancer. He pulls a note from his pocket and that simple gesture is elegant, the rise and fall.

“So it’s true,” he says softly enough that only we can hear.

I’m not sure what to say, but I don’t want to look like a fool. Images of Sebastian and Kerrick flash through my mind, spattering blood across my thoughts. My creator and his other child. I try to push this fear aside, these violent memories. They can’t all be monsters. We can’t all be monsters.

“What?” I ask, trying not to show my nerves.

“One of our kind working in a coffee shop.” He chuckles and I bristle.

“Can I get you something?” The irritation sounds in my voice, but at least it hides my fear.

“Why don’t you choose for me? It doesn’t matter what, after all.” He gives me a conspiratorial grin.

I turn and prepare the machine to pour a double ristretto, the most expensive drink I can make. My tiny piece of revenge. His eyes bore into the back of my neck, as the dark liquid trickles into a cup at an agonising rate.

When it’s finally done, I place the cup in front of him and risk eye contact. His eyes are a rich dark brown. Permanently amused.

“When do you get off?” He slides the note towards me.

I try to read his face for some clue to what he wants from me, but he seems so relaxed. “Half an hour.”

“I’ll wait for you.” He lifts the cup to smell the coffee, eyes full of humour. His amusement doesn’t seem malicious, but I’m pretty sure I’m the joke.

I go through the motions for my last half hour, my eyes constantly flicking to the back of his head, as if I’ll find answers there. Contrasted against the dark of the night outside, the harsh electric lighting seems to spotlight me, picking me out for scrutiny. I wonder if he can see my hunger written across my face, as my co-worker nudges past me to clear the tables. If I could just taste her— I force the image back, though it seems more real to me than my surroundings. I can control this.

He’s sitting in one of the far booths, facing away from me, staring out into the night. That presence he has, I wonder whether I have it too. I’m sure it’s just the older ones. I’ve no intention of returning to Sebastian or Kerrick to ask them for advice. Kerrick offered me this escape from him, this chance to make my own way. At the time, I’d been afraid to be alone, but now I’m determined to make it work. I got this job far away from Spitalfields and Kerrick’s other haunts. Far away from Kensington, and Sebastian’s sphere. Somewhere central and neutral, where I thought no one would ask questions or even notice me. But clearly there’s nowhere to hide.

When I’m done for the night, I untie the apron from my waist, fold it into my satchel, and grab my coat from the back of the shop. The visitor is still waiting for me in the same place, his cup of coffee untouched. He turns as I approach.

“Sit yourself down,” he says, with that same sparkling smile. He gestures to the bench opposite.

It’s getting close to 2am. I work the night shift, of course. The graveyard shift.

“I’m Xavier.” He offers his hand. He has the trace of an accent, though I can’t place it.

His handshake is brisk and business-like and I try to ignore the pang of loneliness that hits me with his touch.

“Asher,” I say, though it’s right there on my badge. I slide into the booth.

He tilts his head to one side, examining me. “You don’t look like an Asher.”

“I changed my name when I left home. It used to be Alex.”

He nods. “You look more like an Alex.”

I stifle a sigh. This again. “You mean, I look Greek.” Kerrick and Sebastian both held fantasies of gods and heroes from ancient times, and somehow I was in them. It seems to be an obsession with these older vampires.

He shrugs. “There are worse things to look. Don’t be sorry for your roots. I’m from that part of the world myself. From Venice, originally.” Venice. That was the accent. “Long time since I was there,” he continues. “But you’re quite new. Who made you?”

I tense at the question. Was this information I should share freely? There were so many rules, and I hadn’t paid enough attention to Kerrick’s lessons. Or, rather, some of them had overshadowed the others.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he says in answer to my silence. “I’m just curious. I heard a rumour one of our kind was working in a coffee shop off Tottenham Court Road. I wondered, how does such a thing happen?”

I’m a rumour. Perhaps other vampires have seen me too; perhaps they were here and I didn’t notice. I feel on display in this glass box with the night pressing in all around. But I force myself to answer. “I needed a job.”

“Alex, this isn’t a job for one of our kind.”

“Asher.” I shouldn’t have told him my old name.

He waves his hand as if it’s nothing. “As you like. Asher, where’s your creator? They should be taking care of you. You should still be by their side.”

“Kerrick,” I say. There’s a flicker of recognition on his face. He has enough mastery of his emotions to hide whatever else he’s thinking, but I can guess. “George Kerrick made me. But I left him.”

“Ah,” he says, and revolves his cup around. “Well, that’s a hefty legacy.”

“You know him, then?”

“Everyone does. I don’t know him well. Just by sight. He keeps his own society.”

Beyond Kerrick, and Sebastian’s little closed, incestuous world, I’ve never met any others of our kind. But the way he talks makes me think there’s a whole lot more of us. I suppose it was just a matter of time that they’d crawl out of the woodwork.

“Maybe I could find you work,” Xavier says.

I shift in my seat, my skin prickling. Why does he want to help me; why the interest? I take a breath to steady myself. “What kind?”

“Something better suited to your nature.”

I’m not sure what that means. All I’ve seen of our nature is violence. Xavier doesn’t seem like the violent type. Then again, neither did Sebastian.

“These are dangerous times, Asher. Ancient powers are on the move. You need the company of your own kind. Do you even have a safe haven?”

 I live in a shared flat in Stratford, above a seedy club. It’s a dive. Barely habitable. I don’t even have my own room. My dad said he would send me money, but it hasn’t arrived. I keep checking the cash machines, hoping the balance finds its way a little further into the black. I don’t want to beg. I want him to think I’m doing okay.

“You need to learn to guard your thoughts, as well,” Xavier says. “Those of us who’ve been around a while, we tend to pick things up if you think so loud. Listen, I’m going to a club. Why don’t you come? I’ll get you in.”

I look at my watch, trying to focus on that and not my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know how to refuse him, or even if I want to. I don’t even want to think in case he hears me. I stare at the second hand ticking away, paralysed with indecision.

“Plenty of time, yet,” Xavier says smoothly, as if I haven’t just frozen. “Besides, they have rooms if we get stuck at dawn. It’s a special club.”

In the bright light of his smile my worries appear foolish. Those eyes of his warm me through, relaxing me. I want to trust him. I’m sick of being alone, sick of the frail existence I’ve built for myself, so insubstantial I could knock it over with a breath.

“All right,” I say. His smile grows into a satisfied grin.


The club is walking distance from work, in Soho, but it’s easily missed. There’s a little gateway in one of the buildings. No signs. It’s been recently painted in black and gold. We walk through the entrance into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by high buildings. Neat little topiary bushes sit about in pots. A gold plaque by the door says ‘Varney’s’ in a modern italic script.

“Just a little joke.” Xavier gestures to the sign. I must look blank, because he says, “have you never heard of Varney the Vampire? I guess you’re pretty young.”

“Twenty-one,” I say.

“Jesus. You weren’t one for gothic literature in your mortal life, then?”

“I don’t really read much.” I shift awkwardly, my hands in my back pockets. I always end up feeling like a dumb kid around others of my kind.

“Don’t worry,” Xavier says. “I was an ignorant fuck in my mortal days, as well. I just happened to be living in Renaissance Venice, so I couldn’t help but fall into some culture now and then. Cheating, really.”

Ignorant fuck. His words sting. He smirks and this time the joke’s at my expense.

“The owner of this club is one of us. Nathaniel Hook, he’s called. Did your creator explain the rules about young vampires?”

I shake my head.

Xavier brings his thumb and forefinger up to the bridge of his nose and massages it. “All right. Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t really be out without your creator, not among other vampires. I’ll vouch for you tonight, say you’re under my protection. You don’t have any quirks I should know about?”

My mind races for an answer, but in the end I shrug. “I don’t think so.”

“Funny feeding habits? Propensity to fly into violent rages?”

I shake my head. I’m not sure if he’s joking now.

“What are you good at?”

I shrug again. “I’m fast. Strong.” My list falls short.

“You don’t have a bloody clue, do you? Never mind. Perhaps it’s too soon for you to know. Follow my lead. You can trust Hook. Be careful of the others.”

I follow him through the anonymous black door. A bulky bouncer nods to Xavier as we enter. On the other side is a modern looking bar buzzing with people. They all seem to be mortal, including the bouncer. The smell of their blood overwhelms me.

Xavier puts an arm on my shoulder, and pulls me closer. So close I can smell the sharp tang of his cologne, feel his body press against mine. Bolstering me against the pull of that scent. I realise how alone I’ve been.

“This is just the public section. The club is out back,” he whispers hot into my neck.

We pass the bar which stretches the length of the room. It’s carved from golden wood, cut into waves and polished to a shine. A small man leans at the end, watching us approach. He has a long face, with a long nose, and, as I draw near, I realise he’s one of us. That strange trick of space and presence again.

“Hook!” Xavier exclaims. “Good to see you. This is my friend, Asher. I’m showing him the sights.”

Hook smiles at us with his thin lips and looks me up and down. “He seems a little fresh, my friend.”

“I’ll vouch for him.”

“See that you do. Welcome to Varney’s, Asher.”

“Thanks,” I say, and he gives me a brief nod.

We go through a door behind Hook, marked ‘Private’, into a cloakroom dimly lit by a red bulb.

“What does he think I’ll do?” I ask.

“Lose control,” Xavier says. “Act inappropriately with the guests. But I think you’ll be all right, as long as you stick with me. Okay?”


“When you meet someone new, just bow your head and keep your eyes on the floor. Don’t address them as you did with Hook. Most of our kind are very concerned with seniority and good manners. Do you understand?”

I nod, a lump rising in my throat. I’m no longer sure I want to meet anyone. I’m not in the mood for bowing and scraping. It sounds like the sort of game Sebastian would enjoy.

We go through a set of double doors. My feet sink into thick carpet. The light is golden, glistening from chandeliers and wall sconces, all electric, but with a muted tone. It shines off the gilt-edged decoration and furniture. I can’t help but think of Sebastian’s beautiful antiques.

The place is nearly empty. A middle-aged woman reclines on a couch in one corner. She wears a colourful patterned robe and a turban, and fingers a long string of beads around her neck. With the other hand she smokes a cigarette in a long holder. Two men lean against a small bar in the corner, regarding us. They’re both smartly dressed in suits, their ages difficult to guess, perhaps somewhere in their forties. They nod at Xavier and I look down as he’s told me. His hand presses against my back, guiding me to a couch on the far wall.

“Good,” he says, his breath against my ear. I crave that closeness. “You’re doing fine. It’s very quiet tonight.”

We sit on the couch. The woman in the corner is watching us with interest. Xavier smiles and nods at her, a respectful gesture of acknowledgement, but he doesn’t seem to want to engage. His focus is all on me.

“Have you fed?” he asks.

I shake my head, ashamed, picturing my last victim running across the park, me driving him down to the ground, before he could escape. He’s not the first I’ve messed up. I’ve tried so hard not to kill like Kerrick. Each victim is etched in my mind, a tally marked across my soul.

He strokes my cheek with his hand. “What did they do to you?”

I meet his eyes. I don’t have the words to tell him my fear and I’m not sure I want to, but I feel the brush of his consciousness against mine. It’s the softest touch, not like Sebastian’s force. I soften and melt towards him. His arm wraps around me and I rest my head on his shoulder.

“Evening, Xavier.” It’s a woman’s voice. I raise my head to see, but it feels heavy; my whole body is like lead. It’s easier not to fight this strange, sleepy feeling, but to release myself to it. My eyelids flutter, allowing me a glimpse of the slender young woman in front of me. She wears a long deep blue satin dress, which drapes over her hips and flows down to the floor like water, pooling at her feet. Blonde hair falls to her waist. I don’t look up to her face.

“Do you have any guests tonight?” he asks.

“Of course,” she says. “Would you like a room?”

“I think that would be better,” he says. He turns to me. “Come on, little sleepy head. We’re going to get you something to eat.”

Somehow I rise. It’s as though I’m floating, pulled by an invisible string. I bob along beside him in the gentle stream he’s made for me. We leave the room, following the woman. The satin of her dress whispers to me, as we move along the corridor. She opens a door for us and ushers us in. The room is modern, a wash of pale cream with touches of red. It has a Japanese feel. There are no windows. A large bed dominates the room.

“We’ll take the room until tomorrow night, if that’s all right?” he says.

“That’s fine. Shall I put it on Mr Sforza’s account?”


I sink onto the bed, the covers softer than anything I’ve felt. What’s he done to me? I can’t control my body, but my senses are amplified a thousand times. The cream blankness of the ceiling is comforting, as I stare up at it and imagine myself floating up to meld with the nothingness. The woman leaves us. The door hisses across the deep carpet and clunks neatly into place.

“Are you a messy eater?” Xavier asks me. He towers above me. I see Sebastian ripping chunks of flesh away with his teeth, blood pouring down his shirt.

“No,” Xavier says. “You need to stop thinking about that.” His consciousness holds mine a little tighter. “You’re afraid to feed. You must understand you need the vitality to function. Do you want to die?”

Once I did. Now, I’m not sure. Can he see that uncertainty in my mind? I can’t speak. He must know I can’t speak. My throat tightens as my panic rises.

“Shh,” he says. “Stop fighting me.”

I didn’t realise I was. I’m not sure how to control it. I sense him probing my thoughts. I imagine my mind like a flat blank plain, like the ceiling. A vast expanse with no walls. Everything fades bright white around me, until I’m floating in that nothingness.

I remain there for a long time, enjoying the peace of that empty space. The uncomplicated blank. Then there is red, a dribble at first, across the whiteness. It’s hot in my throat, as it blossoms into a bloody flower. I reach out with my mind and touch a petal. It’s soft-fuzzed and delicate. I stroke it, savouring the velvet surface.

Xavier’s voice comes from very far away, calling me back, and I float up into the room. There’s a man kneeling beside the bed, a mortal man. He doesn’t look much older than me. He smiles as I open my eyes. He’s holding his wrist out to me, two clean puncture marks where I’ve fed from him. I pull myself up onto my elbow and lick the wound. It heals.

“Thank you,” Xavier says, from behind me.

The man nods, and stands. He pads out of the room, barefoot. I roll over to find Xavier sitting beside me, leaning back against the bedstead.

“That was very nicely done,” he says. “The flower, and everything. They love that sort of thing.”

“I didn’t—” I begin.

“I controlled your panic, the traumatic responses you’ve learned. But you created the vision and he shared that as you fed from him. These are the things your creator should have taught you.”

“Who was the man?”

“One of the mortals, who visit here. They call them guests. Some people enjoy being fed from. They find it pleasurable. Hook provides a specialist service, in two different senses. A complementary arrangement.”

“They actually enjoy it?”

“Sure. Why not? It can be a rush for some of them. And, of course, there’s the thrill of danger.” His lips draw into a slow smile and I catch the glimpse of his fangs.

“Can we feed here all the time?”

Xavier shakes his head. “Sadly, not. Hook just can’t supply enough. He must be very careful who he invites here, for our security. And it’s not a good idea to depend completely on another for your sustenance. You make yourself a slave to them. Understand?”

I nod. “Just like we can’t feed from each other.”

“Not quite. It’s simply unwise to trust everything to others. That’s all I mean. What you said isn’t quite true. We can feed from one another and it isn’t always bad. There are different bonds we can create with our blood. But you have to be careful. My lover and I, we’re bound to one another. It’s a mutual bond, but created over a long time.”

I feel a pang at the mention of a lover. Stupid. We’ve only just met but I don’t want to share him.

“What did you do to me, before, when I lost control?”

“It’s a mind-trick, baby boy. Did you like it?”

“I’m not sure.” My confusion is real. I know, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I should fear this, but I can’t find my fear. I want to trust him so badly.

“Would you like to spend the day here with me? I’ll keep you safe.”

“Yes,” I blurt out, far too eager.

“Would you like me to teach you?”

I nod, too afraid to speak in case I spoil something. It’s too perfect. He’s too perfect.

“I need to make a phone call, Asher. Perhaps tomorrow night you can come home with me. I need to check. I share my safe haven.”

He slides off the bed and disappears through the door.


(c) Ambrose Hall, 2016