23 Hours (July 2, 2009)

As the fourth book in David Wellington’s vampire series, 23 Hours is hereby excused from being considered a “hanger on” to the dominating pop culture sensations that all things bloodsucker have been in recent years.

Although it may be tempting to view the novel through the lens of HBO’s current hit show True Blood, or the wildly popular Twilight young adult book series that has turned young Robert Pattinson into a bonafide teen sensation, the obvious comparisons are simply too easy.

Yes, the book is about vampire hunting. Yes, it hits stores right smack in the middle of a veritable Dracula renaissance. However, 23 Hours is both more, and in some cases less, than its contemporaries in creating a modern vampiric mythology.

The heroine, semi-famous lesbian vampire hunter Laura Caxton, finds herself behind bars in maximum security Pennsylvania women’s prison, Marcy State Correctional Institution, at the inception of the novel.

In case the reader has not read any of the previous books in the series, Wellington quite charitably fills you in on how Caxton came to find herself incarcerated: in short, she kidnapped and tortured a suspect with ties to the vampire community.

Her willingness to cross over to the wrong side of the law, even with the noble intent to save lives, proves too much for her by-the numbers boss, Deputy Marshal Fetlock, and he throws the book at Caxton.

Structurally, the novel is divided into three sections, entitled, respectively: Bellows, Guilty Jen and Malvern. Though it is the latter two sections where the vampire bloodlust and chase ultimately plays out, it is the first part, Bellows, which proves to be the most riveting.

This 42 page section offers a bleak account of warrior Caxton’s dehumanizing conversion to inmate. The repetitiveness, hopelessness and loneliness of life inside a maximum security prison is much less Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and much more Oz.

The ability to identify with the humiliating pain of Caxton’s animalistic jail rituals is so complete that I felt the need to put the book down a time or two to wipe a tear from my eye. Large credit goes to the vivid internal dialogue Wellington creates for his protagonist.

That said, delving into section two, Guilty Jen, is quite jarring, and I am not sure the book ever recovers.

Basically, we are transported from Dead Woman Walking right into Terminator skull cracking territory, as Caxton begins her 23 hour quest to eliminate her vampiric nemesis, Justinia Malvern, once and for all.

The novel suffers from this clumsy transition. The suspense thriller is written at an 8th grade reading level, with such gratuitous gore and objectification of the female body, I often felt at times as though I were reading a Christopher Pike young adult novel, rather than mature adult fiction.

The objectification and repeated mutilation of the female form is the more incongruous, as each and every major character is a woman: heroine Laura Caxton and her girlfriend, Clara Hsu; Caxton’s “celly” and dubious moral consideration Gert Stimson: the villanous Justinia Malvern and her partner in crime, Warden Bellows.

Where male characters do exist in the novel, they serve as glorified extras, one-dimensional foils such as Fetlock, or vampire chum like the many Correctional Officers at Marcy State. I am conflicted about this.

On the one hand, the novel is nothing if not a message of female empowerment. Yet at the same time, this women-centric world is a touch unrealistic and ultimately frustrating. I realize it’s a lot to ask for realism of any kind from a vampire action novel, but it would have been nice to see one fully formed man in the cast of characters.

It is easy to appreciate the little touches, the slight differences that Wellington’s own brand of vampire mythology brings to the canon.

For example, the vampires in 23 Hours are not sexy. The author goes out of his way to make clear that Justinia Malvern is not the compliment to Anne Rice’s Lestat.

On page 70 of the novel, she is described as follows:

“Her head was completely hairless. She didn’t even have eyelashes. She had long triangular ears, one of which looked like it had been chewed on by animals…Her mouth was full of broken fangs.”

In Wellington’s world, garlic is powerless against creatures of the night, and older vampires need much more blood to stay “healthy” than their young counterparts.

These bits are fun, but not enough to mask the work’s overall shortcomings, such as the endless action scenes that don’t often do much to move the plot.

Most disappointingly, the “gotcha!” ending of the novel is one that anyone over the age of 13 would have seen coming from a mile way.

23 Hours might serve as a must-read for fans of Wellington, and those who just can’t get enough of vampires in general. However, there are certainly better examples of parasitic action literature than this unchallenging and ultimately lumbering work.

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