And Then She Found the Right Vein

By Elizabeth Hand,
whose most recent novel, "Generation Loss," is a finalist for the first Shirley Jackson award
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

BLOOD COLONY

By Tananarive Due

Atria. 422 pp. $25

Tananarive Due has one of the more arresting voices in contemporary American fiction. She's a writer whose vision, on display in her best speculative work (she's also written several mysteries) rivals that of the late, great Octavia Butler, to whom "Blood Colony" is dedicated. This is the third installment of her popular "African Immortals" series that began with "My Soul to Keep" (1997) and continued with the marvelous "The Living Blood" (winner of a 2002 American Book Award).

Due's sequence builds upon a brilliant premise: the discovery of 59 Ethiopian men, members of a supernatural brotherhood whose immortality may have been conferred upon them through the blood of Jesus Christ, taken during the Crucifixion. The Blood possesses miraculous healing abilities even for those not of the Brotherhood. Just a few drops will save an ordinary human from the most gruesome injuries, and immortality can be conferred through the Life Ceremony. The Brothers themselves can be gravely injured, though they recover within a few hours; they also can be destroyed, by exsanguination, incineration or living burial.

The first two books featured beautifully observed characters, generous helpings of African myth and lore, African American Christianity, references to historical settings and events (slavery in the American South, Ethiopia's 19th-century war with Italy) and, best of all, one of those mortal/immortal pairings that provide a sexy frisson whenever the demands of the mundane world threaten to bog things down.

Dawit Wolde has the Living Blood; his wife, Jessica, is "functionally immortal" due to the Blood ritual. Their firstborn child died in a botched attempt to confer the Blood upon her. Their second-born daughter, Fana, was born with the Blood and possesses the sort of supernatural powers that bring up the old "New Messiah or Antichrist?" debate among those of an apocalyptic bent. The extended Wolde clan -- Dawit and Jessica, along with various mortal and immortal Brothers, friends, relations and acolytes, now live in a secret Pacific Northwest compound, the Colony, part Rainbow Family, part Christian sect.

As "Blood Colony" opens, this pastoral existence is threatened by the outside world. The Blood is a prime ingredient in a new drug developed by those affiliated with the Brotherhood. Called Glow, it can cure AIDS, sickle cell anemia and other blood-related illnesses. But the U.S. government and Big Pharm claim the drug is part of a terrorist conspiracy. So members of the Colony, including 17-year-old Fana and several of her outside friends, have founded a 21st-century underground railroad to get Glow to those who need it most.

There are others who want Glow: the immortal adherents of Sanctus Cruor, a maleficent rival brotherhood that borrows vestments, architecture and iconography from the Catholic Church and gives ample employment to that time-honored gothic villain, an evil monk. Yet is it Glow that Sanctus Cruor desires or Fana herself?

All this should make for a rip-roaring neo-gothic novel, in the tradition of Anne Rice. Instead, the story gets mired in Due's hugely complex backstory, with the ceaseless introduction of dozens of characters and subplots slowing the narrative to a crawl. It's as though a season's worth of story was crammed into a single, hastily written cliffhanging episode of a show like "Buffy" or "Lost." Motives are left undeveloped; characters are introduced only to disappear. Glow's miraculous properties and network of altruistic suppliers amount to little more than a blood-red herring (though they promise to play a central part in the next book).

For those who stick it out, the last hundred pages finally deliver the goods, in the form of Sanctus Cruor's Chosen One, a male counterpart to the Living Blood's Fana. Here, at last, Due's myriad and tangled plotlines converge so that we get a glimpse of the big picture -- only to have the book end, jarringly. Stay tuned, folks!

Fortunately, there's enough of Due's obvious affection for her characters to keep one turning the pages, hoping for more. Fana is nicely drawn, as is her beloved grandmother. And, as always, Due does a remarkable job of balancing her protagonists' supernatural powers with their Christian beliefs, an impressive feat that gives her storytelling a sturdy, this-could-really-happen appeal. Readers encountering this series for the first time in "Blood Colony" may feel as though they've wandered into a vast family reunion where they don't know anyone. Still, by the end even newcomers may find themselves irresistibly drawn to the members of Due's extensive, prickly clan of immortals and hopeful of an invitation for a return visit.


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