Well, ever since I enjoyed Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Armand” several months ago, I’ve been meaning to read another novel in Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series. But, after finding a second-hand copy of a spin-off novel from 1998 called “Pandora” online, I decided to read this instead.
Interestingly, although this novel is a spin-off from a fairly large series, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel (thanks to a lot of recaps in the earlier and later parts and a reasonably self-contained main story). But, if you’ve read any of the main “Vampire Chronicles” novels before this one, then you’ll probably get a little more out of it.
So, let’s take a look at “Pandora”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
This is the 1999 Arrow (UK) paperback edition of “Pandora” that I read.
The novel begins in Paris in 1997. An ancient vampire called Pandora is sitting in a cafe and writing her life story in a notebook given to her by a younger vampire called David Talbot, who is trying to collect a library of these accounts from his fellow vampires. She begins by recounting how he met her whilst she was drinking from the heart of a lonely wanderer on a bridge, and how he persuaded her to set her story down on paper.
The story then flashes back to Pandora’s youth in Rome in 15 B.C. As the daughter of a wealthy senator during the more liberal and benevolent rule of Augustus, she is highly educated and her early life is an idyllic mixture of rituals, poetry reading, interesting discussions, social events etc.. Over the years that follow, she briefly meets a fascinating man called Marius, has a couple of marriages and also joins a hedonistic Egyptian cult for a while. Life is good, until Augustus dies and is replaced by a more despotic and tyrannical emperor called Tiberius.
When Pandora, now in her thirties, returns home one day, she finds that almost everyone is gone. Her father tells her that he has just recieved news that Tiberius’ elite guards are planning to massacre the entire family on account of some perceived disloyalty. He has arranged for his friends to spirit her out of the city and orders that she leaves at once. And, as she hides in a nearby merchant’s cart, she witnesses both his death and that of the two soldiers sent to kill him.
After this, she travels out of Rome by sea – but, on the voyage to Antioch, she starts to be troubled by strange dreams about ancient Egypt. Dreams that involve drinking blood…
One of the first things that I will say is that this is a wonderfully atmospheric, well-written, intelligent, gothic and compelling vampire novel 🙂 Yes, Rice’s more formal writing style may take a little while to get used to and the novel takes a little while for the main story to really become dramatic, but it is well worth sticking with it 🙂 Seriously, if you enjoy either historical fiction and/or vampire fiction, then this one is well worth reading. Not to mention that the fact that this is a novel that opens with someone writing in a notebook in a cafe (something I used to do a lot about a decade or so ago) instantly piqued my interest too 🙂
I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. Although it is slightly more of a historical drama story than a horror story, it still contains some horror elements 🙂 These mostly consist of psychological horror, tragic horror, vampire horror, a subtle hint of cosmic/existential horror, some suspense and a few moments of gory horror. This adds some much-needed gothic darkness to the novel, which contrasts really well with the beautifully-rendered historical settings and the joyful parts of Pandora’s life, in addition to making some parts of the story even more compelling and dramatic too 🙂
Although I haven’t studied the history in enough depth to talk about how accurate it is, the novel’s historical settings are really atmospheric 🙂 Plus, it is always cool to see either ancient Rome and/or ancient Egypt appear in the horror genre (see Rebecca Levene’s awesome “Anno Mortis” or Guy N. Smith’s brilliantly creepy “Accursed” for non-vampire examples of this).
The novel makes these settings feel both realistic and stylised at the same time, is filled with historical references and also includes a few interesting touches too (eg: in the segments set in ancient Rome, Antioch etc.. the word “vampire” – a later term- is never used. Instead, the characters refer to vampires as “blood drinkers”).
In true Anne Rice fashion, these settings are lavishly and vividly described in a way that could easily rival or surpass even the most large-budget TV series (like HBO’s “Rome” etc…) and, in keeping with the “aristocratic vampire” thing, the novel also focuses more on the upper classes of the time too. This both gives the main characters a lot more rights, freedoms, education etc.. whilst also adding some subtle unease and/or moral ambiguity to the story (eg: Pandora’s unthinking/uncritical attitudes towards slavery, the whims and cruelty of emperors etc…) that contrasts brilliantly with the sumptuous escapist fantasy of being rich in Roman times. Seriously, I really loved the historical elements of this novel 🙂
Thematically, this novel is about both the staying power of cultures and the transience of religions, whilst also exploring both the meaning of life and the limits of “reason” too. Like with Rice’s “The Vampire Armand”, this novel has a fairly spiritual quality to it (even including some vision/dream-based scenes that are both beautiful and horrifying) – but, unlike that novel, the ultimate message of “Pandora” is either an existentialist or a nihilist one, where even science and logic are presented as silly constructions in the face of the nothingness of death/eternity – with the only way to stay sane being to find one’s own meaning in life.
Likewise, the novel talks about how some elements of ancient Rome still survive in modern culture whilst also focusing on how personal revelation/experience/thought is a path to spiritual understanding (with all organised religions in the novel shown to either be short-lived cults, empty traditions, confidence tricks and/or authoritarian structures more interested in power than spirituality).
In terms of the characters, they are really well-written 🙂 Pandora gets the bulk of the novel’s characterisation and she comes across as a very realistic, interesting, morally-ambiguous, complex and intelligent character who also develops and changes over the course of the novel too. Likewise, a lot of the novel’s drama also comes from the characters too (eg: the way that Marius and Pandora’s contrasting views about the meaning of life gradually drive them apart, how Pandora uses rhetoric to defeat an enemy etc…) – which really helps to keep everything really compelling 🙂
As for the writing, it is superb 🙂 Although this novel’s first-person narration is written in a rather formal and/or old-fashioned style that might take a while to get used to, this not only allows Rice to add a lot of extra atmosphere, depth, vividness and personality to the novel – but it is also an absolutely perfect fit for the narrator (eg: a 2000+ year old aristocratic vampire), which really helps to cement the impression that you are actually reading a notebook that a vampire is casually writing in a cafe. Something further enhanced by the occasional well-placed fourth-wall break and/or Pandora’s asides about various things.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good 🙂 At 406 pages, with relatively large type, this novel is refreshingly concise compared to other novels I’ve seen by the author. Likewise, whilst this novel isn’t exactly fast-paced (and the recaps at the beginning can slow things down a bit), it remains compelling throughout – with the use of atmosphere, personality and/or suspense keeping even the more “uneventful” parts of the story interesting to read. Although some later parts of the story feel a bit rushed in comparison to the rest of the story, this kind of mirrors how memory works and also fits in well with the idea that Pandora is only spending two nights or so writing her life story.
As for how well this twenty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged fairly well 🙂 Not only do the historical segments give the story a more “timeless” feel, but the early scenes set in 1990s Paris have a wonderfully “90s” atmosphere too. Yes, the writing style is deliberately old-fashioned and some elements of the story (eg: the class politics of Roman society, the slavery of the time etc…) would probably be written about in a more explicitly critical way in a modern novel (plus, a brief segment about a transgender character late in the novel would probably be written slightly differently today too), but the story, atmosphere, characters etc… are still timelessly compelling.
All in all, this is a really brilliant vampire novel 🙂 It is atmospheric, intelligent and compelling, with some fascinating characters and brilliant writing. I probably haven’t done this book justice in this review, but it is one of those books that really shows off the power of the written word at its very best 🙂 If you love gothic fiction, vampires, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome/Antioch, writing in notebooks in cafes etc.. then this novel is well worth reading 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.