Publish Date: July 13, 2013
Pages: 266 pages
Summary: With the suicide of her best friend, burned-out rock star Nikki Velvet came face-to-face with death, and she’d do anything not to face it again. When a mysterious stranger offers her immortality, she believes she’s found what she’s been searching for, but it’s nothing like she’s imagined ….
Sylvan, the beautiful stranger who’d promised to make her a vampire, turned out to be all too human. He keeps his promise — but only to leave her weak, helpless, and addicted to his blood.
Now, trapped in her new life with him — and with Paul, the vampire she’s replaced as Sylvan’s favorite — Nikki struggles to rise above Sylvan’s control and Paul’s jealousy, and to find a way out with the help from the ghosts of her past.
But it might not be so simple. When Sylvan risks the retribution of the enigmatic Shadow Market, Nikki has to find her own fate, before time runs out for all of them ….
STILL LIFE is a story of loss, isolation, the things we mistake for love, and the way back out of the dark. (Source: Amazon product description.)
Short Version: Easily the most entertaining, thought-provoking vampire novel I’ve ever read. Run, don’t walk, to buy it.
Longer Version: My disclaimer on this one is as short as it is important: I came to this book, gifted to me by the author, with about as fresh a perspective as it’s possible to have in reading fiction. I have no strong opinions one way or the other about vampire novels. (I’ve enjoyed a couple of Anne Rice’s Lestat novels, loathe Twilight, like Stoker’s Dracula and am completely ignorant of most of what else is out there.) Beyond the product description, I knew almost nothing about this book or its author, and had no pre-conceived notions on what it was going to be like.
What is it like? It’s extraordinary.
Montoure’s character work is exceptional, and definitely a centrepiece for the novel. Looming large in the story is Randall Sylvan (his first name is mentioned only once), the beautiful, mysterious stranger who promises to turn protagonist Nikki Velvet into a vampire. The thing is, Sylvan’s not actually a vampire. He’s a pretentious, selfish, weak, abusive prick and a lot of other things, but a vampire? Nope.
Nikki’s induction into vampire life is left to Paul, who despite being small, swarthy and entirely human-looking, actually is a real vampire. Nikki, like Paul, quickly becomes addicted to Sylvan’s blood and he, in turn, becomes addicted to “feeding” them. The three live in a strange ménage à trois that is powerful in its sexuality without ever involving sex. Nikki unexpectedly walks in on Sylvan feeding Paul, and this happens:
I stared at them.
Sylvan, sitting on his bed. Paul, kneeling on the floor between Sylvan’s gently parted legs. Leaning forward, his neck pressed against Sylvan’s outstretched wrist… Paul’s face [was] screwed up in an expression of concentration and need. He was softly whimpering, and every few seconds he let out a small, shuddering gasp.
The analogy is cemented when Sylvan, seeing Nikki, assumes that she feels as betrayed as a scorned mistress. And despite her protests to the contrary, she acts like one.
Nikki Velvet is a fantastic protagonist – realistically flawed, and neither unnecessarily aggressive nor a doormat. I am amazed at how well Montoure writes a first-person narrative from a female perspective. Unlike many book heroines Nikki is entirely uninterested, for the most part, in indulgent descriptions of herself (especially physically) and instead reacts mainly to the world and people around her. She is the storyteller, occasionally addressing the long-dead Gabe directly, but the novel never falls over into either of the twin perils of wangsty navel-gazing or distancing the reader from Nikki’s emotions.
The only parts of this book I felt even verged on weak writing were a few scenes where Nikki describes the music she and Gabe created together, and her self-image as a rock star. I felt that I wasn’t quite catching what Montoure was throwing out to me. But then, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an instance where the written word alone was able to recreate the ambience and emotional impact of music. These music scenes didn’t distract me, and are very unlikely to distract any reader but one who is looking for weaknesses in the story.
I certainly didn’t detect weakness in any of the characterisations, nor in Montoure’s beautiful, breathless, rolling prose that reminds me, in the best possible way, of Kerouac’s On The Road:
Dull sodium streetlights glowed in the distance like will-o’-the-wisps, the color of old teeth. Every now and then, car headlights would pass, fill the rooms with a pale blue that would sweep from side to side and burn the shape of the windowpanes on the walls and look for an exit and be gone.
Line after line, paragraph after paragraph, Montoure treats the reader to some of the most unique and beautiful turns of phrase I’ve read in years.
Still Life is a horror story, all right; but I felt that the horror had very little to do with vampires and the supernatural.
The horror comes from Sylvan, the ordinary human being who feeds the addictions of the vampires who rely on him. In return, he controls them utterly – from grooming Nikki and her successor, Amanda, to be his “pretty little dolls” who wear what they’re told, to withholding blood as a punishment and/or as a means to control, to lashing out in horrific, uncontrollable violence.
Sound familiar? This is a story less about vampires and more about addiction and domestic abuse, topics that Montoure explores with unflinching, head-on bravery and accuracy. Sylvan takes great pleasure in bartering his vampire’s total submission with his blood and using the threat of daylight to prevent them from leaving an unlocked house. It’s a perfect exploration of the oft-heard and ignorant question sometimes asked of domestic abuse victims: “Why didn’t you just tell him to fuck off and walk right out?”
This is not treated as a gendered issue, largely by way of the refreshing and intriguing characterisation of Paul. While Nikki freely admits many times in the narrative to hating Sylvan, and Amanda seems to hold almost religious reverence for him, Paul is the embodiment of: If I can just work out what I’m doing to make him angry, I can stop doing it, and he’ll stop being angry, and we’ll all be happy.
I’ve ranted for too long about what may just be an over-interpretation on my part, but trust me, this is a devastatingly accurate and complex treatment of a very devastating and complex set of social issues.
Final praise has to go to Montoure’s editor, Elizabeth Knottingham, and his proofreader, Sam Sheets. Both have done an absolutely flawless job. I can’t think of a single example of a grammatical mistake or a weak sentence or the dreaded Typo of Doom. Better, neither Montoure’s editor nor his proofreader have “corrected” his prose into academic sterility; instead, they have facilitated his unique and engaging style.
Go. Buy. This. Book. Seriously.