“I sense it even now. People thirst for it; the entire country is mad with desire for it…”
A dying man’s cryptic letter to an enigmatic professor launches student Steven Roberts on an unwitting quest, shrouded in mystery, into the war-torn labyrinth of a disintegrating Eastern European country. Steven plunges into the maelstrom to unearth long-forgotten documents holding clues to an ancient Emperor’s deeply buried secret, an inconceivable and long-forgotten evil that has slumbered for centuries. Steven’s perilous journey stretches from Southern California’s sunny beaches, to the exotically dystopian city-scapes of Budapest, Belgrade, and Bosnia, as it plays out against a backdrop of events that occurred centuries before in the Balkans.(read more here)
Vampires have been done and overdone to death, and aren’t exactly synonymous with the word “original” these days. Very few novelists can pull off making the fanged creatures interesting, or making them do something readers haven’t ever seen before. In other words, the wheel has already been invented. There’s not much undiscovered territory left with vamps, so to the author who decides to use them in their fictional work(s), their task is not so much to try to kill themselves to make their vampires unique or original in some way, which, again, is nearly impossible to do at this point, but rather to make the story engaging and to make readers care about their vampires, and for a good reason. It’s not enough to make them pretty moving statues. There has to be depth, and the storyteller must be gifted.
If we go back to a time before Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, before Stephen King, and before much of what we have come to associate with the modern vampire in fictional works, we’ll find that Dracula is most people’s references point for vampires, readers and non-readers alike.
Stoker did meticulous amounts of research into a lot of Eastern European history to make his account of Vlad ?epe?, or Vlad the Impaler, the historical character upon which he based Count Dracula, and future readers and writers inherited his version of the folklore and legends surrounding vampires–everything from their hatred of garlic, crosses, and churches to their thirst for blood, the way they’re created, their appearance, etc. Rather than trying to do a revisionist take on Dracula, author and professor of Balkan Studies James Lyon opted to take all of his knowledge of the history of Eastern Europe, specifically Serbia, to create a tale of historical intrigue about vampires, based on his years of extensive research into ethnographic and folkloric accounts of vampires.
In 1991, a professor of Balkan studies, Marko Slatina, assigns one of his grad students, Steven, to travel to the war-torn Serbia (then Yugoslavia, before independence) on a research mission to find out as much as he can about vampires. Marko is hiding more than Steven knows. Although suspicious of Marko’s intentions, as well as the circumstances in which he’s introduced to the professor’s beautiful but somewhat reserved goddaughter, Steven heads off to Europe with little clues as to what awaits him when he arrives.
The author’s presentation of vampires and how they function is heavily tied in to the historical accounts of the region, including the use of stakes made from Hawthorne trees as being most powerful because of their connection to Christ (according to legend, Christ’s crown of thorns was made from Hawthorne), as well as other traditional superstitions like the garlic, burning, beheading, heart-destroying, etc.
Vampires also double as werewolves (shapeshifters, really), which was a nice variation. As well, the children of a union between a vampire and a human, if they survive, become the best vampire hunters, and have their own organization dedicated to the hunting and destruction of vampires. I don’t want to spoil the connection between vampires and butterflies, which gives the book its title, because it’s tied to a piece of folklore that I’d never come across, and it will strike other readers as something new, as well.
Steven soon finds out all this and more and befriends some young Serbians, including a couple, Bear and Tamara, and a girl, Vesna, who he develops an attraction to but although he wants to be with her, he resists for a few reasons, one of which is that he’s not sure what his connection to Marko’s goddaughter means, as well as his recovery from the loss of his wife.
Although the pace is slow at first, there’s a subtle build toward the key discoveries that will set the real action of the book in motion and get things going. And despite my impressions that there were perhaps a few too many flashbacks, once you get a little bit past the halfway point where Steven makes his key discoveries and finds out just how dangerous the secrets that Marko harbours are, and how unprepared he is among the vipers he finds, the story becomes a page-turner.
As well, although Steven’s vampiric findings are interesting and do move the plot forward, I felt like there may have been a better way to convey this rather than the bulky lecture scene to other professors we get. Marko’s unfinished business is what makes this tale engrossing, and I would have preferred it if Marko accompanied Steven to Europe. I’m sure the author had good reasons for not setting things up that way. Nevertheless, once the dangers hiding in the shadows jumped out to reveal themselves, things got interesting.
Although the plot draws to a partial resolution while leaving the reader on a cliffhanger note that clearly sets things up for a sequel, it will be intriguing to see what Marko and Steven will do going forward despite all the losses and setbacks they have suffered.
If you were disappointed by Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian from a few years ago, (it received a mixed reaction), or perhaps if you liked that book very much but haven’t been able to find anything like it ever since, you should definitely pick up Kiss of the Butterfly. Despite some of my issues with the pacing, flashbacks, and sequence of events, it’s a must for any die-hard vampire fan who thinks they’ve “read it all,” and it’s perfect for those who enjoy historical elements to tales of the supernatural.