Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review - Terovolas by Edward M. Erdelac

Short review: Fresh after killing Dracula, Van Helsing travels to the Old West to deliver Quincey Morris' ashes to his brother. Once there, he tangles with a cult of Norwegians and wolves.

Out in the Old West
Norwegians worship Fenris
Seductive werewolf

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Terovolas is a book that mines a character out of one of the famous works of the past in order to create new fiction. This does not necessarily result in a bad book - after all, Philip Jose Farmer had a long career in which he made a practice out of doing just that, and Fred Saberhagen also got a decent amount of mileage out of the same trick. And when well-executed, the result can be a good book. The character of Abraham van Helsing, drawn from Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a potentially interesting character, and Terovolas details his continuing adventures after the death of the blood sucking Count. The resulting book is a fairly decent adventure story, somewhat hampered by the artificial story telling style that the author chose to present it.

The book opens with a brief forward in which a character called John Seward presents the premise: that the story he is about to tell is drawn from the collection of personal papers left to him by van Helsing. This conceit runs throughout the entire book, with the story told via the letters, journals, and newspaper articles of the various participants in the tale's events. And while this is handled reasonably well through most of the book, this method of storytelling becomes awkward and forced at times, with nearly illiterate characters sitting down and writing an account of their daily activities on a scrap of paper, or literate characters making sure to update their journal huddled around a campfire while on the run from insane murderous berserkers.

Once it gets going, the story proper has Van Helsing heading off to Texas to find Coleman Morris and deliver to him the personal effects of his late brother Quincey along with the news (and account of) the latter's death. Along the way he spends some time traveling with Callisto Terovolas, an almost supernaturally attractive Greek woman whose importance to the plot is given away by the fact that the novel is named for her. In an instance of amazing serendipity, Terovolas also happens to be heading to the same small Texas town as Van Helsing in order to meet her intended fiance, a transplanted Norwegian named Sigmund who coincidentally happens to have purchased the ranch immediately next door to the one owned by Coleman Morris. Van Helsing is immediately entranced by the Mediterranean beauty, as is pretty much every other male character that crosses her path in the book, which was probably a storytelling mistake. For reasons that become apparent later, it would have been much more thematically satisfying for Van Helsing and her intended husband to be the only men who found her particularly attractive while other men were either indifferent to or even repulsed by her.

After all of this improbable happenstance, one might suspect that the story will revolve around the dispute between Coleman and Sigmund with Terovolas and Van Helsing neck deep in the middle. And one wouldn't be far wrong, except that it turns out that Terovolas is mostly off-stage for most of the book and a drunken newspaper writer named Alvin Crooker takes the role of Van Helsing's sidekick for most of the book. Once Van Helsing shows up in Sorefoot, a Texas town drawn straight from a Hollywood movie set, he runs afoul of some local miscreants and some impromptu action breaks out before the brigands are imprisoned. Van Helsing's assailants are then broken out of jail in an amazingly bloody manner resulting in a posse tracking them down and killing them off. Having recovered from this sideline, the story chugs along and it turns out that Coleman has been having some trouble with the encroaching Norwegians that Sigmund has gathered to himself on his newly purchased ranch. Because the tension has been somewhat mitigated by their joint participation in the recent posse, Van Helsing is able to arrange something of a detente between the two when Terovolas invites him to a celebration of her nuptials. The tension ramps up again when Van Helsing unravels some of the Norsemen's secrets, identifying some carvings in Sigmund's household as being related to the legend of Fenris.

From there, things get somewhat predictable. The Norwegians are part of a cult devoted to Fenris who like to dress themselves up as wolves and work themselves into an unreasoning murderous frenzy. Why they felt the need to uproot themselves and move to Texas is fairly poorly explained, and the end result is that the book revolves around a Dutch doctor contending with Norwegian berserkers in Texas with a Greek woman hovering about the fracas. There are also a couple of ex-Confederates thrown in, and a Native American shaman named Plenty Skins tossed into the mix for good measure. The odd thing about the book is that despite moving all of these characters from around the world to Texas, the author doesn't really do much with the Texas setting other than what seems to be a mostly recycled plot from a B Western movie. And that is something of a shame. Because while I was reading the book I kept wondering why the story wasn't set in Norway, where there could have been a spooky northern atmosphere with ancient Viking ruins, or set in the Balkans among old Greek monasteries and Turkish fortresses. Instead we have ranch houses and tumble weed with transplanted characters fighting it out over what really seems like nothing in particular.

This doesn't mean that the action isn't fast paced and somewhat interesting. It is. It just seems like everything was more or less pulling from the standard Western collection of plot hooks with some fairly weakly defined weirdness thrown in. And the weirdness is mostly weird because of the improbability of it - Sigmund and his Norse followers turn out to be just religious fanatics who dress up in skins and wear metal claws on their hands, but they seem to be almost invulnerable to bullets when they work themselves into a frenzy, which seems odd considering they aren't supposed to be the least bit supernatural. Even the character of Plenty Skins, who seems to be the most interesting and mysterious element of the book and who might be able to either summon or shapechange into a giant wolf, mostly stands around looking mercurial between sessions of chanting. To a certain extent this book feels like the author couldn't decide what kind of werewolf legend he wanted to focus on, so he took the kitchen sink approach and threw in all of the ones he could think of.

Overall, the book is interesting, although somewhat disappointing when one considers what the book could have been. Each of the various elements of the book - the Norse Fenris cult, the Native American wolf shaman, and Terovolas herself - could have been the basis for an entire book by themselves if they had been fleshed out and fully developed. As it is, however, each of these elements seems rushed and incomplete, resulting in a book that feels like it should have been very good, but turned out to be merely average.

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