The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot

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Original US cover (Avon)

Now here’s a classic that was out of print for a criminally long time. Michael Talbot‘s Victorian vampire novel is a majestic achievement, an epic alternate history about a world existing just beneath the surface, yet guiding and influencing everything.

Gone are the ghoulish Nosferatus and seductive Draculas; instead, Talbot’s vampires are detached and alien (emphasized by their particular way of walking, different from men), driven by arts and science, serving as guardian angels to mankind.

It all starts to come to light when the musically talented daughter of one Doctor Gladstone is abducted by his patient, a young and seemingly ageless Italian man called Niccolo. Gladstone tracks their trail from London to Paris and to the shores of Italy along with a new acquintance, Lady Dunaway. In the process, the age of the ageless vampire will come to an end.

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Current edition (Valancourt Books)

The Delicate Dependency is more a historical novel in the vein of Tim Powers (think 1983’s The Anubis Gates or 1989’s The Stress of Her Regard) than outright horror. The detailed descriptions of Victorian London and fin-de-siècle Paris (with frequent snippets of French and Italian languages) bring out the atmosphere just right, enveloping but not suffocating the reader in a rich tapestry of history. The realism is palpable, and when the novel begins to stretch its bounds, the style remains constant, making it all that little bit more believable.

Against this elaborate background the characters manage to come to their own as well. Gladstone is a man of learning driven by the search for his daughter, but there are different sides to him, especially in the early part of the novel. The elder daughter, Ursula, is seduced by the idea of ageless vampirism. Lady Dunaway undergoes several twists during the course of the story, first hunting vampires because they took her son and then just hunting them, like a prototypical vampire hunter.

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Paris, with Notre Dame in the background. Coincidentally, I finished reading the novel in the surroundings it’s set in.

But the stars of the novel are the vampires, paternally guiding mankind throughout centuries, protecting us from our own follies. Each vampire is unique, possessing some talent worth preserving; decisions to turn men into vampires are cool and calculated, in the service of a higher purpose. For instance, there’s Ilga, a mathematical genius who can predict the future as well as it can be calculated; Hatim, a falconer with an almost supernatural connection with his falcons; and so on. And somewhere above everyone else looms the mysterious, ancient Lodovico, the key to everything that happens in the novel. In the most remarkable deviation from tradition, Talbot’s vampires abhor violence.

Not much criticism can be levelled against the novel; the writing is excellent throughout, and despite the immense amount of exposition and detail it never gets tiresome. However, things do stagnate somewhat during Gladstone’s imprisonment in Paris, and some plot twists are a bit forceful, but in the grand scheme of things such grumbles are barely noteworthy. It’s the big picture that counts, and Talbot’s novel is as epic as they get.

The Delicate Dependency is a gorgeously beautiful book, gone far too soon but luckily now available again. It’s a very, very welcome return. Highly recommended.

***** (5/5)

Originally published in 1982 by Avon Books. Available now from Valancourt Books!