Georgiana Derwent’s Oxford Blood, published October 2012, is the first book in The Cavaliers, a trilogy about an elite society of vampires based at Oxford University. The story of Harriet, the main character, is loosely based on the author’s time at Oxford University, where she read History, which provides a solid basis for the setting of the story and its historical background.
And that’s important, because when the story dips into the past the writing comes alive with passion and detail. I’ve said this before, but vampire novels give an almost unique opportunity to blend past and present, to bring history to life. How wonderful it is to have an author who combines a love of vampires with a history of History.
An Uneasy Marriage
Oxford Blood is an uneasy marriage of two stories. The first is Harriet’s first year at Oxford University and gives the reader a peek into that world of tradition and privilege, of history and politics, and thus the book (ignoring the Prologue) spans the academic year. The second is the story of the Cavaliers, an elite society of vampires. Both stories are interesting in themselves, and their union has great potential – but there is a difficulty also.
The discovery that vampires are real should be life-altering. Reality as you know and understand it, safe and predictable, suddenly becomes a terrifying unknown. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has a similar marriage of mundane reality with demonic craziness, embraces this conflict, and does so by having a group of people all facing the new reality together. Xander, Willow and Giles bring different perspectives that enable discussion and argument, without which Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have been just a girl-meets-vampire story.
In Oxford Blood, Harriet has no gang to support her, so the only person asking the questions that the reader wants to ask is Harriet herself – and, rather frustratingly, she doesn’t. After the initial shock of discovery, she settles back into her usual life, quite accepting the existence and nature of vampires, only occasionally expressing fear or horror, almost indifferent to their blood-drinking, and bizarrely incurious about what they are exactly.
The Prologue creates tension by letting the reader know a horrifying secret that Harriet is unaware of, and it’s an almost wilful blindness.
The Inconsistent English
I have a lot of respect for people who use words like ‘luxuriate’, but the book really needs an editorial review for grammar, and there’s at least one glaring continuity error (Crispin’s mysterious resurrection).
There are a number of typos (e.g., ‘eat’ instead of ‘ate’ – evil spellchecker problem), inconsistencies and grammatical errors (especially apostrophes, but I am unhappy about commas as well) that need to be fixed. For example: is it The Porter’s Lodge, or just the porters’ lodge, or some other variation? It’s a minor but persistent distraction.
And then there’s ‘whilst’…
Let’s talk, for a while, about ‘whilst’…
To some ears, ‘whilst’ sounds old or posh, or even ‘quaint and British’. Some people see no distinction in meaning between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’, whereas some will happily provide examples of the different uses of the two words – to some extent it’s a dialect thing, but I think there are people (and I’m not thinking of anyone in particular) who use ‘whilst’ out of confusion or a desire to sound more sophisticated. (Lots of discussion on the web, including: What is the difference between while and whilst?)
Personally I don’t distinguish between them in meaning, but in my writing, and when editing, I will always prefer ‘while’ to ‘whilst’. What’s interesting, though, is that I prefer ‘amongst’ and ‘amidst’ to ‘among’ and ‘amid’.
In Kings of Infinite Space I used ‘amongst’ 41 times and ‘among’ only 1 time, and I see no reason why that one exception couldn’t be changed. In Suzie and the Monsters I used ‘amongst’ twice and ‘among’ once, again with no obvious reason for the variation – it could be related to the following word, or it could be whether it’s amongst physical objects or among a number of more abstract ideas: There are a few things for which I am grateful to my husband, chief among them being…
I don’t see ‘whilst’ as wrong, and there are phrases where I think I prefer it (although that statement, whilst true, does leave me struggling to find more than one example), but I do have a problem with it. I think it’s the rhythm of the word. Although both ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ are monosyllabic, ‘while’ has a gentle sound that evokes the passage of time, unlike ‘whilst’ which has a sharp elasticity, more evocative of a snarling bullwhip.
Georgiana Derwent clearly prefers ‘whilst’ and, with one odd exception, uses ‘while’ only in phrases like ‘in a while’ where ‘whilst’ simply wouldn’t work. The only reason I mention it is that the bullwhip keeps snagging at my attention: ‘Oh, she’s used “whilst” again.’
(All this is just a curious aside. It would, of course, be absurd to rate a book based on the use of ‘whilst’.)
Despite these problems, I did enjoy reading Oxford Blood and I’m curious to see what happens in the next book.