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These are the chronicles of a book addict, a photo junkie, and an aspiring author, rewriting the very fabric of reality one page (and one snapshot) at a time. From the strange to the unusual; the abandoned to the abnormal; the haunted to the historic; the supernatural to the surreal; the forests of dark fantasy, the cemeteries of gothic horror, and the post-apocalyptic ruins of science fiction are the landscapes of my imagination.
When it comes to a great read (as opposed to a good one), timing can be everything. I tend to be a somewhat moody reader, and there are times where I'll put something aside until I feel like I'm in the right mood for it. Such was the case with The Fifth House of the Heart. I started in on it back in July, and it just wasn't working for me, but gave it another shot last week . . . and was completely blown away.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, this is just a marvelous read!
Forget what you know about vampires or the urban fantasy genre, because Ben Tripp isn't interested in covering the tropes or playing to your expectations. This is a fiercely original horror-themed adventure that doesn't make the mistake of feeling like a deliberate attempt to subvert the genre. Instead, it comes across as a natural, fun sort of evolution of the original concept, one that rides the crimson wave of the character personalities.
Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang, protagonist and narrator, is the heart of the novel - and a study in human contrasts. He's a kindly, greedy, cowardly old man who is fiercely protective of both his loves and his acquisitions. Sax is a man who trembles at the prospect of danger, but who stands tall in the face of it. He proudly embraces the stereotype of the gay antique dealer, but his honest flamboyance is also a means of compensating for the fact that he's too old to play the game of seduction. Sax has lived a long and lustful life, and enjoys dropping names of his celebrity conquests, but has been reduced to idle dreams and half-hearted teasing of his "piece of Italian beefcake." He's embarrassing, amusing, and very often exasperating, but he's also a sincerely good man who you can't help but befriend through the page.
For a novel that's as much a horror story and vampire hunt as a tomb-raiding heist comedy, the supporting cast of characters are suitably diverse. Paolo is the young, innocent, virginal monk whom the Vatican assigns to help the old, sexually experienced gay man hunt down the vampire. Yes, it's a deliberately exaggerated odd couple scenario, but one that's . . . well, heart-warming and entertaining. Min is their Korean vampire killer with a tragic past, while Nilu is the Bollywood dancer (and vampire victim) with a tragic future. Rock is the gang's tough guy, a well-armed, well-muscled man who is far friendlier than his appearances would suggest, while Gheorghe is their hired thief, a Romanian burglar who is as cold and crass as you'd expect a man like Rock to be. Abingdon is a late-comer to the party, but he was a favorite character - "a drunken, sword-swinging medieval womanizer" who is as adept in the forge or on the field of mock battle as he is in bed. The only character who rang false for me was Emily, the impossibly beautiful, naive young niece of Sax who serves more as a plot device than a necessary member of the team.
Although Sax may be about as far from an Indiana Jones or Dirk Pitt character as you can get, nobody raids a tomb (or haunted castle) as well as he does. The frantic, panicked chase through the booby-trapped mansion of the mysterious Madame Magnat-l’Étrange may be the most fun I've had in the pages of a book in years. Sax is all too aware of the clichés, and calls them out along the way, but that does nothing to protect them from the guillotine windows, crashing chandeliers, and hidden passageways. The excavation of Prince Křesomysl's underground lair is suspenseful, claustrophobic, terrifying - and gorgeous. The fully furnished cave mansion is such a cool sort of setting, completely out of place so deep underground, but the uncapped well and rushing swamp waters beneath are even more exciting to explore. Finally, the climactic infiltration, attack, and escape from the hilltop castle Mordstein in Germany offers up some of those intense, exciting moments of the novel. It's probably the most classic looking and feeling vampire lairs we encounter - at least until Tripp throws one last twist our way.
I'd be remiss, of course, if I didn't say a few words about the vampires of Tripp's world. They are not just bloodthirsty, undead humans, but an older, primordial sort of monster that takes on the aspects of its food. Those who feed regularly upon humanity look and act the most human, but their gender is determined solely by those on who the feed - and can change over time if they switch their victim preferences. As for those locked away in subterranean tombs, denied access to humanity . . . well, they are the true monsters of the story. The spider vampire from Rock's past is absolutely terrifying, and if the idea of a giant toad vampire sounds amusing, then you haven't seen it bite off the heads of your friends and allies with a single snap of its mouth. Although they've no mortal origin or religious weakness, the watching, tracking, and extermination of the falls to a secret arm of the Catholic church - the Ordine dei Cavalieri Sacri dei Teutonici e dei Fiamminghi, Special Branch.
From beginning to end, The Fifth House of the Heart is just a perfect novel that adeptly blends genres and mythologies. It's guaranteed not to be the novel you expect, and that's a big part of its charm. It's terrifying, humorous, adventurous, and charming, but most of all it's entertaining. Allow Sax to draw you into his tale, chuckle and gasp alongside him, and be sure to thank Tripp for the introduction.