Reviewed by David Buchbinder, June 2010
This novel, obviously intended for young adult readers, continues and engages with the present fascination in the culture with things supernatural, especially the vampire. The Parliament of Blood commences, perhaps a little tritely, with a sort of Dracula-meets-the-Mummy episode, when the sarcophagus of Orabis, an Egyptian mummy, is opened at the British Museum in 1886. However, Orabis is no ordinary dead guy wrapped in bandages: he is a kind of super-vampire whose return has been foretold and awaited eagerly by the community of vampires. The opening of the sarcophagus, attended and witnessed by the good and great of English society and British scholarship, turns out to be more than a mere ceremony. An “accident” with a knife being used to cut open the wrappings causes a cut in Professor Brinson’s left wrist, allowing blood to flow into a hole in the bandaging over the mummy’s mouth. Orabis rises from his sarcophagus and escapes with the sinister Coachman waiting outside the Museum.
George Archer, a scholarly type, Eddie, a boy who loiters on the streets and has been taken under George’s wing, Sir William Protheroe, a curator at the Museum who deals with mysterious artefacts, and Elizabeth Oldfield, a young woman with whom George is in love, subsequently become embroiled in a search for Orabis, discovering along the way that not only are there such things as vampires, but indeed many of the highest-placed and most powerful men and women belong to their number. There are attempts to defeat this group: for example, Sir William is blocked at various turns by officialdom, manipulated by the vampire community; George is invited to join a club and discovers just in time that it is an organisation for vampires; and Elizabeth, an aspiring actress, is almost seduced by a well-known actor who also happens to be a vampire.
There are a number of alarums and excursions to rescue this or that character, various of the principals taking the lead in these exploits; and there are some imaginative touches, such as the vast underground labyrinth beneath London and the Thames River which houses the machinery that provides the power that the vampires will need fully to resurrect Orabis; or the extremely creepy house that our heroes visit and which turns out to have been a trap and a prison for vampires. There are also narrative turns and twists, revelations of identity, and a fairly exciting climax, when the vamps attempt to seize power in the Parliament of Great Britain.
In addition there are some interesting themes and metaphors. For example, the use of the Egyptian mummy as a guise for the vampire refers us to the rituals of and beliefs about death in ancient Egypt, and the quest of Egyptian culture to ensure the eternal life of the soul of the dead person. There is clearly an irony here in that the vampire represents eternal life, not of the soul (for that has already been blackened by the mortal human’s conversion into an immortal vampire), but rather of the body and its desires, whether related to sex, appetite or ambition.
Moreover, Richards writes into his narrative some unpleasant, yet historically-based, elements; for example, Elizabeth’s compelled, though nonetheless resisted, subservience to men in a strongly patriarchal society, or the exploitation of street kids like Eddie, swept into poor houses and workhouses, left defenceless and without a voice to protest what happens to them, and exploited, as this novel indicates, even unto death: here, the children are sold to the vampires.
Nonetheless, despite some really inventive situations and characterisations, there hangs over the novel a vague sense of cliché—though it is unlikely that its intended audience of young readers will recognise, for example, that the motif of the band of vampire hunters and slayers emerges first, not with Buffy, but rather with Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which for the first time in English fiction presents a dedicated group of vampire killers, led by Dr. Van Helsing, clearly a prototype for Sir William Protheroe in this novel. Richards’ style is, moreover, rather pedestrian, so that the novel relies principally on incident to hold the reader’s attention, rather than leading the reader into the complexities of the narrative via a carefully structured, rich prose thread. However, I doubt that, in these days when tin-eared authors of uninteresting and flat-footed writing seem to win undeserved plaudits and awards, the pedestrian quality of Richards’ prose will even be noticed.