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Volume 30, Number 4, Summer, 2012

Sweeter Than Wine

By L. Neil Smith

Phoenix Pick, 2011
Reviewed by David Wayland

How does a noted libertarian author, who wrote the covenant of unanimous consent, write about vampires? After all, these are beings in fiction who have no compunction about killing people and drinking their blood. Vampires appear to have no human morals, sense of ethics, or ability to control their condition; they must feed, and feed on human blood. By that very nature they initiate force against people, and do so on a regular feeding schedule, or they die.

Sweeter Than Wine, written in 2009 and published in 2011, apparently has lain dormant in L. Neil Smith’s mind for 30 years, so the issue of the moral vampire sounds like one he has grappled with and finally conquered, at least in the fictional sense. While another libertarian writer, F. Paul Wilson, wrote a vampire story in Midnight Mass, where the protagonist battles vampires, in Sweeter Than Wine the protagonist is the vampire. J Gifford, a private eye in Colorado, looks 24 but really is 9 years old. Unlike in Midnight Mass and many other vampire tales, Smith’s world is relatively free of vampires; as far as Gifford knows, there is only one other vampire out there, the woman who turned him in 1944, and he hasn’t seen her for more than 65 years. Turned in France during WWII, Gifford has since managed to not kill another human, survive through his strange abilities of persuasion to simply drink a little from his victims, make them forget, and go on with his life. He strives to live a normal life, as normal as is possible for one who would turn to ash in the sunlight.

Gifford lives in relative anonymity in his community, having settled there years ago. A handful of people know his secret, yet surprisingly instead of grabbing wooden stakes and silver bullets, they keep his secret. Despite not aging over the span of decades, he thinks his other friends don’t know, but yet many of them are quite aware of his nature, and do nothing—apparently living with a deadly killer is not an issue, as he has shown that he is a moral vampire, and able to control his blood-lust.

In flashbacks we learn how Gifford was turned by a beautiful Romanian woman over 200 years old. Yet she had met no other vampires, save those who killed her family and left her for (un)dead, and whom she slayed in revenge. Yet there is at least one more vampire out there, an embodiment of evil. Leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake, this dark vampire lands in the US and heads west toward Gifford. At the same time, hunting this other other vampire his Gifford’s lady friend, who shows up again. She also happens to have some morals, and together they aim to take on the nasty vampire.

While I really enjoyed the book, I found accepting a moral vampire a tougher task, given the vampire books I used to read. Gifford and his girlfriend hardly act the role of vampires, while the antagonist over-acts it; Gifford comes across more as a superhero who needs a little blood now and then. Still, the sketches of Gifford’s life and his back-story bring the book to life (so to speak).

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