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Blood Price by Tanya Huff

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When Blood Price was published in 1991, it signaled the start of what would eventually become one of the most popular genres in the field – modern urban fantasy. Blood Price introduces readers to Vicki Nelson – a private investigator who was previously a homicide detective; Henry Fitzroy – the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, who become a vampire during his father’s reign, and has been earning a comfortable living as a writer of bodice rippers; and Mike Celluci – a Toronto homicide detective who was Vicki’s partner on the squad. Together the three of them will face everything the supernatural can throw at them, while at the same time they navigate the dangers of their ever-changing interpersonal relationships.

Vicki Nelson witnessed the first attack by the forces of dark magic that would soon wreak its reign of terror on Toronto. As death followed unspeakable death, Vicki became enmeshed in an investigation that would see her renew her stormy relationship with her former police partner Mike, even as she teamed up with Henry Fitzroy in a desperate attempt to track the source of the attacks. For Henry had knowledge of realms beyond the mortal acquired over the centuries he’d spent mastering his own insatiable need – the life-from-death cravings of a vampire…
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If Blood Price is what urban fantasy looked like before urban fantasy was urban fantasy, urban fantasy has always looked like urban fantasy. Just queerer.

Blood Price, nearly two and a half decades after its first publication, isn’t going to blow the minds of any of its readers with its characters, really. Vicki Nelson, the tough private investigator and ex-cop who was a hotshot until she quit the force due to degenerative loss of her sight, is the standard wise-cracking sex-driven genius that (female-protagonist) urban fantasy focuses on; not herself supernatural, across the course of the book she seems rapidly able to accept it and integrate it into her worldview. Huff similarly made the mold into which all subsequent vampires have fallen when she created Henry Fitzroy, albeit with some differences (like bisexuality); brooding, romantic, somewhat guilty about his vampirism, a loner, out of time… that he writes appalling bodice rippers is some consolation, a sort of self-aware critique of some of the heavier and worse romance tropes around Vicki and Henry, mind you. The core cast also has the grizzled cop with a heart of gold in Mike Celluci, whose relationship with Vicki as both partner and ‘partner’ has all kinds of interesting emotional handups.

Finally, the villain of the piece, Norman Birdwell, is one of those characters it would be so easy to get wrong but who Huff gets very right. Blood Price balances various elements of his character against each other; he’s a geek bullied by jocks, but whose toxic personality does actually earn the bullying, and we see other geeks (playing a role-playing game, at that!) who seem far more socially integrated than Norman. Indeed, if Blood Price had been written in 2010 not 1990, Huff could have been accused of ripped Norman straight from the toxic cesspits of the PUA boards of reddit; his misogyny and sense of entitlement fit right into the PUA/MRA community, and Huff’s obvious disdain for him is wonderful.

The plot is really just something to hang that disdain, and the complex relationships of Mike, Henry and Vicki on; Blood Price doesn’t really show much interest in the idea of investigation, rather going through the motions but allowing characters to jump to correct conclusions very readily to advance the plot. Partly, of course, that is because Huff is working in a supernatural framework where the normal investigative process – as is noted explicitly a number of times – would break down; but partly it’s because it isn’t really what the book is interested in, being rather more focused on its characters. The developing relationship between Henry and continuing one with Mike are both excellently portrayed and Huff’s sensitivity to the idea of polyamory is heartening; and the bit-part of Tony, the homeless addict, is a wonderful brief flash into the gay community and the fears of HIV that were so prevalent at the time.

Blood Price isn’t perfect; in the two decades since its publication, urban fantasy has developed an awful lot, in ways that eclipse the mold-breaking approach Huff was taking with the novel. The plot is flimsier than might be acceptable now and reliant rather more on both an implicit Christian framework than is seen as acceptable by modern writers, and the role of coincidence and deus ex machina to resolve the plot is very heavy handedand argues a little more attention needed to be paid to it.

In the end though, if you go into Blood Price interested in its characters, you will be more than satisfied; just don’t expect Huff, in this instance, to be bringing her A-game to the plot…

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