Several years ago, the Paranormal Fantasy genre experienced a huge boost in popularity, with literally dozens of new titles being released every week. At that rate, it did not take long for the genre to become formulaic, and by now one would expect it to be quite dead, its life drained out of it by the countless imitators feeding from the same template, using the same conventions over and over again. But then, just as one believes the genre to be finally deceased for good, there is a twitching in the presumed corpse when someone comes up with a new and surprising twist and released a novel that breathes fresh life into tired tropes. M. L. Brennan’s debut novel Generation V was such a work, taking what is at heart a fairly simple concept but which enabled her to approach the genre from a new and original angle, opening up a whole new lot of possibilities.
What opens up those new perspectives in M. L. Brennan’s series of novels (of which Dark Ascension is the fourth of a planned six) is their protagonist who is most concisely described (in the author’s own words) as “slacker vampire.” Fortitude Scott, said protagonist and first-person narrator is the youngest member of the most powerful vampire clan in the United States, but he also is a very reluctant vampire, doing his best to distance himself from his family by keeping a vegetarian diet and working menial day jobs. Vampires in Brennan’s world are emphatically un-sparkly but usually ruthless, power-obsessed creatures, while Fortitude is basically a nice, average guy who just wants to live his life in peace and as far away as possible from his predatory family.
Which of course is not working out too well, and the way Fortitude (Fort, for short) is gradually drawn into its family’s power structure and forced to come t terms with his vampiric nature is the main focus of this series. The Scott family bears more than a passing resemblance to a supernatural Mafia clan, and the similarity to The Godfather is not lost on Fort (who used to study film theory) who in Dark Ascension compares himself to Michael Corleone at one point. A large part of the appeal of the series is that Fort is such an immensely likeable character, and M.L. Brennan manages very well to make the reader feel his dilemma, his reluctance to become even vaguely like his openly psychopathic sister and his despair at the inevitability of becoming a full vampire as well as his courage to still remain as human as he can in the face of his gradual transformation.
The world building is also very imaginative and Brennan manages to pull several unexpected twists on familiar supernatural races out of her hat. For her vampires, she apparently researched the behaviour of actual vampiric creatures like vampire bats with some surprising (and, as shown in this volume when Fort finally feeds on his first human, surprisingly hilarious) results. There are elves, fairies, ghouls and witches, none of them quite what one would expect from genre traditions but all with an original (and usually rather nasty twist, and there are kitsunes, most notably Fort’s partner and girlfriend Suzume who is a fascinating character in her own right.
The series manages to move from gritty and gruesome (occasionally even gross) to funny and frolicsome and back again, and to not only keep the reader pulled along with the plot but also emotionally involved; and it has managed to keep its quality and reading enjoyment at a consistently high level from the first installment to this fourth one. It seems to be one of those series which everyone who has read them loves – unfortunately, however, not that many people seem to have read it, and it seems likely that the publisher is going to drop the series and not release any more volumes after this one. Which is a pity; while Dark Ascension does offer some closure, with a lot of things happening that change the world Fort lives in fundamentally, there also are a lot of open questions which one would like to see answered. Not to mention that there aren’t all that many Paranormal Fantasy series of this calibre and it would be sad to see another end prematurely.