August 8th, 2008


99 Coffins

(Full disclosure: David Wellington is a friend of mine and a member of the Who Wants Cake writing group. However, the novel reviewed here was written before he joined the group. As always, I try to maintain objectivity when reviewing books written by people I know, and sometimes even judge them more harshly than books by strangers.)

In 99 Coffins, the fast-paced sequel to David Wellington's vampire novel 13 Bullets, Pennsylvania State Trooper Laura Caxton and FBI Special Agent Jameson Arkeley are back, but definitely not the same. Things have changed since their last encounter with the undead. In a world where vampires were supposed to be extinct, Caxton and Arkeley have now become the sole authorities on how to fight and kill them, an added, unwelcome pressure to Caxton's already stressful life and career. Worse, their heroics were the subject of an embarrassing TV movie of the week, a dubious honor so trivializing of the sacrifices they made and the colleagues they lost that everywhere Caxton goes her authority is lessened by other officers treating her as a snooty celebrity rather than as one of their own.

While Caxton has moved up in the ranks in the year that's passed since the events of 13 Bullets, Arkeley has become a bruised and broken shadow of his former self, a bitter recluse who knows his vampire-fighting days are over and must reluctantly pass the torch to Caxton, letting her be his eyes, ears and, most importantly, hands. So when a stash of one hundred vampire coffins is found hidden below a buried Confederate powder magazine in Gettysburg, ninety-nine of them still containing dead vamps but the hundredth coffin empty and smashed to pieces, he has no choice but to call in Caxton. And despite her reluctance, she has no choice but to take the case. A case that will eventually lead to a brutal war between the living and the undead on one of America's bloodiest battlefields.

The cover of 99 Coffins bills it as a historical vampire tale, but that's not entirely true. Though the narrative is interspersed with statements, letters and papers from Union soldiers dealing with vampires around the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bulk of the action is contemporary. But those peeks into the bloody days of the Civil War are very well done. It's clear Wellington has done extensive research on everything from the language, spelling and grammar of the 1800s to battle formations to the minutiae of a Civil War soldier's life, all of which adds a satisfying level of authenticity to the narrative.

(There are some superficial similarities between 99 Coffins and my own General Slocum's Gold, namely the back-and-forth between contemporary and historical timelines, and the growing importance of some of those historical figures in the present day narrative, to the point where they show up again as bogeys. [Well, they were actually the good guys in Slocum, but you know what I mean.] Since this novel was written before David read Slocum in our writing group, it's quite an interesting coincidence!)

99 Coffins is even more action-packed than 13 Bullets, and to Wellington's credit, it is also more streamlined. With Caxton's character firmly established in the previous novel, Wellington doesn't waste a moment before plunging her and the reader into the action, and once things start moving they don't stop. Unfortunately, this also results in the same drawback 13 Bullets suffered from, namely that the reader does not have a chance to really get to know any of the supporting characters before they're shot, bitten, torn apart or drained of blood. Wellington displays a sure hand in squeezing bits of character development into dialogue and details, but a little more would have been nice. Especially when it comes to the motivations of the man who awakened that first vampire under the battlefield, setting off the chain of events that follow. Deeper, more fleshed out reasons for his actions would have been welcome, and probably would have made for a richer character arc than what the reader is presented with here.

But Wellington's strength has always been non-stop action and plot-driven narratives, and if that's your cup of plasma, 99 Coffins certainly won't disappoint. It's a step up from the already accomplished 13 Bullets, and with the next installment in the series, Vampire Zero, coming out in October, I can't wait to see what happens next. Especially with Wellington ending the novel with such a brilliant and wholly unexpected cliffhanger.