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The Vampire Earth by E. E. Knight

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This will be a cumulative review of the various books in this series as they are released.
If you have already read part of the review just click on the title to go to the latest update.

Book 1: Way of the Wolf

             Book 2: Choice of the Cat

                          Book 3: Tale of the Thunderbolt

                                       Book 4: Valentine's Rising

                                                    Book 5: Valentine's Exile

                                                                 Book 6: Valentine's Resolve

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Book 1: Way of the Wolf

This is the first novel from E. E. Knight, and it is a very impressive debut. Unlike the majority of genre writers, it seems Knight did not perfect his craft on shorter works first, which is even more surprising considering the quality of this novel. It boasts fluid prose, well-developed characters, tight plotting, and a satisfactory conclusion even though it is just the first of a projected six book series. If I didn't know better I would say it was the work of an accomplished master rather than a newcomer to the genre.

While I enjoyed this book immensely, the prospect of such a long series frightens me a bit. I am sure the author has at least outlined the story out that far, but as with a lot of series it is possible the premise could get a bit old by that time. I also think it is a bad trend in general, in books as well as tv and movies. I would rather see more original works rather than sequels, but I guess when you have a concept that sells it might be best to take advantage of that. Hopefully, Mr. Knight can keep the quality of the story at a high level, and lets also hope he does not fall victim to "Gerrold-itis" and leave us hanging for years after just a few volumes.

Speaking of David Gerrold, it brings me to one point I would like to make about this book. The most amazing thing about it is even though it sparked memories of many other books (as well as a few films and tv shows), it still seemed very fresh and original. I like the way he made the vampires an alien species who have invaded Earth through a spatial/dimensional portal, so this is science fiction and not fantasy. More than once during my reading I thought of Gerrold's Chtorr series, which is something I only discovered a couple of years ago rather than when they were first published. Way of the Wolf is definitely the best thing I have read since then, and in some ways I have to say it is better, mainly in the fact that the story was not padded with unnecessary subplots and sidetracks to fill it out as were the Chtorr books.

Other things I was reminded of were classic films such as The Searchers and Northwest Passage, and even a bit of The Postman. I have seen the film but not read the David Brin novel on which is it based, so what I am referring to is the post-apocalyptic nature of the story, and the epic feel of brave men facing great challenges in desolate landscapes. Even memories of Babylon 5 and Firefly were evoked at times, although I'll be the first to admit I've got Firefly on the brain a lot lately, so that might be a far stretch of the imagination. I am not trying to imply that Knight used any of these sources as inspiration, but I feel confident he would consider some of these, or many similar type stories, as some of his own favorites.

As this is just the beginning of a long series, I don't want to go into too many details which might spoil it for others. I have just begun the second book, Choice of the Cat, and will add my thoughts on it to this page in due time, and if subsequent books are as good I will continually add to this review. However, I don't think a few bits of info, similar to what you would see as book jacket blurbs, could do much harm.

The story begins in 2065, the forty-third year of the Kurian Order. The Kurians have come to Earth through an ancient portal, known as the Interworld Tree, which supposedly had been used several times before in our history (pre-history actually), and thus came the origins of our vampire myths. The portal was created (or first discovered) by a race known as the Pre-Entities. The Kurians feed on the "vital aura" of their victims, and utilize several genetically designed species to help them in that endeavor, among them the Reapers and Grogs. The Lifeweavers are another species, ones who are the humans' allies in this struggle. They and the Kurians have the tradtional vampire ability of shape-shifting.

On the human side are the Hunters, trained to battle the Kurian menace, either in regimental units (the Wolves) or as individual spies/assasins (the Cats). Their training has been enhanced by techniques perfected by the Lifeweavers, which imbue them with more strength and stamina than average, as well as the ability to suppress their vital auras in order to avoid detection by the Kurians. Conversely, there are some humans who have become slaves to the Kurians, and the loyal humans refer to them as Quislings. There are even some Quislings who have developed a taste for human blood, so much do they wish to be like their alien masters.

The main character is David Valentine, who is in his early twenties I believe when we first meet him, then we get a flashback to his childhood and the events which led up to his joining the Wolves. His progress up through the ranks of the Southern Command is rapid and it is obvious he possesses skills superior to many others. One is his ability to sense and track the presence of Reapers and Kurian Lords, and he is also very adept at suppressing his aura, so much so that he quickly obtains the nickname of "Ghost." The Southern Command's normal patrol is known as the Ozark Free Territory, but they also organize frequent incursions into Kurian held lands, both to free human slaves and capture much needed food and supplies, as well as gaining more intelligence concerning the Kurian strongholds.

David's adventures take him from his childhood home in Wisconsin to a military academy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, from the swamps of Louisiana to the thriving, Kurian-held Chicago. Along the way he is mentored and inspired by both Lifeweavers and fellow Wolves, as well as inspiring and bringing hope of freedom to others. It is obvious we have only scratched the surface of his abilities, and I am looking forward with anticipation to further books in the series.

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Book 2: Choice of the Cat

The second book in a series, just like a sequel to a popular film, can be very problematic for the writer. Luckily, Knight does a good job in continuing the story, developing the character of David Valentine, introducting new characters, as well as exploring different aspects of the Kurian invasion and occupation of the United States, and the different ways various groups of humans are either adapting to the occupation or fighting against it. If you recall, the "Cat" in the title refers to people specially trained to work alone gathering intelligence to be used in planning covert ops against the Kurians or their partners (Reapers, Grogs, and the human Quislings.)

There are just a few slow spots in this sophomore effort, with a bit of reiteration of some of the facts we learned from the first book, but they are minimal and not distracting. I actually thought he tried to do a bit too much in this second book, with quite a few action sequences in different locales, and I would have liked for certain scenarios to have been explored in more detail, even if that might mean expanding the entire series by a book or two.

One aspect about the Reapers that I did not explain in my initial review is that they do not exhibit individual initiative, but rather are controlled (in sets of up to thirteen I believe) by a Kurian Lord. Their duty is to transmit the vital aura of the victims to their master Lords. At the beginning of this book, Valentine and his Wolf company are in Kurian-held territory, observing an armed camp of Quislings and their captive slaves. With his keen senses, Valentine is convinced that a building on the compound houses several Reapers, and he realizes the only hope of rescuing the humans from their fate is to act quickly. They are successful in storming the camp and liberating the captives and killing most of the Quislings and Reapers. However, one of the Reapers escapes, and the Wolves know they must make it to the safety of the Ozark Free Territory before that Reaper can alert reinforcements.

Unfortunately, they are forced to make a stand against an attacking band of Grogs and Reapers. The attacking force is heavily armed, and even though the Wolves have fortified a defensible position, they are out-manned. The commanding officer of the Wolf unit is severely wounded, and he authorizes Valentine to take command. Acting in what he thinks is the best interests of his men, he organizes a retreat. Later, even though the majority of the unit makes it back to the safety of the Free Territory, the commander brings charges against Valentine for cowardice in the face of the enemy, and he is brought before a courts martial. He is persuaded to resign his position in the Wolves, and later is recruited to be a Cat.

Even though Cats generally act alone, they do have to undergo specific training just as the Wolves do. Valentine receives instructions from another of the Lifeweavers, then is further trained by another Cat, known as "Smoke." Valentine had previously met Smoke just before the Grog/Reaper attack, and she had told him about a strange group of Reapers who seemed to be acting independently, as well as using guns, something that had previously never been seen. She convinces him that they need to investigate this phenomenon further, and they travel north into the area known as the Plains Gulag, posing as Troopers (Quisling units who keep the human slaves in line). Valentine supposes that her story might coincide with some information he had earlier learned about a mysterious group known as the Twisted Cross, who use a reversed swastika as their identifying mark. The Cats travel up through Kansas and Nebraska, west into Colorado, then back into a portion of Nebraska known as The Dunes. There they encounter several groups of nomadic cattle ranchers, some of whom trade with the Troopers and other Quislings.

This is the portion of the book I thought needed more exposition. All of these travels comprised just a few chapters, some of the scenes just a couple of pages, especially the ones in Colorado. One thing mentioned about the clan-like groups of cattle ranchers in the Dunes is that their culture had developed traditions over several generations, and yet this is only about forty-five years after the initial Kurian invasion, or roughly just two generations. Is Knight saying there are such groups active currently, which is just one more generation prior to the speculated invasion? If so, I am not familiar with them. This is just a minor point, but it did strike me as a bit odd.

Just as with the closing chapters of the first book, there is a lot of action at the end of this one as well, and this is where Knight hits his stride. Valentine and Smoke are separated, as he commits himself to staying with one of the clans to help in their defense against another Grog/Reaper attack, while she conducts surveillance of their strengths at their base camp. After the attack, Valentine travels south to Omaha hoping to rendezvous with Smoke, but instead encounters a wounded Grog, and he surprises even himself when he nurses the Grog back to health and they become friends. Unlike all other Grogs Valentine had ever seen, this one speaks and understands English, and Valentine learns about how many of the Grogs were brought to Earth by the Kurians against their will, and were made slaves to do their fighting. While some Grogs are loyal to the Kurians, many others are just waiting for the opportunity to rise up against them, and Valentine realizes they could possibly become valuable allies in humanity's own struggle for survival.

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Book 3: Tale of the Thunderbolt

It's possible that I included too many spoilers in the reviews of the previous two books, so I'll do my best to limit them here, but I'm not going to go back and edit the others either. While this one might not seem as exciting and revelatory as the earlier works, it still is a welcome addition to the set even if just for the continued explorations of the character of David Valentine. I was again struck by quite a few similarities to Gerrold's Chtorr series, mainly because both deal with our world ravaged by an invading alien species, and that the main protagonist of each has had to deal at an early age with the prospect that his generation might be humanity's last, and also that both appear adequate to the task of preventing that from happening.

Like Jim McCarthy in the Chtorr books, David Valentine has had to deal with many personal horrors, from the murder of his family by Quislings when he was still a young boy, to the horrors of fighting the Kurians and their many allies. Along the way, he has had to make difficult decisions, and has had to do things no sane person would think they could ever do, but such is the fate of war. Even if humanity is successful in ridding Earth of the Kurian menace, those deeds are sure to haunt him for the rest of his days. Here's a passage I think encapsulates this rather well.

 

Valentine...had learned long ago that the only way he could live with himself was if he acted according
to conscience, rather than orders or even military necessity. Usually his conscience and his duty
asked the same things from him, but on the few occasions where their needs had diverged, duty lost.

 

The Thunderbolt is a ship utilized by the Kurian-controlled Coastal Marines to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and to transport supplies to and from the major coastal cities and Cuba, Jamaica and other island strongholds. The action in this book begins about three years after the close of the previous volume, and by this time David has infiltrated the Coastal Marines in order to gain a billet on the Thunderbolt for its upcoming patrol. His intentions are to turn enough of the crew against the captain in a mutiny, take command of the ship and alter its course to Haiti, where intelligence has led Southern Command to believe a weapon has been stored which will prove effective in their fight against the Kurians and their Reapers.

There are quite a few surprises along the way, not the least of which is that the weapon is revealed to Valentine by a renegade Kurian anxious to see humanity defeat his fellow off-worlders. The Kurians are defeated (or at least temporarily stymied) on both Haiti and Jamaica, and the Thunderbolt makes the return trip to the Texas coast, but Valentine's scheduled contact cannot be found, probably because the mission is several months behind schedule. Instead he makes contact with some Texas Rangers who have control of an area of southwest Texas where there is little Kurian activity. A contingent of this group escorts Valentine and his men and cargo through an area known as The Ranch, where it is believed the Kurians have been conducting experiments on various species, trying to genetically alter them so as to increase the "vital aura" they emit, thus ensuring an ample supply for their diet.

This segment of the book was not as detailed as I thought it should have been, and it was brought to a very abrupt conclusion. I think it is likely that the several genetic experiments that Valentine encounters here will be seen again in upcoming volumes, possibly proving to be something the humans can turn against the Kurians in future battles. While Choice of the Cat ended on a somewhat upbeat note, with Valentine returning to Southern Command with much useful information and a new ally in the Grog Ahn-Kha, Tale of the Thunderbolt ends...not so well.

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Book 4: Valentine's Rising

It's possible that I've run out of superlatives to describe Knight's writing style, and might be in danger of repeating myself. Suffice it to say that Valentine's Rising is at least as good as any of the three previous books in this series, perhaps better than any in certain sections. Knight is at his best in portraying action sequences, and there are quite a few of those in this fourth book. But that does not mean he ignores the character development, and David Valentine is quickly becoming a full-fledged hero, a character that deserves to be considered one of the best the genre has ever seen.

The previous book ended on a down note, with Valentine and his group ambushed by Quislings he mistook for members of the Ozark Free Territory's military force. Actually, they had been, but they now are under the influence of the Kurians and their Reapers, who have established several strongholds in what is now referred to as the Trans-Mississippi Corridor.

Valentine and just a few of his men are able to escape the ambush, and in their retreat they encounter an encampment of the remnants of Southern Command. It doesn't take long for him to realize that the group's leader, a General Martinez, is not much better than a corrupt warlord, and that those loyal to him have degenerated into a drunken, disorganized rabble. Fortunately, there are several others who feel the same way, and they have been waiting for another leader to emerge and depose Martinez. As independent a spirit as Valentine is, he still realizes that the last thing needed at the time is a military coup. No matter that he feels Martinez is in the wrong, he does not feel he has the right to usurp his command. But a decision is forced on him following Martinez' order to execute the Grogs in Valentine's group. A compromise is reached which lets Valentine and his group leave the encampment, with Martinez still in effective command.

Through intelligence gathered from various sources Valentine decides the only recourse in traveling across Arkansas is to convince the Quislings he and his men have changed sides themselves. They are able to infiltrate the stronghold at New Columbia (the former Little Rock), where a Kurian lord is building a heavily fortified tower from which to rule the countryside, and the Quisling General Solon is also erecting a grand new palace as his headquarters. It is here that Valentine re-establishes contact with Smoke, the Cat with whom he had previously worked. With her help, and that of his growing cadre of dedicated soldiers, they are able to rescue the many humans held as prisoners and take over Solon's residence, from where they have strategic advantage overlooking the Arkansas River. The cover image on this book is of Valentine firing the green flare which signals his men to begin what becomes known as Valentine's Rising.

Again, I don't want to go into any more detail than I already have. I do recommend these books or else I wouldn't be writing these reviews. If you haven't read any of the series yet be sure to start at the beginning, or if you have read any of the previous, be assured the continued journey will be worth your time and effort. There were many parts of this book that convinced me it might end on a note even more discouraging than Thunderbolt, but I was wrong about that. Certainly there are many scenes of the horrors of the war that may see the end of humanity as we know it. And again, I apologize for repeating that these books remind me of David Gerrold's Chtorr series, but be assured I only mean that in a very positive way. There is a scene midway through the book that is every bit as horrific as anything Jim McCarthy had to endure against the Chtorr, although not in any way similar in deed, just in the emotional impact. I'm sure other readers will have no difficulty recognizing the scene I mean when they come to it.

But there are also scenes of encouragement as we discover that the majority of humans will do the right thing if only they have the right leadership. It is no coincidence that those who renounce their humanity and side with the Kurians are branded with the name of a Nazi sympathizer and puppet. But even some of them can eventually see the light when they come under the influence of David Valentine.

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Book 5: Valentine's Exile

Back at the beginning of this review I voiced a concern about the proposed length of the series, fearful it would either devolve into derivative storylines or else keep going even longer than the six volumes originally mentioned, by which time I would probably have lost interest. There was a time during the reading of this fifth book that I thought my fears had been realized. I still think that several chapters in the middle of this one were unneccessary, and it actually caused me to set the book aside for several days in frustration, but I'm glad I went back to it because the ending more than made up for that lull, in fact I wish it was July already so I could start reading the sixth book, Valentine's Resolve.

I don't want to spoil anything about this book, neither the disappointing middle section nor the climactic ending, so I'll have to be brief. Knight once again is at his best with action sequences, and there's a great one to start off here, and another at its close. David Valentine is not just a solitary hero, he has the ability to generate fierce loyalty from many of his fellow freedom fighters, and in turn he has no problem returning that loyalty for those who have fought so valiantly beside him. By this time, one of his closest friends is a former Coastal Marine that Valentine was successful in turning to his side to effect the mutiny aboard the Thunderbolt in Book Three. William Post is seriously wounded during a siege of Dallas, which is the next major action their unit has seen since the victory at Little Rock. Post had been attempting to discover information concerning his wife, who he has not seen in several years since he signed on with the Coastal Marines in New Orleans. Valentine promises his friend that he will do all in his power to aid in that search, and he gets the chance sooner than he had expected. I won't go into the details concerning his "exile" which generates the opportunity to travel north to Ohio, which is their best guess as to where Gail Post might be found, if indeed she is still alive.

Other than the slow going mid-book, the only other thing I didn't like about this one is that it ends with the fate of one of my favorite characters unrevealed. I have no doubt he is still alive, but it is the main reason I wish I could start reading the next book right away.

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Book 6: Valentine's Resolve

Now we come to the point where every reader is going to have to decide how much more time he will be willing to devote to this series. This is the sixth book, and that's the number that was mentioned as the length of the story when it all began, but guess what...? It's not the end yet. For me, it has been worth the time spent so far, mainly due to the character of David Valentine and how he has been developed, but I'm beginning to be suspicious of the publisher's attempt to extend the series to however long the books continue to sell, and that is not a good prospect in my opinion.

There are some very good sequences here, but they are interspersed throughout the book, which otherwise suffers from bad pacing. It also feels as if there's a book missing, since nearly three years have passed since the events at the end of the previous volume, and there seemed to be an attempt to say as little as possible about what Valentine had been up to those three years. If you read my last entry you know I was anticipating learning the fate of a particular character, but I was disappointed in that wish, as he was only mentioned in passing a couple of times, with no details of where he might be or what his condition is. Definitely frustrating.

I don't want to dissuade anyone from reading this book, nor of starting the series if they've read none of it so far, as I am sure there will be some for which this sixth book might be a favorite of the group. For me, book four is the high point so far, but I'll be waiting for the next one to see if Knight can recapture the magic. However, if there is no concrete evidence at that time that there is an end in sight, I might not care to continue after that.

Latest Update: I have the seventh volume in the series, Fall With Honor, but I didn't get too far into it before I set it aside. I'm sure one of these days I will finish it, and when and if that happens I will return to this page to let you know what I think. Since then Winter Duty has been published, and the ninth book, March In Country, is scheduled to be released on January 4, 2011. What do you want to bet that when that one concludes, the end will still not be in sight?

 

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Author
E. E. Knight

Website

Published
2003-2011

Awards
Way of the Wolf won the 2004 Compton Crook Award (Baltimore SF Society) & the 2004 Darrell Award (Memphis SF Assoc.)

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