A few years ago I re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and wistfully thought, “I miss the days when vampires were the bad guys.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a sympathetic villain with a tortured soul as much as the next guy, but I’m kind of a purist when it comes to my folkloric creatures. Do interesting things with them, turn their mythology on its head if you like, but first show me that you’ve done your homework. You want to write about vampires? Fine. Just don’t make them sparkle.
So I leaped for James Lyon’s Kiss of the Butterfly the day I found out about it. Lyon has a PhD in Balkan History, and the tale he weaves about the restless dead drinks deep from the well of Slavic, and especially South Slavic, vampire lore. If you’re going to tell a fresh vampire story these days, you could do worse than to take the reader back to the source. I knew a little about pre-Lugosi, pre-Stoker vampires, but was still blissfully ignorant of many of the twists and red herrings you get when your protagonists are going up against the Real Deal.
Lyon sets his story against the backdrop of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Into this war-torn region comes American grad student Steven Roberts, looking for a dissertation topic in Slavic ethnography but growingly afraid that his mentor, the mysterious Professor Slatina, has something far more momentous in mind for his protégé.
There is much to appreciate in this brief novel. The slow-burn start that puts all the pieces on the table before the fangs ever come out. The political commentary about war, violence, depravity, and demagoguery. The frank, if a bit wooden, philosophical musings about good and evil, God and faith, and, of course, the devil.
Kiss of the Butterfly is not, however, a perfect book. To be honest, the ending was a bit of a letdown. Without spoiling the plot, certain expectations are raised near the end of the second act that are never met. The ending is therefore a bit frustrating. What do you mean we don’t get to read the scene where X happens?
The book ends as if it’s the first volume of a series, but since it was published in 2013, I’m not looking for one—nor can I imagine a sequel that wouldn’t have to tread a whole lot of the ground covered in this book.
If you like vampire stories, however, you definitely owe it to yourself to read this novel. And if you don’t like vampire stories, maybe you’ll appreciate a look at where the cultural fascination with these bloodsuckers all began.