REVELATIONS by Roz Kaveney (BOOK REVIEW)
“They were white American men and we were few and many of us were women and most of us were brown. They had automatic weapons and we had swords and spears and bows or were unarmed. And one of us was in a wheelchair and several of us had the appearance of great age.
They did not stand a chance.”
Revelations (2023) is the fifth and final volume of Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood, and brings to an appropriately dramatic and powerful close one of the most ambitious and exciting fantasy series of the decade. Over the course of the previous four volumes, Rituals (2012), Reflections (2013), Resurrection (2014) and Realities (2018), readers were introduced to Mara the Huntress, an ancient immortal who is tasked with protecting the weak from the strong and preventing the use of the Rituals of Blood, whereby beings can ascend to godhood through blood sacrifice, and Emma Jones, who along with her ghost lover Caroline uses her wit and intelligence to fight all manner of monsters in the present day. Over the millennia, Mara has plied her trade across history and myths, from the sinking of Atlantis to fighting the Aztec gods to her troubled relationships with Jehovah and Lucifer, Morrigan and Cernunnos. Emma and Caroline have met their mysterious employer Josette, formerly Jesus of Nazareth, liberated the dead from Lucifer’s Hell, and achieved their own form of Godhood. All along they have been struggling against their shadowy enemy Berin, the architect of the Rituals who has been waging a secret war against humanity for thousands of years. Now, as Berin’s sinister plan comes to a head, Mara, Emma and Caroline and all their allies must prepare for a final conflict with the fate of worlds in the balance.
Rhapsody of Blood is a series dizzying in scope, and Revelations as the final volume has the daunting task of bringing the whole story to a satisfying conclusion. Kaveney makes it look easy. Revelations gathers together the main players from throughout the series and gives them all a moment to shine, whilst tying up the major narrative threads. This gives the final conflict a real sense of scale and danger, whilst reminding the reader of the different narrative strands from different time periods that are all expertly brought together. Thus we get the return of Tom the half-elf, wheelchair-bound teleporting assassin, Syeed the Yorkshire jihadist Emma met in Iraq, Polly the immortal cockney spy mistress, Emma’s old flame and ex-vampire turned actress Elodie, and Sobekh the Egyptian crocodile god, who all play an important roll in taking on Berin and his evil machinations. This leads to a number of wonderfully inventive sequences, where Emma, Mara and their allies must defeat the enemy in his secret base, carved out of the living flesh of the Lovecraftian sea deity Dagon, on Earth, and then storm Heaven, where Berin has deposed Jehovah and is holding Mara’s sister-lover Lilit hostage. Kaveney demonstrates that big battles and cinematic action sequences can go hand-in-hand with great character work without losing any of the series’ wit and philosophical heft.
Much of the joy of Rhapsody of Blood comes from how Kaveney’s deep knowledge of history and mythology inform an erudite yet playful approach to fantasy storytelling. This is on full display in the final volume, as Kaveney leads us round the Greek and Norse pantheon and the secret history of life on Earth as a conflict between humanity and the monsters that prey on them. There’s also space for more colourful characters drawn from history, including Mary Ann Nichols, prostitute, former victim of Jack the Ripper, and current diplomatic envoy from the Just City in the realm of shadow, and Theophania, Dowager Regent Empress of the Holy Roman Empire who has been sent to Hell on spurious charges and soon helps Emma with the management of Lucifer’s former realm. There’s even a wonderful section set in 2036 London, a nightmare future caused by Berin trapping Emma and Mara in shadow and Hell and wreaking havoc in the real world, which cleverly ties the ills of our present day – climate change, the rise of the far right across the UK, Europe and the US, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – into Berin’s evil masterplan. It’s brilliant, funny and terrifying, and makes me wish Kaveney would write more science fiction.
Revelations ultimately succeeds because it is as much about finding resolution for Kaveney’s characters as it is defeating the Big Bad. Through the incredible trauma they have suffered down the years, Mara’s relationship with her sister-lover Sof is strained, and this is only further exacerbated by Lilit’s apparent betrayal of them all by serving Berin’s agenda. Similarly, Josette’s troubled relationship with Jehovah, who does not even realise he has a daughter, and her brother Judas who has taken her place, as well as Jehovah’s relationship with his best frenemy Lucifer, is brought to a head. And Emma and Carol, following Carol’s kidnapping by Lucifer and possession by Lilit, and Emma’s centuries spent judging the damned in Hell, have to get used to being a couple again with Carol given a physical form out of Hell-flesh. These very human stakes in the character relationships keep Revelations emotionally grounded, even as it engages in epic battles between Good and Evil and thought-provoking theological speculation on the nature of evil.
And as the quote at the top illustrates, from the beginning of the first novel when Emma meets Berin and he’s masquerading as her Oxford tutor and a Tory toady who feeds Caroline to a monster, Kaveney’s series explores the conflict between Good and Evil as that of a diverse, feminist, queer, global uprising against the white, straight, male conservative forces of the patriarchy, which Berin represents. This powerful throughline, the heroism of those who stand up against these forces, flows through her series right to the end. Now that it’s complete, I feel able to say without any caveats that Kaveney has crafted one of modern Fantasy’s true masterpieces, an epic work of fiction on a par with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, two works with which it is frequently in conversation with, and just as pertinent to its era as those works were to theirs. Kaveney, like Gaiman before her, expertly mixes the mythological with deftly observed character work, the fantastic and the horrific with the humorous, to create a work of Fantasy that defies boundaries and categorisations. Finishing the final volume, I was already looking forward to my next rereading of the whole series, just as I envy those who are about to experience the Rhapsody of Blood for the first time.