Friday, March 18, 2011

100 Books 17 - John Urbancik's SINS OF BLOOD AND STONE

I am not a Catholic, but I bet John Urbancik is or was; his novel is so completely steeped in Catholicism (at least to my Protestant-raised atheist eyes) that I feel I should be wandering the nearest catacomb singing Gregorian chants and bashing myself over the head with my copy.

Ordinarily this might be a complaint, but in this case it is praise, for Sins of Blood and Stone makes Catholicism everything it should be in fiction: dramatic, dark, ritualistic, earthy, sexy and above all romantic, romantic in the old-fashioned art-historical sense, in which strong emotion is its own aesthetic expression and imagination triumphs over all.

There's a touch of what we commonly think of today as romance as well in this tale of a nameless former official of the Spanish Inquisition (I'll pause for a comfy pillow joke of your choice here) whose uncommon zeal led him even to put the mother of his child to death (and yes, this even though he was a priest) as a witch and later left him imprisoned for eternity in the body of a gargoyle. That's a pretty good yarn right there, but it's only the back story, for the gargoyle, after 500 years of immobility, suddenly realizes he can move the very day a dead ringer for his dead lover shows up in the New York City church he guards (how he travels from Spain to New York City is left a mystery, but several European buildings were moved entire from the Old World to the New under the auspices of the Vanderbilts and J.P. Morgans of the Gilded Age, so why not a soul-imprisoning gargoyle?).

The narrative that unfolds has a slightly unreal quality that adds to its devil-soaked spookiness. The gargoyle's "angel" (for so he dubs this woman, who rejoices in the vividly unusual name of Neve Spirito - Snow Spirit) has feet of clay and was involved in some unsavory doings that leave her haunted by a ghost and hunted by a demon - Catholic monsters made real, but it takes more than a rosary and some holy water to defeat them. Lots more. The gargoyle, convinced that Neve is his own descendant, is ready to do that more, whatever the consequences, for he believes that if he saves her he will be released from his strange bondage.

The prose style relating all of this is very restrained, even delicate. Urbancik is also a photographer of no mean skill (check out his photostream at Dark Fluidity), which informs his treatment of things and surfaces and scenes; he paints with words but uses a subdued palette and subtle brush strokes, wisely leaving the reader's imagination to rush in and fill the gaps he leaves to tantalize it.

The result is a short but very enjoyable read for fans of dark fiction, urban fantasy, and stories of spiritual doubt and challenge. A pleasure.

Bonus note: Urbancik has just published a new novella, Quicksilver, which, he says, has a cameo from a character from Sins of Blood and Stone. Ebook only for now, but I'm sure a dead tree edition is not beyond the realm of possibility. I sort of resolved that my 100 books would also be by 100 different authors so, strictly speaking I ought to leave it for later but I did snag it -- it's only $2.99! -- and, well, we'll see...

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