Thrall: A Review in Which Half of Queerly Reads Is Mad There Were No Vampires
Avon Gale and Roan Parrish
mlm and wlw
We talk about misinformation on the Internet all the time, but does anyone ever think about the weird misconceptions they had prior to the advent of the Internet? For example, I had no idea that contemporary horror existed for the longest time, so my October reading consisted of classics like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Mysteries of Udolpho. I still love all that stuff, but one book I could never get into was Dracula.
When I tried reading Dracula as a kid, there weren’t enough vampires delivered quickly enough into my horror-hungry childbrain, and I just couldn’t hang in to reach the (presumably) good stuff. Reading Thrall, even as it kept me hooked, was a similar exercise in that years-old disappointment. THERE ARE NO VAMPIRES. Ahh!! I was waiting for hundreds of pages, and there were none.
How books are marketed sets up readers’ expectations in ways that can sometimes doom otherwise good stories. I once read a literary fiction novel that was marketed as a space thriller, and many readers, including myself, were let down, even though the book itself was well-written. With the case of Thrall, I see now that it’s being clearly marketed as a vampire-less book, and I’m curious to see how that affects other readers’ first impressions of the book. In true Thrall fashion, I’m including screenshots from candid book conversations I had with fellow QR contributors Robin and Rachael (with their permission, of course). You can see below that we all had pretty similar thoughts, probably due to our misconception of what Thrall is about (hint: not vampires!).
In addition, epistolary novels tend not to be my thing. I feel they put an unnecessary filter between the reader and the action. Despite this, Thrall still sucked me in after about twenty pages and an initial dose of hesitancy. It also gave me a lens into how much more exciting Dracula might have been to its contemporary readers, as Thrall replaces letters with instant messaging and ship logs with tweets. I love reading text messages in fiction. It’s interesting and somewhat depressing to see how Avon Gale and Roan Parrish nailed online conversations; their tweet threads read so much like real life tweets threads, with dozens of contradicting voices, that I felt stressed out in the same way I do when I open up twitter.com. In some ways that took away from the book, because I want books to be books, and the Internet to be a cesspool best avoided.
On the surface, the story contains so much it could easily seem jumbled: both an f/f couple and an m/m couple, a retelling of Dracula that is relocated to New Orleans and makes a statement about online dating. It worked better than I thought it would, maintaining a certain gothic aura and an original, cohesive storyline. Despite this, I was left wondering what the point was. If I was their editor, I would have poked at the structural foundations of the story and asked the authors what their aim was: Romance, horror, a proper retelling or something very new? It felt like it was trying to be everything at once, with a mystery that ended up being deeply anticlimactic.
The ending felt like a cop-out and deflated the delicious, goosebumpy horror that had come before it. But I think if you go into the story not expecting actual blood-sucking vampires then you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
I was additionally disappointed by the f/f couple having been established prior to the start of the story; it deflated the romantic tension between the two women. F/f is always second to m/m, and there’s honestly just a lot of hurt and baggage there as a queer woman reader. I didn’t like that this was advertised as having f/f when the ladies in the book lacked the same spark as the men. I’m tired of f/f characters being in cozy, established relationships with zero tension. This was especially saddening with Thrall because I desperately wish Roan Parrish would write more ladies.
I really enjoyed seeing the authors’ solutions to what I’ll call “the epistolary problem:” how to write action and keep the tension gripping even while nothing can be directly shown. This worked well during literal scenes of action, when characters film or tweet about what’s going on. However, the romance aspect made it feel voyeuristic and exploitative to me, and I actually couldn’t get through any of the m/m sex scenes. The men write short stories back and forth that they email to each other, and reading something like that felt so intensely personal that I couldn’t do it. Like I was hacking into their inboxes. It was a very strange experience for me, because obviously I am aware that they’re not real people, but my brain seemed to disagree.
Thrall kept me mostly enthralled in the moment. Like Twitter, I couldn’t look away, but it wasn’t an especially memorable read. I liked every other book I’ve read by both Gale and Parrish more than their latest release. I wish there had been a dash less romance and a splash more horror. I know that their readership consists of m/m romance lovers, and in that regard Gale and Parrish definitely delivered.