An exceptionally fast-paced thriller (the entire novel takes place over a matter of days) The Blood Gospel merges the revisionist vampire sensibilities of Anne Rice with the pseudo-mystical adventurism of Dan Brown. It's an interesting mash-up of genres and themes, and one that takes definite liberties with history - sometimes a bit too obvious, but at other times truly inspired. The central mystery worked well to blend it all together, and the characters were surprisingly complex, keeping me engaged right through to the end.
While the novel was definitely heavier on Christian/Catholic mythology than I expected, with far more of a faith-fuelled story line than I'm generally comfortable with, it worked (for the most part) because of the secret history that James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell craft to blend the origins of vampire mythology with that of the Bible. As far-fetched this vampiric take on Catholicism may seem on the surface, when you look at each individual element - whether it be symbol, practice, or belief - it all makes a strange sort of sense. The insertion of authentic historical figures helps to ground the story, with Rasputin an absolute stand-out in terms of treacherous, self-serving villainy.
Where the religious theme fell short for me was in Rollins & Cantrell's reluctance to declare their agenda. They raise a lot of interesting questions regarding faith, most often through the character of Dr. Erin Granger, but then drop the larger issue without a even a promise of an answer. For me, the whole theme came to a head during the latter half of the novel, in a climactic scene where Erin questions whether wine has to be properly consecrated to save a life, or whether it's enough for the one in need to believe it's been consecrated. There's a halfhearted attempt to prove that unconsecrated wine lacks the same power on someone who knows it to be so, but Erin is denied the opportunity to prove whether the power of consecrated wine comes from a miracle itself, or simply a belief in that miracle.
Religious themes aside, this is a rollicking adventure yarn that moves across the world, and across time. The historical elements are fascinating on their own, and the new twist put upon the fates of Bathory, Rasputin, and others is thoroughly entertaining. Maybe it's because so much effort is put into justifying their existence, or maybe it's because of their newly Biblical origins, but I found the vampires lacked a certain something in the realm of malevolence, relegating them more to the role of monsters than characters. For the most part, the darker forces are mere trained lackeys to their human mistress, with the most villainous among them - their mysterious leader - existing mostly off the page for this first instalment.
In terms of plot, the exceptionally fast-pace nature of the story is a bit of a mixed blessing. While it keeps things moving, leaving the reader anxious to turn the page, it does demand that the mystery of the Blood Gospel be resolved a bit too quickly. Given the thousands of years it's remained a secret, and the futile efforts by the Catholic Church, Nazi Germany, and the Russians to uncover the truth of its existence, it just seemed a bit too easy. Even Indiana Jones generally takes a few weeks, at least, to make his discoveries. Yes, there's an element of prophecy to explain away that speed, but it only works if you have faith in it.
While it wasn't quite the book I was expecting, I enjoyed it more than I expected once the faith-fuelled heart became evident. I can't say for sure whether my interest could be sustained through subsequent volumes - a lot of that depends on what is to be done with the issue of faith, how Erin's character is developed, and how long it takes for the villain to come out of the shadows - but there's enough ingenuity and entertainment here to recommend this first instalment.