Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Some books you can describe with a single sentence. This is one of them: "Vampires kicking Nazi ass." I mean really, how can that possibly go wrong?
That's a rhetorical question. It can't. Still, actual execution can range from mediocre to eye-gougingly awesome. While Sarah Jane Stratford's The Midnight Guardian slides fluidly along this continuum, it's closer to the latter than the former, if only because of it's breathtaking characters (that's a pun). As far as the "kicking ass" parts go, they're too few and too far between, strung out along a plot that doesn't achieve lift-off.
Of course, the world has never been the same since a certain book featuring unconventional vampires. Stratford's vampires are a sensible concoction of various conventional interpretations. I like how crosses don't affect vampires who were Jewish in life, little details like that. They have the usual overdrive sex urges that seem to plague the undead like bad hangovers, but other than that, they are tolerable mythical creatures. And, passionate relationships aside, they are interesting people. Well, some of them.
Stratford tells the story in a non-linear manner. The "main" plot takes place in August 1940, with Brigit on a train escorting the children of a vampire hunter to safety in London. Interspersed are chapters two years prior, with Brigit and her millennial cohort in Germany just before the start of the war, as well as episodes from Brigit's past, including her "making" and when she "makes" her love, Eamon. I actually found this structure counterproductive to my comprehension of the story, but it's an excellent way of educating us about Brigit's life.
By far the most interesting parts of the book are the episodes of Brigit's past. I loved watching her transformation from human to vampire and her effort to come to terms with the implications of immortality. Stratford's vampires are still very human in the sense that they are not evil fiends. Sure, they kill people and suck blood. But they don't hurt children (who are unpalatable) and still have very human passions—for culture, particularly books and music. Nevertheless, Brigit's life as a vampire is manifestly different from her life as a human, and the difference is jarring at times. She has to confront her mixed feelings for her maker, who's a well-meaning but obtuse idiot. When she turns into a vampire a man whom she believes she's destined to love, he's not grateful at first, and the years slip by as they work things out. There's a certain sense of destiny to the relationship that I kind of had to ignore, but individually they're both interesting people.
The whole "vampires trying to sabotage the war" plot? Not so much. I enjoyed the chapters in 1938 in which Brigit, Mors, et al. attempt to infiltrate the ranks of the Third Reich. Stratford's depictions of wartime Germany, the attitudes of Germans toward Hitler and the Nazis, and the behaviour of the Nazis themselves are all wonderful. And it's fun watching how vampires would practise espionage. As we approach 1940, however, my interest begins to dissipate. I don't follow how Leon's children are "precious cargo that marks the only hope of salvaging their mission" (from the cover copy). Sure, it's great that Brigit is being all compassionate and risking herself to get them out of Germany, but what do they have to do with her mission?
That mission was doomed from the start, of course, and it only seems to derail and deteriorate as the book goes on. I suppose that's the problem with a premise like "vampires go to stop Hitler's war machine". Unless one wants to stray into alternate history territory, clearly the vampires can't succeed in preventing war, nor can they just go in and kill Hitler any time before April 30, 1945. That alone isn't a problem—"how will they fail?" can be just as exciting, even more so, than "will they fail?" But Stratford can't maintain my interest while Brigit is on the train. There's a nosey sergeant and a suspicious doctor who's actually a vampire hunter. All Brigit can do is complain that she's too exposed to properly eat, so she feels weak.
The climactic battle takes place on a peer, where Brigit is about to get on board a ferry to Britain with the children but is confronted by the doctor/hunter. Brigit gets the children she's protecting onto the ferry by having Eamon use his music, powered by their love, to create a smokey hand that pulls the children over the water separating the boat from the peer. And that, sadly, broke my suspension of disbelief.
Despite that last damning bit of criticism, I did enjoy The Midnight Guardian, and I'll recommend it to some of my friends who like supernatural fiction. Its plot could use some work; as this is a debut novel, I'll be interested to see if Stratford's writing improves with subsequent Millennial efforts.