| "Pandora," the latest offering in Anne Rice's wildly popular "Vampire Chronicles," has been packaged by her publisher in the form of a missal or a prayer book, printed on the finest paper in "Monotype Dante," a typeface "modeled on the Aldine type used for Pietro Cardinal Bembo's treatise 'De Aetna' in 1495," according to the backnotes. The jacket is bordered by a detail from a 16th century Italian manuscript by Auguste Racinet, and the frontispiece is an eighth century rendering of "the scribe Ezra rewriting the sacred records." All this is appropriate to "Pandora's" plot, which knows no fixed time, place or consistent vernacular, and to Rice herself, who ranges all over the historical, philosophical and supernatural map in every book she writes. She's the Madame Blavatsky of our time, roaming through myth and arcane wisdom while keeping her eye sharply fixed on contemporary sensibilities.
If you've never read Rice before, "Pandora" may not be the best place to start, with its constant references to her earlier sagas and its more or less routine invocation of vampires and their ways. It's a quirky little book, the first-person narrative of a Roman noblewoman from the period of Caesar Augustus, who, vampirized, has wandered the earth for 2000 years in search of blood and the meaning of life. The novel is told in the form of an autobiographical letter from Pandora -- her name used to be Lydia until the Emperor Tiberius slaughtered her family and she was forced to flee to Antioch, and later Egypt, under a new identity -- to David Talbot, an intermittent figure in other Rice novels who has now become a vampire himself. (Editor's note: While Salon's editor, David Talbot, often works suspiciously late, he is of no apparent relation to Rice's "David Talbot.") Like all of Rice's soulful demons, Talbot is looking for The Truth. "I am a miracle unto myself," he tells Pandora. "I am immortal, and I want to learn about us! You have a tale to tell, you are ancient, and deeply broken."
With that in mind, Pandora recounts her weary journey, focusing on her relations with Marius, the Roman renegade she had loved as a girl and who, later, was the first man to suck her blood: "Marius taught me to hunt, to catch the evildoer only, and to kill without pain, enwrapping the soul of my victim in sweet visions or allowing the soul to illuminate its own death with a cascade of fantasies which I must not judge, but only devour, like the blood." In and out of the story are some of Rice's familiar standbys, "Mekare," "Maharet," "Akasha" and, of course, the vampire Lestat, currently lying comatose in a basement in New Orleans. You don't need to know the details, and Rice never pauses to relate them. It would be easy to make fun of her almighty portentousness, which runs through "Pandora" like a river of hemoglobin. But you'd be wrong to leave it there, because she writes fearlessly, and she's a storyteller of authentic power. Pandora herself is one of Rice's deftest and warmest creations, in fact, a lady vampire with a lock on irony. You can forgive all the smoke and the hocus-pocus -- "First, you must understand that Mother Isis forgives anything" -- in favor of a sly and wacky ride through time.