The nocturnal neck suckers of Anne Rice's world have, over the course of 22 years and half a dozen novels, survived fire, ice, Satan, Christians and Tom Cruise. But as they creak and creep toward the millennium, can they do the one thing vampires never seem to think about -- age gracefully? As a character, the vampire Armand is a fresh-faced youth, eternally suspended on the verge of manhood. As the latest in Rice's lucrative, fanatically anticipated chronicles, however, "The Vampire Armand" is beginning to look a little weathered.
Armand, the nubile Venetian, the living, breathing remnant of the high Renaissance, narrates his own story here, and his world-weary perspective is a subdued contrast to the bombast of Rice's usual hero, the egomaniacal rock star/French fop Lestat. A complicated, sexually ambiguous pretty boy with an evolving but perpetually twisted relationship to Christianity, Armand at times comes across as endearingly muddled as any modern teen. Unfortunately, he can also be just as irritating. He may be 500 years old, but Armand apparently still has neither the depth to passionately probe his religious mysteries with convincing fervor nor the sense of humor to see the ridiculousness of his quests.
"Interview with the Vampire" revolutionized the stale bat-wings-and-fangs vampire genre because it was edgy, sexy and perversely funny. But two decades on, Rice's readers now find themselves in a double bind of tedium-inducing traps. Those familiar with the series have already trod much of the same lore in prior novels, while newcomers will find a whole passel of plot holes, many hastily plugged in with "Truman Show"-style product placement for Rice's other books. The result is a literary terrain that once teemed with gloriously amoral immortals but is now cluttered with a mess of clunky exposition.
There are still moments when Rice appears to be having fun -- she can fill a scene with enough voluptuous descriptions of silk- and velvet-swathed surroundings to fill a year's worth of J. Peterman catalogs. And it takes nothing short of brass cojones to make literal the obvious parallels between Christian lore and horror. Jesus invites his followers to drink of his blood; Rice's night crawlers brashly take him up on the offer. But gorgeous scenery and cheeky mysticism can't help an unfocused plot, and they can't turn a great supporting character into a real hero. Armand, for all his travels and all his adventures, emerges as a boy meandering through history in a preternatural state of adolescent angst.
His ennui isn't helped by the addition of a progressively less engaging cast of side characters. Armand's colorful Renaissance coterie of artists, courtesans and occasional psychotics are eventually replaced by two human companions -- a slightly daft piano prodigy and a street-smart 12-year-old whose stomach for gore is the only thing keeping him from being the cute sidekick who winds up in Jim Belushi movies. Ultimately, though, it is title character Armand who is the book's biggest draw and its weakest link. The sad, beautiful youth, so mesmerizing in previous glimpses, is all tapped out here. The best parts of his story have already been revealed in Rice's earlier novels. What's left behind is a dour little Botticelli angel, colorless as a freshly drained corpse. It seems at long last, Armand and company are facing the inevitable pitfall of vampirism -- when you live forever, it's entirely possible you may eventually wear out your welcome.