Review: Blood and Dust & The Big Smoke by Jason Nahrung

blood-dust-webWhen vampires and an Australian setting combine in the imagination of a great writer, you betcha I’m going to be there, reading the hell out of that thing.

I’m a little late to the party, mind you, since Jason Nahrung’s Blood and Dust somehow escaped my attention when it was originally published as a digital-only book with Xoum. Thank fang that Clan Destine Press pounced and published both Blood and Dust and its sequel, The Big Smoke, in 2015.

Nahrung, who wrote the excellent Salvage, sets the first of his ‘Vampires in the Sunburnt Country’ series in outback Queensland, the last place you’d ever expect to find rival gangs of vampires who are traditionally fatally sensitive to sunlight.

Kevin Matheson, a mechanic who works at his parents service station in the tiny and slowly wilting country town of Barlow’s Siding. But then a car pulls in, containing a policeman who isn’t, his dying partner and a body in the boot that, despite the steel sticking out of his chest, isn’t quite dead.

Things go from bad to personal apocalypse pretty quickly after that, with rival gangs having bloody shootout, and Kevin’s family caught in the middle. Kevin’s not the only one to die that day, but he’s the only one who crawls out of the earth, transformed.

Blood and Dust provides plenty of both as Kevin struggles to adjust to his new state, and to understand the deadly rivalry between the nomadic vampire bikers he’s fallen in with, and their rather more organised-crime-type vampire enemies from Brisbane. Kevin’s desperate to save the family he has left, and to survive in a world he doesn’t understand. He’s also determined to balance the books with Mira, the vampire who is trying to use him to trap the Night Riders and is a threat to his own family.

Nahrung brings his own touches to the ever-changing milieu of the vampire story. Here, blood is more than nourishment for vampires. It carries memories, and ways of linking the vampire to those from whom they drink; and especially those they drink dry. It’s a fabulous new take on both the addiction and the dangers of blood-sucking. The way that blood sharing can communicate not only memories but particular skills also leads to some very cool passages. Kevin might be the new vampire on the block, but he’s picking up some mad skills along the way.

The characters are complex and often surprising, both the vampires and their human ‘red-eyes’ who have extended life from blood sharing, but aren’t yet turned. Taipan, the first indigenous vampire character I’ve ever read, and Kevin’s maker, is fascinatingly complex and contradictory, as is Reece, the not-policeman and Mira’s favourite red-eye, who brought all this disaster down on Kevin’s head with his appearance at the servo.

Elements of Blood and Dust reminded me of Australian films of the 70s, depicting oppressive heat and simmering violence in the outback, though with a much broader (and very welcome) diversity. There’s a dash of Mad Max, a soucon of Wake in Fright, and maybe even a tiny taste of Thirst, though all transformed and written with Nahrung’s deft hand with dialogue and character.

The whole story barrels down its hot Queensland highway, full throttle, guns blazing, until its grim and bittersweet ending.

the-big-smoke-webFortunately, if, like me, you can’t wait to find out what happens next, The Big Smoke is already printed and awaiting your immediate perusal.

Picking up amost immediately after the last page of Blood and Dust, we find Kevin heading towards Brisbane and the reckoning he intends to have with those who have torn apart his life. Naturally, the course of true revenge never runs smooth. He and Reece are both dancing dangerously around enemies new and old, trying to find a way to win.

Just as Blood and Dust evokes the raw and violent Aussie films of the 70s, The Big Smoke, set in Brisbane and on the coast, has a feel of the more recent run of Australian films exploring urban violence, though with that air of organised crime rather than mere bogan thuggery. There are still gunfights aplenty, and the grittier battle for power between the rival city gangs. The politics are complicated and nobody can be trusted. Kevin’s put the wind up them all, with his recent successes despite his recent arrival, combined with his blood determination to make someone pay for all that he’s lost.

The story takes a couple of unexpected turns, and the ending is both unexpected and satisfying.

Obviously these books are a great read if you’re after the novelty of an Australian take on the vampire novel. They’re also gritty, action-packed dramas, filled with great, complex characters – not least of which are the rural Queensland landscape and the city of Brisbane.

Read more:

Buy Blood and Dust

Buy The Big Smoke