Now we’re getting somewhere. Tale of the Dead Town, fourth in the Vampire Hunter D novel series, is a big step up (and forward) from the going-through-the-motions of the previous book, Demon Deathchase. This time around, Kikuchi mixes things up in some new and enjoyable ways: he gives us a nifty new corner of D’s world to explore, he pairs him up with both rivals and potential allies who are also that much more interesting, and gets most everything else right. Kikuchi even gives us a glimpse of what makes D tick as a person, something we se so little of throughout the series that any bit of that we end up with is welcome.
Rather than set the action somewhere in the frontier that spans most of the ruined, danger-ridden world of the D novels, Dead Town takes us into the City — a floating arcology a couple of miles across, carrying a population that lives free of the fear that plagues most of the frontier settlements. D comes across this oddity while in the company of two other people: Lori, a young woman who has fallen victim to a case of radiation poisoning, and Lori’s erstwhile savior, a character with the most wonderfully outlandish name I’ve seen used with a straight face in fiction yet: “John M. Brasselli Pluto VII.”
Pluto is as in-your-face and brassy as D is reticent and silent, but he isn’t all bluff: he’s got a host of fighting skills that show he can hold his own — and he has at least one “undocumented” ability that gives him an edge that even D doesn’t have. When they show up at the City’s doorstep and ask for asylum, they’re eyed with suspicion — all the more so since right around that time, the first vampires in the entire City’s history have appeared and wreaked havoc. D being D, he takes an interest in the goings-on — much to the disgust and annoyance of the townspeople — and uncovers something that turns both his and Pluto’s stomachs. Maybe things are not as coincidental as they look: Lori was herself a City-dweller, and the reasons for her disappearance and return are one of the key mysteries in the book.
The D books are pulp fantasy and not designed to be more than that, but at their best they have a crazy visionary quality that I’ve come to savor. Dead Town has some of the niftiest moments of this kind in the series yet, as when a massive lightning storm strikes the City and causes a massive power overload, or when a flock of roc-like monsters descend from the sky and become fodder for not only D’s sword but the town’s local industries as well. The book also gives us another character that elicits unexpected responses from D: Dr. Tsurugi, a frontier medico with a fighting spirit that impresses the vampire hunter more and more over time. Unfortunately, Kikuchi doesn’t seem interested in turning them into regulars: the book ends, as all the D books do, with the hero lolloping off into the sunset alone on his cyborg horse.
Stories like this are often savored most by their fans because they deliver the same basic conceits consistently. When there’s variation, it’s just enough to make things interesting and not to upset the whole natural order of the series. Like the Trek novels, the book always has to end on the same note, lest the continuity in the abstract for the series be upset. But at this point, that’s more or less what I’m waiting for: to see if Kikuchi is daring enough to take what he’s created and really ratchet things up a bit. He’s proven to me he can fill out the mold he’s devised; now, let’s see if he can break it. Perhaps the next installment, The Stuff of Dreams, will also be a step up and not just a step forward.