Pilgrimage of the Sacred and Profane is the Vampire Hunter D novel I was hoping to read since this series got started. It takes all the best elements of the series as a whole — the otherworldly / futuristic setting, the grotesques and hardscrabble survivors that inhabit it, the menaces that boil up from inside it, and of course D himself — and puts them into a story that has real heart, real weight and real payoff. In the previous books — especially Raiser of Gales and The Stuff of Dreams — we got tantalizing hints about the main character that at most confined themselves to the background of the story. Here, they’re woven into its substance and made essential to how things play out. For most of the book it’s a fun ride (as all the D books are meant to be), and then at the end Kikuchi lobs a bomb of startling emotional impact right into our laps.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the D series is the gallery of supporting characters that Kikuchi brings in for each installment. This time around we have quite a parade: for starters, there’s Granny Viper, a leathery old crone whose specialty is finding and bringing back those stolen away by the “Nobility” — the last surviving remnants of the master race of vampires that dominated the world for millennia. Her charge this time around is Tae, held for years on end by a vampire lord in a castle on the far fringes of the desolate Frontier. Granny’s job is to bring her back home, across a massive desert — whether or not the people on the other side even want her back.
She’s fairly sure she can’t make it alone, and to that end she attempts to enlist the Bullow Brothers, a pair of mercenaries sporting powers at least as outlandish as any others seen in ths series (and since one of the more fun discoveries of the book is what they are, I’ll leave that part out of this review). They’re not interested, despite her coaxing, and so she then turns to solicit help from — who else? — D himself. He’s not sticking his neck out for her, either — in fact, he has work of his own to do, as a man named Thornton is paying him piles of money to make his way across the desert and meet with a certain…someone. Since all three parties are headed in the same direction anyway, Granny Viper and the Bullows decide to follow D’s lead — not that he’s actually leading them, but he seems to know marginally more about the desert wastes than the two of them put together.
It doesn’t take long for all of them to get into very deep trouble, as they soon find the desert is not simply an arid stretch of land but a living thing — a life form with a nervous system and sense organs, almost like the living ocean-world of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris although on a much smaller scale. For the lot of them to survive they have to learn how to fight it on its own terms, something even D has trouble with — and then there are the additional mysteries of what the Bullow Brothers are really capable of, who Granny Viper really is, what’s so special about that girl she’s bringing back with her, and who invited D to come all that way across the desert knowing he’d get into such danger (and could probably get out of it, too).
The book is of course great fun, as the best of the D stories are, and Granny Viper is (next to the magnificently-named “John M. Brasselli Pluto VII” of Tale of the Dead Town) my favorite supporting character of the series thus far. But what’s so especially satisfying about this installment is how we not only get plot-driven answers to all of these questions but emotionally compelling ones too. I am loathe to give away too much, of course, but I will say that like in the best moments of the previous books, Kikuchi has found ways to dig into his main character’s nature and use that as the real driving force for the book instead of the outward challenges he faces. If he keeps it up, I’m bound to award one of these books a four-star rating before too long.