House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

If you like Dracula, Rebecca, Mexican Gothic, Plain Bad Heroines, or Priory of the Orange Tree, you’ll probably want to read House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson. This sapphic take on vampire lore is a lush, gory, hedonistic roller coaster with a dash of social commentary to boot, and it will definitely take your breath away.

Marion Shaw’s world is strictly divided — there’s North and South, haves and have-nots. She has always been strictly in the “have-nots” camp, struggling to survive in the slums of Prane, a city in the South. When she gets the chance for a different life, she jumps for it. The only people who move from South to North, from poor to rich, are the bloodmaids: young women (always young, always women) who are employed specifically so their wealthy patrons can drain and drink their blood to protect their health. In exchange, bloodmaids get generous pensions at the end of their tenure. Marion is lucky enough to be employed by the noble House of Hunger, to bleed for the Countess Lisavet, who is beautiful, enigmatic, alluring… and desperately in need of blood to prop up her failing health. Even as Marion falls hard (and bleeds hard) for her magnetic employer, she can’t deny the signs that something is wrong; household members are disappearing, the bloodmaids are becoming ill to the point of madness, and Lisavet keeps disappearing somewhere at night. If Marion doesn’t figure out what’s going on soon, she’ll lose more than a little blood in the House of Hunger.

I loved that this is a version of the vampire story that blurs the line between monster and victim — Marion is definitely no damsel in distress, and takes action for herself, even to the point of crossing moral lines where need be. Her and Lisavet’s queerness is also clear and unapologetic, refreshingly, but unfortunately the book is still not particularly sex-positive. The lush worldbuilding of the novel — while very atmospheric — is mostly about showing how decadent and corrupt the nobility is, wallowing in every kind of vice, which ends up making any sexuality in the book feel  hedonistic and distasteful, lumped in with the rampant and destructive drug use.

What is very effective about that, however, is the social commentary underlying it; the reader cannot help but come away thinking about how much wealth is wasted on these kinds of activities while workers like Marion can barely make ends meet to survive. It’s an alternate universe version of the Gilded Age, primed for unions, labor laws, and a drastic redistribution of wealth. Pair that unique premise with a tight, fast-moving plot and you’ve got yourself a deeply compelling story.

So if you like your gothic novels bloody, intricate, feminist, sensual, and fighting for basic human rights, this book is for you.

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