House of Hunger
Alexis Henderson

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I started my Marriage Portrait review by asking why Emilia had to die. Today I’m here saying that I fully get why Raul had to die, and I wish he’d done it sooner. Not that we waste any time getting there – Marion’s pre-bloodmaid life is not, after all, the point of the book, and the opening chapters move at the speed of light – but I’m a heartless wretch, okay, and page one still might not have been soon enough for me.

To back it up a bit, so I can explain why I want this poor wastrel to die: House of Hunger is a sapphic spin on the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, a Hungarian noblewoman accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of girls and women from 1590 to 1610. Some say it was a smear campaign against her family and others say the allegations were credible, but her legacy now is a pervasive myth that she bathed in the blood of virgins in order to maintain her youth. Henderson embroiders upon the mythology with this book, in which the wealthy feed upon the blood of their servants and people of “exceptional taste” can be granted greater privileges than those with more ordinary blood. The actual land isn’t particularly defined, but it is sharply divided along a north-south border, and it is presumably separate from the world of Bethel.

The blood-drinking originated with a borderline primordial man, not entirely human, who crawled out of the sea one day and rescued a human woman named Enna from a shipwreck, nursing her back to health in an island cave. In return he laid claim to her blood, and she became the first in a long line of bloodmaids, young women who allow the nobility to drink their blood. The man went on to found the House of Hunger, from which proceeded a number of other so-called noble Houses; thus, though he is the first Count of the House of Hunger, he is also considered the father of every other House in existence. Currently there are twenty-seven Houses of the North, the majority of which were born from the four principal Houses: the House of Hunger, the House of Locusts, the House of Fog, and the House of Mirrors. In its current generation, the House of Hunger is tenuously allied with the House of Fog, but their strained relationship is not helped by the animosity between Countess Lisavet Bathory, the last of her line, and Sir Ivor, third son of the Lord of Fog. Though born to the House of Fog, Ivor is the son of Lisavet’s father’s half-sister, meaning that her death would make him the uncontested heir to the House of Hunger. His chances seem good, given that Lisavet suffers from a chronic disease that is expected to be fatal, but she’s been grimly hanging on with the help of the blood she drinks every day. There’s no free lunch, however, and her medical needs are a brutal drain on her five bloodmaids, who need to be continually replaced.

All of this hovers in the background, unspoken and mostly unseen but never far off, as twenty-year-old Marion Shaw ventures into the murky world of the northern nobility. Born and raised in the slums of Prane, an industrial city in the South, Marion is at the end of her rope. She is the overworked maid of a wealthy woman who pays her peanuts, and she is the sole caretaker for her older brother, Raul, who suffers from a disease that sounds suspiciously like AIDS. Raul started out as Marion’s guardian after the loss of their parents, but he has grown increasingly abusive over the years, and has physically assaulted her several times. She doesn’t even have a support network to fall back on, despite a string of girlfriends: her relationships don’t seem to have gone further than one-night stands, and her only friend is Agnes, a prickly factory worker who’s more of an acquaintance than a ride-or-die. The final straw comes when Raul tries to destroy Marion’s chance to become a bloodmaid, a career that – given her circumstances – seems quite appealing. Her original intention is to send money home and then use her promised pension to support herself and Raul, but her plans go up in flames when a violent altercation ends with Raul’s accidental death. With Raul’s blood on her hands and no options left, Marion flees the city with Thiago, a “Taster” who makes his living scouting young women, and enters the House of Hunger as Lisavet’s newest bloodmaid.

What seems like the answer to a desperate prayer quickly turns sour as Marion settles into her new home, assisted by fellow bloodmaids Irene, Evie, and Elize. Though she hadn’t planned to ruffle any feathers, she finds it impossible to keep a low profile when Lisavet begins to favor her even above Cecelia, the First Bloodmaid and Lisavet’s former favorite. As Marion and Lisavet begin a passionate affair, Cecelia becomes more and more erratic, until she is finally expelled from the bloodmaids after attacking Marion. In her absence, Marion is unexpectedly elevated to First Bloodmaid over the heads of her three friends. This seems like it might drive them apart, but they manage to reconcile; however, they are still one bloodmaid short, and Lisavet’s demands for their blood grow to an unsustainable level. Meanwhile, Marion becomes increasingly jealous as Lisavet contemplates hiring more bloodmaids, and her feelings are not soothed by Lisavet’s habit of vanishing in the middle of the night. After one of her tutors is fired for trying to warn her about some danger unknown, Marion tries to investigate his disappearance, and in so doing finds a collection of personnel files indicating that none of Lisavets’ bloodmaids have ever received their pensions. The blood finally hits the fan when Marion learns that Lisavet has been keeping Cecelia imprisoned in the dungeons below the House, feeding on her life force to such an extent that Cecelia is now unrecognizable.

Realizing that Lisavet has been draining more than just their blood and that they won’t even get paid, Marion tells the other girls what she knows and convinces them to help her rescue Cecelia before they all flee the House of Hunger. Unfortunately, escaping is easier said than done: an attempt to enlist Sir Ivor against Lisavet ends in betrayal, and Thiago – though briefly pitying – proves unhelpful as well. (As for Sir Ivor, Lisavet kills him after receiving his information, so I can’t say he doesn’t get what he deserves. But he is still helpful in death, because Marion has the wherewithal to forge a check in his name to pay for escape tickets.) Things look bad for a while, but the bloodmaids get a second chance when Cecelia sacrifices herself to let them escape. While her friends make for the boat that will carry them to the nearby train station, Marion draws Lisavet away in a terrifying cat-and-mouse chase, and finally manages to drive a needle through Lisavet’s throat, mortally wounding her. With her dying breaths, Lisavet attacks Marion and drinks her blood one last time before giving her the ruby signet ring of her House as an acknowledgment of her defeat. Freed from Lisavet, Marion reunites with her friends just in time for all of them to catch the train that will carry them south, to a new life.

Maybe it’s just that I’m unfamiliar with horror as a genre, but I really had no idea where Henderson was going with this story for a solid 3/4 of the book. In retrospect, it seems fairly obvious that there was going to be a dramatic, bloody showdown. There had to be. Marion’s relationship with Lisavet is so painfully, toxically unhealthy that I feel like a fool for not seeing where it was going. On the other hand, this is part of the charm of the book: while it is predictable in other ways (Cecelia’s imprisonment and eventual reveal were not even close to a surprise), I didn’t feel like I needed to guess the final destination. It enveloped me so completely that I didn’t try to map it out in my head, which honestly is kind of nice. It was just a dark, gory, creepy ride, and I enjoyed it. If it seems a little fast in the beginning, it does slow down after Marion gets to the North. As I say, her life with Raul is not the point of the book, and Henderson definitely zips through the introduction to get to the actual story. I mean, listen, I’m in favor of anything that gets Raul out of the way quicker. I realize I am being heartless, but his treatment of Marion is the kind of thing that seems like it was specifically engineered to make me angry, and, well, if it was indeed intentional then I can confirm that it worked terrifically.

On the opposite end of the character spectrum, Marion is such a badass heroine. I like that she displays ruthlessness and compassion in equal measure. As much as she tries to tell people that she’s not as nice as they think she is – and I could certainly relate to that – I think she underestimates her own kindness. It could be a habit from her time on the streets, but it didn’t seem like she was concealing a softer side out of fear of seeming weak. I just genuinely think she doesn’t see herself as a kind person, even as she cares for Raul, tries to befriend Cecelia, and pries her friends out of a toxic workplace. I especially appreciate that, for all her blind, jealous passion, she is never stupid. As frustrating as it was to watch her cling to Lisavet, it was equally gratifying to see her turn so completely against her. She even explicitly calls Lisavet out for targeting vulnerable young women, many of whom are susceptible to the whole bloodmaid arrangement because they’ve never known anything better. I will say that some of Marion’s more flowery speeches are not convincing, coming from a character who grew up picking pockets and presumably did not have access to the kinds of schools that would teach such a thing, but perhaps this is something she picked up while working for the wealthy.

My one genuine complaint: while she can be fucking ruthless when she wants to be, there were definitely times – particularly during the final confrontation with Lisavet – where I thought Marion was holding back just a little too much, which typically led to her getting knocked around more than she should have. This might not have been an issue if not for a desultory fox hunt earlier in the book, in which Lisavet first encourages Marion to shoot Sir Ivor instead of shooting the fox, and then coldly tells her not to hesitate next time when she refuses to shoot either Ivor or the fox. This is such a pivotal moment that I fully expected it to play into Lisavet’s defeat, and the fact that Marion does hesitate many times during life-or-death situations seems like a bit of a letdown. In the end she finally dispenses of the hesitation at the most dramatic moment possible – not to sound too cynical, of course. But I was hoping Lisavet would be haunted by her own words, and she wasn’t. We did not come full circle, and from this vantage the fox hunt just feels like a distraction. (I also think that if Lisavet really wanted Ivor gone that much, she could’ve expedited his trip to the afterlife any time she chose, and I’m not clear on why she tolerated his presence for so long before she finally offed him. This isn’t exactly the age of forensic science, or even HR. She could’ve hidden a body if she’d wanted to.)

Looking over this review, I am aware that I have used some very corporate language to describe this book. That can’t entirely be helped. The setting might be dark and gothic and full of moors, but the book reads so much like an allegory on toxic workplaces and the workers who burn themselves out in the gears of a larger system. And the thing is, I fully understand Marion’s jealousy, her need to guard her position. I know what it is like to be a contracted worker, to worry about being replaced by other, better workers. I know what it is to hoard work like treasure, even knowing it would be healthier and more efficient to ask for help. I don’t know if this is an angle Henderson intended; somehow I doubt it. But it lends an extra dimension to a story that was already full of heartbreak. If I look at it as a story about a really bad temp job, I can see the outline of the decisions I would have made, and they’re not so different from the ones Marion makes herself. And that, in the end, is the reason this book hits such a nerve. Even with all the vampiric trimmings, it’s the story of a group of abused workers finding the motivation to quit with no other job lined up, and I think that’s beautiful.