Whether they’re called vampires, mummies, or witches, Anne Rice’s alienated, soulful, lovelorn, and forgivably selfish characters are all the same creature under the skin. In Taltos (Knopf, $25), the third installment in her Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, Rice has given us still another new incarnation. This time, she presents a race of beautiful and practically immortal giants who once lived in peace, indolence, and arcane sexual bliss on a remote island in the North Atlantic. After their paradise blew up (just one of those geological things) and sank into the ocean, the Taltos resettled in prehistoric Britain, on Salisbury Plain, at least until Homo sapiens showed up in droves and began to slaughter them. And with ever-improving weaponry, the humans just kept at it for the next several hundred years, till giants disappeared from the earth. Well, not quite all of them.
Soft-spoken, sweet-natured Ash Templeton, a seven-foot-tall New York millionaire (his fortune, we’re told, comes from the manufacturing of exquisite dolls for children) is one of the last remaining Taltos. Alive for more than a thousand years, Ash-real name Ashlar-is desperately seeking someone of his own species; ”not in centuries,” he complains, ”have I touched my own flesh and blood.” Putting it bluntly, he’s horny and looking for a mate. And as it happens, way down yonder in New Orleans, a female Taltos is soon to be born, thanks to a genetic fluke-and a lot of narrative gobbledygook-to a nubile 13-year-old witch. (Taltos, you should realize, gestate with amazing swiftness, then grow to walking-talking-copulating adulthood within hours of their birth.)
Usually, Anne Rice can ravel out this sort of baroque fiction with fervor and wit, giving it all the dazzling luster of a fever-and-chills dream. Not this time, though. Burdened by the unresolved plotlines of the first two books in the series (The Witching Hour and Lasher), she spends almost a third of the novel recapping what’s gone before,which makes for a lot of dull conversation. And when she does finally start putting the new stuff into play, it’s far too late.
Sentence by sentence, page by page, cutting back and forth between melancholy Ashlar’s quest for sexual companionship and the accelerated pregnancy of the young witch, Mona Mayfair, Rice keeps struggling with-and, more often than not, fumbling-her own material. Characterization is thumbnail (if you want to know what the witches are like, and why they act the way they do, reread the earlier novels, since Rice can’t be bothered with telling you again). The pacing is glacial and the prose slack and flabby, so empty of persuasive detail (”All the serving bowls were full of delectable and scrumptious things”) that you can’t help but lose interest long before the last page-which, of course, is not really the end, merely a convenient stopping point in an ongoing gothic soap opera. The question is, though, after Taltos, who will possibly care what happens next? D