WARMTH by Sumiko Saulson
Review by Valjeanne Jeffers
In her third novel, Warmth, horror writer aficionado Sumiko Saulson weaves a supernatural labyrinth peopled with Afflicted beings or ghulah: Creatures who live by drinking the blood and eating the flesh of humans. The ghulah are intelligent meta-humans who go about their unusual lives … loving, eating, and always seeking warmth. For their transformation has rendered them unable to sustain body heat. And then there’s the second breed of preternatural creatures. The Dead: Lethal walking, breathing corpses with no other desire than to kill and eat.
The heroine of Warmth, Leilana or, as she prefers to be called, Sera, is one of the Afflicted: A ghulah. Like all of her kind, she is not immortal but has an extraordinarily long life span. Sera was transformed and lost an eye when she was attacked by one of the Dead. And she takes great joy in hunting and killing these creatures… well aware of the dangers they pose for the world of the living.
She looks like a young runaway, yet she is in reality centuries old, and she’s been pregnant since the Spanish Inquisition with a fetus that is also Afflicted. Yet Sera has no desire to be a mother and feels no maternal stirrings towards her unborn fetus— a child that will take centuries to grow to adulthood.
The reader is first introduced to Leilana during the conquest of America, as she is thrust into the role of both rescuer and hunter. When a zombie attacks one of the men who has offered her shelter, thinking her to be an old woman, Sera quickly reveals herself to be a deadly supernatural being.
“She flew into the front door of the cottage, where the cause of Adolfo’s suffering became immediately apparent. The original Lazaro… the old gravedigger, had him pinned against the wall, and had bitten deeply into the flesh of his cheek, chewing it… eating it. Rotted clothes hung from the rail-thin frame of the Old Lazaro, and in places, purplish, bruised flesh showed through. The whites of his eyes had gone the cloudy yellow color of mucous. The ends of his fingers were caked with thick, wet grave dirt.
“I hate the Dead,” she hissed under her breath, running toward it. She shoved the sharpened end of her pike through the creature’s eye with such force that it went through the back of its skull, pinning it to the wall. A gelatinous mixture of curdled blood, vitreous humor and purulence issued from the ruptured visage, first slowly oozing, then gushing toward the floor.
Lifting the robe and the long skirts below it, she revealed her leg up to the knee—a small ax was strapped to the outside of her calf in a leather holster. She removed the weapon with a single graceful motion and shortly had it level to the creature’s neck.”
Six hundred years later, Sera is still living, still hunting… and still cold. But now she lives in a modern world: Full of new and lethal dangers. She has enemies. The most dangerous one a psychopathic ghula, whom she crossed paths with long ago. This maniac is convinced that Sera has stolen her baby from her womb, and is determined to reclaim the infant.
Thus Warmth is a story that challenges the notions of womanhood and beauty. When Sera has the opportunity to have her scared face repaired, she decides to keep her visage as it is— scared though it may be. She cherishes her ruined face because it is the only way to preserve her cherished memories.
When she looked in the mirror and saw her face, Sera remembered so many friends she’d had in her long past who were no longer with her. Perhaps even more so, she liked it because it was the only thing left in the world to remind her of the life she had before her Affliction—a short life, and difficult. It was gone now, faded into the pages of history.
Her marked face and her birth name were all she had left of it.
Yet throughout her journey, we are reminded of just how beautiful Sera really is … once one looks beyond her face. This is a novel about becoming: Growing, and reinventing oneself when it’s necessary for survival.
Saulson has spun a rich, multi-layered tale of both dark humor and nail-biting suspense. Along with the tough survivor Sera, we become acquainted with an entourage of characters; some human, some ghulah, and each with their own complicated, twisted lives. Among this cast is Sweet Melana, the brooding Larenzo, and S&M Master Fadrique … allies, foes. And all preparing for a war that may consume both the Afflicted and humankind alike.
Saulson is a consummate horror writer, and in Warmth she has given us a horror novel that we will never forget.