Lucius Shepard — winner of a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, a World Fantasy Award, a Shirley Jackson Award and many others during his decades-long career — died this year at the age of 70. And despite the decorations and respect he won within the world of science fiction and fantasy, he never broke through to a wider audience.
His new, posthumous novel, Beautiful Blood, won't change that. The book is set in Teocinte, a teeming city built against the body of a vast, slumbering dragon. But the setting is not pseudo-medieval, as so many dragon-centric fantasies are. Instead, Beautiful Blood takes place in a world that bears a vague resemblance to 19th century Earth. And the dragon at the heart of Shepard's superb, subtle story — a hibernating leviathan named Griaule — is not the kind of fire-breathing lizard that casual fans of fantasy might find comfortingly familiar.
Griaule first appeared in a 1984 short story — from there, Shepard wrote a handful of tales set in Teocinte, which were collected in 2012 in the book The Dragon Griaule. Beautiful Blood runs parallel with these stories, weaving throughout them while offering the most complete portrait of Shepard's sprawling vision to date.
That said, Beautiful Blood asks more questions than it answers. Richard Rosacher, the book's protagonist, is a scientist obsessed with the properties of dragon's blood, which must be perilously drawn from Griaule's tongue as he sleeps. Rosacher suspects it might have properties that border on the supernatural — and winds up corrupted by his quest for enlightenment through blood.
Richard's arc intersects that of the artist Meric Cattany, who's appeared in previous Griaule stories. Besides giving Shepard a way to connect some dots, Meric serves as Richard's philosophical foil as they devise a plan that will decide the ultimate fate of the immobile dragon that looms in the background of Teocinte like a living hillside. At one point, Meric — on a scaffolding, painting a mural on the side of the dragon as if he were Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel — tries to match wits with Richard regarding Griaule's role in the religion of Teocinte.
The mystery of who or what Griaule truly is — monster, god, or something more abstractly symbolic — becomes the central point of Beautiful Blood. At least for a while. The story makes abrupt jumps ahead in time, and every time it does, Richard has morphed into some new iteration of himself. Most of those iterations aren't pretty, and few are sympathetic enough to root for — not that Shepard seems concerned with making things that easy.
It makes for a read that's scattered and surreal, but never hallucinatory. Shepard's prose is richly textured, but it's also sharp and vivid, and his sentences wind around like the serpentine tail of a dragon itself. But Richard's struggle to choose between empiricism and mysticism (is he a scientist testing a hypothesis or a some kind of wizard seeking arcane knowledge?) get wrapped up in a fevered fog of magic-realist imagery that takes some effort to penetrate. At the fever's peak, Teocinte seems suddenly to exist in our world — or at least some alternate-reality version of our world where dragons, Prussians, and French horns coexist.
Shepard's plot, lucid yet disorienting, is the toughest part of Beautiful Blood. There aren't enough fixed points in his shifting landscape — or in Richard's mercurial character — to latch onto. But Shepard's flow is hypnotic, especially when he sweeps the reader into a reverie about the nature of godhood or a meditation on time. And yes, darkness abounds. Even so, bursts of bawdy humor and white-knuckle adventure are allowed to break through.
Beautiful Blood isn't a cookie-cutter fantasy book about slaying dragons; if anything, it slays that very cliché. But it's more than just an exercise in subverting tropes. Shepard ponders mortality and decay with a soul-baring poignancy as Richard ages and his relationship to Griaule — his Moby-Dick — becomes less about a monster and more about the man obsessed with it. Beautiful Blood is a fitting swan song for Shepard's wonderful, underappreciated body of work, in more ways than one.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.