The Route of Ice & Salt by José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles

The cover of The Route of Ice & Salt. Using varying shades of blue and white the background is the bow of a ship moving through water.

Over the boat is the author's and translator's name, José Luis Zárate, translated by David Bowles. Over the water is the title in larger font. The Route of Ice & Salt. 

The snapchat caption reads: Hot vamper summer, followed by a forward facing boat on water emoji.

(Not spoiler free)

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say I was expecting this book to be less queer than it was, but I was expecting it to be more subtextual. I suppose that’s because I was thinking about the time period in which “Dracula” was originally was written, and how queer readings of “Dracula” all rely heavily on coding and subtext. Not that this is in anyway a bad thing, I loved every queer minute of it and I am so so very glad that we now have an English translation of this wonderful book.

Book quote: "I am the Captain. 
Impossible that I order one of my men to come to my cabin and ask him to undress, much less insist he stand still and permit me to clean him with my tongue, lightly biting his flesh, trembling with craving for his skin."

Snapchat caption: I was expecting the queer aspect to be more subtle than this, but who am i to complain about a book being MORE GAY than i expected.

“The Route of Ice & Salt,” as you may have already guessed, is explicitly queer and you never forget that for one moment. The whole novella is grappling with the overlapping acceptance, shame and guilt of one’s own identity and actions as well as society’s perception of queerness as monstrous. It opens with our narrator, the captain of the Demeter, musing on his mens’ bodies, expressing attraction, but also noting that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to act on that attraction, and it ends with the captain proclaiming as he faces the monster aboard his ship that he is not a monster for his desires. 

Book quote: "I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself, nor Hunger a stigma that must be erased by fire and blood.
Not even Sin.
It is what we are willing to do to feed an impulse that makes it dangerous."

Snapchat caption: Yes yes, this

Much like the original novel, “The Route of Ice & Salt” is epistolary, and made up of the captain’s log and his private diary. It is in the private diary that we learn about the captain’s inner life and how he navigates his sexuality. There is a fine balance between erotic and horror, particularly as the captain’s dreams become influenced by the vampire aboard the ship. 

It is in these dreams that we learn about the captain’s lover, Mikhail, who is rather at the center of the captain’s turmoil surrounding his sexuality. He blamed himself for Mikhail’s death, following his brutal murder at the hands of the townsfolk. It is also noteworthy that they treat Mikhail’s corpse as if he were a vampire, cementing the connection between the monstrous and the queer.

There is repeated connection too of vampire bites to the neck and the bruise sucked into the neck by a lover. In fact, when the captain sees such a mark on one of his crew, his mind goes to the later instead of the former. 

My absolute favorite thing about the book, however, was how brought up various different cultural ideas surrounding vampires, even before the captain knows there is something on board he would call a vampire. The vrykolakas of Greece, the strigoi and vrolocks of Romania, the rakshasa of India. It was an expansion of vampire lore, through the lens of these sailors’ own backgrounds as well as lore of the places where they had sailed, which I thought was just… so great and clever.

Book quote: "Is it not said that to kill the vrolocks, the vlkoslak, the bloodthirsty living dead in Romania, one needs only living water?"

Snapchat caption: Love how the vampire mythos of various cultures has come up throughout the book.

Some potential warnings to note, in addition to the aforementioned murder:

There are several mentions of age gaps between partners. The captain is noted to have been younger than his lover by some undisclosed number of years, and there are several mentions of ambiguously young sex workers.

Additionally, if you are familiar with “Dracula,” you will know that no one living survives the passage from Varna to Whitby. This is a queer erotic horror story that fleshes out a small piece of the original novel. There is a cathartic ending, but if you’re looking for a fluffy happy ending, this probably isn’t the book for you.

That said, I would highly recommend this book to fans of “Dracula” and anyone looking for queer horror or queer nautical fiction. 

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