Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice Chatto & Windus $272 It seems ironic that any literary work by Anne Rice, queen of dark erotica, should be haunted by a vampire called Lestat de Lioncourt, the romantic, angst-ridden protagonist of her Vampire Chronicles. Lestat remains the most attractive persona Rice has conjured up from her imagination so far. All her other fictional heroes have fallen short of this measuring stick, including the one in Servant of the Bones. Interview with the Vampire, the first Lestat instalment, ranks among the top works of gothic horror fiction, using evocative imagery and rich prose to bring the story of Lestat alive. While Servant of the Bones uses the same structure as Interview - a person listens to and records the hero's tale - it lacks the power of the earlier work. The book opens with a murder in modern-day New York City, but the story really begins in Babylon more than 2,500 years ago with the birth of Azriel. The eldest son of an exiled Hebrew family, Azriel befriends the Babylonian god, Marduk, who becomes his companion and confidant. But the 'relationship', once exposed, offends religious sensibilities and Azriel is offered as a sacrifice in exchange for his people's safe passage back to Jerusalem. Betrayed by greedy priests and an evil witch, Azriel does not die but instead is cursed and becomes a genie, held captive by his gold-plated bones until a master calls upon him. He wakes again in modern-day New York City where he witnesses the death of Esther, stepdaughter of evil cult leader, Gregory Belkin, who is preparing to set himself up as the new Messiah and wipe out the Third World with a new strain of the Ebola virus. No prizes for guessing who saves the world. Rice has dedicated this book to God, and the holy - or unholy, as may be the case - parallels are evident. Azriel, Rice's avatar for Jesus Christ, is sacrificed 'to save his people'. For three days, he is a martyr. Then he rises from the dead - or, rather, a boiling cauldron of molten gold - to eternal life. The amount of research Rice has done on the history of the Jews and the Hasidics is impressive but in the end it proves a problem for the story. In previous works, her prose soared with rich descriptions. Here it is bogged down by too many details about the past. The references to Ebola, AIDS and Middle East strife are worthy attempts at making the novel contemporary in its later stages, but end up looking like tacky Hollywood ploys. Even Rice's sensual eroticism is dulled. We are relegated to declarations of love between Azriel and some of his masters, and his attempt at humanity by bedding Belkin's wife. The idea of a genie residing in a pile of golden bones is the one, truly refreshing idea in Servant of the Bones. But Azriel does not have the colour or vulnerability which made Lestat and, even Lasher (The Witching Hour ), such romantic, haunted figures. Azriel's main purpose in life is to love, learn and be kind to humans. This, unfortunately makes him boring. He often speaks of his burning hatred for his tormentors and how he despises his weaker masters, but readers are never shown the full extent of his fury. His scribe, a scholar called Jonathan, is equally bland. Even the evil madman, Belkin, fails to be terrifying despite possessing all the right destructive toys, such as hidden laboratories and doomsday buttons. The book seems like a hastily put-together, B-grade movie. One can only conclude that Rice's bewitching traits may be losing their bite, or perhaps that the success of the filmed version of Interview has made her hungry for more.