Magical powers can be bestowed in a variety of ways. Maybe characters are born with them, à la Harry Potter. Maybe power is accessible by anyone, but requires magical tools à la Supernatural. And maybe they’re inherited from someone else, or passed on via an object or ritual. A universe where power is received in this last way can offer a lot of interesting storytelling potential if done right. Think of the Aztec gold in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. All you need to have the power (okay, yes, the pirates consider it a curse, but they do ostensibly have magical powers) is to have a coin in your possession. Because there’s a large margin of error for this power to be abused, there are high stakes tied to who controls it.
I actually stumbled onto this idea as I read Anne Rice’s newest Vampire Chronicles offering, Prince Lestat. While the book itself was unfortunately representative of the self-indulgent wordiness of Rice’s later works, it did largely center on the theme of received power. Who is worthy of having power? What happens when that person becomes unworthy, and how and when should it be passed on?
The main conflict of Prince Lestat stems from an inheritance in the conclusion of the third Vampire Chronicles novel, Queen of the Damned. In Queen of the Damned, Lestat awakens Akasha, the first vampire, who was turned when an evil blood-drinking spirit named Amel took up a symbiotic home in her body. As the progenitor of the race, Akasha is considered to contain what vampires call the Sacred Core. She is Amel’s primary anchor in the physical world, and if she is harmed or killed, the rest of the vampire race would suffer equally. However, she is barbaric and cruel, and seeks to destroy the blood drinkers who will not worship her as she was once worshiped. At the end of the book, two equally ancient vampire sisters called Maharet and Mekare, who are Akasha’s enemies from her mortal era, set upon her. Gambling on the idea that the brain is the source of power, Mekare consumes Akasha’s brain, and successfully takes the Sacred Core into herself. Akasha dies, but the root of the vampire race lives on, and they avoid an extinction.
In Prince Lestat, we deal with the aftermath of this inheritance. Amel, the blood-drinking spirit who fathered the vampire race, is not happy with his new Core host. Mekare cannot speak, rarely displays typical defensive responses when in danger, and almost never feeds. Meanwhile, Amel’s powers are being stretched thin, as more vampires exist than ever before. Reaching out, he influences a few ancient and powerful vampires to slay young blood drinkers by the hundreds, while also encouraging whomever is brave enough to attack Mekare and her sister and take the Core into themselves. He’s not particularly concerned about who takes this inheritance, but the vampire race as a whole certainly is. Any vampire with a hidden destructive agenda could, with the power of the Core, destroy their entire species. And when it comes down to the wire (and in a plot twist that’s been telegraphed for hundreds of pages) it’s Lestat, the Brat Prince himself, that they decide by popular opinion should take on the responsibility of the Sacred Core.
Is he deserving of this honor? Well, decidedly yes, if you’re going by Rice’s clear opinion of her favorite creation. Lestat has proven capable of resisting Amel’s demands to murder his fellows, is a worldwide phenomenon in both vampire and human circles thanks to his short-lived career as Queen Akasha’s consort and as a rock singer, respectively. Furthermore, his extensive adventures, which include, among other things, thwarting a body-snatching creature and literally time-traveling with the Devil back in time to meet Jesus himself, mean that despite his relatively small age of two and a half centuries (compared to that of millenia-old blood drinkers), he’s got a wealth of life experience that his fellows cannot hope to match.
Lestat puts off going to meet with the rest of the vampire community for much of the novel, and I think it’s because he suspects that he will be asked to take on this responsibility. In taking in the Sacred Core, he can no longer be the Brat Prince, playing fast and loose with his own life and the secrecy of the other blood drinkers. It’s only after he comes to terms with the responsibility that he commits to taking on his new position. Being the vessel of the Core comes with deeply heightened vampiric powers and a social commitment to the vampire community. More than just “hey don’t get dead because it’ll kill the rest of us,” as the Core’s vessel, Lestat is looked to as the final authority of the preternatural world.
I think that this method of receiving a magical power is a particularly interesting and high-stakes one. The fact is, becoming the vampires’ Core does not really require anything but the power to overcome the current Core vessel. Unlike an inherited position like the Avatar, or like Naruto, who carries the power of the Sage of the Six Paths’ son, the power isn’t necessarily tied to a certain person—anyone can claim it. When there is no question of who will inherit the power, the conflict of the story is tied to how those characters will use that power and live up to its legacy. When the power can be held by any one person—when the hero and the winner aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be the same person, there are significantly higher stakes regarding who that person will be, and even when the writing is mediocre and purple at best, it makes for an interesting dilemma.