Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

I have a definite thing with the paranormal concept of “mating”, which is mostly understood to be an unbreakable romantic bond that exists independent of the emotional state of love. Obviously, romance novels have certain parameters to them, namely, that there be an HEA or HFN, so mostly they don’t address the glaring problem that a bond like this, one independent of emotion, can represent. So I kind of freak out when writers address the potential disconnect between mated bond and honest affection, because it’s so vanishingly rare. The newest Alpha & Omega novel, Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs, addresses this issue. The only other novel that I can think of that takes on a disconnect between mated bonding and real affection was one of Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, The Secret. That instance was utterly heartbreaking.

I have a pet theory that the “mating bond” acts as a sort of safety net for people writing overbearing asshole types, which many of these shifters tend to be. The whole pack hierarchy of dominance/submission, which is de rigueur in shifter narratives, offers up a steady supply of pushy, domineering alpha males (literally! har har) whose behavior towards women would be legitimately alarming in real world contexts. (Hell, often their behavior towards other men as well.) With the introduction of the mating bond, that more or less ensures the romantic lead won’t go fully physically abusive, though of course the more intangible methods of abusing and controlling one’s partner are still fully on the table. Admittedly, the Alpha & Omega series isn’t quite a romance series, though it includes a strong romantic through-line, so much of my noodling about the mating bond doesn’t apply, exactly.

The Alpha & Omega books follow the married couple and mated werewolf pair, Anna and Charles Cornick, the Omega and Alpha of the series name, respectively. The werewolves in this universe are often incredibly violent, and the pack bonds are just the thinnest check on that violence. This is in direct contrast with shifters like the Changelings in the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh, whose shifter nature instills a sense of protectiveness and community. Singh’s Changelings are almost constitutionally incapable of abuse; Briggs’s werewolves are all too capable of violent outbreaks, and in some cases predisposed. Further, Charles acts as his father, Bran Cornick’s enforcer, and Bran is the pack leader of all North American werewolf packs, a sort of uber-alpha. His direct pack is made up of the hurt, damaged, unstable, and otherwise not housebroken werewolves. As his dad’s strong arm, violence is literally Charles’s job. His bond with Anna provides ballast for him, a line out to softer, kinder human emotion.

But the mating bond between Anna and Charles — one that seems genuinely enviable — is not the relationship at issue in Wild Sign: it’s the prickly, disconnected connection between Bran Cornick and his mate, Leah. The fact that they are mated but seem to have a deep antipathy for one another has been a thing not just in the Alpha & Omega series, but the Mercy Thompson books as well, where Leah acted as mean step-mom antagonist. Frankly, the way the antagonism between Mercy and Leah was introduced and maintained was indicative of a problem Briggs had writing relationships between women, at the very least in the earlier novels in that series, but really going up to the one that took place in Europe? I find the individual novel names forgettable. Anna’s relationship with Leah has been less antagonistic, but largely Leah is portrayed as a harpy Bran ruefully puts up with. And honestly, if I were Leah, I would be less than impressed with Bran’s lackluster care and concern. His treatment of her as an irritant has never sat well with me.

Wild Sign acts as a corrective to this, and gives us not just Leah’s backstory, but also the origin story for her relationship with Bran Cornick. Anna and Charles head out to the California wilderness to investigate an off-the-grid town full of magical users which seems to have vanished without a trace. Apparently, this town was on land that Leah owns, and both the land and the reason for the town’s disappearance are connected to her mating bond with Bran. Suffice it to say, there’s some real nasty shit in her backstory, the kind of thing even Briggs addresses mostly euphemistically. Her bond with Bran is anything but ideal, almost an echo of said nasty shit, and it’s completely legible why they would hold each other at a distance. They are bonded by trauma, unbreakably so, but trauma isn’t actually ennobling, and intimate violations can play havoc with one’s ability to be intimate.

It’s a lot, and there were certainly points where I wondered if maybe it was too much. But then Briggs has never much shied from really nasty traumas, especially in Alpha & Omega. Charles and Anna met, after all, when he had to execute her pack leader because of the alpha’s brutal sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of Anna and others. And indeed, the antagonist in Wild Sign dredges up this history of violence for Anna — makes her relive it — in a way that felt true to the ways trauma can resurface, even for people who are functionally healed. Shifter narratives, especially those that center on werewolves, deal often with body trauma, I find, something having to do with the werewolf’s lack of control over their body, and the violence of the physical change.

That said, there are some real moments of levity in Wild Sign, like Anna and Charles’s run in with some sasquatch, or the basis for the monster of the week the novel has going. Which is good, because darkness pushes on everything they do, threatening to snuff out the sometimes tremulous light. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.

Alpha Night by Nalini Singh

I went back and forth about even reviewing Alpha Night, the most recent Psy-Changeling Trinity novel, because it didn’t quite work for me, but for the usual reasons that Psy-Changeling books sometimes don’t work for me. At a certain point it’s on me that I keep reading books that have general themes that can bug me. But then I also want to noodle around and figure out why so few of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books work for me so far, when the last 4 or 5 of the Psy-Changeling installments are my most favoritest of any of them.

So, a quick rundown of the series: Psy-Changeling is a 14-book series set on an alt-Earth where there are 3 kinds of humans: regular humans, like you and me; the Psy, a psychic race who have subjected themselves to brutal anti-emotional conditioning called Silence for the last century; and the Changelings, animal shifters who cluster in packs of Changelings and who shift to similar animals. Changelings can be insular about other changelings — like wolves and cats won’t get on — but humans intermix fine, and do fairly broadly. Also, the Psy often treat humans like shit, as humans have no natural defense against psychic interference. Because the Psy actively repress emotion, child-bearing and rearing is a contractual affair, and the whole race has been cut off, both socially and genetically speaking, from the other two under Silence. The larger arc of the series shows the slow dismantling of Silence, as it turns out repressing emotion in a psychic race is debilitating to the point of species-level collapse.

As a romance series, this larger arc was seen through individual novels that focused on a specific pairing, and gave the background arc a really broad, global sense, like this really was fate-of-the-world stuff, but seen though the eyes of individuals. Mostly the individual outings focused on Psy/Changeling pairings (hence, like, the name of the series), but there are also plenty of Psy/Psy or Changeling/Changeling couples. As a huge nerd, I just went through and counted up: there are 5 Psy/Changeling pairings, 3 Changeling/Changeling pairings, 3 Psy/Psy pairings, and 3ish that include a human. (I say 3ish because one of the “humans” is a member of the Forgotten, a sort of rogue Psy population who submerged into humanity once Silence was initiated.)

On a personal level, I always much prefer a Psy-Changeling novel which focuses on the Psy. On a racial level, they are dealing with profound trauma and abuse, and I think romance novels, with their focus on emotional connection and physical pleasure, can be a perfect environment in which to explore recovery from trauma, especially body trauma. Singh is especially good at this kind of plot, as she never succumbs to the Magical Vagina, those ladyparts whose simple application can heal the most traumatic of injuries. Trauma is real, recovery is often slow, and sometimes people don’t heal completely. The Psy narratives often detail the beauty of the most simple pleasures, anything from burst of sweetness and warmth when you take a sip of hot cocoa, to the feel of silk on the skin. I’m a pretty big sucker for Beautiful Life philosophies.

I’m less interested in Changelings because I find the pack construction frustrating, and the dominant/submissive stuff actively annoying. There is nothing uniquely annoying about the way Changeling culture is constructed compared to other UF/PNR, so I’m not trying to single Singh out. In most shifter narratives, the animal shifters organize themselves around an alpha who is the mostest dominant. In Changeling packs, the dominants act as the government/cops of the pack, while the submissives and maternals, you know, act as healers or school teachers or whatnot. Of course, as you can see from the nomenclature, this is all highly gendered. Occasionally the dominants will talk about how terrifying it is to be called up in front of the maternals, but this strikes me as more of a joke situation: haha, look at the strong dude afraid of his mommy! I literally can’t think of a single maternal named character. (ETA: Wait, that’s not true: I can think of one, and it’s one of the very few female Sentinels. Having her be a maternal solves the problem of her love interest’s fragile ego when he thought she was more dominant than him. Which, that’s pretty fucked up.)

Anyway, The Psy-Changeling books reach a crescendo with the fall of Silence, which then necessitates a global change on all levels of society, and including all three races. During Silence, the three races seemed largely to govern themselves. The Psy were subject to the Psy Counsel, a collection of a dozen or so complete psychos. Psy who showed any kind of emotion were subject to reconditioning or rehabilitation: the first was painful and cruel, and the second resulted in a vegetative state. Changeling packs were organized around an Alpha, as I mentioned before, though there is some law regarding the interaction of the members of Changeling packs with each other. (There was apparently a series of disastrous Territory Wars in the previous century.) Humans seem to have the usual human systems, but then I can’t tell if the nation-state exists, or if there is a global body that advocates for their rights. That doesn’t really matter, I just bring it up because a lot of the legal structures in this world are very lightly sketched, which gives Singh a lot of latitude to bend the world to the characters.

Anyway, after the fall of Silence, and therefore the dissolution of the Psy Council, there are a few books showing the messy interim period until they get their new government systems off the ground. I positively live for this period, in fiction, as I think it’s hard to pull off, but incredibly rewarding. And Singh positively shines given a situation where individual relationships mirror real and important changes in the larger world. By the close of Allegiance of Honor (which honestly read like a clip show, because we check in with literally all the couples from the previous 14 books), global government has been realigned under the Trinity Accord. Trinity, as the name suggests, brings representatives of the three races together, in addition to various important factions within the larger groups: the E-designation Psy, the Forgotten, the Human Alliance, the Arrows, &c &c.

The Psy-Changeling Trinity books are absolutely a continuation of Psy-Changeling, so it’s more like season two than a whole new series. That said, I’ve been kinda bored by them. The first Trinity novel, Silver Silence, I was pretty excited about because it followed a major supporting character, Silver Mercant, who was aide to Kaleb Krychek. Alas, I find bear changelings annoying, which is who the Psy Silver falls in with. (Though, honestly, after spending time with the Moscow wolves in Alpha Night, who are all self-serious bores, I’m more than ready to hang out with the dopey drunk bears again.) Ocean Light also follows a long-running character, the guy who was the head of the Human Alliance, but it recycled the “medical tech might kill me” plot that was way better deployed in Vasic’s book, Shield of Winter, plus the hero was not the kind of asshole I appreciate. (Kaleb Krychek being the ❤️️asshole❤️️ standard.) I did enjoy Wolf Rain, which complicated the E-designation in a really cool way, though the heroine was a million times more interesting than the hero.

Alpha Night follows the alpha of the Russian wolf pack who lives in Moscow along with the Silver Silence bears and Kaleb Krychek. (This is a not dissimilar set up to San Francisco which has cat and wolf packs, and also major Psy players Nikita Duncan and the NightStar family.) Selenka Durev is not the only Changeling alpha who is also a woman — the ocean-wide pack of BlackSea’s First (basically an alpha) is also a girl — but she’s the first we’ve focused on. At a conference of E-designation Psy — who act as a bulwark for the PsyNet, a psychic plane which is necessary for all Psy to, like, continue being alive — Selenka has a fateful meeting with Ethan Night, a member of an insular Psy military unit called the Arrows. Mating at first sight is not supposed to exist, but that’s exactly what happens.

Which, this is right up my damn alley. I dig the narratives that complicate or otherwise rough up tropes of whatever genre, and the mating bond one finds in shifter stories especially makes me itchy. A really fucking fascinating series which does this particularly well is Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, specifically the third in that series, The Secret. That story features a woman who is permanently bonded to another supernatural creature as sort of experiment by that being, which results in both of them locked into both mutual need and mutual antipathy. It’s tragic as hell, and completely, horribly abusive. Alpha Night, unfortunately, doesn’t really do anything with this mating-bond-at-first-sight situation. It’s not supposed to be a thing in the Psy-Changeling universe, so it’s remarked on a lot by the characters, who then often reference genre fiction. Singh also includes excerpts from publications supposedly written in-world. (For example, there’s a soap called Hourglass Lives that I think is a riff on Day of Our Lives, which is so adorable.) I get a kick out of genre fiction commenting on the genre through showing their characters interact with in-world media. (For robust examples of this, check out the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, or Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gate.) It could have been an easy thing to interrogate instalove in this context. Alas.

The interpersonal conflict instead is largely the one between Selenka and her father, who was passed over as alpha when her grandfather died. He’s whiny and entitled, and gives Selenka no small amount of grief. I really love when Singh writes about shitty Changelings who have shitty relationships, because sometimes they’re just a little too perfect. Mating bonds render things like spousal abuse impossible, and they’re so full up with protective instincts that they can be incredibly high-handed and high-and-mighty. (And, honestly, sometimes the way those protective instincts are portrayed looks pretty overbearing to me. The loudest example I can think of was Jenna’s brothers’ behavior in Caressed by Ice. She managed to get them to stand the fuck down, but she had to be really, really assertive in a situation where they were almost physically restricting her. They don’t own her, and nothing about that was healthy.) Selenka’s relationship with her father is heartbreaking, especially because its based on real, longstanding resentments and disconnects. And legit, her relationship with her mom is pretty fucked up too.

Her relationship with Ethan, by contract, is remarkably frictionless. He snaps into his role as the alpha’s consort pretty easily. He even interacts with pack mates with exactly what the situation requires, something which stretched credulity when coming from a scarred and traumatized member of an insular paramilitary unit. Like, how? Even his relationships with other Arrows heretofore have been bad. Most of the frisson in their relationship had to do with his bizarre and sometimes out of control psychic powers, which isn’t a conflict but a situation. I really could have used a little more conflict between these two, because suddenly being bonded to someone you don’t even know sounds kinda nightmarish, and that isn’t really acknowledged.

So I don’t know! I think my sense of malaise with the Trinity novels is that I don’t feel an especial sense of danger anymore. Unless they’re singular psychos like Ming Le Bon or the serial-killing Psy Council member, Singh’s evil organizations are often cartoonish. I don’t credit their motivations, so I don’t feel that much tension. The Trinity series has had really remote antagonists, so the overt plot doesn’t really resonate with the romantic plot for me. You’ll notice I didn’t even mention the overt plot of Alpha Night, because it really made no impression. In comparison, I can remember both the advancing mythology and the interpersonal relationships in, say, Heart of Obsidian, with perfect clarity, even years later. I think I read somewhere that the next Trinity book is going to deal with the PsyNet breaking apart, which is the kind of BFD that might really provide some grist for the main couple. Here’s hoping! I legitimately love this series, and I don’t like feeling on the outs.

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

One of the strengths of the paranormal fantasy is its ability to make the metaphors manifest, and then play with them in really concrete terms. One of my favorite werewolf stories, for example, is Ginger Snaps, a turn of the millennium film about two pubescent sisters, one of whom begins turning into a werewolf. The lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps works as this really extreme metaphor for all of the dangerous becoming that happens to girls in puberty: sexually, personally, socially. One of the reasons it works so well is that the actuality of puberty is going on as well — the lycanthropy is a metaphor, yes, but the real world thing exists too. The metaphor doesn’t erase the reality, it heightens it.

There’s this really great scene where the younger sister goes to the school nurse and begins describing the changes in her werewolf sister — sexual awaking, blood, hair growth — and the nurse clucks knowingly and gives her a pamphlet about “Your Changing Body!” or somesuch. It’s a gesture to how the literature about puberty is both accurate, physiologically speaking, and absolutely misses the mark when it comes to the lived experience of the average person at that vulnerable period. I don’t remember getting a pamphlet about dealing with sketch dudes on the bus when I was 14, but unwelcomed sexual attention is, unfortunately, a very real aspect of puberty for many girls & people assigned female at birth. The way the werewolf is used in Ginger Snaps doesn’t erase or replace the experience of puberty, it heightens it.

Anyway, point being, for every story like Ginger Snaps — which flawlessly combines both the metaphorical and the actual — there’s a dozen which treat the metaphor of the paranormal other as somehow more real than actual, legitimate, real world problems, prejudices, and bigotries. This is especially true when the paranormal identity is understood to be a persecuted minority and acts as a stand in for race. I’ve seen many fictions erase systemic racism in lieu of the simplified and ahistoric “prejudice” against their made up whatsit. It’s not that I don’t think people wouldn’t be bigots about werewolves/shifters/vampires should they be revealed to be real, it’s that I think they’d be racist about them in addition to all the stuff they’re already racist about.

Which is why Suleikha Snyder’s Big Bad Wolf is such a godamn breath of fresh air. So much — so much — paranormal fantasy takes place in a magical America which isn’t riven by bone-deep, brutal, and violent disagreement about who gets to count as a person. We’ve all seen the state violence — children in cages, Black people murdered by the police with no accountability — and that’s not even getting into the stochastic terrorism that makes up the background radiation of the Trump years. If, somehow in the last four years, supernatural beings were added to the population as a category of persons who exist, they would have been subject to the exact same treatment as every other minority. Which is to say: poorly, and worse and worse for intersectional identities.

Big Bad Wolf focuses largely, though not exclusively, on the relationship between Neha Ahluwalia and Joe Peluso. He’s a white former soldier who murdered six Russian mafia dudes, and she’s a Desi lawyer who’s been tasked with defending him in court. He was part of a super secret military unit which was changed through scientific fuckery into a wolf shifter, but for unknown reasons he never used his shifting abilities when he smoked the mafia dudes. Neha has a PhD in psychology in addition to her JD, so she’s sent in to try to get him to cooperate with his legal defense. So far he’s been anything but cooperative.

Joe and Neha have an almost immediate connection, one that discombobulates them both. He’s got a healthy dose of self loathing going on, both because of his military service and because he legit murdered 6 dudes in cold blood. Her motives are a little less legible — he is, after all, a murderer — but their dialogue is snappy and I’ll allow a lot of emotional latitude setting up a world this complex. At a certain point Neha has to decide whether to follow her intense reaction to Joe, or stay on the straight and narrow. She makes the leap, and ends up on the run with Joe, dodging the cops, the Russian mafia, and possibly the military.

Because that’s the thing: this novel takes place firmly in Trump’s America (though I’m reasonably sure he’s never named). As the child of immigrants and a lawyer, Neha has a richly textured understanding of how scary it is out there for brown people, for women, for non-Christians. Early on, Joe tries to pull some economic anxiety bullshit on her — you’re just into me because I’m working class — and she’s like pffffft, that’s nothing. I’ve survived the last four years; slumming doesn’t factor. Yes, absolutely, he’s seen some shit, and what was done to him was wrong. But his experience of being hung out to dry as a shifter once the military was done with him is just one injustice. There are so many others, and there’s no rules that say you only experience the one.

As the first in a series, there are a lot of people, organizations, and lore that need explaining, and the narrative feels occasionally cluttered with their introductions. Relatedly, because there are so many people, the character sketches of anyone but the leads are pretty rudimentary. This is less a complaint and more an observation. Even though there are a lot of moving parts, Snyder has a firm hand on her exposition — I never felt like, who the hell is this person, I have no idea how they fit in. Given the size of the cast, that’s no small feat.

Yesterday, I bolted down all 6 episodes of Staged, a pandemic-produced BBC series starring David Tennent and Michael Sheen. I’ve watched a couple other shows produced during the pandemic, stuff like Host (a pretty cute found-footage horror film about a tele-séance) and Locked Down (which I turned off after 15 minutes because of its fucking awful script.) Staged was absolutely pitch perfect, the pandemic production I didn’t even know I needed, coming at just the right time. Big Bad Wolf is exactly like this for me, a corrective to the sometimes ahistorical metaphorical landscape of the paranormal, coming at a time when history demands accounting. Put less douchily: It’s so welcome to see family and friends on the pages of of a novel, living in the same conflicted and dangerous reality, but intensified by a paranormal element that gives the everyday that much more freight.

Review: Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

In the third of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Trinity novels, Wolf Rain, she returns to origins: back to the Sierra Nevada region where the SnowDancer pack of Changeling wolves rules. The previous two novels – Silver Silence, which takes place in the Changeling bear packs of Russia and Ocean Light, which explored the secretive BlackSea pack of water changelings – struck out into unexplored groups and places to uneven results. Ocean Light especially felt like it was lacking, so it feels like a good move to head back to familiar ground. We know a lot of people in SnowDancer, and when we ran into them, mostly they weren’t just hanging around canoodling and being sooooo in lurrrrrve, which I find happens often in romance sequels. This always sets my teeth.

The novel kicks off with emotionally isolated SnowDancer lieutenant Alexei (whom I’m fairly sure has popped up before in previous novels?) following an anguished psychic broadcast in the middle of nowhere SnowDancer territory. He finds a hatch to a bunker inside a cave, and inside the bunker he finds a Psy woman (named Memory) grieving over her dead cat. They gtfo of there, with Alexei provoking the Psy to anger to keep her moving. He identifies her as an E, the empathic designation, which she balks at: she has an affinity with monsters, in her mind. She nonetheless submits to interviews with such talents as Sascha Duncan, a cardinal E and shield technician, and sets up residence with other Es in the SnowDancer territory.

Since childhood, Memory has been in the clutches of one of those psychopath villains Silence produced in batches since she was maybe eight or nine. Silence, a widespread form of social conditioning used by the Psy for several generations to remove all emotion, has fallen, but the Psy, and by extension Memory, are on a long road to wellness. In some ways, her arc is one of the entire race, post-Silence, a road map out of the recrimination and self-loathing that comes from discarding Silence. The E-built “honeycomb” is fine and all, but they cannot be doing all of the emotional work for the entire race. Wolf Rain addresses head on the problems the Psy face in a post-Silence world, and is probably more mythology-heavy than its predecessors, which I count as a good thing.

Alexei’s trajectory is maybe less interesting, but then I’m just way less into Changeling psychology in general, so it could be me. I find the whole predatory dominant thing – which Alexei embodies to a T – rather tiresome, and the whole “mate for life” trope endlessly frustrating. A biologically based unbreakable bond absolutely destroys any real emotional agency. People have vastly different emotional makeups, and even worse, one’s character changes over time. I don’t get how “mate for life” isn’t anything but an emotional prison when two people bond in their 20s, and then get tethered to one another permanently despite divergent interests and concerns as they age.

Moreover, both mate-bonding and pack-bonding lends the Changelings a form of emotional perfection that can really mar any story that relies on emotional growth. They’re often cast as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which makes them hard to relate to, and limits their emotional range. (I mean, that may be the ultimate thrust of the series, in a way: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. They’re aspects of humanity split out, and the series finds them coming back together.) Alexei’s experiences actually calls some of this Changeling bonding stuff into question; just because two people are mated, doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly, horribly wrong. I still have my reservations, but some of my issues are addressed, and credibly.

Memory’s experience as a sub-designation E mirrors Alexei’s grapplings with the Changeling emotional makeup. Though (of course) her self-image was completely twisted by her Psy captor, she’s still not like the other Es we’ve met, who are stereotypically soft and feminine, true nurturers and providers. Memory is made out of anger and vengeance; it is what got her through her captivity. She is willing to cut a bitch if a bitch needs cutting. I really, really like the idea of an empath who is sensitive to the darker registers of the human emotional experience. It’s more neatly dealt with in Wolf Rain than I would prefer, but that it’s acknowledged at all is aces.

So far, the Psy-Changeling Trinity novels have been slightly shaky, but Wolf Rain gets back to basics in a satisfying way.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

This was originally written in July 2018.

If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh would be a “guilty pleasure.” While I don’t believe in feeling bad for reading enormously successful and interesting books – that’s ridiculous – there are aspects of the series that nonetheless make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings – and they are always predatory changelings – is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that’s usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Psy-Changeling isn’t outside the norm, but I know I’m going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she’s been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don’t have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)

Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they’re a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout. 

Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass and ex-Psy Council member Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we’ve never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they’re not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.

Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth’s oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we’ve encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight’s head. This is a conflict we’ve seen before in Psy-Changeling, most recently in Shield of Winter, where it was the secondary plot. It is not as good as a primary conflict, like it is in Ocean Light, because it is a relatively inert situation: people worry, maybe they go to the doctor, then they worry some more. Either dude dies or he doesn’t.

We’ve met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he’s tangled with both the Psy and Changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys, but more so the Psy). He’s also been kind of a dick, which doesn’t necessarily change in Ocean Light. I don’t think that’s all bad – I like when dickish folk remain true to their characters even after, like, emotional and sexual awakening. That’s one of the best things about the romance between Kaleb and Sahara in Heart of Obsidian: Kaleb is a stone cold psycho and Sahara is his only emotional human relationship. In fact, I think he generally characterizes her as his only “weakness”: he sees his strength as flowing from his emotional sterility, and in many real ways it does. Even after they fall in love, he remains completely cut off from the rest of humanity. Sometimes the damage is just too great, and love is not a magic elixir. So it’s fine, good even, that Bo remains a dick, but he’s just less compelling than Kaleb all around, so I’m way less into it.

The romance in Ocean Light largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. Further complicating their relationship is that Kaia, while being a water changeling, has Psy ancestry and some of their mental gifts. Bo is pretty much an anti-Psy bigot, so this could be a problem. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane’s [sic, I super want this name to be Maine for no good reason] security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, and we don’t get to see changeling kicking down doors and apprehending bad guys for the most part. They spend most of the novel hanging out in the BlackSea HQ chatting and making sandwiches. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn’t exactly action either.

BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.  

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.

Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison.

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself.

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff.

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained.

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good.

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires.

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures.

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind?

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat.

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover.

(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Breaking Dawn: Narrative Tension Goes Fsssst

I read Twilight more or less on a dare, mostly so I could swirl my chardonnay and get my schadenfreude on. While I can certainly snob out about how horribly Twilight is written on so many levels, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me. Meyer captured itchy, awkward adolescence with such an evocative squirm, and then she relieved that adolescent discomfort with a monstrous romantic bliss. I can see why so many people responded to this, even though I was still too busy breathing into a bag having flashbacks to middle school to relax and and get swept up in the romance. When she’s good, she’s good because she is not in control of her subject, not able to stop the outpouring of discomfort and terror underlying the domestic bliss that is a woman’s expected relief, and while Twilight ends with a certain romantic harmony, Meyer doesn’t perfect the ending. All impediments to Bella and Edward are not swept away, and they don’t fade out to domestic harmony.

If you think about it, that’s fascinating. I think if Meyer had been a seasoned writer, following the rules of mass market romance – and yes, I know that Twilight isn’t mass market romance, but it does share some commonalities – she would have written a series of books shifting to other points of view, working out other romances within the Forksverse. Edward’s coven would have been all unattached, the tribe would be introduced, and they would have hooked up pair by pair: Mike with Alice, Jacob with Rosalie, that one chick with Jasper. Edward and Bella and then the later couples would cameo in epilogues and picnics with their babies, doling out advice to the new lovers while they writhed in romantic incompleteness until they didn’t, and then the sparkle ending could have been repeated ad infinitum. But Meyer is not that kind of writer; her strengths, such as they are, reside in her uncalculating evocation of…I’m struggling here…the terrors and pleasures of American femininity? The inherent conflict between the self protagonist and traditional gender roles? Some shit like that. 

Fascinating or no, I had zero interest in reading any more Twilight books after the first. But because Twilight talk is pretty much what fuels the Goodreads engine – although this is changing a bit, thank heavens – I’ve followed roughly 89 kajillion conversations about the series, spoilered myself on the plots of each book, and spent more words on books I haven’t read than is wise. I’ve wanted to read Breaking Dawn bad for a while, because I’ve been assured that Breaking Dawn is where the wheels come off, where Meyer’s unexamined domestic panic goes insane and burns the house down. Those assurances were not wrong. I’ve been hamstrung by my disinterest in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of love triangles, cheesy stand-ins for the Catholic church, and racist, Rousseauian garbage about how Native Americans are in touch with their inner furry beastie to get to this book. (Also, Edward is not Heathcliff, he’s Linton, and I’m not sure I can handle watching Meyer act out that mistake in Eclipse.) Anyway, point being, thank god for movies, because I got good and drunk and watched the movies of the middle two books with Elizabeth, who explained the stuff that they missed, and I was good and ready to read this. 

I can see why they split Breaking Dawninto two movies, because it is two books. One is a shockingly naked expression of procreative terror, an effective horror novel which is effective because it is so completely, so thoroughly, so devastatingly unconscious. The other is a boring, mechanical attempt to cauterize the previous blood-letting, an act of wish fulfillment so severe it almost negates the power of the previous installment. The wish is to unsee the terror of the previous entry, but whoo boy, there is no unseeing that. Before reading this, I tried to think of novels that detail the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and I mean embody, not just use as grist from some guy’s mid-life/Oedipal crisis, or mention as the conclusion to the novel. I blanked for a long time, but eventually I came up with two: BelovedToni Morrison‘s ghost story of slavery, and BarrayarLois McMaster Bujold‘s court intrigue of the domestic. I find it interesting that the pregnancies in these fictions are all metonymous in some way, dissociated. From Beloved, I have a vivid image of Sethe’s water breaking in an unstoppable stream of piss, while her daughter-ghost rises in her high-necked white dress, or from Barrayar, Cordelia helping a woman deliver a baby during a battle, while her own swims in a tank, his fragile bones breaking. But neither of these births are normal by any stretch: disembodied, metaphorical, political, even while they have a fierce physicality that I can remember years later. 

The dissociation in Breaking Dawncomes from the fact that the point of view shifts to Jacob for the whole of Bella’s pregnancy. The book starts with the Swan-Cullen wedding, a dreary obvious affair with requisite reference to clothing. The newly minted Cullens then whisk to Brazil to a desert island, and a series of sexual encounters that feel like S&M literature written under the Hays Code. I found them alternately hilarious and unsettling: a bedroom filled with white downy feathers after Edward has pillow-bitten his way through the grind; Bella waking covered in bruises that she can’t remember receiving, and begging a remorseful Edward into doing it again. She gets knocked up – pun intended – on the first try, though doesn’t realize it for nigh on 100 pages of snorkeling, eating eggs, and trying on lingerie. We’re in kill-me-now territory, for this reader. But they eventually figure it out, Edward making a tight-lipped phone call to Carlisle, his father/doctor, and Bella going completely fucking insane with baby fever. 

Here’s where the point of view shift happens, and it’s breathtaking to behold. I try to avoid speculating about authorial motivation, but I think it’s obvious that Meyer is bound up in Bella, at the very least as a wish-fulfillment vehicle, if not a full-blown author proxy. (Breaking Dawndoes goes full Mary Sue in the last half though – more on that later.) And Meyer, for a variety of reasons, can’t have her stand-in express the terror and discomfort of pregnancy, the doubt and fear, the sheer towering life-and-death of it all, so she turns to another who can. Jacob performs his task admirably, giving voice to thoughts that by all rights Bella should be having, would be having, if she weren’t silenced by her standing as idealized womanhood. The pregnancy is breakneck, almost literally, a week of gestation collapsed into a day. Bella grows hollow-eyed, starved of nutrition by her fetal parasite, her ribs cracking by the sudden ballooning of her body, sipping blood out of a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. In one awful scene, her pelvis snaps. 

Holy fuck. I’ve had some babies, and I was harrowed by these descriptions. While I found much of pregnancy novel, and enjoyable in its novelty in some regards – when else can I experience being kicked in the bladder from within my own body? – pregnancy was also uncomfortable and scary, on both physical and existential levels. My son gave me an umbilical hernia, which necessitated surgery; I am riddled with stretch marks; I had never once experienced heartburn before my nascent kids pushed my stomach into my throat. (What is this sensation I am feeling?? My heart it burns! Oh, so that’s heartburn. Sucks.) And I had it easy compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends, bedridden with a variety of leaking, potentially lethal pregnancy-induced conditions. I’ve been dithering for the last half hour, trying to figure how to say this out loud, this unspeakable truth, but I believe that every pregnant woman, regardless of her politics or her beliefs, thinks to herself at some point, this thing inside me has no right to kill me. I resent that I may have to choose between my life and another’s. I resent that I am expected to love someone more than myself, sight unseen. I love myself. I choose me. 

Phew. I’m feeling a little gross after writing that, but there it is. Bella doesn’t say anything like this, and Jacob twists and howls, saying it for her. I thank the starry heavens that we make it through Bella’s pregnancy in another character’s head, because she is freakishly placid and resigned. Bella is surrounded by unwomen – the barren, the childless – who protect Bella’s wishes to go through this unwise, fatal pregnancy because they don’t care about her at all, they only care about the baby. The sterile werewolf who hates Bella and Jacob, Rosalie who has been opposed to Bella’s transformation into a vampire on the grounds that Bella will not be able to have children, these women give voice to the conundrum that they are giving Bella what she needs to become a woman, in this traditionalist mindset, but that the woman is disposable in that act of creation. Good gravy, think about it, it’s so fucking sick and perfect that it kills me a little. 

At the end of Jacob’s pov section, Bella goes into labor, such as it is. Honestly, I have never read anything scarier in my life, the placenta detaching, Carlisle, the doctor, conveniently off set. This is a mutant, remember, encased in a placental sac so hard that it can only be gotten through with teeth, the infant’s teeth. It is a shower of blood, one that had me flashing back to my own deliveries, and not in a good way. This following bit is gross and overshare: I had repressed this memory, but after 42 hours of labor, and a nail-biting finish where I nearly bled to death, I remember being wheeled out after all the stitches and happy conclusions (in that neither I nor my son were dead) and seeing the river of blood and fluid on the floor, leading to a drain. I remember lying in bed, two mornings before, after waking up to my water silently breaking, and thinking, holy shit, there is no way out of this now. I have to experience the next 12 hours – this was hope talking, though I didn’t know it – and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. It was the moment before the roller coaster went down the hill, and I didn’t know if there were tracks at the end, and that was panic, pure panic. 

The birthing sequence is told twice, once from Jacob’s pov, and once from Bella’s, and it’s fascinating to compare. Jacob is angry and horrified, like you are when you are a rational human watching a mutant baby eat its way out of a woman you love. Bella’s perspective is batshit insanity. I went back and re-read this part today, after I finished, because I have this horrible image of Bella’s child smiling at her with a full set of teeth – seriously, close your eyes and imagine an infant with a full set of teeth, smiling – shudder, shudder – and I couldn’t remember whether Bella noted this, or Jacob. It was Bella, and that image fills her with joy. I’m running out of expletives, but holy cussed godamn fucking shit. I’m losing the capacity to talk about this coherently, because this is so fucking bananas. 

So. Baby born, who is flawless and perfect. Bella transformed into vampire, now flawless and perfect. From here on out, the plot could not be more boring, more impossible, more unnecessary. There’s some thing with the Voltari making a power play for the baby or something – seriously, I’m not detailing the plot because it makes so little sense. I barked out some laughs when Bella and Edward go at it like marble rabbits every night when the baby goes to sleep – haha, such an accurate depiction of new parenthood. I completely lost my shit when, after roughly seven hundred new characters are introduced, Jacob says something to the effect of: how am I going to keep all these people straight?! Next to his statement is a little asterisk.*

*See page 756 is written below, and I am sent back to an index – hahahahahaha – that is a list of characters complete with helpful little strike-throughs for the characters who have died in previous books – hahahahaha. Holy shit, woman, have a little more faith in your writing. 

It’s like Meyer squeezed out this horrible truth, and then panicked, canonizing Bella and stripping out all the narrative danger, all the reality. We don’t really hear again from Jacob or the wolves, which is incredibly frustrating, because obviously Sam and Jacob make up at the end, but all of that occurs off-stage. And there are a bunch of new wolves??? And they are not really werewolves, we learn in an infodump?? Everyone recedes into a prop for the perfect child, one that makes everyone instantly love her. Meyer spent all her truth on the trauma of childbirth, and once we’re back in Bella’s head, she can’t express the impolite notion that infants can be difficult to love. I do believe in a certain amount of parental instinct – we wouldn’t make it far as a species without it – but for most new mothers, we are struggling with exhaustion, blood loss, and a dizzying hormonal stew when our babies are at their neediest: screaming, feeding, pooping on a loony schedule. Teeth or not, they do not smile for weeks, and while that first smile is intensely satisfying – I can still remember the first time the boy laughed, and that was sheer joy transmitted by sound – the weeks before are managing an uncommunicative alien who has consumed your life. 

Oh shit though! How could I forget the imprinting?? Sweet zombie Jebus. Jacob does express this impolite anger at the child at the end of his section, stalking down to murder the infant for what she has done to Bella. It is the cheapest, grossest cop-out ever that his anger is magicked away by some sort of gross sexual soul mating. (I know I’ve used gross twice in that sentence; sue me.) I’m way ZOMG about the idea of imprinting – this is what I get for not reading the previous books, where they explain why only guys imprint, and why imprinting isn’t the most kinked idea ever. Edward’s convenient mind-reading keeps telling us that Jacob only has pure thoughts for his infant bride, but come on. I suspect that Meyer pulled this stunt to give poor, rejected Jacob a consolation prize, and to keep him from running out of there. One of the last chapter speeches is about the power of family, and how family is choice and a bunch of other garbage. Jacob would never choose to stay with this family Meyer has constructed without magical duress. But with imprinting, now the cult can be complete! (And, though these thoughts lack coherence, I think there might be something in this imprinting business that is about sexual competition between mothers and daughters, and the uncomfortable reality that all children grow to become sexual beings. The imprinting puts a tight leash – pun intended – on the child’s inevitable adolescent sexuality. Best mother ever!) 

Bella goes full Mary Sue in the end, even her trademark clumsiness erased, her beauty perfected, her talents blooming into story-destroying weapons. She’s so good at everything that she makes conflict impossible. I was sorely disappointed by the big “battle” with the Voltori, who succumb to her perfect motherhood in the most boring episode of Vampire Matlock ever. Which is super funny, because Alice’s clairvoyance is obviously the real reason that any of that worked out, but that’s the trouble with clairvoyant characters – they really know how to spoil a plot. I spent a fair amount of time laughing when Alice bails, and everyone is like, nooooes! That must mean we are dooooooomed!! Because, you know, there’s no other good reason for a clairvoyant to head out on some super secret mission when there’s a big throw-down on the horizon. Certainly she won’t arrive at the perfect moment with some major trump card. That’s not more likely at all. But Alice’s decampment serves as grist for the emo mill, and without all the hand-wringing brought on by her leaving, there would be almost no emotional drama – clearly fake as it is – to the any of the boring, perfect proceedings leading up to the end.

Much as the last section bored me to tears, at least when it wasn’t grossing me out, I was zero to the bone on the last page. Bella and Edward’s forever and evers to one another, the vision of this family locked into an unchanging perfect stasis, unable to sleep or dream, fundamentally cut off from the larger world, this hit me like a ton of ice. Good god, who wants this? Who aspires to shed every single vestige of their humanity in the attainment of domestic perfection? And having gotten there, who thinks this perfection is anything but a horrible nightmare? Edward was right at the first: an existence of unchanging perfection is no life at all. Throughout this book, the people in Bella’s life disappear on by one: only a brief mention of her school friends at the wedding, then silence, her mother considered and then discarded again, her father brought in in the most ancillary way possible, the concerns of lives of the werewolves dropped after Jacob is neutered. Breaking Dawnis a chilling portrait of the most self-serving narcissism, that old Freudian saw about procreation as immortality turned monstrous in its perfection. I just went and tucked my kids into bed, and I feel fiercely in this moment how transitory their childhoods are, how precious it is that they grow and change, what a gift it is that we fight, and even that we inevitably die. It’s quite a feat Meyer performed here, making me cozy up to my death while I tuck my kids in. Grief is the left hand of happiness, to misquote my beloved Ursula K Le Guin, and I hold my children with both hands. Anything else is as dishonest as it is awkward.

Geared for…What is Going On Here?

I think I’ve figured out my issue with steampunk. I’ve even said this before about the genre, but I wasn’t listening to myself too closely. Steampunk is defined mostly by gadgetry — goggles and steamships and corsets — and that gadgetry generally has this narrow aesthetic band. I’m nerd enough to have gone to my share of sf cons, and I get eye-rolling about how frustratingly similar all the steampunk costumes are — a corset (always with the freaking corset), a top hat (both genders), non-functional gearworks, maybe some anachronistic wings or those weird fox tails that all the teenagers wear with the weird muppet boots. (What up, teens? I don’t get your con boots.) But as much as I get irritated with the uniformity – seriously, why does “creativity” have to be so damned uniform – I get that the operative part of cosplay is play. Playing dress-up doesn’t have to make a big statement or blow my mind, and it exists as much for the performer as the audience.

That said, there are always flashes of the truly inventive in costumes I’ve seen: a woman in a gold Victorian-style dress that was designed to look like a Dalek; various steampunk takes on Stormtroopers; costumes using more working class Victorian sartorial iconography and mixed up with Marxist Freedom Fighter clothes. This last one especially, because so rarely do these steampunk characters hail from anywhere but the most rarefied upper classes, a fetishization of people who were on the whole a bunch of shitty, colonial asshats who enforced the crap out of social and sexual norms that are appalling to the modern person. Or freaking should be. Steampunk decouples the sartorial from the cultural, which in some ways can be wonderfully subversive in its own right, but also can be an act of la-la-la-la nevermind the horrors of the Industrial Revolution pretty dresses wheee!!

The gadgetry of steampunk can be part of a reordering of expectation, or they can just be there to look sweet. Either one is fine, though of course I have my preferences for the former. This is my problem with steampunk: I don’t know, often until very late in the game, which kind of book I’m reading. I read with different parts of my brain depending on genre, and it’s possible even to argue that genre is a shorthand letting us know what part of the brain to read with. I’m not going to pick up a fantasy book about elves and magic and start nitpicking that magic violates the rules of physics, therefore it’s a bad book. Or I could, but I would be lame. I approached Soulless looking for spectacle, which is exactly what I got. But I’ve fallen into the gap in steampunk’s split-personality ethos before with Meljean Brook‘s Iron Seas series. I read the first one with the part of my brain reserved for romance novels – not the dumb part or anything, just the part that isn’t going to nitpick world-building or plausibility – when I would have had a much better time reading with the SFnal part of my brain – the part that gets off on well-constructed alternate histories. Because, damn, she’s rocking the alt-history so hard in that series.

Having thought I learned my lesson about judging a book by its steampunk cover, I went into Geared for Pleasure by Rachel Grace keeping one eye open for some kind of coherent world or nifty alt-history. The alt-history idea was blown pretty soon, because this is more fantasy on steampunk planet, though there is some ornament about the horror of industrialization and the shittiness of enforced caste systems. The characters are inventive and the gadgets fun, with blue-haired badasses and spotted cat people, stealth airships and submarine brothels. In short, this book looks marvelous. The private guards for the immortal child-empress-like queen determine there is a threat to her, and go out into the world to nullify it. The novel is structured as two linked novellas, taking place one after the other about each of the two guards. The guards both seriously screw up their missions and end up falling in with pirates and pimps, who are also for some reason loyal to the queen. The writing is energetic and not faux-Victorian-purple, the last a serious problem I have with some steampunk novels. The first novella has some really ugly scene transitions, but I suspect this is more to do with bad formatting, though the writing could have been clearer.

However, even with my critical world-building brain mostly off, I have so, so many problems with this world. It’s not even so much nit-picking — going after details — as it is a fundamental incoherence in how this society is constructed. I was trying to explain the plot to my husband last night, and started in with bitching about the Queen. I likened her to Queen Amidala, even though their illogic is somewhat different. Queen Amidala is an elected monarch? How the hell does that even work? And why does she seem to have zero political sense and spends most of the movie running around pretending to be someone else? Presumably she’s got, like, actual work to do running the planet, even in exile, other than hair-brushing? Anyway, this queen was like that. Everyone loves the crap out of her, sees her as fundamental to the order of society, even though society appears to be a rigid kleptocracy that practices eugenics on a broad scale, has enslaved a whole race of cat-people, and is otherwise a total shitshow. All ills in society are blamed on some group called the Theorrean Raj — possibly a Senate or House of Lords? even though they often seem like a secret society? or possibly even just one evil dude who works behind the scenes? — whom everyone despises. Seriously, what the hell is the point of the queen if she can’t even run her own society? What is she even doing with her time?

And the principles — the two queen’s guards — are members of some racially constructed group, who, and I didn’t get this until way into the book, are understood to be an incredibly corrupt police force even though our two protags are all sweet honor-bound bunnies? Throw in a pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold, a piratess airship captain who, while being neat and badass and all, is a total psycho, murdering her crews almost casually. But everyone loves the queen! For no apparent reason! And this explains behavior that is otherwise absolutely confounding on a character level. Which is where my problem lies (lays? whatever; I hate these verbs): it wasn’t so much that the world didn’t make sense, it’s that it made so little sense that I couldn’t track why anyone was feeling anything about anything. This was less of a problem in novella one, which is a pretty solid virginal-type-learns-a-valuable-lesson-about-her-vagina tale, but in novella two I was so confused about the romantic leads’ cultural situation, societal placement, and what the hell their exact problems were that my emotional investment was pretty well fucked. If I can’t figure what’s going on, I can’t care about the outcome. I couldn’t even try to explain what that final reveal was, or what it might mean. No sense, you has it.

So why the three stars, you ask? Some of this is round up, I admit, because this as really just ok for me as a reader. But if I come at this novel with the romance reading part of my brain, there’s some interesting stuff going on. Waaaay back in the early days of my romance reading project, I complained about how some novel seemed to walk up to issues of domination and submission within sex writing, only to chicken out completely. (I think the exact scene was one where the heroine drove the hero to fuck make love to her so hard she bruised. And then nothing! No commentary about this desire for the hard fucking in the novel at all. Given Bella Cullen’s wedding night bruisings — complete with amnesia! — this seems to be A Thing.) While the set up to the sex-show thing that goes on in novella one is totally dumb and makes no sense, the ways that scene walked around consent and domination and voyeurism were pretty cool. There’s even some same-sex interactions that don’t seem to run TEH GAY PANIC, and gesture to the ways sex is often mechanically sex, while desire is a whole other issue. Neat.

Novella two’s romantical story was hamstrung by my not getting what was going on, but the themes of domination and submission, when I did get it, were handled credibly. Novella two has to do with a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person, and I bitchily said somewhere that I expected her to get her spanks, and then love the dude for it. Which kinda happens, but then was more complicated than that. She’s having a crisis of conscience, and dude is confronting his own limitations as an alpha dude. I mean, there’s a fair amount of waaaaanghst here, but there was a charged push-pull that navigated personal sexual proclivities and personality pretty well. Plus, did I mention that she is a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person? Who isn’t slut-shamed? Good lord, a star for that alone.

So, anyway, I can’t really say I’m going to bother with book two of this series — my problems with the world-building are probably only going to deepen — but I wouldn’t be averse to trying out some of Grace’s later books, if she writes them. She’s got a pretty inventive world here, even if it makes no godmamn sense.

Red: We Mate for Life and Suss out Clues, Just Like Scooby Doo

I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something. 

Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?

But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work. 

Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy. 

And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker! 

Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner. 

Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.) 

So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this. 

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.