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.

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.

Go Large or Go Home: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously — like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying — but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it — both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren’t terrible people there wouldn’t be any heat and there wouldn’t be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark strives for a sensible, measured tone and its characters mostly don’t act like twats, but two things keep The Demon Lover from being a snoozer like A Discovery of Witches: There is a real current of high emotions, even if the prose is measured, and the metafictional elements make the narrative satisfying on a different register. A monster yoga class is most bananas thing in A Discovery of Witches, but it mostly reads as silly and incongruous, not the Gothic kind of bonkers. Mostly people sit around, read, and drink absolutely prodigious amounts of wine.

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead, Diana is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but she won’t use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. I can see, given her childhood, why she might reject her witchy powers. Her parents died young under cloudy/tragic circumstances, and she was raised by fun witchy aunts after their deaths. I can imagine a psychological mechanism by which she rejects her parents’ origins because she believes that this got them killed or some other pop psych nonsense. But that is not her professed motivation. Instead, she wants to succeed in academia on her “own merits,” question mark? Which, isn’t magical ability one of her own merits? She’d regularly prissy and condescending to her aunties about their magic. I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You’re in love with each other after having a not very interesting sounding dinner? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.

I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss this novel as “like Twilight” or “just a romance”, but I think that might be both wrong and kinda sexist. Twilight, for all its stabs towards real world resonance, is absolutely fucking bonkers. You may have trouble getting through the prose, but the book fairly teems with Bella’s anxieties and passions and emotions. While Diana shares Bella’s almost sneering condescension to everyone around her — Bella doesn’t like anyone — she doesn’t share Bella’s high emotions, or, dare I say it, clumsiness? Meyer’s over-reliance on Bella’s propensity to the faceplant as a meaningful character trait is sloppy and ridiculous, of course, but it does gesture to the ways her relationship with Edward disorders her world. Diana is prim and priggish through the entirely of her interactions with the supernatural. There is precious little fascination; mostly magic is a pain in her ass. And as I’ve said before, her relationship with vamp dude is based on so much Tory smugness that it completely lacks juice. Most romance novels I’ve read, even the boring ones, do a better job of stoking the heat. If someone slags A Discovery of Witches as “just a romance”, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their understanding of both Gothic and romance novels.

Anyway, I don’t want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup type characters plot their way through genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, but this outing is not a success. I don’t particularly like Diana — she’s a unappealing mixture of conceited and useless — but I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to. Frankly, if this were written in such a manner that we were expected to laugh at her self-satisfied bullshit instead of cheering it on, A Discovery of Witches would be aces.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop: Speshal Snowflake Powers Activate

This review slash rumination was written five years ago, before the term “snowflake” took on specific political meaning. Which is to say: now, it’s a slur from conservatives about liberals, slagging them for being thin-skinned or whatever. Back before the current political shitshow, the term “speshal snowflake” had some limited currency out there in the book-o-sphere. It referred to a character who kept mowing down narrative impediments by virtue of inherent awesomeness, a Mary Sue in terms of plot expediency if not eye color. Pretty much all of these terms are now twisted and/or problematic. So, you know, you’re welcome to my anachronistic musings about urban fantasy novels, half a decade too late.

I’m here today, friends, to talk about the Speshal Snowflake. She’s one of those creatures both more ubiquitous and more soul-wearying than vampires, starring in melodramas in multiple subgenres, both fantastic and literary. Like the Mary Sue, who can be either close cousin or indistinguishable doppelganger, the Snowflake can scythe down impediments through sheer narrative invincibility, the hand of the author cradling her against the slings and arrows. She’s the only person that matters; everyone will love her; all will look on her and despair, etc. The Speshal Snowflake is special precisely because we have been told she is so, and anything she does (or does not do, often tellingly) is special on the dint of this telling, both regardless and irrespective of actual, measurable, ethical worth. 

And like the Mary Sue, reactions to the Speshal Snowflake are decidedly gendered. Very rarely, and only in the most egregious of cases, is a male character understood to be either a Mary Sue or a Snowflake. I can’t think of an instance where anyone seriously called Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead a Speshal Snowflake, but it’s all there: complete lack of narrative danger (for Rick), others dying to prove Rick right slash lend gravitas to Rick’s ethical struggles, an almost preternatural ability to fall upwards into leadership roles. I barked out a laugh when Rick was questioned by some nameless Alexandrian in a recent episode, who then got eaten by walkers just moments later. Rick is right because he is right, and the narrative will bend itself around his rightness. Nevermind if it would be well more interesting to see a world where his ethical choices weren’t immediately upheld by the narrative. If the walking dead are like weather, an implacable force that carries no inherent moral force, they they should be ultimately uncaring of any choices anyone makes. No man should be exempt from winds that blow.

But we’re more inclined to call Katniss Everdeen a Snowflake than Rick, even though I feel like their situations and ethical struggles are roughly commensurate in terms of silliness of premise and direness of consequence.The walking dead violate the very laws of physics, and it makes no sense that a teenage girl would be the center of a struggle for empire. Which is I think my point: the walking dead are not weather, they are a narrative device, just as surely as Panem’s ludicrous and impossible political system is a device. Those things aren’t important because story, narrative, is not reality, it is something heightened and purified and concentrated. Let me tell you a tale of people in extremis, and the choices they made. Let us wind up this automaton and let it go. 

These nerds once made relationship maps for things like the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, charting how often various characters are in relationship with one another. Beowulf looks like spikes radiating from Beowulf himself, while the Sagas were a complex web of relationship, with no one person in the middle. The Sagas, of course, are based largely in fact, and there is not one particular protagonist of this here world. That a story is about anyone at all, in particular, makes them special.

We are, all of us, the leading role in the story of our lives, and when we slip into the narrative skin of these our avatars, we bring our native self-importance into the mix. We bend to the “I”, because we are the protagonist in our stories unfolding. Which is to say, there isn’t especially anything wrong with the Speshal Snowflake. Every protagonist is going to have more or less Snowflakiness in their crusts because that is how fiction works: this person or persons is more important than all the rest, which is why you’re bothering reading at all. It’s like asking why no one shows people going to the bathroom in movies: because that’s dumb, and it’s not in service to the story. 

Which is not to say that the Speshal Snowflake can’t get irritating. I found Bella Swan cringingly, horrifyingly accurate to my adolescent sense of self-importance and self-involvement — the way she treats her friends is shabby indeed, just as a start — even though the narrative rewarded her constantly for this awful behavior (insofar as anything in Twilight can be understood as a reward). I just fucking squirmed through most of her interactions with her peers, how every single uncharitable instinct of hers was credited, how everyone else’s interior life was that much more legible compared to how complex and inscrutable she is. 

Edward cottons to her precisely because he can’t read her mind, even though we can, and we know. I found this reason for his ardor just hilarious, btw, because literally every boy on earth cannot read my mind, and I certainly didn’t have anyone tripping over themselves to stalk me (more’s the better). There’s something clever about how Meyer sets this up: putting us right in the mind of a boring B+ student of no particular talent, and then making her desirable for something we can all relate to. You know, no one can read my mind either?! And I just got a B+ in English?? We know what she thinks because on some level we thought it as Speshal Snowflakes ourselves, before the world intruded with its elegant and inevitable smackdowns that come in like a thunderstorm as the years tick on. The Speshal Snowflake is someone who has never been confronted with weather, the rain lashing the windows and the electrical wire down on the ground, hissing. 

So. The reason I bring up the Speshal Snowflake is that 100% the protagonist of Written in Red is one. She rolls into town with naught but the clothes on her back, on the run from dangerous figures who are unaccountable to the usual societal systems, and in short order finds herself a job, a place to live, and the protection of otherworldly forces. She heals a boy who was irreparably damaged by the loss of his mother, makes friends with implacable and deadly forces, and almost accidentally works a political system to her favor. She is, in short, everything I should hate in urban fantasy. But I don’t. 

I fairly love her, and her world. The world of Written in Red is something like the one in Charles DeLint’s Newford books, where crows and coyotes and bears shed skins to walk with us humans; or Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, with its profound alt-history of magic and death. We are on another Earth, where humans exist at the largess of creatures terrible in their needs and powers, and as we humans tend to be, we have to be reminded of that fact over and over. I found the perspective of the non-human characters, who think of us a meat, just terrifying, the kind of thing that slipped into my dreams and conjured up nightmares of being hunted and torn. 

Meg Corbyn is a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet, who has been raised as an asset, as a useful source of prophesy for men rich enough to pay for such a thing, and either enrich themselves or feed their predilections. She escapes somehow — no doubt a tale for later books — and ends up in a mid-sized town in the north. Maybe Buffalo, maybe Milwaukee, maybe Minneapolis; big enough to feel more important than farming communities, but too small to really matter (though its residents would never admit it). Another newcomer (and point of view character) is the police officer Monty, who reads like an old school constable, his work more politics and subtle maneuvering than gun handling and force. 

Meg follows a prophesy she had to the inner-city citadel of the Others, where human law does not apply. She’s hoping she can dodge the people who have very real incentive to control her prophesies by hiding behind inhuman monsters. It’s not really much of a plan, admittedly, but she’s been very sheltered. She gets a job as the liaison between the Others and the humans of the city, and most of the plot bops around watching her steps and missteps as she navigates her new life. And it’s here where her Snowflake powers really activate, almost effortless making friends and allies among the Others.

But here’s the thing: I resent Snowflakes that are only so because I have been told they are, characters who are demonstrably terrible people who win only because the author deems it so. (Jamie McGuire writes a ton of these heroines, boy howdy.) I have some reservations about late-period Harry Potter, for example, who gets told over and over that he is good, when a lot of the stuff he does, like the shit with Gringotts and Griphook, is completely indefensible. Completely indefensible, and I will not entertain arguments that say that because Harry is good, nothing he can do is bad.

That is the problem with the Speshal Snowflake: when authors lose sight of moral agency. I would have accepted the sequence with Griphook if there had been any narrative stank on it, an acknowledgement that that was a shite thing to do, but maybe the ethical landscape is more complex than good or bad, that growing up might mean getting dirty. That a lot of evil in the world is done by people acting on what they believe to be the right reasons. That’s not what happens. We are sung a chorus of Harry’s goodness. We will not linger on the sizable number of deaths perpetrated on a poorly understood and sometimes persecuted minority who look a lot like a Jewish stereotype, if you get right down to it. Their lives and deaths do not matter

Phew, I apologize for the freak out; I’ve been saving that one up. That’s not what’s going on here: Meg has very real reasons for why she’s so innocent, why she doesn’t react like normal people to scary, dangerous predators. As a blood prophet, she was kept secluded and helpless. Everything she knows about the real world was through disconnected images and sounds she was taught. If she doesn’t know what a car is, then she can’t describe her visions to the people who control her. At the same token, she can know what a microwave is, but she should not be taught to use one.

Denying her self-sufficiency was a form of social control. That she takes very real delight in learning the simplest of things, like listening to pop music, ischarming, and reminds us readers of the wonder of our everyday lives. I exclaim this quite regularly, but did you know I carry around in my pocket a tiny computer capable of getting me just about any book, movie, or musical recording; it can connect me to others across the globe and on another floor of the house; it can furnish me with information about just about anything. Good god, you guys, it’s like a goddamn science fiction novel. That Meg is fresh and delighted by all the wondrous things we take for granted is no strike against her. 

Her existence as a blood prophet is also very subtly done. She’s been told a lot of things about what that means and how she is, and she only slowly starts to question that received wisdom. It’s not even lingered on, but that Meg very deliberately chooses to live in a place where she has seen a prophesy of her own death, that she doesn’t run from the prophesy, is a very cool detail. This is how a prophet would behave, trusting her own visions, letting them play in the hopes that she could turn the knife, instead of avoiding it altogether,

That the prophesy is accessed through cutting, and that all of the blood prophets are girls, is another fraught detail. The other point of view characters condescend to feel bad for her, assign her the blame for the scars tracing her body, but it’s not as simple as they made me do it or she’s pathological. Especially when we begin to understand the true violence perpetrated on her in the home for girls, when her skin was sold out for the scars it could bear. The potential violence of the Others, which is still often terrifying, has got nothing on the violence she’s already endured. She’s a Speshal Snowflake precisely because she understands weather, and the things worse than weather. 

I’ll admit there were moments when I was like, aw jeez, that’s a little too much. A young woman who plays as clumsy antagonist, working for the people who would get Meg back for her prophetic skin, has baldly stupid motivations that are lingered on far too long. Meg herself mentions another girl in the place she came from, an openly defiant girl, and I wanted to hear way more about her. Reminded me, in a way, of Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, this bright, angry, dynamic personality who lays in harsh contrast with the almost passive protagonists, the special ones.

(I don’t really have this thunk completely out, but there’s something about those minor characters, the throwaways and half-remembered, who have so much life in them compared to the drear details of the average protagonist, special or not. I have a number of fictions I love precisely because of the minor characters, and though this isn’t exactly that, it’s interesting to me that people can often write the incidental more strongly than the important. Maybe their lack of importance makes them easier to write true.)

Anyway, Written in Red was just delightful to me, the kind of thing gulped down in all the space I could make for it, running to its prophetic conclusion. I thought it dealt beautifully with the trope of the Speshal Snowflake, grounded her right in the background she needed to exist, in the parameters she was given. No, of course, magic doesn’t work, but if it did, this is what it would look like. It would look like the storm on the horizon, the one we can never exactly escape, right up until we batten down, and do.

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.

Wrong Ways Down: True Thing

Writing fictions from a dude’s point of view after a long series of books written from the woman’s is a very difficult thing to pull off. The most famous example is probably Midnight Sun, which was to be Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightwritten from the point of view of vampire love interest Edward Cullen. Twelve chapters in, someone leaked the manuscript, and Meyer quit writing it, saying, “If I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn’t dovetail too well with the original story.” (Honestly, I think this alt-history Twilight sounds amazing, but ymmv.) Like when writing a sequel, the writer is constrained by a timeline of events that are inviolate (or fucking should be, George Lucas), and cannot strike out in new territory (such as murdering all the Cullens, or having Anakin meet his step-brother Owen for like 15 minutes even though Owen said out loud that he’s had a much longer and more fractious relationship than talking to Anakin once after Anakin committed genocide). (Not that I’m bitter.)

So it was something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Wrong Ways Down as much as did. Wrong Ways Down by Stacia Kane is from the point of view of Terrible, sometimes partner and sometimes love interest of Chess Putnam, who is the principle of five (and counting) books in the Downside Ghost series. The series takes place in an alt-history where murderous ghosts rose up and killed roughly half the population of the planet in 1997. I could get into the exact backstory, but it’s not necessary, given that the books themselves aren’t too fussed about history. Chess is a junkie with a respectable job; Terrible works for her dealer as a knee-breaker; they both inhabit the wrong side of town called Downside.

Wrong Ways Down occurs somewhen between the first book in the second, and is written mostly in the Downside patois Kane invented for the neighborhood. Being the other reasons this book could fail, or could fail to hook readers. I myself like the street lingo of Downside because it manages to run a local idiom without being racist or relying too heavily on eye dialect. But I know this kind of stylistic choice can be difficult for people. I was just recently reading a book that spelled the word blood “blud”, which made me snort a little. Like spelling magic “magick” or fairy “fairie” (with apologies to Spenser), these are stylistic choices that can rankle readers inordinately. The occasional snort aside, I do not think these choices are errors. I, personally, think flipping out about punctuation choices in, say, The Road, is pedantry, but then I also know that the heart wants what it wants. Sometimes it wants capital letters, I guess.

But all this sort of positioning shit aside, the real reason I liked Wrong Ways Down was that it didn’t diminish Terrible, relegating him to a bit player or an appendage in his own story, nor did it put all kinds of psychosis in his head, because sociopaths are rrrrrromantic. There are a lot of dude-perspective fictions — like Midnight Sun, or that short story by Moning from Barrons’ point of view, or Walking Disaster — which run the thought processes of their heroes like serial killers. Admittedly, a lot of these dudes looked like serial killers from the woman’s point of view, but as the old saw goes, better to remain silent and be thought a serial killer than to speak out and remove all doubt.

We know Terrible is a leg-breaker and enforcer — this is not a surprise — just like we know Chess is a fuckup and a junkie. How does he rationalize his own cruelty? What does he get out of violence? What does he think about Chess’s addictions? What does he do when he’s aloneWrong Ways Down addresses these sorts of questions, which I find incredibly satisfying. Much more satisfying than serial killer sociopaths growling about how the love interest lady is MINE ALL MINE and obsessing in the most rote way possible. I do not want hair-smelling scenes; gross. Sure, there’s something inert about fictions between this thing and that, which are constrained and cannot truly surprise. But sometimes the interstitial can be an exploration, a character study, a story from someone you thought you knew but didn’t. I thought Wrong Ways Down was pretty fucking deft, true thing.

Lover Awakened by JL Ward

These Black Dagger books are superfun hangover reading material. There’s a fair amount to laugh at, both cattily – all the clothes-horsing by ridiculously cut guys – and earnestly – the dialogue can be very, very funny. And given the high stakes of the world here, Ward does seem to take on some really heavy themes not necessarily dealt with in vampire chick-lit – themes like rape. This is the one where she really takes it on, and, I think, deals with it in a pretty sensitive way.

Wait, let’s just backtrack. This world makes no sense. The Black Dagger Boys are the rulers, but no one knows who they are? That doesn’t make any sense. The Scribe Virgin…why is she so damn dumb? And don’t even get me started about how little sense the Omega makes, or any of the organization stuff related to the nethers or whatever the eunuch zombies were called. It makes me feel like I did when the Giant Ball of Evil called up Gary Oldman on a cell phone in The Fifth Element, which is reverence for how batshit that is, mixed with uncontrolled laughter.

So, Zsadist (see again the reverence mixed with laughter as I type this name) has a terrible history of sexual violence, and this book details his recovery. I’ve seen a lot of Cure by Magic Vagina in romance, those ladyparts that balm all ill, but that isn’t exactly what happens here. I don’t think there’s a good reason for his ladyfriend to find him so compelling, but that’s probably okay. I never thought I would ever type these words, but the part where he learned to masturbate is really touching. I know, I know, that’s what she said.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

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.

Sacrificial Magic: Right Book, Wrong Time

I forced this read, and I’m sorry, because I think I crimped my enjoyment. Sorry, Sacrificial Magic. You were the right book at the wrong time. Blame it on the library, which only lets me renew thrice before I have to return the book, and with 10 days left to go, I figured, screw it, I can read this in a Sunday. 

I read the first three books of the Downside Ghosts series in one of those cabin porch hazes, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Chess Putnam is a ghostbuster (though this term is never used) in an alternate present: in the late 90s, murderous ghosts broke free into the world, killing maybe half the population of the earth. The only bulwark against this threat was The Church, a non-theistic organization which replaced all the other religious and governmental powers that be. But that’s all backstory; this series is about Chess and her city. Chess is a powerful fuckup with a seriously damaged past, someone who managed to claw up just barely to near-polite society through some native talent hitched to the driving need to get out of her squalid upbringing. But just barely. She’s a junkie and an emotional isolationist, and I just adore her. 

The first three books felt to me like they ran an emotional arc, with the third, City of Ghosts, rising to a crescendo of things I’d barely noticed hanging around on the edges twisting together into a big explosive clusterfuck. God, that was just grand. So, here, in Sacrificial Magic, I feel like we’re restarting a trajectory which will run for the next couple of books, and I’m just a little let down. It’s not that this book is place-holding, it is that it’s piece-moving. I liked a lot of the piece-moving, but, as I said, I forced it. 

I think for me the weakest parts of this series tend to be the ghostbusting Church plots. Chess is given an assignment, and in a sort of Noir-lite manner, that assignment intersects with her Street life, her dealers, her drug use, etc. Here the Church assignment felt especially weak, with too many people I didn’t give boo about and couldn’t differentiate doing things way too sins-of-the-past for me to respond. The assignment had to do with a high school, which gives framework for Chess to ruminate about her shitty education and upbringing, and that part I really enjoyed, as I did her tense and fractious relationships with Terrible, Lex, and Beulah. And hoorah, I’m loving that Chess finally has a female friend – and that she realizes she has friends at all. 

Pretty much with this book I was just shipping for Chess and Terrible, which is super fun, don’t get me wrong, but it made me feel a little antsy when the high school ghost plot was unfolding. Get out of the way, plot! Let us freak out about their last conversation! And the fact that Chess is still a huge junkie, the way she manages and feeds her addictions, continues to be one of the selling points of this series. There’s a scene where she notices others noticing her usage, and she gets really jealous and freaks: this is mine. This is my addiction. Quit looking. That we’re on book four, and Chess hasn’t had a big After School Special moment where she realizes Drugs Are Bad – addicts know drugs are bad, kids – is a very brave choice on the part of Kane. There are no easy answers, and the knowledge that you are fucked up beyond belief doesn’t magically cure you of the fuck up. Even addiction is one day at a time. Or one book at the wrong time; sorry again.

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