Monday, April 29, 2013

Hungry Ghost

Self-published novels take Goodwin's Law to an extreme: A few rough diamonds are obscured by shelves full of poorly-written, badly-structured, generally awful crap. But Allison Moon's Lunatic Fringe is one of the diamonds: a passionate romance that drew the reader in to the strange life of a protagonist discovering her nature as a lesbian, a lycanthrope, and a peacespeaker (a kind of psychic translator/mediator/shaman). While engaging, the book was not without its issues; the plot was uneven, the characterizations spotty at best, and half the book was spent on Lexie and her lover Archer having lots of sex. But it was still a good read, and showed a lot of potential. Eighteen months later, the sequel is out, and Moon has... umm... traded up to different problems.

I'm hard to please, okay?

To be fair, there is plenty enough good material here to justify a purchase. Most of it has to do with the characters. In this respect more than any other, Hungry Ghost surpasses its predescessor. Lexie's packmates in the first book were horny lesbians and little more, which had some unfortunate implications. That's fixed here by giving them more page time and more distinctive personalities. New characters - of which there are more than a few- fare just as well, as do the handful of other returners. The best of them is Sage, Archer's brother who shows up for the last third of the book and proceeds to become the most interesting thing in it. A shape-shifter who favors beast mode, he provides an experienced perspective on the world and a smattering of fish-out-of-water humor. I wish he had come into the story earlier, because in a book about defying social norms, it's of great benefit to have a character who doesn't care about social norms. In a zen way, that is, rather than a dickish way.

The interactions between these varied characters are interesting, and in fact some of the best parts of the book. Well, most of the time. There are moments when the dialogue stumbles and feels contrived, unreal, or overly clever. At other points, it veers into gender-issues soapboxing. For more most part, though, the patter is snappy and engaging. In fact, on a nuts-and-bolts technical level, Moon's writing is much improved since book 1. She is at her best when writing sensually, by which I mean "about sensations". The sound of a wolf's howl, the taste of a live songbird, those are the moments that jump out at me as memorable. It's probably why she chose to write about werewolves to begin with, and you can't deny she has a knack for it.

Now to the bad: Story structure remains a weakness, and in fact it almost sinks the book outright. The main plot involves Lexie & co. investigating a lycanthropic murder that eventually leads them to a pack of rogue full-blood werewolves. In the meantime, Lexie struggles to find her own identity, cope with the loss of Archer, and eventually juggle three potential love interests: Sage, a butch biker chick named Randy, and Renee, the pack's new leader. On a fundamental, "bedrock" level, all that is fine.

But the story is crippled by a grand clusterfuck of a second act. The hundred pages or so around the middle are full of subplots that go nowhere: Rory, the mysterious book in the library, Lexie's digging into her mother's past, and the whole business with Lexie's knife. All of these things show up, look like they're going to mean something, then get more or less get tossed aside. Randy also gets tossed aside, despite being central to the first third of the book. The gay male pack is the only one that really makes an impression, and even then they seem to exist mainly to beef up the heroes' army during the big climactic fight.

Some of this is setting stuff up for later books. Long-time readers know what my opinion is on that: tell the story you're telling NOW, dammit, not the story you're going to be telling a year from now. In any event, the plot does eventually get back on track, but by then it's spent so much time going in so many directions that the reader is likely to feel lost and disoriented. I certainly was, and I was never able to get completely back in to Hungry Ghost after that.

There's also an absence of passion in that middle part, and I'm not just talking about the switch from erotic romance to a more traditional urban fantasy story. The first book was an endless parade of Lexie and Archer sexing it up during its' middle, and I chided it for that. But I at least got the impression that Moon was deeply invested in her material, on an emotional level. This time around, not so much. In fact a large part of that slog in the middle is because she's trying to set up pieces for the finale, with an air not of enthusiasm, but of rote busywork.

Hungry Ghost is still in the top 5% of self-published fiction, but it can't get out of its own way. In this it's a bit like its protagonist, struggling to find her own voice and figure out what she's about. But while a confused protagonist makes for a good story, a confused story just brings itself down. Still, I'm hopeful. Moon has improved, and here's hoping she improves more with book 3.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Django Unchained

I actually saw Django Unchained back when it first came out, but didn't have the time to write anything major about it. But as I won't be done with Hungry Ghost until next week, I decided that it's better late than never.

This is a Quentin Tarantino film, so before even seeing a single frame you have some idea what to expect: subtle self-awareness, top-notch acting and writing, and brief scenes of brutal violence punctuating a surprisingly deep story. In fact, I think this is not only Tarantino's deepest film, but his riskiest. He's very knowingly and deliberately put himself in the awkward situation of being a white guy writing about racism.

He pulls it off. I would expect no less from Tarantino, but a big reason why he pulls it off is Christoph Waltz. Waltz won an Oscar for his performance, and deserved it, because his character King Schultz is the single most important person in the film. Consider him to be the perspective character for the white audience member, a stranger wandering the land of slaves and plantation owners. Schultz is an outsider by means of being a German immigrant, whereas the audience is separated from the setting by time, but the principle is the same. We know enough to properly identify the heroes and villains, but take for granted what makes them so. Schultz's character arc throughout the movie is his coming to realize just how awful things are. He begins the film regarding slavery as a bad thing, but his distaste is academic and detached, and he's not above playing the system against itself. But as his journey with Django takes him deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast, the true inhumanity of the institution slowly unfolds before him.

The plan to rescue Hilda is perfectly sound, but the genius of it is also its great failing: it's legal. This means that Schultz and Django can pull it off while still remaining respected members of society, but it also means that they have to acknowledge the rightness of the society, or at least pretend to. Schultz is fine with this at first, but becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of turning a blind eye to the brutality around him. Finally, he's offered the chance to walk away with everything he came for, exactly the victory he planned, in exchange for just one thing: he has to acknowledge that Candie is a honest man, and that the society that he lives in just. And Schultz can't do it. He scuttles his own plan at the very moment of success because, as he tells Django, "I just couldn't help myself." He couldn't go on paying lip service to a society so fundamentally corrupt.

If Schultz is the most important character in the film, the second most important is probably Stephen, Candie's loyal slave. Stephen's first scene is one of the best constructed scenes in the film, because it tells us in a few minutes 90% of what we need to know about the character. We see him sitting at a writing desk, writing out a check to which he affixes Candie's signature with a stamp. Then, through the window, he sees Candie's carriage approaching, and so he goes out to the front porch where he plays court jester, lobbing insults and repartee at Candie's entourage and even Candie himself for the amusement of all. Later scenes establish him as the power behind the throne, smart where Candie is merely educated and subtle where he is brutish.

So, to break down the conflict: we have a black hero and his white mentor/sidekick on one side, and a white villain and his black servant/vizier on the other. What you'd expect from this setup - the traditional/cliche resolution - is that Candie kills Schultz, then Django kills Stephen and Candie, probably in that order. Or, alternatively, Candie kills Schultz, Stephen backstabs Candie in some fashion before dying, possibly redemptively, and then Django kills Candie. But neither is what happens. Instead, Schultz kills Candie - sacrificing his own life in the process - after which Stephen takes over the plantation in all but name and becomes the villain that Django must defeat in the denouement. And the movie is much, much better for it.

Django Unchained is a movie about racism, but it's also a movie about the rejection of racism. It's about the evil that white men do/did, and how that evil is destroyed. Had Django killed Candie, the film's message would be simplistic and wrong: a white villain as the source or avatar of evil, and a black hero restores justice by killing him. Black = good, white = evil. Simple, and completely off base. This happy ending would have been achieved through the demonization of whites, which is merely racism in a different form. Django becomes the man who hunted monsters and became one himself. Instead, Candie's death - and the symbolic rejection of what he stands for - must be at the hands of a white man. In doing so, and accepting his own death as penance for standing by and doing nothing for so long, Schultz earns redemption for his race.

Portraying Stephen, a slave, as a villain on par with Candie is perhaps Tarantino's most controversial choice as screenwriter and director. One could even, if so inclined, see it as of blaming the victim. But the story is more complex than that. As Django was once a slave, Stephen is a slave as well. But while Django has only ever been seen fighting against the system, Stephen has embraced it, sacrificing his dignity in exchange for power. In many ways he's a shadow figure to both Django and Schultz; Django in that a slave's life has affected them both deeply, Schultz in that they both game the system for their own purposes. Stephen would have learned firsthand the cruelties of the society in which he lives - he mentions having seen slaves castrated before - and he went along with it because the society empowered him personally. In Stephen we see most clearly that it is not a person's skin that makes him righteous or corrupt. The society is the source of corruption, and whether individuals are good or evil depends on whether they allow it to corrupt them, or defy it to follow their own conscience and sense of justice.

Django Unchained was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar last year, but ultimately lost to Argo. I never saw Argo, so I'm in no position to say whether or not it's a better film, but Django is certainly a film that deserves respect. It is, as the Library of Congress likes to say, "culturally significant," and one of the deepest and most thoughtful meditations on racism in recent years.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Seven Lady Werewolves

120 pages into Allison Moon's latest, and making steady progress. Review when I'm done (probably about a week and a half), but I just wanted to share something. Those who've read the book will know what it refers to.


Seven lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

HAZEL: "Stop crowding m... AHHH!"


Six lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

JENNA: "Lexie, we're trying to slee... AHHH!"


Five lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

SHARMALEE: "Hey, I don't need any more brui-"


Four lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

MITCH: "Brat! When I get my horm-"


Three lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

CORWIN: "See, this is why I'm drifting bi-curi-"


Two lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

RENEE: "Oh no, you're coming with me, sister!"


One lady werewolf, all alone in bed, and she looked around and said:

LEXIE: "..."

Lexie, that was your cue...

LEXIE: "..."


LEXIE: "..."


Monday, April 15, 2013

Kitty Rocks the House

Since I don't have the time or energy to write long-ass reviews anymore, I'm suspending my review blog. But since I still read, and still have things to say about the books I read, I'll provide leaner, meaner mini-reviews here for now. With luck, it'll be less filler and more killer.

The fact that I liked the latest Kitty Norville book will surprise nobody. Those who read my review blog will know what a fanboy I am. You'll also know that I've felt the series has been in a slump. Read through the reviews of the past three books, and you find the same overarching theme: entertaining, but the series has "lost it's spark".

Kitty Rocks the House has the spark.

It's not perfect, of course. The middle is slow, and there are missed opportunities along the way; things that could have been awesome, but aren't. It lacks the unbridled creativity that characterized the early books. And I still think this Long Game nonsense is a misstep; dragging the series away from the personal drama that makes it unique in the crowded urban fantasy genre. But for the first time since I can remember, what happened here stuck with me.

We have two plots here, advancing more or less concurrently: the first concerns Darren, a new werewolf who gets offered a place in the Denver pack, then tries to take over. A complaint about the series- one that I've echoed myself- is that after Kitty became the alpha of the Denver pack, Vaughn spent most of the subsequent books having her run off to Vegas or London or San Francisco or Central Nowhere, county of Bumfuck, Montana, 59702. She did precious little with the characters back in Denver. So when Darren shows up and challenges her alpha-dom, there's a strong reality subtext: a major argument against Alpha Norville is that she's been spending so much time travelling and playing conspiracy games with vampires that she's forgotten about taking care of things back home. And Vaughn pulls off this bit meta-commentary without seeming either preachy or apologetic about it. Nice.

That said, I wish that Darren had posed more of a challenge. When it comes to a showdown, Kitty essentially flexes her charisma and gets the entire pack on her side. Even Becky, the main holdout, is easily swayed back to Kitty's side after a brief conversation. Given that Kitty used Becky as bait back in Kitty Goes to War, I expected there to be more conflict here.

The other storyline has Kitty, with Cormac's help, investigating a vampire priest. He shows up in town looking for Rick, and after Kitty brokers a meeting between them, Rick goes missing. This is a generally more interesting story. Rick is one of the constants of the Kitty-verse, and to see him questioning himself and being in danger adds the needed tension that's been missing from recent books. The problem here, however, is that pacing is sluggish. Not terribly much happens here until the end- it's a main cause of the sagging middle that I mentioned. When that end comes, though, it's totally worth it. There is action, and pathos, and revelation, and new ideas that I looked at and thought "Dude, awesome!" And the ending sets up better stories for books to come, and teases the possibility of a spinoff. (Another spinoff, I should say. Cormac's getting his own soon.)

Those who are following this series have already bought Kitty Rocks the House. Those who aren't want to start at the series beginning. But those who were following it and gave up at some point want to give it another chance now, because the series has come home, and I have a feeling good times are ahead.