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.

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