Dearly, Departed

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel

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This is a YA paranormal romance in the Twilight vein, complete with hot undead guy, overdramatic heroine, a precipitously fast fall into love, angsty declarations, and dangers that seem formulated mostly for the sake of testing the couple’s bravery and selflessness. The characters often seemed caricatured, the humor often coming from exaggerating the surface-level traits that are supposed to them feel like people but instead make them feel like paper dolls in a fan fic. This take on the zombie is fairly interesting–not all zombies lose their minds and humanity, and some of them become soldiers in the army who fight other zombies. The descriptions of the science behind this new(ish) kind of zombification was about as believable as these things can be. Also, the action sequences, which comprised a large part of the book, were fairly well done.

The setting might be the element that I had the most trouble with. It’s a couple centuries into the future, after environmental catastrophes have driven people towards tropical areas. During this migration, Victorian fashions, etiquette, and social norms came back into vogue.

Honestly, I can’t understand how that could ever happen. I know it’s silly to talk about realism in a book about zombies, but just seems so politically naïve to imagine that any group of people would ever voluntarily adopt the lifestyles of the Victorian era after 3 centuries of enjoying more liberal customs. The expense and physical constraint of the women’s clothes are enough reason for this regression to be impossible. If the purpose is to combine Victorian aesthetics with modern medicine and tech, an alternative history, like those in Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk YA novels, would have been a much more believable background story. Maybe this thought makes me cynical, but the only way I can imagine a large group of people living like Victorians in the future is if elites force them to, because no one but rich, titled, first-born, land-owning white men benefitted under that system. It would have to be a conspiracy to take rights and power away from women and the poor on a massive scale. On the other hand, I understand that Victorian dress is super cool, and Victorian etiquette and social conventions create lots of fun narrative possibilities. So it seems there are two possibilities here. Either the book has romanticized the Victorian era for entirely superficial reasons–the cool clothes and the marriage market plot–or the series will eventually prove that the New Victorian society is a purposely engineered dystopia as the allegiance of the characters switches to the Punks. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll stick around to see if that happens though. The contrived cliffhanger ending didn’t sell me on the sequel.

Dead Ever After

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

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This was the last Sookie Stackhouse book, and I’m sorry to reach the end of the series, because I’ve mostly enjoyed it, but I’m also glad it has come to an end because it was kind of running out of steam. This volume makes a good, satisfying conclusion to the series, bringing back a lot of old characters for cameos, especially villains. Again, there’s a mystery with a convoluted explanation that’s at least somewhat surprising. The prose quality isn’t great, as Harris gets caught up in the minutiae of daily life sometimes, but I think that’s her way of adding Southern flavor and showing how down-to-earth her narrator is.

Sookie herself has always been the chief attraction of this series to me. Her admirable resilience and her determination to see the best in others and to try to be a good person despite all the reasons she has to be jaded make her a truly great heroine. She weighs pros and cons carefully, and when some action of her lover seems to her like a dealbreaker, she’s sad about it but never wavers on her decision. I admire the maturity, strength and self-knowledge that make this kind of stance possible. For example, before beginning a relationship with her new, and seemingly last, boyfriend, she makes a point to discuss with him in the abstract what they’ve learned from previous relationships and what they’re looking for in a mate now. When they do begin a relationship, she is clear about moving slowly. These are wise decisions and precautions, the kind I’d advise my child to make in 20 or 30 years.

But there’s a part of me that wonders: Doesn’t this calculation seem somewhat bloodless and unromantic? It certainly seems the polar opposite of what Bella Swan would do. One main reason for that is that Sookie is about a decade older than Bella, an adult woman with an identity and supernatural power of her own. There’s something exciting and appealing about Bella’s headlong, reckless plunge into a dangerous love, and in her careful avoidance of heartbreak Sookie denies readers the satisfaction of experiencing that fall with her. In thinking so systematically, Sookie kind of deadens her emotions. There’s something that Sookie is holding back, a piece of her heart that she keeps for herself, and perhaps this is wise as it seems to be connected with her resilience. Sookie has been through a lot, and she is nothing if not a survivor. She has great self-protective instincts, and she follows them in matters of the heart as well as in life-threatening situations. This means that she sometimes comes off as too pragmatic to let herself fall in love, and that’s a bit of a turn-off for a reader, especially one who may have picked up the book for the romance.

I say all this as someone who’s quite prone to such overthinking myself, someone who has a history of closing herself off even to positive emotions because they seem too hot to handle. Seeing the way this practical, cautious side of Sookie’s character makes her seem cold and uninteresting gives me a good reason to try to check that self-protective instinct when I feel it myself. After all, I have experienced nowhere near the level of trauma that Sookie has! Maybe Sookie holds a mirror up to me as someone who has a tendency to let her brain rule her heart, and I can learn from that. That’s another mark of a great character: they teach you a little something about yourself.

Finale

Finale by Becca Fitzpatrick

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Finale is the end of the Hush, Hush saga, a love story concerning fallen angels and their human descendents/vassals, the Nephilim. Nora, normal teen girl, and Patch, bad boy fallen angel, fell in love in the first book even though he was kind of bound to kill her. In this final installment, Nora has become Nephilim and is supposed to lead an army of Nephilim against the fallen angels. But she’s also promised the archangels not to start a war. So she has to balance these competing interests, while also hiding her relationship with Patch because it makes the Nephilim question her leadership. There’s also a mystery to solve, an addiction subplot, blackmail, betrayal, cheating, and lots of steamy kisses.

This series is superior to Twilight because Nora is a power player in the unfolding drama, rather than a pawn or a helpless girl who needs protection. Both alone and together with Patch, and sometimes behind his back, she makes and breaks alliances, plans ambushes, escapes attackers, and fights in a battle. She still makes extreme teen girl statements about how she’ll die without Patch and that kind of thing. She’s a drama queen prone to starting fights with Patch over nothing. In the beginning of the book her language and tone was annoying, but that got mitigated as the book’s action became more urgent. I have some of the same concerns with this series that I had with the Fallen series, which was also about fallen angels. This book doesn’t get as deep into theology as Passion did–God never appears in person–but the odd religous and ontological implications are still there. Similar to Luce in the Fallen series, Nora achieves her most significant victories through self-annhiliation, through suicidal gestures that redeem her. This series is about half a step above Fallen because the language is a bit less cliched, the religous stuff is not as weird, and the heroine has more power sooner. But there are tons of YA romances I’d recommend over both of these.

Hidden

Hidden by Sophie Jordan

Hidden is the third and last of the Firelight series, which is about Jacinda, a girl who can turn into a dragon (draki) who falls in love with a boy, Will, whose family hunts her kind. I previously reviewed Vanish, the second book, which introduced a third character into a love triangle, Cassian, another draki who has bonded with Jacinda. At the end of Vanish, Miram, Cassian’s sister, was captured by the dragon hunters, and they were coming up with a plan to rescue her. The book’s opening is dominated by this plot, and much of the rest of the book consists of outrunning and evading the hunters pursuing them.

It’s a pretty action-packed book with a few good surprises. A lot of running around in the woods and meeting exactly the right people or exactly the wrong people. Some of the drama felt manufactured, stirred up just to spark tension between Jacinda and Will, who are solidly in love from the first page and would otherwise never fight. Some of the sentences in the kissing scenes are decent, others are cliched and cringeworthy. This is not life-changing literature, just entertainment.

Hidden brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The love triangle is resolved, pretty much the way it was always going to be. The tribe’s bad leadership situation is fixed, thanks to some revelations. I stand by what I said about the second volume: it’s a series very much modeled on Twilight, but less objectionable when it comes to gender issues. I was wrong about the sex though. No sex in this book. Boo.

The Opal Deception

The Opal Deception by Eoin Colfer

As I promised myself I would after attending Eoin Colfer’s reading and talk at the library, I picked up the fourth book in the Artemis Fowl series. This volume had all of the things I remembered from the first three books: a lightning-fast action plot, seemingly inescapable predicaments, prickly heroes sniping at each other. In this volume, villain Opal Koboi, fueled by obsession, breaks out of the asylum where she’s supposedly in a coma, and tries to start a war between the fairies and humans. On my audiobook she had a hilariously evil baby-talk speaking style. She exacts revenge on our heroes, and there’s even a death of a major character in the beginning, which serves to prove that things have gotten serious now. I think that pretty much had to happen, sad as it is, because it’s hard to sustain a series like this over so many books without having several major characters die. After the bloodbaths in Harry Potter’s last three books, no one can write a long adventure series in which no beloved characters die anymore and be taken seriously (I’m looking at you, Stephenie Meyer, with your over-hyped battle-that-never-happened in Breaking Dawn. You didn’t have the stomach to kill a single Cullen, but Fred Weasley had to die?)

One reason I like the series, and one thing that made me quit it for so long after the mind wipe at the end of book 3, was the moral development of Artemis. I appreciated how he learned and grew and became more selfless through his adventures, and it seemed such a shame to lose that through a memory reboot. At the beginning of this book, though his mind had been wiped, Artemis hasn’t totally reverted to where he was at the beginning of the series. He still enjoys stealing and doing bad, daring, risky things, but it’s somewhat tempered by his love for his family. It takes only one life-threatening episode for him to learn to trust Holly again, and his memories come back quickly once triggered. He comments on how he feels warring impulses inside him, pulling him between good and bad, and says with surprise that good seems to be a stronger motivation. At the end he’s even musing about becoming a sort of Robin Hood figure. It seems clear that this moral development is something that’s intended to spread over all 8 books of the series. One of the things that attracted me back to the series is that I heard that in book 8 Artemis truly becomes a hero. I’m interested to see what that will mean. He’s already pretty heroic in that he makes smart decisions that save everyone just in the nick of time, often risking himself in the bargain.

The characters in this series are cartoonish, but not necessarily in a bad way. They all have certain qualities that are exaggerated, played for laughs, and used strategically in the plot and as fodder for witty banter. Mulch Diggums is one big fart joke. Opal’s vanity and devious plotting are deliciously over-the-top. At the reading, Colfer said that the first book is finally being made into a movie by Disney. I wonder if it’ll be Pixar, or more traditional animation, or live with tons of CGI, or what. I think a somewhat cartoonish art style would be fitting to the humor and tone of the story, and there are certainly lots of story elements that could not happen in real life. So I guess I’m rooting for Pixar to handle this one. And after meeting Colfer and seeing how hilarious he is, I say he deserves a part or a character to voice, or at least a cameo. I could see him as Artemis’s dad or as the voice of some fairy beaurocrat.

Overall, it’s a fun book and a fun series for action-packed adventure and humor. If you ever have to buy a book for a boy age 8-13, this series is a good bet.

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

I was really looking forward to this book. It’s the second in the All Souls trilogy. The first, A Discovery of Witches, was one of my favorites of last year. The series is about a witch who falls in love with a vampire. In this fantasy world, witches, daemons, and vampires all exist and interact with each other and humans in intricate webs of power and intrigue. Relationships between the species, though, are forbidden, which is a major source of drama for the protagonists. The mystery driving the plot is an origin story: how and why were witches, daemons, and vampires created or evolved? Matthew, the scientist vampire, is approaching the question from his disciplinary perspective, as he also tries to figure out why vampires are unable to create new vampires anymore. Diana, the witch narrator, is searching for a lost manuscript on alchemy that seems to explain the origins of the species.

As Shadow of Night opens, Matthew and Diana arrive in England in 1590; they just left modern Massachusetts to seek out the book and evade enemies. The time travel theory of this book is a little unusual and a bit nonsensical to me, to be honest. Since Matthew is a 1500-year-old vampire, he was alive in 1590. Rather than deal with the problem of having two Matthews running around, Harkness decided that Matthew would merge mysteriously with his past self during the time when he’s in the past, and then Matthew-of-1590 would suddenly reappear with no memory of the past year after the present-day version of Matthew goes back to the future. This didn’t make any logical sense to me, so that bothered me quite a bit, but that’s probably the worst part of the book. I think it would have been better to just send 1590-Matthew to China or something. He did need to be out of the way, but merging the two versions of the character was distractingly illogical.

Shadow of Night suffers from the structural problem found in many trilogies: the second book is almost always the weakest link. A Discovery of Witches was fascinating with its uncovering of the mythology of witches, vampires, and daemons, and the unfolding love story of Matthew and Diana. The next book promises great things in bringing the mystery to a close, and resolving the romance plot with a birth that has implications for the scientific and philosophical questions raised by the first book. This book, stuck between the introduction of a mystery and its resolution, is mostly about the deepening relationship of Diana and Matthew, their attempts to find the manuscript, Diana’s developing magical talents, and just playing around in the setting of the past. (Harkness is a history professor, and the quality of her research shows when she brings these Renaissance settings and real historical figures to life.) It’s good fun, but somewhat less dramatic and urgent than the other parts of the series.

My favorite passage of the novel showed Diana and Matthew playfully riffing on current popular vampire fiction: “Sex and dominance. It’s what modern humans think vampire relationships are all about. Their stories are full of crazed alpha-male vampires throwing women over their shoulders before dragging them off for dinner and a date.” Later in the dialog there are a few phrases that I’ve seen scattered all over feminist reviews of Twilight: “overprotective behavior,” “callous bastards,” “hearts of gold,” “jealous rage.” It’s a hilarious send-up that at the same time acknowledges the ways this series plays into all of the same tropes: they’re in bed before the conversation is over.

Generally, a strength of the series is that the relationship between Matthew and Diana is one of equals, with intimacy that isn’t just physical, a complete acceptance of the other. Diana often has to push Matthew to open up to her, but by the end of this book their bond is stronger than ever. It’s going to have to be, as they’re about to face enemies and hard truths again, now that they’re back in the present. I can’t wait for the end of the trilogy!

Pet Peeves: Look How Sexy Everyone Is!

I get sick of reading physical descriptions of characters again and again. Authors should describe them once when they are introduced, and trust that readers can remember that description for the rest of the book. I don’t need to be constantly reminded of the color of a character’s eyes. (And while we’re talking about eye color, am I the only one who notices how vastly overrepresented gray and green and even violet eyes are in fiction?) I get particularly peeved when the point of the repeated descriptions is to emphasize the physical attractiveness of the characters.

What kinds of passages am I talking about, specifically? Twilight was a big offender. Stephenie Meyer is incapable of mentioning Edward Cullen without going on about his “velvet voice” or his “messy copper hair,” whatever those descriptions even mean. It seemed like every time the character was mentioned, at least one of his physical traits had to be described, as if readers could possibly forget how sexy he is when sexiness is his most important characteristic. Now, Twilight is a pretty blatant and obvious example, but I get really picky about this stuff. I’m even annoyed by a few superfluous adjectives inserted into a scene of sex or kissing. Not just, “She stroked his bicep” (which is bad enough, right?), but “she stroked his strong, firm bicep.” Those adjectives are only there to emphasize the character’s hotness. All the information and emotion you need to understand the scene was already there before those two words got added in. Attention to language means that every unnecessary word is cut out. This overabundance of sexy adjectives usually just feels like wordiness, or sloppy editing.

Some recent books that bothered me with hotness reminders were the Halo series, the Morganville Vampires series, the Blue Bloods series, the Fallen series–and these are only the major offenders that jump out at me in memory. In Fallen the constant descriptions of Daniel’s hotness only served to make his girlfriend Luce seem desperate and unhealthy. In Blue Bloods, the emphasis on characters’ appearances was just a part of a larger problem with materialism and class snobbery. In the Morganville Vampires series, the purpose seemed to be providing a fantasy for readers, painting appealing mental pictures. The biggest problem about that is that this canned human scenery distracts from the more intriguing plot. Halo and Hades were a weird case because they were told from the point of view of an angel, and she constantly harped on the attractiveness not only of her human boyfriend, but of her fellow angels, who she treated as brother and sister, as well as her female human friends. It was like the author was insisting that when this book is made into a movie (God forbid!) all the actors absolutely must be super hot (as if there were any other kinds of actors anyway). All of these books are considered YA.

The only purpose I can see for these recurring descriptions is that it’s fanservice. The authors seem to be assuming that readers want to be sexually titillated. It’s no different from when Alexander Skarsgard and Joe Manganiello take off their shirts in True Blood. Sure, it’s fun to look at, but is it always necessary for the story? No. In this example, and in much of the fiction I’m discussing, the point of view is female, so men are objectified. But how pissed off would I be if it were ladies in skimpy bikinis held up to be ogled instead of men with ripped abs? Very. So really, there’s no difference. Fanservice is fanservice, whether it’s directed toward a male or female audience.

The problem with fanservice is that it makes a bad assumption about what the audience wants. It assumes that the reason we read or watch shows is to be turned on by the characters. It treats the characters like scenery to be gawked at. It objectifies. That’s reason enough not to like it.

When you think about fanservice, you think about gratuitous sexualized images. So it’s probably kind of weird to think about fanservice in a nonvisual media like a novel. But novels are always painting scenes and drawing pictures in the minds of readers. Novels can be very visual indeed; the only difference between a novel and a painting is that in a novel the reader imagines the picture based on a writer’s cues, instead of just looking at something a painter imagined. What’s more, every word in a novel represents a choice to emphasize or deemphasize something about a character or scene. Adding unnecessary physical description words emphasizes a character’s body and sexuality. Those extra words have the same effect as supersizing Catwoman’s boobs or posing her provocatively, just in a verbal medium instead of a visual one.

Now, I know, these scenes are usually told from the point of view of a character who’s falling in love/lust, and so it’s kind of natural they’re preoccupied with the body that’s turning them on so much. But the bodies are not the most interesting thing about a sex scene for an experienced, discerning reader. (In my imagination, all attractive bodies look pretty much the same anyway, but maybe my imagination is bland or underdeveloped in this area.) What’s interesting in a sex scene are the ways emotion is expressed, power dynamics shift, and the relationship grows or is revealed. Even in erotica, this deeper information is more stimulating than generic descriptions of bodies. Diana Gabaldon, a favorite author and a true master of great sex scenes, would agree.  Superfluous, generic adjectives about hotness only distract from the scene’s potential to do much more important work.

I read recently that Henry James said there are three questions to ask of a book: 1) What is it doing? 2) Is it doing it well? and 3) Is that thing worth doing? (Don’t take that attribution as gospel: I can’t find the quote again to save my life.) I’ve established that what these novels are doing with these repeated sexualized physical descriptions is fanservice, and some of these novels do it very well. They make the readers fall in love with the characters and get turned on by the scenes and descriptions. But the problem is that this is not really worth doing. Sexualizing and fetishizing characters like this doesn’t reach any worthwhile goals. It doesn’t teach readers anything new about relationships and their possibilities. It doesn’t question gender roles or teach healthy body image. One could even make the argument that fanservice is dangerous and bad for readers, especially young ones. Do you think that all of the twelve-year-old girls who read Twilight and fell in love with Edward and/or Jacob are better off for investing so much emotion into a fantasy? Can any human male live up to a masturbatory fiction of supernatural hotness and pitch-perfect angst? Girls joke about how Edward has spoiled them for all guys, but there is an element of truth to it, and that’s sad.

How can writers avoid fanservice and overemphasizing characters’ physical attractiveness? First of all, they can have realistic characters: people in the real world are not always hot. Second, instead of focusing on bodies, they can zero in on emotions and relationships, because these are not always solely determined by physical attraction. Third, they can write a story substantial enough to hold an audience’s interest without resorting to fanservice. Fourth, they can discuss and even emphasize characters’ physical flaws. Perhaps that person’s lover finds his scars, gray hairs, acne, or spare tire endearing. Fifth, they can edit ruthlessly, questioning every descriptive phrase and weighing its worth to the narrative. These steps are totally doable for any narrative, even erotica, and even YA.