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I've been reading... - The Lyorn's Den

Fri Oct. 27th, 2006

12:42 am - I've been reading...

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... which will come as no surprise to you. In fact, I've done little else but working, sleeping and reading, and as it happens I'm currently up to my ears in urban fantasy. (And process descriptions to review, and cryptic Perl scripts, but let's not go there.)

Summer Knight, by Jim Butcher, 2002

I said last week that I'd buy the next book in "The Dresden File" series, despite my misgivings, and I did, and again, I liked it, but, again not as much as the first one ("Storm Front", to refresh your memory), and I finally figured out why: It's the Monster of the Week. You all know this one. When TV series take a break from metaplot and drama and great discoveries, they bring in a one-shot menace which is mysteriously unknown at the beginning of the episode and solidly defeated at the end. When used well and sparingly, the MotW keeps the series from becoming too soapy, and when handled really well the MotW becomes an unwilling accomplice in character and story development. If done badly, however, the MotW (K'immie of the week in HL, BTW), becomes laughing stock, or worse, boring. Monster appears, monster spreads mayhem, monster threatens hero, hero escapes, hero prepares, hero whacks monster, the end.

You could argue that the MotW in "Storm Front" was the big bad dark wizard, but then, the hero is a wizard, too, so being a wizard doesn't qualify the villain for MotW-status IMO. Besides, and more important, wizards are human. So is the mysterious blonde who walks into the PI's office at the beginning of the story. So is the crime boss, and his goons, the victims targeted, the villain's lackeys... everyone but the Vampire lady, and story-wise she's an informant and a suspect who, in the end, has nothing much to do with the case.

But after that, you get the whole damn WoD sourcebooks. Werewolves in "Fool Moon", ghosts and vampires in "Grave Peril", and now fairies in "Summer Knight". And there's nothing truly new or unexpected about these creatures, unless you didn't play WW games in the 90s. A few twists, but not enough to surprise. No mysteries. Sayers' villains committing suicide in the library are more mysterious characters than these MotW. And that frustrates me to no end.

Sure, the books are entertainingly written, the hero seems to be slowly getting over his Raistlin complex, the secondary love interest has finally overcome her compulsion to arrest her consultant, the writing is solid and fast-paced, the imagery is especially good in this book, and the mystery is still interesting enough to keep reading. The book is a page-turner, as were all the ones before. But after I finished it I still felt disappointed, and I won't buy another one, because if the author introduces one more off-the-rack supernatural species, even my WoD-trained tolerance will fail and the whole thing will gain the feel of Shadowrun on crack. And I never liked Shadowrun.

In case you have expected some info on the plot, here it is: Someone has killed the champion of the Summer court of the Fae, barely a week before midsummer, and his power has failed to return to the court. The Winter court hires Harry Dresden to prove their innocence in the murder. But with fairy court intrigue left and right, are they as innocent as they claim? Who benefits? And can they be stopped in time?

Oh, and the murdered Summer knight is named Ronald Reuel. Don't expect me to get over that any time soon.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn, 2005

Again, Werewolves. And Vampires. Still...

Since she had the bad luck to be bitten by a werewolf, Kitty's life isn't quite what it has been. Changing into a wolf every full moon would be bad enough, but her Wolf's instincts and ideas of social interaction are hard to fit into a human life. She can't freely walk the town for fear of strolling into vampire territory, and as she's the omega of her pack, every werewolf in town can bully her. And while she hates it, there's not much she can do about it. The only things she has rescued from the shambles of her life is a good taste in music and a job as a radio DJ in the graveyard shift.

Until one night without anything better to do, she starts chatting with callers about the supernatural. And before she knows it, her show's syndicated and she's a talk radio star with a, well, cult following among the supernaturally afflicted and the naturally weird. Everyone with the power to bully her wants her to give it up, and if she wants to keep it, she has to stand up for herself against godfather-like vampires, paid assassins, pack members who "only want her best", and whatever else is out there.

Basically, she has to decide between safety and freedom. Which is one of the oldest topics around, but still makes a good theme. What I especially enjoyed was that the "cool" monsters were those who had least freedom. It's the same externalization that I liked in many first- and second-season Buffy episodes (Joss Whedon made his MotW perfectly reflect the inner state of his characters): what you fear becomes a monster, and the monster can be fought.

Well done.

Now, shall I buy the second book ("Kitty Goes to Washington"), or would that be setting myself up for a disappointment?

Snake Agent, by Liz Williams, 2005

This is another mystery with supernaturals, and yet nothing like the other two books. First of all, it's not a page turner, but a story packed with unexpected details, surrealism and general shiny-ness that you (or at least I) can't read it in one night: I'd loose the plot and miss the best parts if I tried. Liz Williams does not go with the well-known. In "Nine Layers of Sky", it was rocket science and legendary Russian heroes, in "The Poison Master" science fiction and alchemy, and in "Snake Agent" it's cyberpunk and Chinese metaphysics.

Place is Singapore Three, a franchise town of the original Singapore, looking out over the South Chinese Sea, and time is "a little bit from now". Detective Inspector Chen works for the city police, and his specialty are cases dealing with the supernatural. He has a beautiful demonic wife, a family guardian who is sometimes a badger and sometimes a teakettle, the disfavor of his patron goddess who does not approve of his marriage, the enmity of a powerful employee in the Hellish Ministry of Epidemics, and a case of soul trafficking on his hands. And if that's not trouble enough, his only chance to not only solve, but survive the case seems to be his counterpart from hell, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, a demon of style and slightly compromised evil.

More than half of the story takes place in hell, which is multi-layered, bureaucratic, and utterly, marvelously surreal, yet never arbitrary. The plot occasionally becomes lost in details, or takes a backseat to the characters and especially to the scenery, and is, in the end, mostly resolved by powers outside of the heroes' reach, but, well, one can't have everything.

All of Liz Williams books (that I read so far), despite being slow to read, are highly visual and have a lot of action and dialogue that doesn't waste a single line. I can't help imagining them as movies. It would look great.

In the end, the only reason I liked "The Poison Master" even better than "Snake Agent" is the beauty of the setting in the former. But then, a beautiful hell would be somewhat counterproductive.

That's it for today. More to come!