Thursday, March 15, 2012

Skinwalker


The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Comfortably hearty (320 pages)
Publication: July 7, 2009 from Roc Books
Premise: Jane Yellowrock, a skinwalker and traveling vampire hunter, is called in to New Orleans to track down a rogue vampire. It's been killing tourists and threatening other vampires, which is bad for business, so the local vampire clans have called in outside help. Jane has to work with sane vampires as allies for the first time, hiding the secret of her powers while they all sniff at her blood. Intrigue isn't her normal scene, but she's thrust in the middle of it while trying to untangle what makes the rogue vampire's nature hit closer to home than she was expecting.
Warnings: Lots of blood and gore, about what you'd expect from a gritty vampire book; minor unpleasantness with Jane having raw arousal pushed on her from the inside as a form of revenge
Recommendation: Definitely give this one a try; the opening is a bit stereotypical, but there's some great worldbuilding and characters once you get a few chapters into it.


Why this one keeps being surprising: 

Jane's Beast, the spirit of the mountain lion with whom she accidentally merged long ago, is a brilliant character in its own right. Werewolf and shapeshifter novels aren't uncommon, but it's rare to see the alternate form have its own independent personality in the way that Jane's Beast does. Beast isn't just a ravening source of bloodlust and extra powers, though she does fill that role to an extent; she has a sense of humor and is disgusted with humanity. Her weird caveman-style syntax with gets tiresome to read, especially over long passages, but her conversations with Jane and her thoughts about motorcycles make for vivid characterization. Most familiars or shifting alter-egos give the lead character some sass, maybe argue, but they ultimately can't enforce their preferences. Beast argues with Jane as a completely believable equal, even though she can't understand a lot about the modern world, and manages to use magic and memories that Jane doesn't understand to keep her off-balance.

The pacing works well, especially given the constraints on Jane's transformations: it's hard for her to shift in the day, and if she's Beast when the sun rises then she's stuck there all day without access to the full scope of her thoughts. Beast spends the night prowling for scents and trying to track the rogue; Jane spends the day investigating more human leads. The stakes are higher when we learn that Jane doesn't normally shift every night and that doing so makes Beast's instincts intrude into her daily thoughts. It builds both of them as characters, provides realistic reasons for Jane and Beast to hit dead ends and trail new threads, and reinforces the dynamic of their relationship. It's hard to do all of that at once, and Faith Hunter pulls it off without missing a beat.

Seeing Jane make realistic mistakes on the spur of the moment works well. She charges after a fleeing rogue vampire when she's not really dressed for it and hasn't scoped out the ground and realizes that it was a rookie mistake, which works, but the smaller mistakes work even better. Her sense of smell is amazingly keen even when she's in human form, and she forgets that not everyone shares it. Being caught scenting the air or mentioning a smell so faint that no one else can smell it codes as an absolutely understandable mistake for anyone who hasn't been hiding that sort of secret for many years, and she's been in the shifting scene for under a decade. She feels very real in those moments, powerful but still learning.

The vampires are one of the strongest elements of the story, managing to both cover the traditional scope of the lore about sunlight, silver, and crosses and give the sense of having many more secrets to uncover. Blood clans and servants are nothing new, but the implications about the vampires having a secret origin based in curses most certainly are. Normally the excuse is "because demons bred with humans" or "because plot," but this time there's a juicy backstory and hints about why Christian religious symbols work on vampires but nothing else does, regardless of belief. I tend to prefer the symbol-plus-belief system of vampire repellent, but the fact that Jane is trying to research why only crosses work adds depth to the mythology.

Fortunately, the teaser text on the back of the book is misleading, and we don't have to put up with somewhat invasive Rick LaFleur, an aspiring fellow hunter and spy, as a real love interest. He's attractive, but she tells him off for being too pushy about her business and goes on to have quite a few flirtatious moments with various vampires' blood servants...and even a few of the vampires themselves. This does a strong job of establishing her as sexual without whipping out the "this invasive brat is your one true love-destiny" fluff that a lot of urban fantasy riding the paranormal romance boundary does, and the change of pace is refreshing. When Jane says that she doesn't do what people say or answer to them, there's not a rider of "unless that one with the sexy biceps smolders at me right," and seeing that truth borne out makes her whole tough-as-nails persona much more solid.

Jane is of Cherokee descent, which tends to have mixed results in this genre, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the author did her research. Apart from the occasional jarring "the white man" by Jane and other Cherokee people living in modern houses, the culture is well represented. No mention of the overdone feathers or war dances that tend to characterize authors who have watched too many bad Westerns; instead we're treated to a lot of vocabulary and some interestingly recovered memories showing us how she lived as a child. The main thing she's glad to recover is the sense of family; she remembers drums and shadows and other background details, but she misses her father and grandmother in a way that makes the past more intensely part of her own story, not a way to make things "exotic."

Her lessons about the skinwalker craft, shifting into another creature, are quite elegant, especially with a nod to the idea that the skinwalkers were using DNA, the "snake within," to guide their transformations into specific creatures. The magic system of those transformations is great, with Jane explaining that keeping to a creature of roughly her own mass is best. She can go smaller by storing her mass and part of her mind in stone, which (unlike wood) has no RNA, or break up and absorb stone to go larger. This is definitely one of the best workarounds I've ever seen for the "but where does the mass go" issue, and it's always a risk for her to aim up or down, confining her to Beast's usual form unless there's an urgent reason for extra size or flight. Shapeshifters are great, but seeing one portrayed such a scientific manner (inasmuch as it can be with magic involved) really makes the process feel real

The red pen: 

For the first chapter or so, I really wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading; Jane acted like a walking stereotype and it was dull. She sees someone who we later learn is Rick LaFleur sitting on a motorcycle and reeking of weapons and goes beyond understandable attraction into faux-falling in love with his scent and thinking that he might be tough enough to be worthy of her; lust sparking makes sense, but trying to assess whether someone is "worthy" before even speaking just doesn't feel convincing. It reads as a similar MO to sleazy guys checking out women at a bar, and her later assertion that she's not interested in being a notch on a bedpost makes the initial reaction seem inconsistent with her character.

Soon after she sees Rick, Jane meets her employer, the madame of Katie's Ladies; she meets the bodyguard and blood servant, who she terms Troll, on the way in. Within ten pages she's had a pissing contest with both of them separately for...reasons with mixed merits. Pulling a cross on Katie for popping fangs is legitimate, though it degenerates to "intriguing nonhuman female" and offers of sex within two pages, which was just sad. The lady-vampires in this book get far less of a dangerous vibe and far more sexual heat hitting on Jane (are all lady-vampires bisexual?) than the male ones, which was disappointing. The confrontation with Troll makes less sense. Yes, martial artists sometimes like to test each other, but Jane actually winning against an enhanced-reflexes blood servant with decades of experience against her maybe....ten years of training when she has to fight against a gun pressed to her neck feels way too much like Hunter playing "let me prove right now that Jane is the coolest and the most competent and the best at all the fighting."

This introduces a problem: Jane has an unfortunate case of super-talented heroine disease. As she puts it, she's taken a few lessons in a lot of things, and it makes an overly convenient excuse for her to be good at whatever the situation demands. It's convincing for a traveling vampire hunter to be highly qualified in a martial art and climbing, for example, but her perfect skills at belly dancing and every form of Latin dancing known to man when she hasn't done some of the moves outside of class before just had me drumming my fingers and hoping for the scene to end. Yes, the sexual tension as she dances with a blood servant and then his vampire master is no less attractive for the lack of realism, but the fact that Jane isn't bad at anything that we see (except for being polite) makes it harder to care when she's supposedly in danger. Protagonists who are too competent across the board don't really have enough vulnerability to give the life-or-death scenes the necessary punch, especially if they don't have many character flaws to balance the competence. Rick could have been a great example of how to balance flaws and skills if he wasn't written as such a waste of space.

Rick LaFleur himself is mentioned on the back cover as the love interest, and the fact that he doesn't live up to that is great, but he's tiresome. He spends the first half of the book popping up at Jane's house, hammering on the door when he knows she's likely to be asleep after a night of investigation, and demanding to know things about her. The way he alternately acts like it's his right to know and tries to trick her into giving things away gets old, especially since when vampires want to know it's more in the nature of both sides trying to bargain for information. It's almost playful at times, which makes Rick's in-your-face approach even less appealing; if the attractive character who may be the love interest later is someone I'm rooting to see die, something is wrong.

Like Something From the Nightside, this commits the sin of using identical descriptions so close together that I notice it. If I meet a character twice in forty pages, I shouldn't hear both times verbatim that she had "coffee-and-milk skin, hazel green eyes, and kinky blond hair." Mentioning the second time that this is because the woman is of mixed-raced heritage does nothing to change the fact that recycling descriptions that way is lazy. It's easier to cut some slack on this one in epic fantasy with the descriptions hundreds of pages apart so you've almost forgotten them. In this one, however, it comes off as sloppy and as a reminder that you could have forgotten the character already.

This is one of the other problems: I haven't talked about the minor characters much because they're boring as sin. Writing your characters as tropes with a dash of depth is one thing, but these tasted of cardboard and boredom. We get sexy guys who want to have a threesome with her, fellow warrior-types who serve as stoic bodyguards to the vampires, the obligatory Cajun-accented magician being friendly and cryptic, hot vampires, evil vampires, prostitutes who like their jobs and are good people, her old friend on the phone, mysterious mystical types on both the Native American and vampire sides....and all of them feel flat. Looking back on this during edits a few weeks later, I can remember the names of maybe two; this isn't the worst thing in the world, though it is disappointing, and they move the plot along quite well.

The pacing is fairly good after the first few chapters, with the exception of distribution of detail. Hunter had a lot of room to play with exactly who and what the rogue is, given how often Jane goes back and forth about what its scent indicates, but we get a lot more "what is this thing?" than "could it be someone I've met, am I being tracked?" The confusion starts to read as an excuse to draw out the mystery element of the novel, since the scenes tend to consist of sniffing the rogue's trail and agonizing briefly. Meanwhile, we get such detailed descriptions of every house Jane visits that I started to feel like I was reading an architectural digest. Yes, describing a location is helpful if you're picturing fight choreography or setting a mood for a specific encounter, but if we see the location once and never again, I do not care about the color of carpets on the stairway, or the fact that this table is hand-carved cherrywood. Many of those descriptions seem to exist to fill space that would be better spent spent on characterization. 

In the end, this is a great spin on the normal urban fantasy shapeshifter trend, and I think I'll be looking up the rest of the series when I have time. Yes, the opening chapters are pretty rough around the edges and less than subtle about establishing Jane as dangerous, but once the book hits its stride the pacing makes it hard to set down.

Prospects: The fourth book in the series, Raven Cursed, came out in January. The fifth, Death's Rival, comes out in October. 

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Mercy Thompson series, by Patricia Briggs, in addition to her Alpha and Omega books. Mercy Thompson is a coyote shapeshifter of Native American descent, and Anna of the Alpha and Omega books lives at the heart of werewolf culture. Mercy shares a good bit of Jane's tough and independent streak. 

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