Thursday, May 3, 2012

Except the Queen

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Solid but quick (384 pages)
Publication: February 2, 2010 from Roc Books
Summary: The sisters Serana and Meteora live in the Greenwood with careless ease until they see the deadly Queen with a mortal lover and accidentally let the fact slip to others. The sisters are banished to the mortal world, transformed into middle-aged women, and trapped in different cities. Each sister encounters a troubled young adult touched with the scent of magic and tries to root out their secrets. As they exchange letters and experiences about the mortal world, the dangers of the UnSeelie Court draw ever closer on all sides. Every character hides a different agenda, and one false step can easily spell disaster.
Warnings: Two instances of attempted rape and murder, not graphic; one is against a child. Some of the tattooing scenes have a non-consensual eroticism that reads as....drugged sexual/magical assault, perhaps, though the tattoo artist isn't actually touching them much.
Recommendation: If you like your modern-day fantasy laced with humor and an echo of an older world, this might well be for you, though if you demand that everything be explained properly then you'll be better off looking elsewhere.

Why this one radiates quirky charm: 

The books opens on a second-person chapter of the Queen deciding to take a mortal lover, casting aside her power and glamour for risk and passion. Normally second-person gets clunky and dull, but Snyder and Yolen use it in short sections and only for the Queen herself to establish sympathy for her even though she's the direct cause of the sisters' suffering. They see her with her mortal lover and try to hide the secret, but eventually Meteora blurts something out. Both of the sisters are banished to present-day Earth in aged moral bodies, one in New York and the other in Milwaukee. Serana is quickly shuffled into sort of a homeless transition program, while Meteora becomes a landlady of sorts for Baba Yaga, who is renting rooms to college students as a way to more easily keep tabs on some and use others for food when they misbehave.

Baba Yaga is far and away the best secondary character of the book, though it does make me itch to see one character from Russian folklore when all the other creatures and powers are drawn from the British Isles; the same disjointedness holds true later for two witch-creatures that Serana meets. In a world teeming with UnSeelie hunters and harmless fey creatures, surely we'd see more of a blend in America, of all places. At any rate, Baba Yaga is delightful, both menacing and endearing in the way that she plans to eat people or feed them to the domevoi. She offers abundant help to Meteora and to Sparrow, but she stays out of the way during direct confrontations and is clearly on no one's side but her own. We do see her display some scraps of affection and amusement, and her help is vital, but the way she stands outside of the existing power structures and does nothing more or less than what wants reads as absolutely convincing and strong.

Humor carries the book along gorgeously in the early stages as each sister has to figure out how to operate in a world with completely unfamiliar rules. Serana's speculations about how humans use the Law of Paperwork to get around made me snort into my tea at how delightfully true it was, and Meteora's discovery of the mail system is easily one of the best parts. She's been using doves to carry messages to Serana until someone explains about the mail system; acting as though she's a bit batty and from another country has its advantages on that front. She sees the postal bag, notices the eagle, and decides that eagle mail is stronger than dove messages. Serana concurs, but is offended when she actually goes to the post office; she has to pay to send a letter that will arrive in two days when a dove is just as fast and can be paid in breadcrumbs, and says so quite loudly in front of everyone in line. Their habit of weaponizing ignorance to scare people into compliance doesn't net results this time, but it's nonetheless hilariously charming and makes sense given all of their previous experience. 

The grimmer aspects of the book, blood and abandonment and madness, hit their most graceful point in Hawk, the tattoo artist who marks Sparrow with a sign for ill fortune. He draws young women in and takes their blood for the tithe (in a system that's never really explained), using the tattoos and magic to keep them coming back again and again until there's nothing left. These scenes are darkly erotic, the perfect representation of how he's twisting life into painful knots with seduction, and it's easy to see both what makes him so terrifying and why the young women keep coming back. The eroticism of Robin's presence and of Jack's flirtation with Meteora also work beautifully, each one with its own light flavor to play off of the others.

The bond between the older sister Serana and the flightier but ultimately more adaptable Meteora absolutely works, and it servers as the glue that binds the story together. Their solitary explorations of how the world works are charming individually, but the ways they tell each other about them or bicker about long-ago incidents in their old lives just work. Every relationship between sisters is of course different, but their blend of hair-tearing frustration, admiration, and worry for each other is note-perfect. In many ways they were still children before their exile, and being forced to come of age in a hurry without having each other close at hand makes them see each other's strengths with clearer eyes. The letters are wistfully childish but tinged with a gossipy grandmother feel; it's hard to pull off, but all the more beautiful because of it.

The red pen: 

Lovely though the shifting points of view early on in the novel, they slowly start to cascade into a large pile of characters with vague relationships to each other as the book progresses, and that makes it harder to care about each of them individually. For example, Meteora meets some changelings on her way out of the Greenwood; they've apparently been assigned to follow her, but she wants to help them so that they can all go home. Despite the intricate connections among the other characters, these three changelings are just hovering at the fringes of things and not doing very much besides saying cryptic things and being bribed with food until suddenly there's a fight and they charge in to take heavy casualties. We don't really hear from them again after that, which makes the somewhat entertaining buildup around them feel completely wasted.

Similarly, we meet two....how to put this? Two black shape-shifting witches who are this close to making long speeches about watermelons; they're so stereotypical that it hurts to read, we don't meet them until the book is really quite near the end, and suddenly they're major characters with a large part in the resolution of the book. The beautifully interwoven cast of characters is so good for the first part of the book that running into loose ends, like all of these and a woman who used to live in the Greenwood and is now vital in providing a sanctuary, starts to feel clumsy, especially because it takes away from the characters we already know. Caring about endearing minor characters is easy, but only if there's enough time for them to develop without getting crowded off the stage.

Robin, also known as Dog-Boy, makes for an interesting puzzle; he has a cruel father instructing him to hunt a target in the human world, but he chooses to break away. As he's less under his father's control, his more human traits start manifesting, but he's still....odd. One minute he's fiercely resolute about refusing to hunt and breaking the ties that his father has set down, and the next he's being horribly disrespectful to the hospitality of the sisters who are trying to free and understand him. It would make sense as a split between his fey and human natures were it explained a bit more, but it isn't really ever quite articulated; it's like he possesses exactly the traits he needs to for each moment of the plot without a smooth arc connecting them. Sparrow has a flash of the same thing to a lesser extent, where she steals one of Meteora's treasures and then has the audacity to read her mail and become offended that the older woman wasn't reaching out purely out of friendship; she then sabotages the letter. For both characters, a certain degree of wanting freedom and resenting control by outside parties makes sense, but the way they both seem to feel entitled to help and information and whatever else they want makes them less sympathetic.

Sparrow and Robin (or Dog-Boy) both positively overflow with secrets and mysteries, unwrapping each layer as they get to know each other and find a snapping tentative trust. They meet with violin music, flowers, significant glances, shared plans to kill Hawk, the tattoo artist....and then the end happens in a completely out-of-nowhere fashion and we're given a slapdash after-the-fact explanation of what they talked about when they were alone together.The idea of how they manage blood tithes and connections really could have been beautiful, but as it is they just sort of stroll into the big confrontation and announce that big sticky plot points have been swept away because....something with blood tithes. Even with attentive close reading, there's an easy thread that the fey feed on humans and an ill-explained one that the courts have a blood tiend (tithe, toll) of sorts; it gets rushed through in barely a chapter of monologuing and ends up falling flat.

It's interesting to see Serana and Meteora adjust to the limitations and joys of aged human bodies when they've had perfect young bodies for so long; watching Meteora scold college boys, or seeing that they both enjoy being treated like crazy old women in the street, really is very different from how most books handle the divide between the fey world and humanity. The problem is that over the course of their letters the sisters start rambling to each other about how they're meant to help the humans and care about them and be glowworms providing light to humanity; it's all incredibly saccharine, tiresome, and overdone. Once or twice would have been all right, but their budding compassion really seems a lot less interesting when they won't shut up about how they never understood human joys before and feel like their old lives were so shallow and meaningless. The authors already do such a good job of showing it that it feels like it's in there as an "all right, slow readers, look at the motivations changing" notice, and that detracts from the dreamy flow of the language. 

Honestly, the greatest strength of the novel mutates into its greatest weakness. Both authors have a gracefully quirky writing style, and switching between them allows both sisters to feel like real people. When there are more minor characters and many of them are acting in bizarre ways, their distinct voices get lost in the mush. The worldbuilding and better parts of the characterization really show off both authors' skills, since one author likely wrote each sister's parts, but when they come together at the end it starts to feel like the proverbial horse designed by a committee. Coauthoring is a double-edged sword, and this time it sliced through the plot. Both authors are too talented to let this be a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it's disappointing to see it start so well and end so disjointedly.  
 
All in all, this one overflows with luscious prose, fascinating magical ideas, and sparkles of humor; unfortunately, all of that starts to seem aimless when the plot wanders off to smell the flowers near the end. If you're all right with lyricism trumping plot, this one's not a bad bet at all, but it could have been so much better.

Prospects: This one doesn't seem to have any affiliated novels, but both authors are fairly prolific. 

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar. A lot the the reactions to human ideas and customs have the same hilarious flavor, and the book as whole is a touch like this one given a small mountain of sugar and a mandate to be absurd at least once per page.

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