Thursday, May 17, 2012

Red Hot Fury

This one was high on my list of anticipated fun when I made up the stack for the next month; Furies are some of my favorite mythological creatures, and I've seen them done right in fantasy more than once before. My disappointment here introduces what's going to be a common theme on this blog: if you show me something I'm excited to read and execute it poorly, it's so much worse than just writing a mediocre book.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 2 stars
Length: Moderate but dragging (341 pages)
Publication: June 29, 2010 from Ace Books
Premise: Marissa Holloway, a member of the Sisterhood of Furies, is called in to a murder scene to examine a body. At first glance, it appears to be a fellow Fury: specifically, her best friend, who has been missing for three years. But things are more complicated than they seem; when Marissa is suspended from her police duties, she's forced to seek help from Scott Murphy, the former lover who betrayed her years ago. They and their allies have to combat old tensions to continue the investigation, and each step leaves them less certain about who they can trust.
Warnings: References to past serial rapes and forced impregnation, only non-graphic combat and a mild consensual sex scene in the present. 
Recommendation: Unless you have a deep attachment to mythology manifesting in the present day, give this one a miss. The author's worldbuilding makes me hope that she'll write a better series in the future, but this one is just grating to read in places, and by "places" I mean about three-quarters of the book. I read it, and you really don't have to. 

Why this world deserves to play host to more books: 

I was a little leery of yet another supernatural investigator working with the mortal police, but the plot quickly moves into a much larger mystery. The book opens on Marissa investigating the corpse of a fellow Fury, and we get a few details about how Furies work in small doses; many Furies, not just Marissa, are involved in mortal police investigations in order to improve arcane-mortal relations. After seeing them as nothing but enraged punishers in other words, this twist is different and provides a new channel for their powers. The details fly thick and fast after the first chapter, almost to the point of being overwhelming, but we soon learn that the mortal world plays host to arcanes, many branches that are each descended from a different original mythological figure, like one character who is an Orpheus in the tradition of his ancestor.

The Furies naturally get the most pagetime; Marissa mentions that Furies in the present are modeled after one of the original three Furies (complete with tattoos in different colors), but we don't know what the difference in function and temperament is, since they all seem to share the job of improving human-arcane relations. They serve as a police force, can shift into a winged form at a moment's notice, and have access to enormous amounts of magic that can do everything from creating shields to allowing them to ignore wounds. Most importantly, they have Amphisbaena, semi-sentient snake tattoos that can turn into real snakes in order to bite, spit poison, or provide backup and healing for the Fury to whom they are attached. It's a fun and unusual idea, and it worked quite well throughout the book until it broke its own rules.

Mackenzie doesn't have the time to explore each arcane species in detail, but the quick introduction to many different ones works as an introduction to a longer series; we see a good sampling of arcanes, many of which could easily be the centerpiece of later books. In fairness, though the species Mackenzie did use work, she's fallen into the trap that too many writers updating mythological creatures do: we see many Greek arcanes, British Isles ones in the form of the Sidhe (as well as goblins and Giants), the Egyptian Hounds and Bastai (Cats), and....done. Mythology is one of those delightful pastimes shared by the entire world, and if you're going to make up loyal Hounds from Egypt because faithful men make your target audience happy, there really needs to be an explanation of why you haven't so much as touched so much of the mythos available to you with minimal research.

On a happier note, several of the secondary characters are great, particularly Calaeno the Harpy Queen. We're told that Harpies are Furies who have given into the Rage, killed their own snakes, and gone insane. This impression is seemingly confirmed when one tries to kill Marissa; however, the Harpies later meet with her and want to talk because they have interests in common. Their brand of magic makes them more powerful than Furies in some ways because they channel Rage at a greater rate, which lets them move much faster; they also do magic according to different rules that seem alien and sometimes disgusting, but they undeniably get the job done. They have their own agenda that no one bothers to investigate because everyone "just knows" things about Harpies, accepting the stories based on enmity as fact.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Harper the federal investigator, Scott's former lover after he left Marissa. It's easy to demonize any potential competition for the love interest, but Harper is strong, level-headed, and mature enough to be above starting fights. Her smooth put-together look makes Marissa feel threatened, but her actions frame her as a quasi-competitor who would be happy to pick things back up if Scott was; since he's not, she's very focused on the job and spends most of her time being dryly funny in a way that makes you wish that she was the lead character. Granted, it makes no sense why she knows the details of the issue that led Scott and Marissa to break up when there was supposedly a vow making him hide the details, but that leads us into the next section.

The red pen: 

Marissa is at her best during mid-battle improvisation and undoubtedly at her worst when there's no immediate danger or when she's talking to Scott, the inevitable ex and a powerful Warhound (shapeshifters with quite a bit of durability). A solid romantic subplot can be great, but the "solid" and the "subplot" are both important. Blending a high-intensity plot to save the world with your basic "will they or won't they" works, especially if there's enough witty banter and sexual tension to keep things moving. When the author chooses to instead wallow in the prospective lovers' angst, particularly their tragic backstory, that part of the plot starts to drag the rest of it down. 

The relationship ending follows the all-too-common trope of "the guy kind of did something wrong, but it was a huge misunderstanding and she misses him." Usually this means that the guy was in fact awful at the time and the woman has Stockholm Syndrome, but this time it's true to such an extent that I spent half the book wanting to tell him to run. Years ago, they split because Scott's father had taken a security contract with the man she thought was responsible for her best friend's disappearance; she saw this as a betrayal and a sign of Scott choosing his family over her, so she had a screaming fit at him on his own doorstep and left. While this fits with her Fury temperament, she apparently never outright said "he killed my best friend, how could you spring this on me like this?" Scott is shocked when she later explains why she left and seems apologetic for not realizing it at the time.

In the present, she walks into the Murphy lair and runs into Scott's sister; when that sister bares her teeth and wants to know what she wants, she answers with "down, girl." Not "I have an emergency" or anything in that vein, and when she gets pointed back to where Scott is, she is apparently unable to resist saying "good girl" on her way by. She talks a good game in her head about how this woman used to be her friend and she's so hurt by this treatment, but when you're seeing a former friend for the first time in two years and she's agreed to help you even though she hates you, that's not the way any reasonable adult communicates. Before we even meet this ex, Marissa has established that she's obnoxious and immature.

Marissa and Scott snipe at each other constantly, but that pales next to the saccharine mess their relationship conversation. Scott has flirted with a waitress to make her cover for them, Marissa is bristling, and he points out that the jealousy used to push him away. This is an understandable issue, and Marissa responds that he never told her he loved her, which is also an understandable issue; he apparently thought he had but had never actually said the infamous "three little words." He is properly contrite, saying that he never meant for her to think that he didn't love her, and she responds with "are you saying what I think you're saying??" (double question marks used un-ironically? Stop it.) while her heart flutters. Yes, he in fact loved her, past tense, and the conversation trails off. This sort of thing is cute in teen movies but rather pathetic and dysfunctional in adults. It can be significant that he said it, but he has to say it as its own sentence, since apparently "I must've told you I loved you a hundred times. Maybe a thousand" doesn't count.

On the other hand, the romance is a mercy because it distracts from the weirdly nonsensical magical rules. The system is apparently rooted in underground reservoirs that some people can block some of the time except when they can't, because...plot? This gets worse when it establishes absolute rules, like "these arcanes can't feed on the other ones" or "Furies and Harpies have this relationship, always" or "Amphisbaena function this way." Rules aren't an issue in and of themselves, but going to great lengths to establish how something works and then handwaving away a dramatic rules violation for the sake of a touching death scene or because "force of will did it" undermines the integrity of the worldbuilding. Saying that Amphisbaena just turned into dust and blew away and then never explaining why makes one character's death come off as a sympathy-demanding plot point, and a lazy one at that.

That laziness shows up in other places as well, particularly with the plot twists. I called the big surprising traitor on the second page after he/she/it (in case you actually want to read it) was introduced, in large part because it followed the Dan Brown stencil. I spent the rest of the book going "when is this person going to show up with the big evil betrayal?" out of boredom while the characters were panicking over who it could possibly be. Similarly, when Marissa is looking at a character's eyes she sees that "for a second, they gleamed with emerald fire, almost like--Nah. Couldn't be." It's badly telegraphed, enough so that I took a second to go "well, clearly it can be, who else has super-green eyes? Oh. That's interesting and supposedly impossible. Let's have a big reveal about that in....100 pages? Maybe 150?" It was 118 pages later. Plot twists are supposed to be surprising and somewhat unpredictable, and these are neither.

The worst arcanes by far were the Oracles, largely because they're a mess of bad research. Oracles in this universe apparently give cryptic prophecies, which is par for the course, but they also have some of the best healing powers in the universe. Why, given the original source material? Because....plot. A better-researched bit of worldbuilding could have pointed out that Apollo was the god of both oracles and healing and that those got consolidated, but as it is Oracles sit there on the page like a lump. Marissa needs an Oracle to heal her but doesn't like them because they don't give clear answers. The last Oracle she encountered "had rambled on about dead people that weren't actually dead holding the key to great treasure, and that only through healing broken hearts could ancient magic be restored." Let's be clear: that's not an oracular pronouncement. That is a fortune cookie manufactured by Hallmark, and it contains none of the gorgeous deadly puzzles that Oracles in actual Greek texts show. Some vague title like Seer or Visionary would be better if Mackenzie was going to make up that as her example of "riddles that hid truth inside enigmas," but apparently slapping another mythological title on didn't merit more than five minutes on Wikipedia.

If the Sidhe had gotten more page time, they would be worse than the Oracles. They have the normal species trait of being manipulative without ever telling outright lies. Unfortunately, the main one we meet is really bad at it. She gives Marissa a little information about how the supposedly extinct Sidhe are suffering but doesn't tell her the whole scope of the operation imprisoning them. That information would have guaranteed Marissa's full cooperation, but instead the Sidhe just....hides information and cops an attitude about it later, seemingly so Marissa can win the ensuing "I'm in charge" pissing contest. We also hear almost nothing about how the Sidhe fare at the end of the novel, so it comes off as a way to establish that the Sidhe, who everyone thought were super-cool and smart, don't have anything on Marissa and Furies, who collectively have to win "who's the fairest and coolest and smartest and most dangerous of them all" contest. It's contrived worldbuilding, especially given how much depth well-written Sidhe can give to a fantasy book set in any era. 

I'll just leave aside my laundry list of complaints about her refusal to shut up about her great rack and her red leather uniform and her red high heeled boots (who fights in those?). I will also spare you the paragraph that I wrote and deleted complaining about lines such as "nothing like a white-hot shower for a red-hot Fury." Lo, you are even spared my whining about how Scott's younger brother wants into her pants because apparently everyone wants to bang her despite the need for a personality transplant. Suffice to say that if you want to play some sort of "find the horrible cliché" drinking game, this book would be great source material.

On the bright side, I like the idea of the world enough to read more books if I don't have Marissa as a tour guide again. So many things shine: the shape-shifting Bastai with deadly cat forms and ninety-nine lives, the magical black market, immigration rules for how many arcanes can move into mortal society from the magical realms where so many of them are trapped. There's potential for arcanes like Carrington the Orpheus, ones who don't really get involved in combat because they're wrapped up in other parts of human experience. There's so much to explore besides the combat, and with slightly better research and a less overwhelmingly "win at all the things" race than the Furies to lead the plot, the framework has promise. Even a YA novel about a young Fury coming to terms with Rage and immortality could be great, since this novel's worst sin is Marissa herself.

All in all, this book is a lot like eating a bag of weird candy. You take an okay bite, take another one to see if you actually liked it, and keep eating. Then the book ends and you're still not sure if it actually tasted good. You also have a stomachache from eating too much mediocre candy and want a palate cleanser. A lot of the telling and overdone angst really feels typical of a debut novel, so I'll stay optimistic for her future. 

Prospects: The third book in the series, Blackhearted Betrayal, comes out this June. The second, Green-eyed Envy, has been out for over a year now.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Path of the Fury by David Weber. The way he assembles the trio of Furies really shines as realistic, hilarious, and poignant. Each point on the triangle gets to shine, but they all also have their own flair; by the end of the book you really do buy the idea of Furies in space. 
~Once again, the Webmage series by Kelly McCullough. The Furies, particularly Tisiphone, pop up as pretty major antagonists or wary allies quite often throughout the books, and McCullough really gets the balance between the rage and the person beneath it just right.
~The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card. He touches on Greek mythological powers in the modern era, but he also gives a lot of time to other traditions: the main character is part of the North clan, which is based on Norse gods, and we run into suggestions of all pantheons of gods being real on some level and passing down fragments of their powers.

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