The winter is going to have to pass without more young adult reviews because my schedule has gotten terrifying, but they'll be back next summer once I've rebuilt a buffer and gotten more sleep. As always, feel free to let me know what you want to see on the docket in the next few months.
Rating: 1.5 stars
Length: Briskly meandering (480 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: May 25, 2010 from St. Martin's Griffin
Premise: Nick Gautier has enough to do just dealing with bullies at school and trying not to upset his mother, but when an illegal job with his friends goes wrong, he has to deal with a whole new world. Kyrian, the man who saved him from his friends' attack, has offered him a job. Finding himself accepted by Kyrian's wealthy associates is odd enough...and then the school is suddenly threatened by zombie attacks from living students.
Warnings: Lots of faux-zombie bites, threats to kill brainwashed civilian teenagers, very offscreen past statutory rape
Recommendation: This one....I don't know, it's a fun exercise in honing your trope-spotting abilities, but if I didn't have a blog, I would have sent it packing somewhere around the end of chapter two. It has redeeming qualities, but it gets lost too easily and distributes detail in an odd way.
What makes you want to enjoy this one:
Nick begins the book as a fairly standard angsty teenager with a more dramatic backstory than most: his mother became pregnant with him when she was young, and his father is a serial murderer who has been in prison for years. The supernatural injections into that framework are intriguing; Kyrian is almost inhumanly fast and skilled when he rescues Nick, but it takes much longer to for Nick to accept other aspects of magic. Oddly, he's willing to accept that Acheron, one of Kyrian's associates, is a god, but it takes a direct demonstration of Acheron's power dissolving zombies in an instant to make him believe. Even through that realization, Nick is still worried about his mother, his clothes, his part-time job, and his debt to Kyrian; magic upsets his life, but it doesn't transplant him into an entirely new identity in the way that all too many books try to do with their protagonists.
The secondary characters really end up stealing the show, particularly Bubba. He and his friend Mark go out hunting for zombies in the swamps, using methods and tools like coating themselves in duck urine to hide their own scent and toting along modified rocket launchers. Nick thinks that they're crazy, but Bubba is often proven right in his zealous preparations; he may injure himself during his demonstrations of how to fight evil, but when a real crisis comes calling, he's absolutely ready. He balances redneck humor, explosives, and a rough sense of protective honor toward his friend to create a really memorable secondary character; it's hard to write redneck-style characters who don't come off as stupid and ignorant, but Kenyon certainly manages it. Bubba's friends and hangers-on have different spins on the same ridiculous approaches to problems, and it makes them seem like the sort of motley gang that I'd love to see starring in this book instead of sitting on the sidelines.
Ambrose, a mysterious character in Nick's life, is also intriguing; he presents one of the few plot twists that isn't easy to see coming. When Nick is in the middle of a dangerous confrontation, Ambrose appears to help activate the latent powers that he didn't know he had, providing tantalizing hints that he knows about Nick's destiny and potential. This look at the future adds a certain weight to the novel; Nick isn't just fumbling along, he's being pushed to not fall into the trap of evil that so many people see waiting before him. He's a sort of stubborn pawn before larger forces, and on some level the way that he avoids being intimidated is impressive. People around him can sense that he has potential power, and they often want to twist it to serve their own purposes; he faces the struggle of knowing who to trust when he has the least information whenever he's in a group. The reader has a greater degree of knowledge about who means well and what they want from him, so his struggles about who to trust or care for carry more weight; it's easy to try to root for one side character over another. Nevertheless, many of them are only onstage for a few scenes, so there's plenty of room here to expand those conflicts in later books: one of the greatest strengths of this book is the way it sets itself up to have sequels in a detailed universe.
The red pen:
The opening of this one reads like a mash-up of cliches, which can be fun when the author deconstructs the tropes to explore a new direction, but these are just played very, very straight. Nick is a good but slightly rebellious kid who wants more freedom and loves his mother, who has to be a stripper to support both of them after her parents disown her for an out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy. Here's a fun digression: Cherise is twenty-eight in the present day and Nick is fourteen, which means that Cherise was fourteen when she gave birth and very possibly thirteen when she conceived. Adarian, Nick's father, is portrayed as fairly evil, redeemed only by his love and respect for Cherise, but this is obviously slightly problematic given her age and the fact that he seemed to be in this late twenties or thirties at the time. This angle is never addressed in any real detail; Cherise won't discuss the relationship with Nick, so it comes off as a doomed love story rather than the borderline pedophilia that it is. There's not a good way around this one, except to either acknowledge that fact or write Cherise as being well into her thirties, but then we couldn't have the absolutely terrible passages of Nick moping that his mom shouldn't have to wear makeup and teased hair because she's so young and she looks so much better when she's just her natural self.
At any rate, the opening continues to be very predictable. Nick loves his mother and thus accepts it when she makes him dress like an idiot, the rich kids at his private school don't like him because he's a scholarship kid with a stripper for a mother, the principal likes him even less, and he gets in a fight at school when someone insults his mother. He's suspended for starting a fight, and it just...continues to fall flat from there. Nick thinks of himself as some tough rebel who loves his mother, but he's a fairly run-of-the-mill smartass who seems stuck on mouthing off to his mother. This trait can work beautifully if characters have reasons to do that, but by and large it's hard to have reasons for characters to enjoy saying something witty more than they enjoy keeping their teeth or their ability to leave the house for anything but school. There's a dull cycle of Cherise worrying, Nick apologizing, Cherise snapping at him, Nick giving her attitude, Cherise exploding, and then Nick backing down again and whining to people about how controlling his mother is. It's not exciting, and his reaction to her refusal to quit stripping immediately because she's leery of him getting a huge paycheck for a sketchy part-time job after his first day just makes him seem like an ungrateful brat with no understanding of common sense. The fight for her honor was dull, but his attitude towards her and women in general just gets weird.
Chivalry carried to stupid extremes can well with the right protagonist, especially if the guy involved had bad experiences seeing women in his life hurt and abused or that chivalry then comes back to bite him later, but it's frankly absurd on a fourteen-year-old boy. He talks a big game about protecting women and tries to keep them out of fights even when they are exponentially more competent than he is, but he doesn't take the time to really get to know any of them, just protect and hug and have brief-but-intense conversations-- it's like they don't exist except as eye candy or obstacles. This wouldn't be so bad if the women had a full range of quirks in the way the men did, but the character options are demanding mother figure, attractive eye candy/love interest, and set dressing to make some vague plot point. Nick doesn't make himself likeable in his interactions with them, and they barely make themselves three-dimensional.
I was hoping for a properly explosive ending, but "you just need to want the magic badly enough with a focused will" needs handling with care because the trope is so old that it's an antique. This belongs in the training montage, not the big face-off. Unfortunately, one of the big ending reveals is just....clumsily telegraphed. Kyrian is chock-full of motivational mini-speeches, but he smiles in a way that hides his teeth, holds all his meetings at night, and keeps all the drapes in his home tightly closed. Please raise your hand if you haven't already identified what Kyrian is. That's....no hands. Good. Because we've all read books with these creatures in them before, and this teasing around the subject has all the subtlety of a brick to the face. I'd love to have seen more time devoted to Nick's father Adarian, or to Ambrose, or to how Nick became friends with Bubba and Mark in the first place, or any of the pile of good undeveloped plot ideas instead of tiresome loops like Nick's relationship with his mother or deeply not funny banter. Half the time when Nick says something and another character is amused or narrating their own amusement and sudden fondness for this loveable teenager, it makes no sense in context to find the comment funny, let alone have a reaction of "my, he's likeable and witty." He acts like some bizarre combination of a wannabe biker and a five-year-old, and it's very off-putting.
There are other issues, most notably the lack of secrecy; Nick catches people at school talking about being Were-Hunters just a few yards away from authority figures and is able to sneak up on them without trying. People throughout the book are lazy about hiding knowledge of the supernatural, which makes the whole "oh no, double life!" thing less compelling. Buffy the Vampire Slayer handles this well, in that people are shocked to see monsters face-to-face, but everyone sort of knows that weird things are going on and just don't discuss it. The transitions are also shaky. One character will suddenly be narrating after a few chapters of another one speaking; in one example, there's only a line break to indicate the movement from Nick's head to Nekoda's during a hug, and it makes the action feel jerky. This sort of quick change requires quite a bit of grace to pull off well, and Infinity simply doesn't have it.
And then the last nagging issue: Nick gets a book that gives him advice in what I want to call couplets, but those actually have the same meter instead of just awful rhymes. I think the worst is probably "Suck and blow so you say/ But I'm not the one trapped with no gateway" for a winning mismatch of six syllables versus ten. If magical instructions need to be in rhyme, they need to minimally scan, but I'm also okay with cattle prods to prevent the creation of more frankly atrocious bits of doggerel. In all seriousness, there's no reason that this stuff has to rhyme. It could be in haiku, blank verse, fake Latin (always a winner), or-- and I know this is a novel concept-- clever and slightly cryptic prose. These instructions tend to go like this: "The veil is thin and so you see. What lies beneath the surface tree. In this regard they'll never fool. But still be wary of becoming their tool." My response to this, stripped of the enraged gesticulation, is that cutting off the end of each line with a period just leaves you with clumsy sentence fragments, ending on eleven syllables after three lines of eight is tacky, and this is just....all of these instructions are either very clear or very faux-cryptic in a way that induces a craving for Chinese food so I can find that same wise voice again inside a badly-translated fortune cookie.
All in all, the School Library Journal's review that this one "Combines elements of all of today’s popular genres—mythology, vampires, and werewolves" is exactly the problem. Everything is shoved haphazardly into one book without sufficient explanation or context, and it's all so visible that there's no way to sustain a hidden world within the normal one.With better pacing and a funnier protagonist, this could be ideal fluff reading, but as it is I'm not coming back to this series.
Prospects: This is the first book in the Chronicles of Nick. The most recent, Infamous, came out in August; the next one, Inferno, is slated for April of 2013. Sherrilyn Kenyon is more well-known for her adult urban fantasy, and I do intend to try that at some point. Sometimes authors bomb royally when trying to shift genres audiences, but that doesn't make their earlier work less interesting.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Yes, I'm doing it again: The Dresden Files. The books open up a world of vampires and werewolves, gods and Fae, and the protagonist's snark is actually funny. There's also not a lot of graphic content, especially in the early books, so....in short, it's fine for Infinity's intended audience and also a thing of beauty.