Thursday, November 15, 2012

Darkfever

This one was a recommendation from my friend Empress Rainbow, who pushed the series my way with the following: "MacKayla is the rainbow girl that got washed with black, but in the end found out that all of the colors can co-exist.  Her character development from a rather unconcerned happy-go-lucky girl to a survivor in a war she never thought she'd be involved in is the main reason why I read the series."



Rating: 3.5 stars

Length: Sharp and snappy (384 pages)
Publication: November 2006 from Delacorte Press
Premise: MacKayla Lane is happy to relax by the pool in Georgia until she gets a call that her older sister Alina has been brutally murdered in a Dublin alleyway. She recovers a frantic voicemail from hours before her sister's death and flies to Ireland herself to try to get the police to take her seriously, but soon she's in far over her head. MacKayla is a sidhe-seer, able to see their true forms as they hunt among the humans, and it's all too likely that she'll be next.
Warnings: attempted rape, with magically-induced lust being used to erode consent
Recommendation: If you're interested in the Fae or in a protagonist being dropped into magical situations cold and having to learn how to cope on the fly, this one might be your light cup of tea.

How this one manages to use and subvert cliches: 

MacKayla Lane is a very different sort of protagonist from most of those I've covered so far, and for the most part that works quite well. I skimmed the Amazon reviews, as I tend to do, and found quite a few people calling her hopelessly naive and obsessed with pink to the point of childishness, which is...partially true. Mac likes pink, cherishes her nail polish and her music collection, and has no real ambitions in life because she hasn't found any challenges or a direction. She likes being pretty and having fun, and that tendency leads her into an overly strong denial of the reality that's right in front of her sometimes, but she's strong in her own way when she has to set aside those pretty feathers. Much though I love many of the tough ladies in this genre, not every woman involved in the supernatural can be a mechanic, a tough cop, an investigator, a bounty hunter, a fighter, or otherwise tough as nails right out of the box. Mac enjoys rainbows and tanning but is also willing to walk away from her established safe life and blow her savings to help investigate her sister's death, even when the risk of death becomes very real. Her character hits an amplified spin on a sweet spot that also showed up in Skinwalker when Jane went after a pastel skirt: in short, enjoying traditionally feminine trappings doesn't make someone weak. There's a tendency for female urban fantasy protagonists to be either tough and gritty and hate dresses forever or covered in leather and able to seduce everything that moves by being provocative (I'm looking at you, Red Hot Fury). Mac isn't at either pole, and it's refreshing.


Mac also mourns in a genuine way that I wish showed up more in this genre. Her sister is Alina is dead, and that trauma stays with her instead of falling by the wayside when the magic gets interesting. Alina's memory helps her break free of enchantment, and little touches about their childhood together help show her as a real person who was suffering and confused and trying to protect her family. The sisters grew up in such a quiet part of Georgia that the Fae have never ventured there, and Alina's journey to study in Ireland threw her into the middle of them. Both sister are sidhe-seers, able to glance through the glamours thrown up by both the Seelie and Unseelie Fae and see the true form beneath. The Fae would prefer to hunt in peace, so sidhe-seers are constantly in danger of looking at one for too long and being detected-- they can also sense Fae artifacts, but only by becoming intensely nauseated to the point of incapacitation if the artifact is too powers. Various factions in the city are left shadowed, as are many of the Fae, but the system itself is simple: some people can see the Fae, each caste of Fae has different powers, some are one of a kind, and all of them are dangerous. It's perfect for a book of this length, allowing flexibility without spending too long on explanations.


One of the simplest and most chilling aspects of the book centers on the Shades, low-caste Fae who can feed on a person in seconds in the dark and leave nothing but a heap of dry skin and clothes. They rely on the same easy mechanic as the Vashta Nerada from an episode of Doctor Who, namely that people have a reason to be scared of the book. Barrons, MacKayla's accomplice (more on him later) has a bookstore at the edge of their territory, and he disposes of uninvited guests simply by turning off his floodlights. The Shades feed and expand, slowly claiming streets and making people forget that that space ever existed so that they create what Mac calls a Dead Zone. Entire blocks have vanished from recent city maps, and people can't even remember that the maps used to be different; the mechanic here is odd (more on that below too), but the idea of space at the center of a city slowly turning into a wasteland of dead scraps and darkness really works. It seems a lot like the alternate-future sequence in Something From the Nightside-- death is close, and the threat is something that people didn't see coming until it was too late.


This is probably the only time you'll see anything rape-related in this half of a review, but Moning absolutely nailed the feeling of sexuality being turned as a weapon against yourself without falling into the many possible traps on every side of that issue. V'lane, a member of the Seelie nobility, wants Mac to use her sidhe-seer powers to help him, but he introduces himself by hitting her with enough lust to make her start stripping in the middle of the street. When she doesn't agree and seems too stubborn to save, he shows up later and uses his powers again to make her so aroused that she can't think and will be easier to rape; even after she breaks his hold, he's contemptuous of her, seeing her as little more than a human animal. She's humiliated when he vanishes and breaks his glamour; strangers see her naked, and she runs. The experience was arousing, with her body wanting sex and her mind swamped under that compulsion, but she's very unambiguous that "you almost just raped me" and that it was deeply wrong. This trope is normally played for titillation, with the victim secretly wanting it a little or needing to listen to his or her body more anyway, but here it's clear that Mac feels dirty and humiliated and is still upset about it later. I'm reluctant to call this a great sequence because of the subject matter, but it's handed in a very real way.



The red pen: 

Some of the secondary characters are shaky, particularly Jericho Barrons. When Mac ventures into a local bookstore and asks about a Gaelic word that was in the voicemail from Alina, he recognizes it as the Sinsar Dubh, one of the most powerful artifacts of the Unseelie Fae. He wants the dark book himself and tries to order Mac home, assuming that she'll be killed by other people who want the book if she keeps talking about it. Once she refuses to go, he takes the fairly reasonable step of offering her shelter in his bookstore and trying to figure out what she knows. He's described as fascinating, but he has the same few conversational staples of asking Mac if she wants to live, announcing his plans for the next bit of the investigation. It's definitely nice to see a sexually attractive male lead who doesn't smolder and turn into the romantic interest immediately, but we only get a few interesting hints about Barrons-- he's safe from some supernatural threats and has powers he won't explain. Beyond that, he's a cipher, there to steer Mac to the next clue or stop her from doing what she wants, as the plot demands, but without much depth of his own. He seems like the kind of character who will grow in later books. 


MacKayla herself is great much of the time, but occasionally her reactions veer away from being convincing and head out into stupidity. Denial makes sense, given that she had never seen a supernatural creature until she got to Ireland, but once she's watched one Fae feed on an innocent woman and been attacked by another, trying to insist that she's imagining things over the course of multiple scenes gets repetitive. She argues that she can just leave, or that things aren't real, Barrons says that it's too late for that or something similar, and it loops back around again after she's been in danger. She says that she'll plan, or that she's decided to be more careful, but fails to follow through: wandering through the Dark Zone alone without telling anyone where she's going, or failing to mention that she's encountered a Fae who can incapacitate her, tends to land her in more danger. No, it doesn't make sense to trust Barrons unconditionally, but Mac withholds information because she distrusts Barrons in a general sense, without trying to disclose pieces of what she knows to see if she can establish how much he's willing to tell her or think about whether they could both profit from comparing notes. It means that the risks she takes are often sloppily justified, and that edges her closer to idiocy than is comfortable in a few scenes. She also tends to occasionally lapse into monologues for a page or so, agonizing over facts that the reader already knows, and it feels like a telling-heavy way to make sure that the slow readers are still following.


The setting does have interesting spots, but the main feature of visits to either vampires or the mob seems to be the amount of contempt that greets Mac. She already knows she's out of her league, but in these clubs or manors she's treated as an object, little more than sex on legs. This could easily be played off as being because she's human, or obviously new to the scene, but instead it's because she's a woman, which makes sense in one establishment and not in the other, given that magic and Fae powers aren't limited by gender at all. It may be easier to have physical power as a man, but one of the more interesting elements of fantasy tends to be that the body has no effect on the force and control of magic. Having both the mundane and supernatural environments play in the this way feels like a dull way to play the same card twice because it's convenient for her to be ignored. This plays into her pattern of being somewhat passive until she runs off and gets into trouble, which is a pity-- making Mac actually talk and try to spin a convincing story could have been a great opportunity to show her social strengths turned to intrigue.


There are some weird holes in logic on this one-- nothing that merits an "oh come on" mid-sentence, but a few nagging things. The most thorny issue for me personally was spaces vanishing off maps because people don't remember that they're there. In one case, two streets run directly parallel with only a block between them on a recent map, while there were eighteen blocks between them on a map from five years ago. I could buy a block in the slums vanishing here or there, but eighteen blocks in the middle of Dublin, which is a) the capital of Ireland and b) an immensely popular tourist destination....it stretches the bounds of credulity a bit, especially in the Internet era. There are going to be digital maps with automatic routing (because even if people forget, computers might now), landlords who collected rent on those spaces, the size of the actual city changing with that much space missing, and then the massive issue of giving directions. If someone says "yeah, go three blocks" and then there are actually eighteen to cross, people are going to notice the time it takes to go much farther than anticipated. Taxis getting lost, the thousands of people who used to live in those blocks turning up missing, historical destinations that are documented in guidebooks being hidden....the Shades are low-caste creatures, and this requires erasing a few miles of space from the thoughts of over a million people and keeping it hidden. The idea of Dark Zones works really well, and a block here or there is believable, but I wound up chewing on this issue for the last quarter of the book, and came to the conclusion that if the Shades alone can do this on such a large scale in just a year or two, humanity is beyond doomed. 


All in all, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. The book jacket text had almost every marker for crappy paranormal romance, so I kept waiting it to be awful and then it never was-- that feeling is a little bizarre, but I'm certainly not complaining. Yes, it's rough around the edges and could stand to push for more creativity, but it works. It's not going to revolutionize the genre or anything, but it takes an usual protagonist and delivers a lot of fun with streamlined worldbuilding and surprising emotional depth. 

Prospects: There are five books in the Fever series so far. The most recent is Shadowfever, which came out in January of last year. There's also a trilogy called Fever World scheduled to come out in the same universe with a different protagonist. And the big news is that Dreamworks has secured the movie rights, though there are no details about cast or director yet. I know, movies in this genre tend to take forever and be tentatively planned (hi, A Madness of Angels), but this one has enough gloss and tight pacing that I can see it happening.



Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Rachel Caine's Ill Wind has some of the same desperate feeling of being hunted while just trying to figure out what's going on and who to trust. It also captures the separation from normal life, and the responsibility to protect that life when you can see and understand so much more than most people realize even exists. 

Bonus: Here's the original cover for Darkfever, the one that was on the hardcover I found at the library; this is the disclaimer I wrote, followed by the cover I've been hiding from my friends. :P I can't even tell you how relieved I am that someone in marketing saw sense.


Before you scroll further, let me assure you that the book absolutely doesn't match the tinted Laurell K. Hamilton porn-shot of a cover that it was cursed with. The only point of accuracy I can find is that there's nail polish on Mac's thumbnail.



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