Thursday, April 18, 2013

Kitty and the Midnight Hour:

This one is another recommendation courtesy of Cookie Monstress and Smartypants.


Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Tight and snappy (272 pages)
Publication: November 1, 2005 from Grand Central Publishing
Premise: Kitty Norville is a werewolf struggling to keep one foot in the human world with her midnight-shift DJ job. While bantering with her listeners and waiting for good song requests, she accidentally takes calls about the supernatural for her whole shift, and The Midnight Hour is born. The show is an immediate success with believers and skeptics alike, but it also makes Kitty a target among her own supernatural kind and makes it impossible for her life to stay the same.
Warnings: abusive pack dynamics, magically induced sexual coercion, non-graphic recounting of a past rape
Recommendation: If you're looking for brisk pacing and a realistic struggle to find an independent identity, give this one a try; one of its larger series-building arcs doesn't quite work yet, but it's a promising debut. Steer clear if you're easily triggered by sexual consent issues ranging from coercion to outright rape; Vaughn handles it well, but it's not a scene or two you can skim past.

There's a light spoiler in the favorable section, but it's implied on the back flap and is the preview scene at the front of the book, so I'm not overly concerned. If you are, feel free to skip down the red pen section or just to the conclusion.

What keeps this one rooted in reality:

Kitty and the Midnght Hour, like so many compact books in this genre, does a brilliant job of sketching out a world and sympathetic character in a small amount of space. The key strength here is the pacing-- Kitty is off of her arc and inadvertently starting a radio show for supernatural troubles within the first five pages, and it doesn't let up from there. Kitty introduces various aspects of her life and associated problems on almost every early page, setting the players in place for the future. There are all sorts of small details, like a vampire telling her about his old home near a silver mine, or vampires learning to talk in times when grammar mattered more, that add worldbuilding details about vampiric immortality or inter-species tension She's always contending with something, whether it's her pack alpha or the local vampires or her own fear, but the sources of tension shift enough that it feels like a realistic evolution of challenges rather than forced drama. Each little victory is made up of progress wrapped in other failures, sacrifices sapping her will; there are no lofty triumphs or purely happy endings here, and that holds the quirky format together.

It's also oddly easy to care what happens to Kitty in a way that isn't usual for so many of the tough-as-nails protagonists in this genre. Even at the start of their series, with makeshift tools and a short list of allies, a lot of these people are trained detectives or supernatural beings in full control of their powers-- they may struggle to pay rent or control dangerous outbursts of temper, but they seems to have basic threats. Kitty emphatically does not, and that makes her stand out-- when she's around crime scenes, she's more likely to vomit than to learn anything useful. . She's a relatively recent college graduate with no real job prospects, a dead-end job at a local radio station, a faltering relationship with her family because the full moons keep her away from gatherings, and very real hopelessness about where her life is going. In short, she's living a more nightmarish version of the post-college years with no idea how to make things better: when she's asked to give up the radio show, she wants to keep it because "I'd never done anything important before." It's a simple statement, not asking for sympathy, but it hits home because instead of fighting the armies of darkness or the Demons of Angst, she's struggling to live a life with meaning, one that helps others, partly out of charity but mostly because it's the only thing holding her together.

Many of the characters, while interesting and good at living up to their roles, are good without being exceptional, but Cormac the supernatural bounty hunter is just a delight. He gets by far the best introduction of the book by storming the station studio with a gun and silver bullets....while announcing on air, according to the terms of his contract, that he's on the way upstairs to kill Kitty. She chooses to work with her human weapons, negotiating and talking as quickly as she can to persuade him that it's a bad idea instead of changing into her wolf form and trying to fight, both because she knows she might lose and because she fiercely wants to stay human. He respects her reasoning and her control, but he's also very willing to kill her if she becomes dangerous....and in the balance point, he tells her in the middle of their near-death chat that she talks too much, wrapping banter into the heart of how they interact. He's clearly slated to be a love interest, but it works because they aren't falling into each other's arms. She can tell that he likes her, and there's a deep-running attraction between them, but they don't ignore the little problem of her being a werewolf and him being a werewolf and vampire hunter. There's an inherent power differential between them, neither of them is quite sure how to handle it, and it comes across as the sort of thing that will be solved by (be still my heart) adult conversation rather than screaming fights interspersed with mooning at each other (Red Hot Fury, I am looking at you). They're moving towards each other in slow circles with mutual respect and banter, and it lets this prospective relationship root in a small amount of space instead of sprawling over the genuinely interesting mystery.

Kitty's other self deserves a mention as a character in her own right. Wolf is the guide when Kitty changes shape, in large part because Wolf loves running and hunting and being part of the pack structure in a way that Kitty can't manage when she's thinking in human terms, much like Jane's alternate form in Skinwalker. It's a good segue into how the pack works and how Kitty can stand to stay, which is an absolute godsend given how sensitive the material is. Kitty bluntly acknowledges at least once that people would expect her to leave a human relationship based on this sort of treatment because it's outright abusive, but pack logic works differently. Some of it is rational justification that it's difficult and scary to ride out the full moon alone, with no one to play with or share in the hunt, but it's more that the pack fulfills a primal need for companionship and other things in her werewolf set of instincts. When she's in wolf shape or letting those instincts ride her around Carl, the alpha, all she wants is his approval, and the nature of the pack means that her junior-wolf submission is heavily tended with worshipful love and sexual openness. It's his prerogative as alpha to have sex with whomever in the pack she wants, and her instincts are often torn between the sensual nature of the magical control he brings to bear and her more human desire to have a life to call her own, even if he disapproves. Vaughn doesn't flinch from showing either the good or the bad here, and the book is stronger for such realistic inner turmoil.

The red pen:

The pacing is undeniably good in most places, but it falters a little in introducing Elijah Smith, who is clearly going to be a key figure in the future books. He is a faith healer promising a cure for vampirism and lycanthropy for those who come to him as sincere petitioners, and that opens up all sorts of intrigue, but in this book his action sort of....circles. Kitty spends a while researching the Church of the Pure Faith at a vampire's request but learns nothing until a caller tells her a little about what it's like on the inside. Elijah Smith makes a brief appearance in that phone call and then vanishes again without a trace or any definite clues about what he's trying to do. This establishes the outlines of the character and his role in future volumes, all in an efficient way, but it feels flat as an arc. It has a few more defined moments of human emotion, mostly revolving around Kitty's cynical belief that no real cure is possible even though she wants one desperately, or the suffering of the caller involved, but for the most part it feels like an odd use of space. Elijah Smith is written as though he's supposed to be menacing, but a supposedly compelling voice does not the foundation of a fearsome villain make.

Such swift pacing also runs the risk of leaving details behind. Kitty will sometimes engage in a scene and think about its larger implications before the narrative lets it drop. For example, she mentions that she's started taking self-defense classes, but we only see a fragment of one class on the page and the interesting issues there (like how she keeps her supernatural strength under control if she gets angry) are barely addressed-- there aren't any progress reports on the classes after that. When she gets into trouble in the middle of the pack, she resolves one issue and thinks that more challenges will follow to re-stabilize pack hierarchy. None of those challenges ever materialize, or even get a passing mention later in the book; instead, the narrative focuses on the few wolves at the top of the pack to the exclusion of any of the more junior wolves who could have been Kitty's closer friends or rivals. Individually none of this is too bad, but collectively it comes across as incidents happening because they advance the plot while the implications are lost and forgotten in the whirl of more exciting incidents.  It cheapens the separate incidents and ever-so-slightly weakens the cohesiveness of how this world ticks along.

T.J. is the pack's beta wolf, second in command and Kitty's protector, and it's so tempting to like him: he acts like Kitty's older brother, serving as her anchor, and is one of the first gay werewolves I've run across in fantasy. The problem is that his attributes feel informed rather than real (with the exception of one great scene where he fights the temptation to beat up Kitty for defying orders and pack hierarchy because his human instincts are still in charge). He's....stable and calm, not quite brave or reckless enough to pick fights with Carl and Meg (the alpha female), but a good person. And that's it. His sexuality didn't have to convey anything, but it certainly had potential-- Carl as the alpha can take his pick of women/females, so T.J. might have similar privileges as the beta, but he's gay and thus not interested, which means that there's a variable in pack structure. Does he forgo in-pack sex entirely, or try to find any other gay werewolves? Does he try to date humans who share his preferences, or is he ever tempted to use his power to get what he wants the way Carl does, even if the submissive wolves aren't interested? That detail is thrown in early, as a flippant aside from Kitty bemoaning the fact that all the best men are gay, so he's a generic gay best friend without much depth-- we don't even really know why he latched onto Kitty as a little-sister figure instead of any of the other wolves, many of whom are young and junior in the pack structure themselves. He could be great, but there's just not quite enough punch to create much of an investment in him.

All in all, Kitty and the Midnight Hour uses its small space incredibly well; some of the larger arcs and minor characters are weak here, but of all the urban fantasy I've reviewed, this one has the closest relationship with reality. That's not a slam on other books, many of which I enjoy, but rather admiration that this book manages to find its splitting point in such a real place. If these creatures were real we might know already, but of course there would be fans and tabloids and groupies and extremists and wannabes wrapping everything into a tangled-but-hilarious human mess. I will absolutely be borrowing the rest of the series when I have time and will be reading whatever project the author starts outside this series someday.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Kitty Norville series. The eleventh and most recent book, Kitty Rocks the House, came out in March. The next one, Kitty in the Underworld, is scheduled for release this July.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs covers a similar set of issues-- Anna is also a werewolf who was junior in pack hierarchy and has to fight for every scrap of human confidence, let alone combat prowess or real safety. Fair warning that the opening novella and first full book, Cry Wolf, have a secondary focus on Anna's recovery from sexual assault, but Briggs handles it exceptionally well and it's a really rewarding read. (One day I will get around to reviewing both of the Briggs series-- her Mercy Thompson stuff is quite good as well, and the universes overlap).

2 comments:

  1. Great review as always. The rest of the series is also quite good. This series has one of the most functional, non-moronic love stories I have ever read. It is not central to the plot, but does make things interesting.

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    1. Thanks! I'm probably going to read the rest of the series on that mythical day when I have more of a buffer to play with and thus a few weeks of free time. Love stories that manage to live on the side instead of owning the whole story are great.

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