Monday, May 13, 2013

Hemlock

Welcome to the start of YA summer reviews! I'm planning to do two young adult reviews per month from now until August, with a nice spread covering paranormal mystery, dystopian fiction, straight-up fantasy, and some of whatever seems fun. Drop me a line with suggestions!

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Comfortably brisk (404 pages)
Publication: May 8, 2012 from Katherine Tegen Books (a HarperCollins imprint)
Premise: Mackenzie is still mourning her best friend Amy's death in a werewolf attack when another death brings the Trackers to town. They're willing to kill any werewolf they can find, and they won't hesitate to hurt or kill anyone standing in their way. When Mac tries to investigate Amy's death for herself, she moves into the line of fire and learns that she can't trust anything that she thought she knew.
Warnings: gore, attempted murder of a child, alcoholism in a secondary character
Recommendation: If you're looking for a werewolf-centric mystery that takes genre conventions and gives them a half-turn to the side to make them interesting again, give Hemlock a try.

What makes this one hard to put down:

Hemlock opens with Mackenzie having a nightmare about dying in an alley the way her best friend Amy did months ago. Life used to be simpler, back when Amy and Jason were happy together and Mac's biggest problem was managing her feelings for her best friend Kyle. Nothing has been the same since-- even though the werewolf that killed Amy sn't attacked anyone in months, everyone feels uneasy about going outside at night. Kyle is mostly the same, if more stressed, but Jason has lost himself in alcoholism and in lashing out at anyone who comes too close. Mac, Jason, and Kyle all blame themselves for Amy's death because they all could have been with her at different times that night (for study dates or rides home) but weren't, so she died alone. Kathleen Peacock excels at showing the varied reactions across the group, from simple grief and guilt to more complex resentment, and paces the revelations well. Mac keeps learning more about what was going on in Amy's head and peeling back more of her assumptions, but it's done in a realistic way that allows all of the characters to develop past Mac's surface understanding without turning into a soap opera.

The love triangle is....very obvious if you've read anything with a love triangle in it before: Mac has feelings for Kyle, her best friend who could never possibly be interested in her, and worries constantly for Jason, who is still lost in guilt over Amy, who would want Mac to try to take care of him. It has all the superficial markers of a best-friend-versus-bad-boy setup, but it works because both the narrative and the characters are very aware that there are real people involved. Mac's friend Serena asks her whether having guys fighting over her s all it's cracked up to be, and in the middle of one tense moment Mac is panicking over how the whole thing belongs on a teen drama. The people involved are aware that in theory this is glamorous and exciting, but in the moment it's just emotionally rough and draining to know that not everyone can be happy, that they've been bottling up feelings for months or years. There's a good bit of shouting over why people couldn't just share their feelings sooner, but it works because they're still teenagers and caught up in every day being a crowning moment of glory or the end of the world. They're trying to make life-changing decisions, promising vengeance or undying love, and it is a genuinely painful ordeal for all three of them, which shifts the romance squarely away from melodrama and into good character moments.

One of the book's strongest elements is the portrayal of how werewolves work and are treated. They're forced to transform during the full moon, in accordance with mythological tradition, but the similarities mostly end there. Werewolves are those afflicted with Lupine Syndrome, a disease that can be transmitted through a bite or scratch from an infected person. In an effort to contain the spread of the disease, anyone discovered to be a werewolf forfeits all civil rights and is sent to an internment camp of sorts. The system is run by the LSRB (Lupine Syndrome Registration Bureau), but they can't catch everyone, and many werewolves prefer to stay hidden and try to live out normal lives rather than be locked away from their loved ones for the rest of their lives. The Trackers stepped up to fill the gap, working with local law enforcement when they can and administering vigilante justice to suspected werewolves when they can't. One of Peacock's better small twists is the idea that the Trackers were initially a loose coalition of white supremacy groups who turned their efforts on werewolves, and that legacy some of Mac's friends all the more reason to hate the Trackers and what they stand for. This whole element is a rich blend of people coping with disease and political commentary about how people react, individually and as mobs, to threats they don't understand.

The mystery of who killed Amy and why revolves around those questions, so it's easy to have a clue obscured by emotions running high, or to decide that someone has to be involved because of his or her affiliations or infection status. Peacock is good with the red herrings and distractions, using big suspicions to slip in tiny clues that make flat characters suddenly interesting because they've been hiding something that ups the ante considerably. These revelations work all the better because characters are realistically injured when they get into fights or even smaller confrontations-- Derby, the love-to-hate head of the Trackers, is willing to beat civilians half to death to see if they transform under stress, or attack a sprained wrist in a hospital room to achieve compliance through pain, and the other Trackers are equally ready to be brutal in the pursuit of their goals. New recruits might hesitate, but the others are willing to go to any lengths to find and destroy the "fleabags" they hate, even if those werewolves haven't done anything to harm anyone. The mindset makes sense, given that so many Trackers have lost friends or family members, whether to attacks or through the disease itself; once someone goes into a camp, there's no coming out, and knowing that loved ones have been forced into being monsters produces a powerful drive to eliminate werewolves entirely.

The red pen:

The world is great and the characters often real, but Mac's flaw appears to be that she's occasionally too stupid to live. She's stubborn about walking home alone, keeping secrets that she thinks will keep other people safe, and going off to investigate dangerous people and places without telling anyone where she's going. Every once in a while it comes off as intrepid, but mostly it seems like Mac places such a low value on her own life that she doesn't care enough to protect herself....but she clearly wants to live and isn't prone to major depression, so it's just strange all around. Just when she's established a pattern of placing everyone else's safety above her own, she makes an impulsive decision to tell a potential enemy where she and several werewolves are hiding. It could have worked if she'd grasped the seriousness of what she was doing, or agonized over having to make the choice quickly even though it puts everyone else at risk, but she just....does it and then doesn't understand why people are scared and angry until someone makes her promise to care for a child if his werewolf watchers are killed by this person. She's good enough at the logistics of sneaking around that it's hard to understand how her common sense doesn't seem to be consistently present, and some of the dangerous situations she's in start to feel contrived as a result. There's no mental check of "hey, I almost died the last time I did this, maybe I should leave a note or ask for backup," which gets more frustrating every time it happens.

Throughout the story, Mac dreams of Amy, who is ambiguously either some trace of remaining spirit or a figment of her own imagination. This version of Amy can be cruel and resentful, causing Mac pain, appearing as a bloody corpse, or saying that Mac is betraying her by having the feelings she does. It's an interesting framing device, and can occasionally drop in useful bits of foreshadowing or insight, but Mac's reaction to the dreams changes so little throughout the book that they end up seeming like a shallow way to generate drama and keep Amy herself involved in the story as more than a dead body who left mysteries behind. The dreams often show up when Mac is unconscious from being attacked or injured instead of just asleep, which makes them all the more tiresome-- she's unconscious almost constantly when things get dangerous. Normally it's just after an emotional bombshell or when following her movement from one point to another would slow the story down, so the unconsciousness falls flat and feels more like a prop of convenience than a natural reaction at times.

The dreams about Amy occasionally verge on having an emotional impact, but the past that this dream-figure is talking about seems to be full of an infinite nesting doll series of layers of drama. This character had feelings for Mac, and the other person knew about it but was sworn to secrecy even though telling Mac might have been a smart and fair thing to do, and a third person started doing things in revenge for those feelings existing, and it all verges on a soap opera. Oddly, the characters are pretty mature about dealing with the way these issues manifest in the present, but short snatches of the past and exposition about who felt and and did what a year ago, while occasionally relevant to the mystery, can also drag on. The mystery structure itself is good, but the clues can feel a little sparse or widely distributed in comparison to the tempestuous emotions swirling out of the past. While the payoff is satisfying, it might have been nice to see a little more of the investigation and a little less focus on hints disrupting Mac's view of Amy as the perfect best friend, since Mac's bias isn't exactly a secret even at the beginning.

On the whole, Hemlock is a great way to spend an afternoon-- it's tightly-paced but thoughtful, and the character ring true as people rather than catalysts for drama. When the story does swing in the direction of melodrama, though, it tends to stay there, and it's hard not to want to shake Mac into common sense after some of her more ridiculous decisions. It's not a perfect book, but the genuine empathy for the characters and the idea of werewolves trapped in camps to contain the disease offer enough originality and interest to the make the rest of the series worth watching.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Hemlock trilogy. The next book, Thornhill, comes out this September.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Kitty and the Midnight Hour also addresses the way werewolves are seen in the public eye, though it comes closer to the beginning of the struggle because the government hasn't really acknowledged the existence of werewolves yet, let alone decided what to do about them. 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review! I got it from the library and read the whole book in one sitting. It was a great fluffy read and interesting enough to hold my attention.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it! It's the kind of thing you breeze through in an afternoon and don't think about much afterwards, but it's different enough from some of the recent YA stuff I've tried to read that I was pleasantly surprised.

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