Category Archives: mate for life

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.

Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison. 

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself. 

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff. 

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained. 

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good. 

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires. 

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures. 

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind? 

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat. 

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover. 


(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Breaking-dawn-2-bella-forever

Breaking Dawn: Narrative Tension Goes Fsssst

I read Twilight more or less on a dare, mostly so I could swirl my chardonnay and get my schadenfreude on. While I can certainly snob out about how horribly Twilight is written on so many levels, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me. Meyer captured itchy, awkward adolescence with such an evocative squirm, and then she relieved that adolescent discomfort with a monstrous romantic bliss. I can see why so many people responded to this, even though I was still too busy breathing into a bag having flashbacks to middle school to relax and and get swept up in the romance. When she’s good, she’s good because she is not in control of her subject, not able to stop the outpouring of discomfort and terror underlying the domestic bliss that is a woman’s expected relief, and while Twilight ends with a certain romantic harmony, Meyer doesn’t perfect the ending. All impediments to Bella and Edward are not swept away, and they don’t fade out to domestic harmony.

If you think about it, that’s fascinating. I think if Meyer had been a seasoned writer, following the rules of mass market romance – and yes, I know that Twilight isn’t mass market romance, but it does share some commonalities – she would have written a series of books shifting to other points of view, working out other romances within the Forksverse. Edward’s coven would have been all unattached, the tribe would be introduced, and they would have hooked up pair by pair: Mike with Alice, Jacob with Rosalie, that one chick with Jasper. Edward and Bella and then the later couples would cameo in epilogues and picnics with their babies, doling out advice to the new lovers while they writhed in romantic incompleteness until they didn’t, and then the sparkle ending could have been repeated ad infinitum. But Meyer is not that kind of writer; her strengths, such as they are, reside in her uncalculating evocation of…I’m struggling here…the terrors and pleasures of American femininity? The inherent conflict between the self protagonist and traditional gender roles? Some shit like that. 

Fascinating or no, I had zero interest in reading any more Twilight books after the first. But because Twilight talk is pretty much what fuels the Goodreads engine – although this is changing a bit, thank heavens – I’ve followed roughly 89 kajillion conversations about the series, spoilered myself on the plots of each book, and spent more words on books I haven’t read than is wise. I’ve wanted to read Breaking Dawn bad for a while, because I’ve been assured that Breaking Dawn is where the wheels come off, where Meyer’s unexamined domestic panic goes insane and burns the house down. Those assurances were not wrong. I’ve been hamstrung by my disinterest in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of love triangles, cheesy stand-ins for the Catholic church, and racist, Rousseauian garbage about how Native Americans are in touch with their inner furry beastie to get to this book. (Also, Edward is not Heathcliff, he’s Linton, and I’m not sure I can handle watching Meyer act out that mistake in Eclipse.) Anyway, point being, thank god for movies, because I got good and drunk and watched the movies of the middle two books with Elizabeth, who explained the stuff that they missed, and I was good and ready to read this. 

I can see why they split Breaking Dawninto two movies, because it is two books. One is a shockingly naked expression of procreative terror, an effective horror novel which is effective because it is so completely, so thoroughly, so devastatingly unconscious. The other is a boring, mechanical attempt to cauterize the previous blood-letting, an act of wish fulfillment so severe it almost negates the power of the previous installment. The wish is to unsee the terror of the previous entry, but whoo boy, there is no unseeing that. Before reading this, I tried to think of novels that detail the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and I mean embody, not just use as grist from some guy’s mid-life/Oedipal crisis, or mention as the conclusion to the novel. I blanked for a long time, but eventually I came up with two: BelovedToni Morrison‘s ghost story of slavery, and BarrayarLois McMaster Bujold‘s court intrigue of the domestic. I find it interesting that the pregnancies in these fictions are all metonymous in some way, dissociated. From Beloved, I have a vivid image of Sethe’s water breaking in an unstoppable stream of piss, while her daughter-ghost rises in her high-necked white dress, or from Barrayar, Cordelia helping a woman deliver a baby during a battle, while her own swims in a tank, his fragile bones breaking. But neither of these births are normal by any stretch: disembodied, metaphorical, political, even while they have a fierce physicality that I can remember years later. 

The dissociation in Breaking Dawncomes from the fact that the point of view shifts to Jacob for the whole of Bella’s pregnancy. The book starts with the Swan-Cullen wedding, a dreary obvious affair with requisite reference to clothing. The newly minted Cullens then whisk to Brazil to a desert island, and a series of sexual encounters that feel like S&M literature written under the Hays Code. I found them alternately hilarious and unsettling: a bedroom filled with white downy feathers after Edward has pillow-bitten his way through the grind; Bella waking covered in bruises that she can’t remember receiving, and begging a remorseful Edward into doing it again. She gets knocked up – pun intended – on the first try, though doesn’t realize it for nigh on 100 pages of snorkeling, eating eggs, and trying on lingerie. We’re in kill-me-now territory, for this reader. But they eventually figure it out, Edward making a tight-lipped phone call to Carlisle, his father/doctor, and Bella going completely fucking insane with baby fever. 

Here’s where the point of view shift happens, and it’s breathtaking to behold. I try to avoid speculating about authorial motivation, but I think it’s obvious that Meyer is bound up in Bella, at the very least as a wish-fulfillment vehicle, if not a full-blown author proxy. (Breaking Dawndoes goes full Mary Sue in the last half though – more on that later.) And Meyer, for a variety of reasons, can’t have her stand-in express the terror and discomfort of pregnancy, the doubt and fear, the sheer towering life-and-death of it all, so she turns to another who can. Jacob performs his task admirably, giving voice to thoughts that by all rights Bella should be having, would be having, if she weren’t silenced by her standing as idealized womanhood. The pregnancy is breakneck, almost literally, a week of gestation collapsed into a day. Bella grows hollow-eyed, starved of nutrition by her fetal parasite, her ribs cracking by the sudden ballooning of her body, sipping blood out of a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. In one awful scene, her pelvis snaps. 

Holy fuck. I’ve had some babies, and I was harrowed by these descriptions. While I found much of pregnancy novel, and enjoyable in its novelty in some regards – when else can I experience being kicked in the bladder from within my own body? – pregnancy was also uncomfortable and scary, on both physical and existential levels. My son gave me an umbilical hernia, which necessitated surgery; I am riddled with stretch marks; I had never once experienced heartburn before my nascent kids pushed my stomach into my throat. (What is this sensation I am feeling?? My heart it burns! Oh, so that’s heartburn. Sucks.) And I had it easy compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends, bedridden with a variety of leaking, potentially lethal pregnancy-induced conditions. I’ve been dithering for the last half hour, trying to figure how to say this out loud, this unspeakable truth, but I believe that every pregnant woman, regardless of her politics or her beliefs, thinks to herself at some point, this thing inside me has no right to kill me. I resent that I may have to choose between my life and another’s. I resent that I am expected to love someone more than myself, sight unseen. I love myself. I choose me. 

Phew. I’m feeling a little gross after writing that, but there it is. Bella doesn’t say anything like this, and Jacob twists and howls, saying it for her. I thank the starry heavens that we make it through Bella’s pregnancy in another character’s head, because she is freakishly placid and resigned. Bella is surrounded by unwomen – the barren, the childless – who protect Bella’s wishes to go through this unwise, fatal pregnancy because they don’t care about her at all, they only care about the baby. The sterile werewolf who hates Bella and Jacob, Rosalie who has been opposed to Bella’s transformation into a vampire on the grounds that Bella will not be able to have children, these women give voice to the conundrum that they are giving Bella what she needs to become a woman, in this traditionalist mindset, but that the woman is disposable in that act of creation. Good gravy, think about it, it’s so fucking sick and perfect that it kills me a little. 

At the end of Jacob’s pov section, Bella goes into labor, such as it is. Honestly, I have never read anything scarier in my life, the placenta detaching, Carlisle, the doctor, conveniently off set. This is a mutant, remember, encased in a placental sac so hard that it can only be gotten through with teeth, the infant’s teeth. It is a shower of blood, one that had me flashing back to my own deliveries, and not in a good way. This following bit is gross and overshare: I had repressed this memory, but after 42 hours of labor, and a nail-biting finish where I nearly bled to death, I remember being wheeled out after all the stitches and happy conclusions (in that neither I nor my son were dead) and seeing the river of blood and fluid on the floor, leading to a drain. I remember lying in bed, two mornings before, after waking up to my water silently breaking, and thinking, holy shit, there is no way out of this now. I have to experience the next 12 hours – this was hope talking, though I didn’t know it – and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. It was the moment before the roller coaster went down the hill, and I didn’t know if there were tracks at the end, and that was panic, pure panic. 

The birthing sequence is told twice, once from Jacob’s pov, and once from Bella’s, and it’s fascinating to compare. Jacob is angry and horrified, like you are when you are a rational human watching a mutant baby eat its way out of a woman you love. Bella’s perspective is batshit insanity. I went back and re-read this part today, after I finished, because I have this horrible image of Bella’s child smiling at her with a full set of teeth – seriously, close your eyes and imagine an infant with a full set of teeth, smiling – shudder, shudder – and I couldn’t remember whether Bella noted this, or Jacob. It was Bella, and that image fills her with joy. I’m running out of expletives, but holy cussed godamn fucking shit. I’m losing the capacity to talk about this coherently, because this is so fucking bananas. 

So. Baby born, who is flawless and perfect. Bella transformed into vampire, now flawless and perfect. From here on out, the plot could not be more boring, more impossible, more unnecessary. There’s some thing with the Voltari making a power play for the baby or something – seriously, I’m not detailing the plot because it makes so little sense. I barked out some laughs when Bella and Edward go at it like marble rabbits every night when the baby goes to sleep – haha, such an accurate depiction of new parenthood. I completely lost my shit when, after roughly seven hundred new characters are introduced, Jacob says something to the effect of: how am I going to keep all these people straight?! Next to his statement is a little asterisk.*

*See page 756 is written below, and I am sent back to an index – hahahahahaha – that is a list of characters complete with helpful little strike-throughs for the characters who have died in previous books – hahahahaha. Holy shit, woman, have a little more faith in your writing. 

It’s like Meyer squeezed out this horrible truth, and then panicked, canonizing Bella and stripping out all the narrative danger, all the reality. We don’t really hear again from Jacob or the wolves, which is incredibly frustrating, because obviously Sam and Jacob make up at the end, but all of that occurs off-stage. And there are a bunch of new wolves??? And they are not really werewolves, we learn in an infodump?? Everyone recedes into a prop for the perfect child, one that makes everyone instantly love her. Meyer spent all her truth on the trauma of childbirth, and once we’re back in Bella’s head, she can’t express the impolite notion that infants can be difficult to love. I do believe in a certain amount of parental instinct – we wouldn’t make it far as a species without it – but for most new mothers, we are struggling with exhaustion, blood loss, and a dizzying hormonal stew when our babies are at their neediest: screaming, feeding, pooping on a loony schedule. Teeth or not, they do not smile for weeks, and while that first smile is intensely satisfying – I can still remember the first time the boy laughed, and that was sheer joy transmitted by sound – the weeks before are managing an uncommunicative alien who has consumed your life. 

Oh shit though! How could I forget the imprinting?? Sweet zombie Jebus. Jacob does express this impolite anger at the child at the end of his section, stalking down to murder the infant for what she has done to Bella. It is the cheapest, grossest cop-out ever that his anger is magicked away by some sort of gross sexual soul mating. (I know I’ve used gross twice in that sentence; sue me.) I’m way ZOMG about the idea of imprinting – this is what I get for not reading the previous books, where they explain why only guys imprint, and why imprinting isn’t the most kinked idea ever. Edward’s convenient mind-reading keeps telling us that Jacob only has pure thoughts for his infant bride, but come on. I suspect that Meyer pulled this stunt to give poor, rejected Jacob a consolation prize, and to keep him from running out of there. One of the last chapter speeches is about the power of family, and how family is choice and a bunch of other garbage. Jacob would never choose to stay with this family Meyer has constructed without magical duress. But with imprinting, now the cult can be complete! (And, though these thoughts lack coherence, I think there might be something in this imprinting business that is about sexual competition between mothers and daughters, and the uncomfortable reality that all children grow to become sexual beings. The imprinting puts a tight leash – pun intended – on the child’s inevitable adolescent sexuality. Best mother ever!) 

Bella goes full Mary Sue in the end, even her trademark clumsiness erased, her beauty perfected, her talents blooming into story-destroying weapons. She’s so good at everything that she makes conflict impossible. I was sorely disappointed by the big “battle” with the Voltori, who succumb to her perfect motherhood in the most boring episode of Vampire Matlock ever. Which is super funny, because Alice’s clairvoyance is obviously the real reason that any of that worked out, but that’s the trouble with clairvoyant characters – they really know how to spoil a plot. I spent a fair amount of time laughing when Alice bails, and everyone is like, nooooes! That must mean we are dooooooomed!! Because, you know, there’s no other good reason for a clairvoyant to head out on some super secret mission when there’s a big throw-down on the horizon. Certainly she won’t arrive at the perfect moment with some major trump card. That’s not more likely at all. But Alice’s decampment serves as grist for the emo mill, and without all the hand-wringing brought on by her leaving, there would be almost no emotional drama – clearly fake as it is – to the any of the boring, perfect proceedings leading up to the end.

Much as the last section bored me to tears, at least when it wasn’t grossing me out, I was zero to the bone on the last page. Bella and Edward’s forever and evers to one another, the vision of this family locked into an unchanging perfect stasis, unable to sleep or dream, fundamentally cut off from the larger world, this hit me like a ton of ice. Good god, who wants this? Who aspires to shed every single vestige of their humanity in the attainment of domestic perfection? And having gotten there, who thinks this perfection is anything but a horrible nightmare? Edward was right at the first: an existence of unchanging perfection is no life at all. Throughout this book, the people in Bella’s life disappear on by one: only a brief mention of her school friends at the wedding, then silence, her mother considered and then discarded again, her father brought in in the most ancillary way possible, the concerns of lives of the werewolves dropped after Jacob is neutered. Breaking Dawnis a chilling portrait of the most self-serving narcissism, that old Freudian saw about procreation as immortality turned monstrous in its perfection. I just went and tucked my kids into bed, and I feel fiercely in this moment how transitory their childhoods are, how precious it is that they grow and change, what a gift it is that we fight, and even that we inevitably die. It’s quite a feat Meyer performed here, making me cozy up to my death while I tuck my kids in. Grief is the left hand of happiness, to misquote my beloved Ursula K Le Guin, and I hold my children with both hands. Anything else is as dishonest as it is awkward.

Geared for…What is Going On Here?

I think I’ve figured out my issue with steampunk. I’ve even said this before about the genre, but I wasn’t listening to myself too closely. Steampunk is defined mostly by gadgetry – goggles and steamships and corsets – and that gadgetry generally has this narrow aesthetic band. I’m nerd enough to have gone to my share of sf cons, and I get eye-rolling about how frustratingly similar all the steampunk costumes are – a corset (always with the freaking corset), a top hat (both genders), non-functional gearworks, maybe some anachronistic wings or those weird fox tails that all the teenagers wear with the weird muppet boots. (What up, teens? I don’t get your con boots.) But as much as I get irritated with the uniformity – seriously, why does “creativity” have to be so damned uniform – I get that the operative part of cosplay is play. Playing dress-up doesn’t have to make a big statement or blow my mind, and it exists as much for the performer as the audience. 

That said, there are always flashes of the truly inventive in costumes I’ve seen: a woman in a gold Victorian-style dress that was designed to look like a Dalek; various steampunk takes on Stormtroopers; costumes using more working class Victorian sartorial iconography and mixed up with Marxist Freedom Fighter clothes. This last one especially, because so rarely do these steampunk characters hail from anywhere but the most rarefied upper classes, a fetishization of people who were on the whole a bunch of shitty, colonial asshats who enforced the crap out of social and sexual norms that are appalling to the modern person. Or freaking should be. Steampunk decouples the sartorial from the cultural, which in some ways can be wonderfully subversive in its own right, but also can be an act of la-la-la-la nevermind the horrors of the Industrial Revolution pretty dresses wheee!! 

The gadgetry of steampunk can be part of a reordering of expectation, or they can just be there to look sweet. Either one is fine, though of course I have my preferences for the former. This is my problem with steampunk: I don’t know, often until very late in the game, which kind of book I’m reading. I read with different parts of my brain depending on genre, and it’s possible even to argue that genre is a shorthand letting us know what part of the brain to read with. I’m not going to pick up a fantasy book about elves and magic and start nitpicking that magic violates the rules of physics, therefore it’s a bad book. Or I could, but I would be lame. I approached Soulless looking for spectacle, which is exactly what I got. But I’ve fallen into the gap in steampunk’s split-personality ethos before with Meljean Brook‘s Iron Seas series. I read the first one with the part of my brain reserved for romance novels – not the dumb part or anything, just the part that isn’t going to nitpick world-building or plausibility – when I would have had a much better time reading with the SFnal part of my brain – the part that gets off on well-constructed alternate histories. Because, damn, she’s rocking the alt-history so hard in that series. 

Having thought I learned my lesson about judging a book by its steampunk cover, I went into Geared for Pleasure by Rachel Grace keeping one eye open for some kind of coherent world or nifty alt-history. The alt-history idea was blown pretty soon, because this is more fantasy on steampunk planet, though there is some ornament about the horror of industrialization and the shittiness of enforced caste systems. The characters are inventive and the gadgets fun, with blue-haired badasses and spotted cat people, stealth airships and submarine brothels. In short, this book looks marvelous. The private guards for the immortal child-empress-like queen determine there is a threat to her, and go out into the world to nullify it. The novel is structured as two linked novellas, taking place one after the other about each of the two guards. The guards both seriously screw up their missions and end up falling in with pirates and pimps, who are also for some reason loyal to the queen. The writing is energetic and not faux-Victorian-purple, the last a serious problem I have with some steampunk novels. The first novella has some really ugly scene transitions, but I suspect this is more to do with bad formatting, though the writing could have been clearer.

However, even with my critical world-building brain mostly off, I have so, so many problems with this world. It’s not even so much nit-picking – going after details – as it is a fundamental incoherence in how this society is constructed. I was trying to explain the plot to my husband last night, and started in with bitching about the Queen. I likened her to Queen Amidala, even though their illogic is somewhat different. Queen Amidala is an elected monarch? How the hell does that even work? And why does she seem to have zero political sense and spends most of the movie running around pretending to be someone else? Presumably she’s got, like, actual work to do running the planet, even in exile, other than hair-brushing? Anyway, this queen was like that. Everyone loves the crap out of her, see her as fundamental to the order of society, even though society appears to be a rigid kleptocracy that practices eugenics on a broad scale, has enslaved a whole race of cat-people, and is otherwise a total shitshow. All ills in society are blamed on some group called the Theorrean Raj – possibly a Senate or House of Lords? even though they often seem like a secret society? or possibly even just one evil dude who works behind the scenes? – whom everyone despises. Seriously, what the hell is the point of the queen if she can’t even run her own society? What is she even doing with her time?

And the principles – the two queen’s guards – are members of some racially constructed group, who, and I didn’t get this until way into the book, are understood to be an incredibly corrupt police force even though our two protags are all sweet honor-bound bunnies? Throw in a pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold, a piratess airship captain who, while being neat and badass and all, is a total psycho, murdering her crews almost casually. But everyone loves the queen! For no apparent reason! And this explains behavior that is otherwise absolutely confounding on a character level. Which is where my problem lies (lays? whatever; I hate these verbs): it wasn’t so much that the world didn’t make sense, it’s that it made so little sense that I couldn’t track why anyone was feeling anything about anything. This was less of a problem in novella one, which is a pretty solid virginal-type-learns-a-valuable-lesson-about-her-vagina tale, but in novella two I was so confused about the romantic leads’ cultural situation, societal placement, and what the hell their exact problems were that my emotional investment was pretty well fucked. If I can’t figure what’s going on, I can’t care about the outcome. I couldn’t even try to explain what that final reveal was, or what it might mean. No sense, you has it. 

So why the three stars, you ask? Some of this is round up, I admit, because this as really just ok for me as a reader. But if I come at this novel with the romance reading part of my brain, there’s some interesting stuff going on. Waaaay back in the early days of my romance reading project, I complained about how some novel seemed to walk up to issues of domination and submission within sex writing, only to chicken out completely. (I think the exact scene was one where the heroine drove the hero to fuck make love to her so hard she bruised. And then nothing! No commentary about this desire for the hard fucking in the novel at all. Given Bella Cullen’s wedding night bruisings – complete with amnesia! – this seems to be A Thing.) While the set up to the sex-show thing that goes on in novella one is totally dumb and makes no sense, the ways that scene walked around consent and domination and voyeurism were pretty cool. There’s even some same-sex interactions that don’t seem to run TEH GAY PANIC, and gesture to the ways sex is often mechanically sex, while desire is a whole other issue. Neat. 

Novella two’s romantical story was hamstrung by my not getting what was going on, but the themes of domination and submission, when I did get it, were handled credibly. Novella two has to do with a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person, and I bitchily said somewhere that I expected her to get her spanks, and then love the dude for it. Which kinda happens, but then was more complicated than that. She’s having a crisis of conscience, and dude is confronting his own limitations as an alpha dude. I mean, there’s a fair amount of waaaaanghst here, but there was a charged push-pull that navigated personal sexual proclivities and personality pretty well. Plus, did I mention that she is a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person? Who isn’t slut-shamed? Good lord, a star for that alone.

So, anyway, I can’t really say I’m going to bother with book two of this series – my problems with the world-building are probably only going to deepen – but I wouldn’t be averse to trying out some of Grace’s later books, if she writes them. She’s got a pretty inventive world here, even if it makes no godmamn sense.

Red: We Mate for Life and Suss out Clues, Just Like Scooby Doo

I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something. 

Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?

But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work. 

Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy. 

And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker! 

Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner. 

Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.) 

So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this. 

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.