Thursday, 26 March 2015

CBR7 6: Written In Red, Anne Bishop

Page count: 512, time taken: 4 hours

Driven by visions, Meg Corbyn flees her captors and ends up stumbling into a job as a Human Liaison in an Others enclave in Lakeside. She quickly finds acceptance from the shape-shifting inhabitants, except from Simon Wolfgard, leader of the Courtyard, and his father. Fortunately, Meg manages to help Simon's nephew through the worst of his severe PTSD, and Simon quickly becomes a fan. Which is useful when Meg's past catches up to her.

Good things about this book: the shape-shifting stuff is really cool. The mythology of the world is interesting, well thought-out and explained, and the non-human characters actually feel like non-humans, instead of excuses to have a lot of wild sex and growling. (There is a lot of growling though. Some tropes are too stubborn to die.) I found the Sanguinati particularly interesting, because I love me some vampires and these were good ones.

Other good things: the supporting cast were all really well characterised, and the villains of the novel were great. The pacing was good, and the book was long enough that the plot never felt too rushed, allowing things to develop in a reasonable amount of time. (That particularly is rare to see in urban fantasy, in my experience.)

Okay but slightly heavy-handed thing: moralisation about humanity being the true monsters. (More on this in my as-yet-unwritten reviews of the next books.) This is another trope of the genre, and it's a worthy message to try to get across, but it was not done with any great degree of subtlety.

Bad bits of the book: Meg was a magical special unique snowflake who made everyone love her instantly (with one or two exceptions) and she was precious and beloved and must be guarded and protected at all costs. I started calling her Meg Sue in my head pretty quickly. Even the parts where she fucks up, she does it in a really adorable and trying-to-help way which meant people forgave her really quickly.

Bit of the book which made me genuinely unhappy: there are repeated, graphic descriptions of self-harm which I personally found hit me far too close for comfort. There was also zero warning about it. (Granted, Meg being cassandra sangue, a blood prophet, is mentioned in the blurb a lot. That's really not the same as a content warning though.)

Here are some numbers for you. 1 in 5 women in the US has self-harmed. 1 in 7 men in the US has self-harmed. Think about those numbers for a short while. That's a lot of people. Whoever you are, you almost certainly know someone who uses or used self-harm as a means of coping. Of survival. I am one of those people. I know many others. The use and depiction of self-harm in this novel, and especially the sequels, made me uncomfortable in many, many ways.

The story was still pretty good though. If it had a content warning, I would happily give it 4 stars. But it doesn't. So it gets 3, and a caveat: do not read this series if you are particularly sensitive to descriptions of self-harm, or are at risk of using self-harm as a means of coping or control. I would be very wary about recommending it to any teenager without first discussing the issues.

Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.

Monday, 16 March 2015

CBR7 5: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black

Page count 448, time taken 3.5hours, number of blue nails 3*.
Tana is a big damn goth who finds herself in the wrong party at the wrong time. Several times. I think she might be cursed. She finds herself travelling to Coldtown in the company of a vampire and her infected ex-boyfriend, and quarantines herself with them. She meets a bunch of other big damn goths, some of whom are more terrible than others, and makes friends. She also makes questionable decisions about the security of her belongings, seriously girl if you are wearing big boots there is plenty of space in them for small object, pieces of paper etc, I know, I had oxblood Doc Martens too. At least she uses the Secret Hidden Woman Pockets** a couple of times, so bonus points for that.

This is a great vampire story, and a reasonable YA coming-of-age/accepting-responsibility story. It is much better than a lot of the urban fantasy I've read, given that there's only one monster type, and the idea of Coldtowns as being quarantine zones is a good one. The story is very well paced, with a sense of urgency imparted in various different ways. The male romantic lead is suitably damaged and brooding for my big damn goth soul, and Tana is really great as a protagonist, being both strong and self-reliant and flawed and emotionally vulnerable.

It's been years since I read Queen of the Damned, which this book draws on pretty heavily, and in those years social media has gone from some people having terrible Geocities pages through to Twitter being the best source of news and social activism currently around. Black weaves blogging into her narrative, and the plot revolves around the media presentation of vampires, both traditional media and new media forms. This will undoubtedly date the book in another decade's time - no-one can predict what the next internet craze will be, and if they tell you they can they're lying - but right now the book is up-to-date and a pretty accurate representation of how the technologically literate use the various different forms of communication available.

As far as big complicated philosophical thoughts go, the story is a reasonable investigation into the nature of illness and addiction, and the way that people respond to it as both sufferers and the healthy people who have to deal with them. Whilst vampire imagery always revolves around sex and self-harm, both of those topics are handled really lightly, as appropriate to the age of the target audience, whilst being pretty nuanced. There is also a really interesting minor character whose interactions with Tana are thought-provoking in many ways.

The only things I can really fault the book on are (1) it ended and (2) not enough corsetry and black lace. So, 5 out  of 5, would recommend and will probably read again. With candles and wine as red as blood. And some Type O Negative in the background.

* I have Reynaud's disease so my fingers get very cold very quickly, and eventually turn blue. Normally this bothers me, but I have to say, it kind of added to the description of turning Cold. It was like a multi-sensory experience for me. I appreciate that that's weird though.
** Her bra. I stash my phone there too. Also small change. NB: if using your bra as a place to put small change, remember that metal heats up to skin temperature so it's very easy to forget you put anything in there until you take it off and then you have a reverse 5p printed on your boob for a while.

Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.