Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Review: This Side of the Grave by Jeaniene Frost, Book 5 of the Night Huntress Series

Cat is adapting to her new life as a vampire – and not just a vampire, but a vampire that feeds on other vampires and absorbs their powers – powers that she isn’t always old enough or strong enough to control. More, a newly raised vampire whose powers just killed one of the most powerful living master vampires

And this is a problem for Apollyon, the Ghoul. Or at least a convenient excuse for him. Using the image of the powers Cat has displayed, he is inciting the ghouls to raise up against the vampires, claiming they will use her powers to dominate, enslave and butcher ghouls.
Apollyon is now travelling from city to city, inciting ghouls to hatred – and it’s not the first time he’s used a half-vampire to try to start a war against vampires – last time the half-vampire was killed to placate him. Cat isn’t best pleased with this proposal.

So the hunt is on – to find Apollyon, to discredit him, to stop him by any means necessary – and before more masterless vampires are hunted down or too many ghouls are recruited to the cause.

We had plot, plot and more plot! Indeed many of the sex scenes were taken as a given rather than something that had to be excessively described, and relationship angst came in the form of long needed revelations rather than the eternal moping and misunderstanding. In fact, Cat made little breakthroughs with Mancheres so perhaps we can finally leave her constant suspicion and sniping behind. After the emotional maundering of the last book, this was a wonderful change of pace.

Another wonderful change was Cat’s actions and involvement. After the last book where she spent the vast majority of it being dragged around in other people’s plans, here she was involved. She didn’t always take charge and sometimes she had to follow as much as lead – which was appropriate all things considered (why should the millennia old Mancheres defer to Cat after all?) but she had constant input, intelligent input and was a meaningful part of their plans as well as adding her own plans and ideas that they followed. She was integral, not just for her special shiny powers, but also for her own choice of what to do and how to do it. In this book she was not just a strong, intelligent woman with her own ideas and unwilling to be dictated to, but she was also a team player – and I think that’s important. Often in Urban Fantasy “strong, independent woman” and “works well with others” are considered mutually exclusive – either she’s domineering, violent or drives people off, or she’s a passive follower. Or she refuses to work with others and insists on doing her own thing. This was one of the few times we see a character who is happy to work with others, as an equal, without having to be a complete arsehole or a complete puppet or a loose cannon. 

We had a powerful emotional scene with Don – but it was appropriate, right and humbling. It wasn’t milked for gratuitous angst and navel gazing nor was it brushed over casually. I also liked the point that even with all of their powers and abilities, there were some scourges even they couldn’t fight.
Which is an important part of the emotional scenes in this book – they were all appropriate, neither underdone nor over-exaggerated and all justified, none of the manufactured, convoluted bad tempers we saw in the last book.

On a less ideal front, I’m not sure about the whole concept of the ghouls rising up against the vampires, especially since, with the exception of Majestic, we’ve not seen any ghouls with the kind of power master vampires have – and ghouls are reliant on vampires to create new ghouls. It seems unlikely that the ghouls would worry about being a client race simply because if the vampires wanted that they already would be – and already seem to be. Especially since, in the past, division has been by family line or clan rather than by ghoul or vampire. Vampires haven’t felt kinship outside of their line – and a ghoul of Bones’ line has been closer to a vampire of Bones’ line than he is to ghouls of another line. This new division and the idea of a ghoul nation doesn’t ring very true with me.

I do like the character of Majestic, I like her a lot. She can hold her own with Mancheres, Bones and Vlad. She’s clever, ruthless and manipulative without being evil, cruel or callous (certainly no more so than the other Master undead) and while there is an element of dark skinned woo-woo there, any undead being of her power has woo-woo. Still, there’s a little voodoo fetishism going on there. There is a racially diverse cast of characters and it is interesting to see the greatest and most powerful forces in the Undead world we’ve seen are POC. In addition, we don’t have the old trope of having a leader as a POC – which shows power but also means you don’t have to give them any screen time. On the flip side, I’m not happy about the hints of comparing the ghoul hatred of vampires to racial bigotry – it was only hinted, otherwise I’d be stomping my foot a lot more, but it was there and I dislike it.

The plot itself was wonderful – there was a sense of the epic, it was well paced, there were moments of confusion, everything didn’t always go to plan. The characters are crafty and manipulative in a wonderful way – I do love to see these ancient and clever undead beings be actually ancient and clever, especially since it has been one of my criticisms of Bones (who does not feel his age). The battles were well done without being drawn out or giving you the sense that the enemies are queuing up to fight the protagonist. Cat is a super special shiny powered chosen one but so far there’s no Mary Sueness about it nor is she a ridiculously overpowered protagonist.

All in all, this book was a great step up from the last one. Well paced, interesting, attention grabbing plot with strong, real characters having realistic, well portrayed emotion and a world that continues to be appealing and fun to explore.