Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: Fire Baptized by Kenya Wright

Lanore lives in the Santeria compound in Miami. All supernatural beings are forced to live separate from the humans who guard the compounds extremely carefully, ensuring they can never escape into the human population. Inside, all are supernatural of some kind - faerie or vampire, shapeshifter or demon or witch or even stranger creatures, and all marked with a brand on their foreheads that denote their supernatural type.

Lanore wears the cross to mark her as mixed blooded. And as such she is reviled by her fellow supernaturals, a lesser citizen, to be mistrusted and hated and discriminated against. She’s the first mixed blood allowed to attend university (albeit with great difficulty) and she must constantly step warily to try and negotiate a highly prejudiced world.

Which isn’t made any easier by a string of murders, one of which she witnessed and the killer made it clear he is aware of her. Faced with a grossly incompetent (and indifferent) human police force, she is pushed into the role of investigator as people keep dying gruesome deaths and she may be next on the list.

And of course she has 2 men to dodge between. MeShack the were-cheatah, and old ex who she grew up with with his own issues, and Zulu, a fellow mixed-breed leader of the Mixed Breed Rights movement, pushing for equality and justice that is both demanding, requires great political maneuvering and sometimes disturbing allies.

The most amazing part of this book is the world, because wow is it several kinds of shiny. We have a gazillion supernatural creatures, an entire society made up of supernatural creatures, and no humans. We have a history of oppression, we have different laws and cultures and different movements and politics for each of the movements. We have many sided many layered conflicts, a rich and complex society we have so much magic and possibilities. It’s almost impossibly rich and diverse yet at the same time incredibly real and well done that I can envisage this society working this way. I think I’d read this whole series even if it were just a long series of info-dumps.

But it’s not - because not only do we have this wide, wonderful world, we also have it presented appropriately, revealed as and when it becomes relevant without tiresome lecturing or screeds of musings to serve as informing us.

And the story works well within this world. Lanore isn’t a trained investigator and it is a little questionable why she gets herself involved but it’s not entirely unrealistic. And the investigation itself is rather reactive because there’s so little to go on, but though Lanore often seems to be running at the rear of the investigation, it works because she isn't a professional and she engages so well with the world while hurrying to catch up. And, in the end, she does get proactive once she has enough information together. Despite her hurrying to catch up, I wasn’t bored as often happens in murder mysteries when they end up chasing rather than investigating, but the rich world and the way Lanore works with it just runs smoothly and makes the pacing work. There are side plots to keep us going with the main plot of tracking down the murderer including Zulu’s work with the mixed-blood rights movements which I definitely want to see more of.

Unfortunately there is also the romance storyline that I didn’t care for at all. First of all, both Zulu and MeShack cross lines a lot. She is marked as possessed twice against her will. They constantly press her and push past her boundaries and their alpha male posturing over her and against each other is intolerable. MeShack breaks her vibrators to keep her loyal to him and throws out the flowers that Zulu buys her. Zulu virtually starts a war because a vampire is touching her. And while Lanore, as the strong, non-spunky, capable woman that she is turns round and says it’s not ok, she doesn’t make it stick or the men don’t respect her enough to take her objections seriously.

Honestly, the story would have been far better with 1 friend and 1 love interest rather than 2 men fighting over her like a prime steak. It may not have kept them crossing her boundaries but at least they may have not felt compelled to mark her like dogs marking their territory.

I have some complicated thoughts in the way oppression is presented in this book. On the one hand, the majority of the characters appeared to be POC. It was very racially diverse and representative in a way that I very rarely see in urban fantasy. Racially it was extremely inclusive, but other marginalised groups were completely erased.

The mixed-bloods faced oppression but it was never directly compared to real life oppressions as we have seen over and over in Urban Fantasy (and annoys me immensely) so there was no direct, overt appropriation. However, at the same time there were elements of oppression that carry very clear echoes of specific real life oppressions - like being forced to wear marks to identify your minority status, being shut into walled ghettoes (though the standard of living in the ghettoes isn’t inherently bad), segregated bathrooms and buses etc. At no time, though was it ever said “this is just like X oppression.” But then the story included the oppression and portrayed it a great deal and very well - but didn’t spend a lot of time addressing it or dwelling on it. We were showed the prejudice the Mixies had to deal with simply by them living it and having to work their lives around it. We didn’t have (or need) big dramatic depictions of prejudice; we have the same impact from just seeing what Lanore has to work with every single day and what Zulu fights against. We also get some hints into related issues with things like allying with disparate groups, making friends even when you have reservations (like alliance with the Rebels)

While there was a lot of oppression of the Mixed-blood shown, no other oppression was present which suggests real life prejudices do not apply. Though therer were some very marked class distinctions that were very well displayed and portrayed in different areas of the compound. Not entirely ideal - but then there are no humans in this book at all, everyone is a supernatural creature of some kind.
Religion is also interesting in the district. It seems the dominant religion - indeed only religion - is Santeria (and the actual walled compound itself is named after the religion which seems to be common place with other compounds as well) which is unusual and certainly good to see. The author also clearly had a great knowledge of the religion (well as far as I can say as someone who has very little knowledge of the faith) and treated it with respect and knowledge. Yes, the murders had their root in religion but they were firmly presented as the exception which is nice to see since usually when any religion similar to Santeria (or Voudoun or Palo Mayombe) appears in Urban Fantasy we’re normally going to see a lot of exotifying and dark magic. It was nice to see it actually treated as a religion.

All in all I loved this book, it had some problematic elements but in general I loved it. I loved this book and not only do I recommend it, but I will be leaping on any sequel like a starving bear on a cute little rabbit (or possibly a less disturbing analogy). The world, the protagonist, the unique diversity - it’s all a wonderful combination that has produced a great book.