Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Once Bitten, Twice Shy, by Jennifer Rardin, Book 1 of the Jaz Parks Series

Jaz Parks is a CIA assassin and a Hellsinger – an expert at killing vampires. She and her partner, Vayl, have been teamed up for several months to track down and eliminate various international bad guys

And in Miami they had what seemed to be a simple hit. A plastic surgeon working for terrorists, human and simple. Except they quickly found themselves in deeper than they had ever imagined with a plot that encompassed ancient, other-worldly forces, a devastating plagues and a large number of vampires and even a member of the government.

Throw in a mole, Vayl’s evil and lethal ex-wife and a vampire from her own past and it’s overwhelming. And Jaz is already more than overwhelmed with her family and her own past experiences – to say nothing of her growing feelings for Vayl

Before I get to the problems with the story I have to complain over the writing, alas. It is very overwritten, overly descriptive and full of distractions. The book is told from Jaz’s point of view and she has the concentration span of a concussed gnat on LSD. She constantly flits from topic to topic, interspaces everything with various coping mechanisms and her endless doubts and insecurities. We keep maundering on about a 6 year old bully and her long deceased grandmother (I have no idea why) and you can generally get lost in the space of a paragraph.

The plot (which I will complain about at length) is also such that the pace is ridiculous. I hate slow novels, but this goes far too far the other way. We have so much to deal with we’re positively racing through this book

The problem I had with the story is that there were 2 books worth of story in there. Maybe even 3. There was a lot happening here. A crooked mole, trailer trash assassins, Vayl’s ex, an abused wife, Jasmine’s many many issues and past, her issues with her brother, her father who has a secret and has sacked his nurse, her pregnant sister, there’s a plague and a demon and terrorists and a super vampire and this hot guy called Cole and and and – there’s just so much here. In some ways I applaud that a plot can have so many facets and so many actors all coming together, but there was just too much to follow and we kept jumping between them. I got lost quite a lot, I was confused, I almost had to take notes.

And this is the first book as well – which means this is our introduction. This is the book where we’re supposed to learn about Jaz, her job and role, her issues, her personality as well as Vayl and introduced to what exactly their relationship is, what the foundation is exactly who and what he is. And then we throw in the peripheries – her boss, her sister, her father, Vayl’s past. She also has super contacts that just drop out of the sky – Cassandra the super-psychic and Bergman the super-duper tech guy that would make James Bond drool. These could have been introduced in a more preliminary novel and not had the super dream-team just drop out of the sky.

It could also have given us chance to explain what these special titles Vayl is giving to Jaz actually mean and a chance for Vayl to explain his past without the sense of “guys, this is REALLY a bad time”. Same goes for Jaz’s powers which are, at best, vaguely touched on. Or her family issues (utterly irrelevant to the story but shoe-horned in as well)

There was too much here – and in a book that was 270 pages long that meant all of this was brushed over a lot, rushed through a lot and generally crammed in with a crowbar.

I’m also not keen on Jaz Parks. Now, I am very happy to see any character that has suffered trauma actually show the effects of trauma since urban fantasy has a habit of brushing over horrific pasts. BUT, Jaz is affected to the point where she’s borderline non-functioning. She has blackouts – she’s a CIA agent, well-armed assassin going out on undercover missions to kill international bad guys and she has frequent, long lasting blackouts. This trained killer is losing time. She also has some amazing mood swings, horrendous low self-esteem, frequent flash backs to a childhood bully she once endured (as well as a granny who keeps coming up but seems to have zero relevance to anything) and is extremely conflict averse to the point of whining because her boss may yell at her. Even aside from her blackouts and mood swings, her whining, neediness and poor impulse control combine to make her a not very strong character to me – just because she can fight doesn’t make her strong.

I also don’t think either she or Vayl were very professional – to a point where they refrained from killing dangerous enemies because they were saving them for the other to kill. And their romance didn’t ring true with me either and I’ve read a lot of bad romance in this genre to build a tolerance. But we come in half way through with apparently lots of tension between them but no foundation, no reason for it and no time to show it

Inclusion-wise we have some token POC, including the powerful, but mysterious magical black woman, Cassandra. And we have a Middle Eastern terrorist. He’s not even a Muslim terrorist either, it just seems that he’s a terrorist so must have a Middle Eastern name. We have no GBLT characters but a nasty snarky moment when Jaz is ready to ream Bergman out for being bigoted about Cassandra’s skin colour, but cools off when it’s about her magic – and that magic implying she’s a lesbian. We also have a mental illness that isn’t so gets magically solved (or explained) by the end of the book.

The concept of the character, as well, is worth a raised eye-brow. Jaz is a CIA assassin – not exclusively a vampire hunter, she hunts down and kills people all around the world. The morality, legality and general wrongness of this isn’t even touched on

There are seeds in this novel that could have been good. The basic story was interesting, if cheesy. The concept is a twist on what we’ve seen before and could have been explored well – especially if we threw in some soul searching about what it means to be an assassin. Even Vayl’s frost power looked interesting and new. She also has what could have been fantastic, creepy foreshadowing elements (like the re-arranging of the furniture? That could have been so creepy). This book had immense potential, this concept had amazing potential, even this story has a core of brilliant imagination. In short, the whole PLAN for this book is something I would have loved and adored.

But the execution was, sadly, awful. The interesting elements were drowned out by waves of excess plot points, long winded, clumsy writing and personal drama that the book made me think of some kind of cruel army exercise – where you force poor recruits to sprint through a maze. A maze in a swamp no less: you’re tired, exhausted, thoroughly lost, moving fat too fast and constantly mired in muck up to your knees.