Monday, January 21, 2013

Grave Memory (Alex Craft #3) by Kalayna Price

Alex Craft returns to pursue a new business venture – she’s always sold her Grave Magic abilities to interested parties but with her deteriorating eye sight which is only going to get worse unless she changes the focus of her work. So, she and Rianna try their hand at being private detectives, putting their full magical skills on the job, not just the ability to speak to shades.

And their first case is a major one. People are dying – committing suicide. Only this suicide seems to be catching, leaving a string of bodies across the city. And Alex may be the only one with the magical skills to figure out what’s happening. Investigating is hampered, however, by her fraying ties with the police – she’s been involved in too many mysterious and closed cases. Worse, when a case of ghouls breaks out in the city, the eyes of the authorities fall on Alex as the state’s only known Grave Witch.

Then there’s the fae. Thanks to her father’s hidden heritage, Alex is becoming a full Sleagh Maith which comes with its own learning curve. The Queen of Winter is also losing patience with Alex’s undeclared status and pressure is mounting on her to finally pick a court.

In all I think this book did an excellent job when viewed in relation to the previous two. In Grave Witch, we’re introduced extremely well to a very large and involved world with multiple concept s. It was, as I said at the time, a very good introduction novel that set us up well. Grave Dance, however, dropped a lot of new concepts, new developments, new world building and new meta on us in a very short period of time. It was a little overwhelming and, at times, a little hard to follow – especially with it only being book two in the series.

Now comes Grave Memory and it did an amazing job of taking all the pieces that had been dropped on us in Grave Dance and put them in a nice, understandable order. It had its own plot to avoid being just about the world building (and that, in turn, carried one of the concepts from a previous book about why ripping holes in the planes is such a very very bad idea) but it also took the chance to explore what had been dropped on us and remind us where the metaplot stood at this point. So we saw Alexis’ relationship with her father, her relationship with her friends – Caleb, Holly, Tamara and Rianna bringing us up to date on them. It reminded us of her faerie holding, defined exactly what her faerie blood meant and what that manes in relation to the courts and – again – what those courts where and what they meant to degree. We got to see where her almost-relationships with Death and Falin stood and what the principle oppositions were. We even got an expansion on the Soul collectors – not a lot, certainly not to reveal all of their secrets by any stretch, but it was another addition of information without adding more to our already very full plate.

I think this book did an excellent job of balancing and grounding the series, explaining the meta rather than advancing it, letting everyone do a quick recap and figure out where all the various players in this game.

The plot itself is also very nicely contained, though is likely to have hooks spilling into future books (not least of which the introduction of Briar). It had a lot of nice twists – the ghouls for one and the chain going back and I was still stuck on spell rather than what it turned out to be – and it was well paced with the information reveal. With a lot of investigations it can be hard to pace the detective work well – you need to not have every answer just fall in their laps, but at the same time if they work for too long without any reward it becomes frustrated and stalled. This book hit the balance. It also dominated, with so much else going on in Alex’s life, it would have been easy to have the plot of the book take a back seat to the actual meta – but it didn’t. We expanded Alex’s meta and sorted everything where it needed to be, but the plot, the saving lives, the finding the truth and the stopping of the bad guy remained the overwhelming primary focus of the story.

This book contained a trope I didn’t particularly like: when someone character gives the protagonist a reality check for the shit they’ve done and the protagonist sees what they’ve done and has a wash of guilt and self-realisation at the cost their running off on their own bucking all authority can do and from there learns to… do something differently.

The problem I have with this trope? It’s never done right! It’s rare that an author will ever bring themselves to have their protagonist screw up sufficiently – and wilfully – enough to deserve being dragged out on the carpet like this. And this case is no exception – Alex Craft is called out by her good police friend for meddling and getting people killed. Which assumes that the serial killing shadow wouldn’t kill people anyway. There’s also the issue of the police listing the deaths as suicide – and keeping it listed that way for the sake of a cover up to prevent panic (including leaving the loved ones of the dead believing their beloveds committed suicide – after spending their savings on 5 star restaurants and prostitutes) – so Alex Craft is “meddling” in a case which she thinks everyone is ignoring but only because there’s a police cover up going on. Add in, it’s not like she’s some random woman off the street meddling for shits and giggles. She’s one of only two Grave witches in the entire state (her business partner being the other) hunting this shade that possesses people and leaves ghouls behind. She’s also the only Planeweaver in… the entire world as far as we can see. And, with that, the only person who can actually see the shadow.

So instead we end up with a scene where I’m not so much looking for the protagonist to have a learning and growth moment so much as for her to stand up, slap him across the face and chew him out. Ok, maybe he isn’t aware of the many ways he’s totally wrong on this – but she is and the guilt squirming both doesn’t make sense and annoys me. Of course, the addition as well is that she doesn’t “learn from her mistakes” either since she’s made none – and his lesson is an ultimatum to stay away from police work.

However, from this I am very glad to see a new character Briar not only do I think this kick arse, awesome witch is fun and interesting in her own right (but she also needs to be more sensible – as she made a ridiculous decision in this book which I think was expressly done to force the plot along and should have been out of character), but because I think it will give Alex another route into police work on a higher, more capable level, rather than a convoluted “I’m a private investigator, I’m going to meddle”. I also hope it will give us a character who can be more present in Alex’s investigations and not have her loose cannoning around the place.

In relation to Alex’s evolution, she has become a much better friend since the first book, being much more concerned with what is happening in her circle of friends and what is happening to them – and her inattention to Tamara has been actively called out, which helped a lot with addressing her previous problems. She’s also one of the relatively few female protagonists in this genre who does have solid female friendships that seem to be staying solid – Tamara, Holly, Rianna are all strong parts of her life. They don’t always play an extremely active role in her cases, but her core friends, support and that’s only going to grow with Briar. I also like the diversity of strength here – while all of the women are powerful in their own right and have areas of expertise (with Alex getting the Urban Fantasy Protagonist Ultra-Special Woo Woo), only Briar is considered strong because she’s such a badass fighter. Too often “strong female character” is interpreted as “character who knows 3 martial arts and has a big gun.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to racial and GBLT inclusion we have nothing. The closest we have is one of the nameless Soul Collectors who may be Black – but I’m hanging that on the very vague description of her hair so that’s no guarantee. As the number of characters in this book increase, the overwhelming straight/whiteness of everyone is becoming glaring. The language skirts the border of appropriation as well with references to things like hate crimes. However, while we do have hatred, there’s never been any attempt to present the fae/witches/etc as oppressed or marginalised.

Alex is a disabled character, though, with intermittent blindness and partial sightedness caused by her magic which is only getting worse. And she does address this, it’s not just something referred to in passing. She comments on how she hates people fussing over her when she’s capable, she comments on her frustration about losing her driving license and, above all, she worries for the future. Her whole change of focus for her career and reducing the number of times she summons the dead stems from a desire to preserve her eye sight as much as she possibly can for as long as she can. She is adapting her job because her job is making her eyes worse, even if it’s not what she necessarily wants to do or can afford to do.

In total, I think this book was just what this series needed and encourages me that we’ve got more good stuff to come.