Monday, May 6, 2013

Darkfever (MacKayla Lane #1) by Karen Marie Moning

Mac’s sister, Alina, has been brutally murdered while studying abroad in Dublin. It’s collapsed Mac and her family’s life and she feels no choice but to go to Dublin from Georgia to find out what happened – particularly when she finds an extremely cryptic and unusual message on her phone.

Arriving in Dublin things are very different than she imagined – and so is she. Now facing predatory monsters, the Unseelie fae, lurking hidden among the populace visible only to her and people like her, she has to learn quickly if she wants to find out what got Alina killed, as it seems more likely to be a “What” rather than a “who.” This leads to the ignorant and lost Mac stumbling onto a multi-sided battle for the Sinsar Dubh, a powerful Unseelie artefact in demand by fae, humans, vampires and more, with only the reluctant, controlling and hostile Barrons to be her guide and mentor

Alina told her she couldn’t let “them” have it – but who is “them” and could it be Barrons himself?

This isn’t going to be a positive review – there’s just a lot about this book I didn’t like. But before I go down this long and detailed list, I’m going to hit on what did shine for me. The world had a very epic feel with a massive consequences and threat attached to the battle. There’s seeds of something major, intriguing, exciting and just plain huge in the metaplot. The way it is written – from the POV of an older, wiser, more informed Mac looking back on “how all this began” is pretty well done and adds to the feel of something almost apocalyptic coming without filling the book with lots of spoilers or dumping of future knowledge.

It’s done in a way that means, while I didn’t like this book, I’m interested enough in where it’s going to pick up the next book with something resembling eagerness.

Now to the stuff I don’t like – firstly, the characters.

I can’t say I like Mac overmuch. I get that she’s supposed to be this innocent, ingénue who grows and hardens at the end of the book – but even understanding that doesn’t make her very likeable. She’s so extremely insular – she’s from rural Georgia and mentions that constantly. She complains about not being able to understand the Irish accent – but makes no effort to ask anyone to speak more slowly when she doesn’t understand them, she just huffs about it. She’s decided that her home is full of ultra-polite people and the Irish around her are just rude for not following her standards – but her standards are bemusing to me. Like she considers it rude that, when she wakes up in Barrons’s house (as a near stranger) he left food out for her – rather than allowing her to root around in his fridge. And she feels insulted that she hasn’t been “made to feel at home” so she doesn’t explore his house. Seriously, would anyone even do that? Staying at a near strangers and feel free to root around in his kitchen and eat their food, uninvited? Go exploring through a near stranger’s home? What kind of invasive, rude, woman with absolutely no sense of boundaries is she? The people at the library are so very rude because when she randomly stripped off her clothes they didn’t rush forward to cover her with her shirts. Eh, sorry Mac, if a woman randomly stripped off in a public place I wouldn’t take off my clothes and try to force them on her…  

It’s not just that she’s honestly out of her depth and out of her element, it’s that she doesn’t seem to have any concept of the fact. She’s never left the US before and now is in a foreign capital and doesn’t really consider the possibility of a different culture or her own ignorance.

She, naturally spends a lot of this book confused – and it doesn’t help that Barrons is really unpleasant and keeps her in the dark throughout even when the knowledge may be helpful. She’s a puppet, a tool and is heavily mushroomed and that doesn’t really change until the end of the book.

The only really interesting thing about her is her woo-woo. She has woo-woo powers – unknown and super special, super powerful woo-woo at that. And that’s the full specialness about her. She’s not particularly clever or insightful or tough or brave or interesting in herself – there’s nothing about her I find appealing or any reason for her to be a protagonist beyond the super-woo-woo. And the super-woo-woo is ridiculously super – including instinctive combat woo-woo.

I think this book may even have worked better as a prequel after the characters have been established. Then we could, perhaps, get to know and like Mac after or during her growth, rather than be so frustrated by her during her learning period. Or maybe we could have seen more development from her – rather than it being rather longwinded and slow, that same time could hve been spent building on her growth – have her change from the bouncy, optimistic, naïve Mac to the darker, harder, more cautious, more sensible Mac. Have that growth reflected in the way Barrons treats her. Have more than the odd side reference – and make the growth about more than her hair style. Show her changing, don’t just inform us she’s changed. Similarly, perhaps we could get to know Barrons before being stonewalled by the constant arseholery.

There are some anti-sexism messages but they’re really overt and rather clumsy. The three big forces in the city are all grossly misogynist, treating women as objects and toys – it’s blatant and easy to show and equal easy to challenge. But throughout the whole book Barrons treats her like a tool and while she objects to this, her objections don’t stick. Her acts of rebellion against his control always feel rather silly – like her deciding to hide the presence of V’line or even her refusal to dress appropriately for the setting; which in turn is treated like Spunky Agency. She stubbornly and a little foolishly refuses to dress appropriately for a setting, so the next time they go out he had Fiona pick her clothes for her. It’s high handed and arrogant – but her rebellion was silly and petty. She refuses to tell him about V’lane and he reveals that he knew all along you silly silly woman. Again, her rebellion is pointless, petty and counterproductive to herself – and only herself and she would have looked more sensible just obeying.

And there aren’t many other women in the book. There’s Mac, her dead sister, her catatonic mother, various arm candies who are treated just like that, the Old Lady with her potentially vast store of information that Mac runs from and Fiona – who we know nothing about  except she hates Mac because of some quasi-jealousy thing over Barrons (and I’m guessing Barrons will be a love interest given the random way we get references to his “feral” attractiveness whatever that means) and because she utterly adores Barrons and will do anything for him – unlike Mac who is, of course, nothing like that.

Rather than have 3 repetitions of “look at these evil guys who treat women like shit how awful” and even the excellent call out of V’lane and his evil raping fae power, I think it would have been far more powerful to have maybe one of those 3 be a woman. Or have Mac demand some answers from Barrons. Or not have her mother take to her bed. Or even have Fiona be an actual character. Or not have her mother give her advice on playing “hard to get”.

There are no POC in this book, but we do have a bemusing attempt to exoticise Barrons by repeatedly calling him “exotic” and referring to his “golden skin”. This apparently comes (as we learn when Mac randomly asks his ethnicity – this woman who is so concerned about manners) from his mixed Basque and Pict parentage… Uh-huh. Even putting aside the idea of finding a separate Pict ethnicity distinct from the Scots after the 12th century; why someone of Basque and Pict parentage would have “golden skin” or “darkly exotic” or appear anything other than generic White – possibly with a slight olive skin – is beyond me.

Then there’s O’Bannion who… well I’m just going to quote this:

“With his looks, some would call him Black Irish, but it wasn’t Spanish or Melungeon blood in his veins, it was an unspoken-of Saudi ancestor that had bequeathed something fierce, dark, and ruthless to the O’Bannion Line”

Well, that’s some damn unsubtle racism right there – this mobster is dark and ruthless because of an Arab ancestor?

As I’ve reference above, I’m not fond of the writing style. It’s slow and over-descriptive in places, a little repetitive and it feels the need to spell out what can easily be inferred. There are some bemusing moments where they do things like explain what the Victorian Era was. Or say the house is full of a certain style of furniture – then describe that furniture. It’s redundant. We have a house called “Casa Blanc” c’mon – French or Spanish, pick one. We also have some frankly clumsy writing. While looking for the book, Mac decides to steal something from one of the three big bads – which Barrons is very pleased about and she blames on him. But she was the one who did it, quite unprompted, of her own volition – just a complete “oh fae artefact, want!” and she pockets it. Why? Or there’s the crime scene where the police missed her murdered sister’s make up pouch lying on the floor because the alley was “too cluttered”. Really? Even better, she tears it apart and says how ridiculously neat and unrealistic it would be for there to be a clue in there because that’s just so fake and the sort of thing you see on television but never in real life – there’s no chance her sister could have slipped in a flash drive or a note or her missing journal into it, it’d be too unrealistic! Too neat! Too fake! Too ficionalised. Instead she scratches a cryptic message into the cobbles with a nail file in her dying moments…

…no, really, I kid you not. Her sister hiding some info in a makeup bag would be too convoluted – but carving messages in the floor is just fine.

Then there’s the spear of stabby stabby. One of the super Seelie artefacts, it’s also the Spear of Longinus – the spear that pierced Christ’s side – how? Because a random Roman soldier of no great rank managed to get his hands on an almighty fae artefact to do some messiah stabbing? Was there a reason this piece of Christian mythos had to be dropped in so clumsily among the fae mythos.

Then there’s her reaction to the revelation about her family and the way she treats her deeply traumatised and grieving parents in the aftermath of that – I was stunned and the callousness of it and her thoughts. There are also a couple of other things that feel a little off from a British reading perspective (like an Englishman known as “junior”) which probably aren’t so glaring to someone who isn’t British or Irish. But in general the writing isn’t neat.