Friday, June 7, 2013

Mirrorfall (Require: Cookie series) by Grace McDermott

Stef, or Spyder, is a hacker, computer genius and an all round geek. Who has just been given a job that is compelling, fascinating and almost impossible – decipher indecipherable code. Code that resembles nothing on Earth. Code that she can almost comprehend and is driven to solve. Code that may not even be from Earth – nor her employers

At least until guys with guns show up and everything  becomes very confusing very quickly.

She’s always wanted to see magic and things beyond the norm – and now she’s plunged into the middle of it, torn between loving every second and running in terror of not being able to meet the challenges of her new world – or her new job as a field agent for the Agency. Police, facilitators – she’s joined the organisation that tries to bring some semblance of peace and order to a very chaotic supernatural world.

And her boss may be an angel. He certainly saved her life before.

In story terms I think there are 2 stories pushed together here. One is Stef discovering the world beyond the one she knows, being recruited for the agency and then actually joining up and becoming Ryan’s protégé. This is a good story and needed a lot of growth. Then there is the Mirrorfall which feels kind of rushed, addressed only in passing and to be made up of a whole lot of bad decisions and not very well explained. I feel the Mirrorfall could have been a separate story and we could have just focused on Stef joining the agency and proving herself and establishing he bond between herself and Ryan – things which badly needed doing.

I didn’t dislike the stories but they needed more development, and to move faster. We spend so much time on Stef’s internal dialogue and doubts with occasional lectures that not enough happens or develops. Which is a shame because with some development this could go from a good story to an excellent story. With some development the intriguing relationship between Stef and Ryan could have become powerful and fun and interesting and not a little rushed and with Ryan’s affection being understandable – but excessive in the brief period he’s known her.

Which is a shame – because Ryan, the man who is never remembered, connecting with the child he saved, the child he broke all the rules for, the child he would not die who then grew up and actually remembers him is poignant and powerful without the angsty monologues that are so often used to try and convey strong emotion in the genre. Throw in him not being seen as human or living by most people who see his true nature, but Stef’s unique outlook caused her to not only see that but embrace it joyfully and you have a powerful foundation. Or Stef and her past and thought processes negotiating this new world, bringing to it the unique perspectives of her mind and hobbies and how this brings new strengths and richness to her role and makes her a far better field agent than anyone expected. These are great stories, these are excellent stories and there are wonderful cores of them there – but they’re not developed to their full potential before we head off to the Mirrorfall and a whole new story setting.

There is very good ongoing presentation of Stef as neurologically atypical person. Her thought processes are extremely good and representative of that, how she thinks, the odd places her mind goes, the unusual way her mind works is really well expressed. Several of that bleeds over into her actions – things she does, things she can tolerate, things she can’t abide and odd behaviour that is explained a lot when you can see into her head. This is compounded by her upbringing and her father who wouldn’t tolerate his daughter and her different mentality, his cruelty and his harshness has left Stef with an extremely low self-esteem and zero sense of her actual self worth.

This leads to a lot of insecurity on Stef’s part. She is constantly going to Ryan assuming she’s not good enough, assuming she’s too much of a horrible person to be tolerated, assuming she’s too criminal or too useless or too embarrassing to keep around

And Ryan is very good in both acknowledging her mental illness and realising, along with                              , that accommodations need to be made for it. It’s all realistically and powerfully portrayed.

The problem is that Stef does have strengths – but they’re not shown, or rarely. Her main ability is that she is a technological wizard of extreme skill. Great – and he makes her a field agent. Great if he has seen some potential in her or that her way of thinking would be an asset in such an unorthodox setting– and in her testing it seemed like she did have.

But in practice we don’t see that. There’s little acknowledgement that she brings anything new or special or that she’s learning and adapting quickly. She is scorned by many of the other field agents and her testing points to a very low suitability for a field agent role. And while it puts her in a more active role, it also means she rarely, if ever, gets to show off her true technical wizardry or any other skills. Which is a shame, because at the beginning of the book she was almost the adult of the crowd, the one with the greater skills and still greater wariness, the one with the creativity to figure out the puzzle, the one who was a cut above everyone else.

Her non-neurotypical nature is well displayed and the willingness of people to work with her is excellent. But she is someone who has to be worked round, constantly supported and helped without her adding any actual strengths or being able to display her strengths. She is someone to be pitied, someone to be supported and someone to be paternalistically looked after – but she isn’t an actual asset in her own right. It makes her entire inclusion in the agency – and certainly among the field agents – look like charity and Ryan’s regarding her as a daughter figure more than an actual comment on her abilities.

This leads on to Stef as a female character – and the only dominant female character in the book (though I’m sure in future books that will change as there are a few female characters who look like they will be more involved) and the infantilising above becomes a problem again. There are other women who are obviously, clearly stronger but we haven’t seen much of them yet. One thing that is pretty unique is the complete lack of any kind of sexualising of Stef – and I don’t mean in a “I am totally hideously ugly – oh why do all these guys find me so sexy?!” but she is not particularly sexy or sexual. There’s even a wonderful line when a man complains how Stef is licking syrup off her fingers – most girls could make that look sexy and she’s bemused that there’s anything sexy about it. Of course, while loving it on one side, I can’t help but wonder if this is because she needs to be seen as child like.

As a gamer and general geek, I’m always going to be a fan of a book that has so many glorious geeky references. I love her love of computers and gamer culture. I love how she sees the world through that prism and I love how it gives her both extra insight and the ability to absorb these radical changes and revelations relatively easily. And I love how she has a realistic view of internet usage (14 pages of kittehs, an hour of flash gaming and a flame war).

And I like how we see parallels of that in the greater, fascinating world, especially with the agency’s abilities and the very nature of major Agents like Ryan, what they are, where they come from and what that means. It blends nicely with a world that is beyond complicated – full of creatures and fae and magic and powers and dangerous monsters and sheer alien beings. We have some wonderful awe inspiring depictions like the phoenix and some truly bizarre, original concepts like the Mirrorfall itself. The agency works within that in such an incredibly nuanced way – there are no automatic bad guys, and even the rigid group that is genocidal in their aims has defectors who can be humanised. This isn’t a world with complete simplicity, easily defined good and bad guys and monsters that need to be hunted down and fought – in fact the one “bad guy” there is in the book is a group that does think on such simplistic terms.

In all this book has a whole lot of good things – it’s worth reading for the geeky pleasure if nothing else. It has some excellent concepts, a truly fascinating world and some really compelling characters. But… I feel the book was on the cusp of something truly awesome and it just didn’t quite reach for it. It’s a great book – but this had every potential to be a 4.5 or 5 fang book but it never really pushed to that last level.