Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Year of the Wolf (Changeling Sisters #1) by Heather Heffner

Citlalli and her family have come to South Korea to join their mother after their oldest sister, Marisol, disappeared after slowly weakening over a long period.

In Seoul they face many difficulties acclimatising and fitting in with the culture around them – and they have not achieved the safety they sought. Raina, Citlalli’s sister starts to fall prey to the same symptoms as Marisol

Desperate not to lose another sister, and frustrated by medicine’s inability to cure her, Citlalli pursues more and more mystical avenues to find an answer – and finds far more than she imagined. Ghosts and spirits, creatures of legend – and vampires, slow, life draining vampires and their enemies, the werewolves.

She’s in over her head and she needs to learn quickly – but Citlalli is determined that the vampire queen will not take another of her sisters, no matter what she must do to stop her.

When this story started I found it incredible disjointed and confusing. The chronology moves back and forth – we see Citlalli in the past coming to South Korea interspaced, lots of flashback that has happened to her and her family interspaced with the present. They’re not clearly labelled, we don’t always know if we’re in the past or the present and I found it extremely confusing and really not to my taste. It was a real pain for me and there was a moment when I nearly put the book down because it was too much work to follow it.

This part of the book also coincides with a very long preamble to the story. There’s foreshadowing to the supernatural, but it is just foreshadowing and it feels like an extremely long run up to the actual meat of the story. It’s frustrating and, again, made it a hard book to get into and tempted me to stop.

But once you get past that original barrier, the book opens up considerably. Not only does it improve, but it improves sufficiently that it is more than worth battling past that beginning shakiness, because it opens up into a truly original and excellent story that is definitely worth a read.

The story itself draws heavily on Korean mythology and elements of east-Asian mythology and beliefs. I can’t venture to say how accurate it was or how well it got it or how much different traditions were mixed up – or even what were western inserts – because I’m not nearly well versed enough to make that judgement. I will say that there was a sense of considerable research- places were named, streets were named, areas were referred to, there was a lot of use of the Korean language (and the little I knew seemed accurate, same goes to the relatively small elements of mythology I recognised) but all of this comes from a place of profound ignorance on my part. I can’t say if it was authentic, only that there was a definite amount of research going on.

It was highly original compared to most western-based Urban Fantasy with a completely different focus, especially with the spiritual world, the ghosts and other elements like the cockatrice, the lanterns and the places. The setting was extremely rich and, to me, very novel. It also hit an excellent balance between describing and displaying all of these extremely original concepts and places to me without devolving into either long winded description or gross exoticism which I really appreciated. The setting was rich without making me feel like a gawking tourist, well portrayed without me feeling like I was being forcefed information.

This comes with some decidedly beautiful vampires that are, equally, horrifying and terrifying, yet still with an edge of tragedy. It’s worked together and balanced really well. There’s also a really interesting take on the idea of a werewolf Alpha. Personally I don’t really like any Alpha because I think it messes with actual wolves and is an excuse for a lot of shoddy behaviour; but this is a wonderful challenge of the trope. The Alpha is in charge and demands obedience and respect and the Omega to obey the whims of the pack. That doesn’t mean “aha I am Alpha, time for sexy time,” far from it – it means that he’s the boss and is dictatorial with it. And it means the omega ends up doing a whole lot of menial tasks and errands for the rest of the pack.

Citlalli was also an interesting character – as were her family. A latino-American family in South Korea, it brought another element to a genre we hardly ever see – different groups of POC interacting. A POC protagonist in a “POC setting” as it were – not just reducing race to White people and “Other”. It’s full of complexity, Citlalli’s difficulty in adapting to her new home, her family difficulties, comparing her experience with her immigrant Mexican parent’s experience – there’s lots of issues introduced and covered and a whole lot of references without it being reduced to clumsy lectures or obvious PSAs. There’s also Citlalli’s younger sister, Raina, half-Korean and from their mother’s affair with another man, she faces a lot of conflict. She is scapegoated and singled out by her family, constantly battling for acceptance even from her kindest sisters. She has her own trouble in South Korea, with both an easier time fitting in, but still facing a language barrier – only with people not expecting her to have trouble. There’s a lot of complexity and a whole lot of detail in the entire depiction making for a rich and often harsh look at their family life and the challenges they face. There were a lot of cultural references and hard moments dealing with and challenging various elements of racism they faced – all fitting naturally into the story without any feel of convoluted insertion.

The story eventually ends up with two protagonists – Raina and Citlalli which allows us 2 very very different characters who are both strong in different ways and both display a different set of talents. Both fight to overcome the situation they’re facing – but they do it from very different positions, with very different allies and, ultimately, end up with a very different lens on the situation giving us a much more nuanced view point of who the ultimate evil is or not. It adds to the excellent complexity of this book.

The characters in general are deeply flawed but very real and many of them are passionate and determined, none more so that Citlalli (she’s also stubborn, impetuous, passionate, sometimes mean but she does try) but equally so Raina – Citlalli is big and flashy and loud with her defiance and her demands, but Raina is quiet and strong and solid with her endurance and tenacity. Their sisters are portrayed in a very positive light even when they fight a great deal. Their mother is frequently attacked and slut shamed but there’s always an indication that they’re not fair to do that. Above all, she’s extremely hard working and ambitious, even if she is harsh and unforgiving. One of the vampires also repeatedly sexually assaults one of the characters – the whole concept of the vampires kidnapping “brides” is beyond unpleasant – but then the vampires are clearly portrayed as evil in part because of it. There is a lot of grimness in this book – which includes the sexually assaulting vampires and the kidnapped and enslaved girls – it’s presented as evil but it’s there and not sugarcoated.

The characters are real, they’re human and there’s a huge number of them – but never so many that I had trouble keeping track or the story felt too full.

There are no GBLT characters, unfortunately, even with the large cast; it’s another erased book.

It’s a fight to get into this book and it does take a little while getting started and getting moving. But once in there it is more than worth a look. It is truly original with very human main characters and a setting that is sorely missing from the Urban Fantasy genre. It’s racially diverse, it brings in culture and mythology and beliefs we rarely see (and when we do see it, we usually only get a cameo appearance tacked onto the story – fairy kitsunes abound). It definitely should be on the reading list of any fan of the genre.

A copy of this book was received from the author in exchange for a review