Monday, November 11, 2013

Armored (The Té Trad Tale #1) by M.A. Wilder

Beckit rarely fits in with other people – she certainly doesn’t fit any ideal with her dark skin, big hair and large frame – but she does the things she loves with the friend she values and makes her own way through school

But her life is massively disrupted when the only guardian she has ever known is disrupted and 2 strangers arrive from another world with a truly fantastic story – and perhaps the keys to her missing memories.

Soon she finds herself in a truly alien surrounding, with werewolves and vampires, witches banshees and creatures of nightmare – to say nothing of a beautiful knight who is sworn to protect her who is as compelling as any supernatural force.

This book has an incredibly broad world. The parallel world with every kind of supernatural creature imaginable is there – touching our world but not a part of it, with its own rules and strange crossovers. Yes, we’ve seen things like this before, but few that are truly this broad and it has a lot of very original twists that are completely unique out of everything I’ve read. There’s also that sense you get with good world building that the author has a very large book filled with notes. Vast amount of notes to give a fully rich and powerfully realised world with its own history and ensuring all of the elements come together properly.

We also have a pretty excellent protagonist – determined with fully fleshed out hobbies, real friendships that actually feel like friendships rather than just having a supporting cast. She has relatively complicated relationships with friend and family that are powerfully real

The story itself makes full use of that broad world – perhaps too much use – drawing all of them into Beckit’s story and putting her front and centre in a plot that feels like it’s growing into something epic.

The main problem I have, storywise, is that it happened too fast and with too little explanation. Beckit has this super special instinct assuring her that Aaron is on her side – and she just runs with that. When he’s following her around she feels safe – why? She just does. This is a man (a thousand year old man, we learn later) following around a 17 year old and she’s quite comfortable with this. It’s even lampshaded as stalkery. But this trust attitude continues. Beckit finds her home is ruined, her family in tatters and 2 strangers hanging around at the scene claiming they aren’t responsible – and she believes them. Because he’s Aaron and she trusts him for no damn good reason. And no, saying “she trusted him, she had no idea why” doesn’t JUSTIFY this random, pointless trust – it just lampshades it. There’s even this line between Beckit and Temeka:

“Please tell me you’re not actually considering going with them?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

Why shouldn’t you? Do you want a list?! They’re complete strangers spouting complete fantasy standing over the body of someone you loved. Why would you even consider going with them without chloroform being involved in some way?! Equally, saying how different Beckit is doesn’t justify this either – trusting complete strangers who tell you they’re from another planet isn’t “different”, it’s not even delusional because at least if she were delusional she may have a healthy dose of paranoia.

He then tells her about a whole load of woo-woo and she believes him on the flimsiest evidence – because he’s Aaron. This is a young woman born in the modern world, she has no reason to believe in magic – let alone banshees, monsters, nightmares running around in the flesh, automata or anything else. But she does – because some blood is green and Aaron says so. There then begins a magical flit around the world using pixie dust that she just kind of accepts and takes in her stride. This goes on for a long time before Beckit asks any real questions about what is happening in her life – and she never really expresses doubt or disbelief.

This lack of questioning can get beyond ridiculous – Aaron is Beckit’s erone. What’s an erone? Good question - one that is never asked. But from then on Beckit and the narrative constantly refer to him as an erone without ever defining the term. I get the idea it means bodyguard but only because he’s guarding her. This happens a lot – she repeatedly accepts their language and labels without question or definition. There’s even this big council which is vitally important and involves her but she doesn’t ask questions about it until beyond half way through the book and then only gets the vaguest answer. This is the very core of the book, the whole reason she had to go on the magical mystery tour in the first place (I assume – there’s history and rebellion alluded to but, again, not explanation!) and it’s just brushed over! Aaargh! So frustrating.

This also meant that I didn’t get any sense of Beckit being special – so, for example, when she shouts down the king’s council for not listening to her or paying attention to her, even with its excellent messages of confidence and assertion, I was still left thinking “who is this 17 year old alien teen who things beings who have lived for centuries in this land need to listen to her?”

Then there’s the romance itself – insert my standard complaints about a romance going too fast, people seeing each other and then being in love despite being total strangers and the fact he’s 1,000 years old and she’s 17 and there’s no way I can ever look on such a relationship and not find it creepy. But on top of all that we have endless descriptions about how much of an Adonis Aaron is with his blessedly perfect sexiness – even when one of her loved ones is bleeding on the carpet.

It’s all such a crying shame, because the book is also pretty inclusive. Beckit is a Black woman who does not fit the physical ideal – she’s fit and strong, but she’s also tall and not dainty. She’s an excellent character when not failing to question things or rhapsodising about Aaron’s hotness – she’s determined and resilient but also caring and willing to be vulnerable. She doesn’t swallow her hurt  nor does she tolerate the shenanigans from Aaron’s over the top annoying jealousy. Her best friend and probably the 3rd most prominent character (after the loved one) is Tameka who is Black and Latina who we see a little of her family life and culture – though I wish she was developed more and didn’t become the finger-snapping sassy side-kick.

A large number of the side characters are also POC, including the monarchs and the prince who was being set up as a major character

We have a gay werewolf, Ran – and he’s interesting in some ways in that he is a capable fighter and a man of some importance among his people. I have a few problems with his character, though. Firstly, he kind of just joins the group. He has no real compelling need to, certainly no reason to take on nightmares and risk his life for them – but he does. They find him and suddenly he’s with them playing GBF to Beckit and Tameka being sassy and amusing. He felt like a gross addition to the plot, he was almost pushed into the group that he had no real reason to be in and then added very little beyond the odd sassiness. And he has a homophobic backstory – which is kind of a replacement for any kind of history or characterisation – which always kind of annoys me in a pure fantasy setting because why create a brand new world and transport our prejudices to it? That’s not a rhetorical question – because I’m not saying don’t do it, but have a reason for it. And if “so my gay werewolf GBF has a backstory” is the reason then maybe you want to rethink that.

Frost, the bisexual vampire was much better included in the story. Since he had a reason to join them, he had a personal history with Beckit’s family he had an investment in the group. His competition with Aaron to be the love interest also made him far more present in the book than background GBFwolf. He has much more of his own agenda he has much more capacity and is definitely his own person. While he was a much better realised character, his arrogant dismissal of labels as “childish” is offensive – GBLT people have fought and died for the self-expression of those labels (and their world is hardly free of this – witness Ran) and presenting people who are attracted to one gender as being shallow is a neo-edgy condescension that is demeaning to many people’s sexualities and relationships. It’s not super progressive and special to declare it childish to self-identify or to push that everyone is universally bisexual – it’s demeaning, insulting and erasing.

There is a large cast here but it’s impressive to see so many minorities represented among them, even if they don’t’ always have large roles, they’re there adding diversity at a level that is rarely seen in most Urban Fantasy.

What we have here is the core of an excellent book whose story needed to be told in a marathon not a sprint, with some of the “zomg he’s so sexy” edited out. We needed more time for the romance to develop. We needed more explanation of the world. We needed the side characters fleshed out a little more. We needed less random characters and supernatural creatures crammed in. More explanation – more depth, less breadth would have improved everything immensely. As it is, that core potential is lost in a wave of random new shiny things and hidden world building – and that is just a real shame.