Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Unmaking (Rayne Whitmore Series #1) by Alanna J Faison

Rayne Whitmore had an extremely privileged life – not without issues, but with a loving family, immense wealth and a girlfriend, Selene, who loves her. But this comfortable life is shaken badly when she sees what terrible things her father has to do to preserve it.

But it’s only the beginning – the retaliation brings demons to her family’s door and leaves Rayne devastated, grieving and lost with the knowledge that monsters and magic still exist. Only Selene is there to offer comfort – and knowledge of the magical world that had been hidden from her. It’s a world Rayne will have to become more deeply involved in if she ever wants to justice for her family and to ensure she will never be the victim again.

We have a huge world here – with a lot of layers but also a lot of depth. We don’t just have a world that has trawled every supernatural mythology out there, declared “these exist” and then moved on and relied on tropes to characterise them. We don’t just have demons and gods and vampires and werewolves, they have histories and cultures and development – or at least hints of them (more would be an unconscionable info-dump) to set out what is actually meant by these terms in this setting, to show that the author has developed and created these rather than just slapped some fangs on a sexy person and said “behold, vampire – you know how this goes.” There’s a lot built into things like the werewolf packs, the history of the vampires and their societies, the internal problems with the witchborn and how that affects Selene’s life and past.

This genre is very very full and it’s hard to take concepts that are long established and tweak them sufficiently to bring originals spins on them – this book does it, it makes something new out of the old tropes, brings a lot of originality while still keeping the familiar.

Rayne is also an excellent character. She’s a Black lesbian, which is excellent inclusion, both of these both inform her and are very present in her character. She’s in a long term relationship with Selene, a latina lesbian and being a lesbian touches on her relationship with her (sadly absent) mother and how she lives and interacts with immortals later. Similarly race and ethnicity are present in the characterisation, language choice, explanations, descriptions, and generally are integral part of their characters. It’s not just a tossed away description but nor is it a heavily hammered, all consuming stereotype. It was a nice balance and excellent character development and inclusion (and not limited – we have numerous main POC, several bisexual and another lesbian character. There is a problematic “everyone is bi” insistence from the immortals but Rayne herself is quick and firm to shoot that down, there’s also a bit of a shaky idea that gay male werewolves can’t possibly exist for random, unnecessary reasons).

In fact “nice balance” pretty much covers a lot of Rayne’s character. She’s confident and assertive, but rarely explodes all over people in the name of defiance (I say “rarely” because she’s also passionate and flawed and doesn’t always make good decisions when she is very angry). She has some character flaws – a tendency towards over-confidence at times that is both justified but also does get her into trouble. She is awesomely powerful – but then so are a lot of people around her (several of them more so). Including Selene who is at least her equal. She has some awesome strong relationships with the people around her – her family, Selene, and builds friendships based on mutual respect; and she and Selene aren’t the only “good” women  either.

Every side character seems to have motives and drives that I can understand – there’s no caricature, no evil for the sake of evil, no-one whose motive or actions seem just a little contrived. The characterisation is excellent; I’m not just invested in Rayne’s story, I’m invested in everyone’s story

Now, the places where I can’t quite lavish the same degree of praise; on characterisation, I think Rayne enjoyed an almost ludicrously wealthy lifestyle that was never quite addressed. There was also her dad, her dad’s business and her dad’s practices – in particular a whole lot of torture justification (though there was a lot of agonising over it). There was a big point of “he does what he must to protect his family” but, coupled with the lavish life they lead, came off a lot as “defend his family’s opulent lifestyle” which needed a little more work.

 I find the pacing of this book to be kind of poor and kind of uneven.  Part of it is that the book has a lot of big meaty plot with some really god of action packed fight scenes coupled with a plot line that changes focus three times. It also has a lot of deep characterisation with Rayne dealing with her world upside down, revelations about the supernatural, the woman she loves, her family and generally having to learn. And we have a lot of involved and complex world building. All of these are great things – but it just doesn’t have the room for all of them.

The poor-side comes from quite a lot of slowness, especially in the early-to-middle part of the books. There’s a lot of showing AND telling (because a lot is shown – like Rayne’s relationship with her sister Jasmine is shown in beautiful detail and clarity), there’s a lot of redundancy, a lot of over-description, a lot of really driving the points home long past the point when I, as a reader, have already got it and don’t need to return to it or cover it in quite that much detail. We also have a huge amount of world building to include which, almost inevitably, has be included by info-dump.

This is a hard element to get right because this world is so huge there HAS to be some info-dumping. At the same time, Rayne is, naturally, shocked, horrified, grieving and generally traumatised. She has to be emotional in these scenes, she can’t just absorb this information quickly, easily and impassively, it would be terrible. So that means there is going to be a lot of dump there which means the rest needs to be pared down.

Then it becomes a little uneven because Rayne is now zapped over to another world to become this whole new person – and literally months pass by in a few pages. I feel like there are names and concepts that buzz by in seconds, characters are introduced who I feel are supposed to be big, major characters I should know and feel connected to – but I don’t. Suddenly it’s rushed, Rayne transforms as a character and the entire tone is different

Then we reach the third part of the book with Rayne out in the world again and it’s a whole different tone again – and, again, it feels too fast. There’s a sudden tension between her and Diana, she forms a lot of connections with another whole load of characters and contacts and there’s yet another large block of world building to absorb –Rayne is different again.

I’m not saying any of this is unreasonable – Rayne being different is a sign of her growth and development. The tone changing is, again, related to Rayne and how she relates to what’s happening around her. But in one book I feel a bit jiggled around – I almost feel like this book would have worked better as three different books – with the beginning stretched out with firming up the relationships, establishing Rayne’s family more and a slower introduction to the supernatural (hints before the big bang, as it were) and then the other two having more time to tell the story of the other world, of Rayne’s training and then of Rayne returning and investigating. I think the book would have flowed so much better and have been a more enjoyable read. It makes it a very good book rather than the excellent book it could have been.