Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Shifting Shadows (Mercy Thompson #8.5 - short stories) by Patricia Briggs

Collections of short stories from the same author – and certainly set in the same world – like this one can be very hit and miss. After all, a lot of authors write short stories that are designed to go into mixed anthologies to draw in new readers who have never come across their world – when you put them into a book together that is then aimed at readers of the series they can feel very unnecessary, like they add nothing and are generally just filler in the longer series.

This one, I think, rather wonderfully avoids that. Most of these short stories do an excellent job of expanding on elements of the Mercy Thompson/Alpha & Omega world and delving into more detail. This is a great thing for a series that has gone on as long as this has, because there are always going to be gaps – there should always be moments where someone’s story wasn’t explored or a concept wasn’t expanded upon because it simply wasn’t relevant to the main plot – but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t still add to the world, flesh out a lot of side characters and generally add a lot of meat even if they didn’t quite fit.

So we have Silver that looks at the history of Bran and Samuel before they became werewolves, telling us about Bran’s with mother who enslaved them both – something which had been referred to in past books without ever really expanding upon it. It also brings in Samuel’s connection with Arianna; again I knew Samuel and Arianna had a history but I was never really aware of it’s depth or how far back it went. This story alone took a huge amount (while simultaneously reminding us just how very dangerous the fae are).

Roses in Winter adds some more flesh to Asil’s character – his compassion, his gentle hobbies and his ongoing struggle with the wolf due to his extreme age; and through that we see the almost inevitable struggle every werewolf goes through as they get older as well as the conflict that new wolves face trying to hold onto control and the sadly necessary executions of new wolves who fail to gain that control. It’s a great insight not just into Asil but also into how hard it is for Bran to lead, and a look at werewolf control beyond “rawr, I am wolf, cower before me, rawr!”

In Red, With Pearls brings some desperate characterisation to Kyle and Warren which has been desperately needed in the series. The only gay characters, they are often background in Mercy and Adam’s story and, unlike just about every other member of the werewolf pack and assorted associates, they’re the most affable. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing – but in a story where just about everyone throws up some problems, the gay characters being the mellow “we’ll go along with whatever you want, straight folks” has shades of the GBF, even the foreward of this story notes that Mercy considers Warren the gentlest werewolf she’d met. This story was essential to show more of these characters beyond how they appear when Mercy needs them or how they add to Mercy’s life – to try and claw back some sense of them as more than Mercy’s entourage and give them some of their own character and plot lines which I definitely like. I also like the further delving into the witch world building and the idea of the Pack witch – nearly every pack has a witch on call, but that doesn’t mean the witch is a nice person.

Redemption is another excellent book that fleshes out a character we haven’t seen much of – Ben. Ben has always been a problem in the series: a misogynist and vocal and almost violent about it, he has long been a character I could do without. Despite the title, I don’t think this story redeems him and I’m uncomfortable with the implication that his furious and unrelenting misogyny is justified or covered by his history of abuse and painful issues with his mother; but it does serve as both an expanding as to why Ben is the way he is and for Ben to take a step in the DIRECTION of redemption, rather than be redeemed himself. There’s also a lot more analysis of the nature of dominance and submission that is so prevalent throughout this series.

I have already read Seeing Eye in Magic City: Recent Spells and Alpha & Omega in On The Prowl so I’ll not repeat what I wrote there except to add that, like Silver they do a great job of developing not just the characters we’ve seen before but also the world. They’re not essential to understanding the rest of the series, but they do add a wonderful level of depth to witchcraft (which is almost universally demonised in the series) and being an Omega.

Fairy Gifts, Gray and The Star of David are different in that they all take characters we haven’t seen before and don’t, exactly, add to the world we’ve already seen; but they do have hints and development. We already knew about the many different kinds of fae in the world but Fairy Gifts emphasises that and brings some more background to vampires – as Gray does with vampires and ghosts. The Star of David is a story of a werewolf trying to connect with his mortal family and dealing with the huge guilt and grief that loss of control as a werewolf can bring. None of these add anything really new to the world, but they did take old concepts and approach them from a different angle while still being pretty decent stories in their own right

Ironically, Hollow, the only book really involving Mercy herself is the one I think adds the least to the plot. It seems primarily a reminder that Mercy can see ghosts (since the last few books haven’t mentioned it much) and an attempt to introduce new character Zack more – but Zack before was a submissive recovering from abuse and now it just feels like that abuse has been handwaved and dealt with in a hurry to just have Zack around.

This book is a wonderful exploration of the world but is also a nice exploration of some of the ongoing issues with the world as well. I already mentioned Warren and Kyle in In Red With Pearls and the collection also had a number of POC protagonists: Alpha & Omega, The Star of David, Silver, (Arianna, also bringing the idea of POC fae), Hollow and Fairy Gifts. They’re present and very grounded characters – so much so that I’d be happy to see any of these characters’ stories expanded.

I think with Alpha & Omega and Redemption there was also a real attempt to tackle the whole dominance problem this series has had – really pushing the idea of protection and support into the dynamic. It’s still paternalistic, but it’s pulling back on the abusive elements and trying to add a little more nuance to the dynamic.

Through that and through Redemption there’s also some ongoing attempt to address some of the problems we’ve had with depictions of women in the story. Some of this also comes through with the depiction of witches, albeit much less. It would help if every witch we met wasn’t female – especially since powerful witches inevitably requires either evil or self-torture (especially since The Star of David introduced us to a magic user who didn’t need evil for their power – and they were male). In addition to evil female villains with have a lot of female victims here: Alpha & Omega is the rescue of Anna, Redemption is about Ben Rescuing a woman, Fairy Gifts has another woman needing rescue, The Star of David has a woman asking for help, Silver has Arianna victimised, Roses in Winter is about saving Kara. Even In Red With Pearls is partially about avenging a woman. They’re not all powerless (Alpha & Omega, Silver) but it’s a pattern that only Gray, Seeing Eye, Hollow breaks.

On the whole this is an excellent collection of stories for opening up this world and colouring in many of the corners that had only been sketched before. If you are a fan of this world, then I wouldn’t call this book essential reading – but it is an excellent enhancement, that puts a much better context over what we’ve read before. This is a great book in its own right but, even better, it makes the rest of the series better because of the lens it adds.