Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chameleon (Cage Punks #1) by Kenya Wright

Living in the walled city of Santeria, one of the caged Supernatural denizens within, Cameo scratches a living as a reviled mixed-breed, but one with a unique power: she can change her shape to look like anyone.

Working with Wiz, her partner and long term crush, she manages to make considerable cash with this skill, especially for a homeless street kid; but as her reputation becomes known, the risks grow ever harder

Especially when a person from Wiz’s past appears – old debts become due and there’s far more to their history than ever Cameo guessed.

This is set in the same world setting as the Santeria Habitat series and I love that series. I love the world building. I love the concept of the various kind of supernaturals living in their caged cities and the different societies and cultures they have had to bring together and build. It’s intriguing to see a word where everyone is a supernatural of one kind or other and what that means, as well as the closed in setting caused by the closed city. It’s a really excellent and truly original world setting that I have never see anything close to it anywhere else.

I also love that the foundation of this book is Santeria. Each of the Habitat walled cites are designed around a particular faith and the supernaturals within are either adherents or sympathetic to that fait (or recognise that their particular supernatural nature will be tolerated within that faith). So the buildings, the districts the rituals, the expressions and the customs of this city all evolved around Santeria. It’s a rich and diverse element of the story and world that I love.

The plot itself is gloriously twisty but not that focused on the Habitat as much as the main series is. This draws on a lot of the history and believe of the fae

Cameo’s shapeshifting powers are also excellent as there’s a lot of imagination gone into exploring how this would be marketable and useful beyond the obvious. But this also mixes into this series’ excellent class analysis and the treatment of Mixedbreed supernaturals like Cameo. Exploited and shunned, her useful talents make her in demand, but being mixedbreed also makes her vulnerable. She can be easily used or scapegoated with little consequence which makes accepting jobs fraught

Cameo herself is a very fragile character. Her nature has left her physically very different and her abusive mother filled her with a vast amount of self-loathing. Her body image issues re interestingly confused still further with her ability to change her appearance so completely. It’s hard to tell her appearance doesn’t matter when her whole livelihood centres aound imitating other’s. It’s hard when she can assume the form of beautiful people for her not to notice how people treat he differently and how they react to her real form. It’s hard to tell her to love herself when she can change her appearance and set change as some kind of permanent goal. Why learn to see the beauty in herself when she can imitate the beauty in others?

I have a couple of stand out criticisms about this book

First of all the mystery goes on for far too long. There is a lot of investigating which I appreciate because too many urban fantasy protagonists interpret “investigation” as hanging around and doing nothing until someone hands them all the answers they want on a platter. So I do appreciate that Cameo always investigated, kept hammering at the answers, kept trying to find the answer. And she’s creative ad intelligent and capable in finding those answers

But, at the same time, I do think she may have seized on clues that appeared only a little relevant or coincidental. They turned out to be super-duper relevant, certainly – but don’t see entirely how Cameo could have known that when she seized on them as something vital to investigate.

From a storytelling standpoint, I was also a little frustrated that all the answers were so packed at the end of the book with little actually linking the clues to them. This meant we kept revisiting these same histories over and over, poring over them, investigating them but, far too often, with me having no real idea why these clues are relevant, why we’re spending so much time on them and why I am supposed to be engaged on them – right until he very end of the book. That’ a long time to be dumping information on me without giving me a reason to care about it

Still, these elements are relatively minor problems. What wasn’t minor to me were the relationships in this book. Any of the relationships really. Even a somewhat background relationship like Rich with his crush on Finn is shown by him repeatedly pushing on her while she continually tells him to stop, back up and generally cut it out. And he gets ridiculously snippy and jealous with another guy he thinks Finn likes. There’s a whole lot of ownership and boundary pushing

And that’s the background relationship. When we get to Cameo and Wiz we have a trainwreck of awful romance tropes. Because of woo-woo, Wiz cannot be with Cameo despite having watched her since she was a baby and being deeply in love with her (can we not with this? Seriously there is no way that the sentence “I’ve watched you since you were born and always loved you, let’s have sex” can ever be anything other than creepy and awful). This means he tells he repeatedly that they can never be together which hits her low self-esteem like a sledgehammer while at the same time saying how hot she is (so she keeps thinking she has a chance). Despite not being in a relationship, both feel the need to be super possessive and jealous – with Cameo being furious about Wiz sleeping with another woman (and that woman is treated to a truly epic level of slut shaming by just about everyone for this) and Wiz threatening to outright murder the guy who shows any instance in Cameo along with some severe threats against her as well

The possessive violent jealousy thing is disgusting, awful and generally sexist when it raises it’s ugly head in any context. But to do so when both parties are quite clear they are NOT in a relationship AND where both of them are a least open to the possibility of seeking relationships elsewhere just adds an extra layer of fail.

Added to this is Cameo’s relationship with Eight which is a combination of, again, him not respecting boundaries very well and her using him as a convenient research tool. All of this I crowned with Wiz, the sexy bad boy, threatening… well, everyone. I don’t think there’s a character in this book he hasn’t threatened at some point. And he imprisons Cameo “for her own good.”

We have several POC as background characters, there’s good backdrop diversity (something I appreciate if there’s also good foreground diversity – so you don’t get the feeling that the one POC is the only one in a gazillion miles around) and 2 of the side characters are Black – Sasha and Rich. I won’t say they’re major important characters – because beyond Cameo and Wiz I’m not sure there are major important characters. If there were they would be Rich and Finn; Finn is the more active participant but Rich is more integral to the plot line.

It’s also a nice touch that the fae royal family is Black.

Finn also has some nice little insights about how being homeless intersects differently with her as a woman, especially an attractive woman, making her more wary and aware of her safety.

There are 2 trans women in this book which is excellent to see given the paucity of trans characters in the genre. I don’t think either are ideal tough. One exists just to show how invasive Cameo’s power is – see assumes the woman’s body and realises “this woman has a huge penis” basically. That’s her purpose for inclusion

The second. Sasha, is a more constant presence, a homeless vampire who Cameo befriends. She’s hardly part of the main group, but she is present and she’s liked and she’s generally a good character. But she also spends much of her “screen” time cooking or providing fashion advice which is servile and somewhat shaky for a Black trans woman. Cameo also noticed she was trans on first meeting – mentioning the standard tropes of big hands, adam’s apple etc; she even demanded to know if Sasha was “born male” with absolutely zero reason she would ask that question or why Sasha should answer it.

There’s a lesbian character mentioned in passing

I’ll add again that this was a relatively high number of minority characters considering that the book only really had two main characters.

In all I love that we have another book and possibly another series in this wonderful world setting, I love this setting, I love the potential of it, I love the history of it, I love the characters that can and do grow within it. There is a lot of excellent there

I’m just not as excited about these particular characters – and certainly not their relationships.