Monday, September 7, 2015

Marked (House of Night #1) by P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast

Zoey’s normal life has been derailed by her being marked by a Vampyre Tracker. She is now a Vampyre, chosen by the goddess Nyx and entering the private school and vampire compound known as the House of Night

But in the House she finds that the leader of the Elite Group, the Dark Daughters, is pretty much terrible and she finds she needs to replace her. Thankfully she has been granted the greatest and rarest power, never seen before, compared to any other vampyre in history.

I try, I really do, in every review to say something positive about a book. There is usually something, some gem, some nugget, some facet somewhere I can seize on and say “hey, despite all the other problems, this is pretty decent.”

I tried with this book. I really did. But, honestly, I can’t think of one tiny, redeeming feature. It’s a a book that manages to be terrible on just about every level. With many other books I would have thrown it away, deleted it from my tablet and DNFed it after vigorously expressing my contempt. But not only am I now committed to reading this series due to the diabolical machinations of Cyna and Mavrynthia and especially Merriska I am now doomed to read this series – but also this book was so bad, so unutterably, shamefully awful that I felt the need to keep going. It was a combination of watching a terrible trainwreck and you know you should look away but are somehow drawn back to the horror, watching someone about to do something epicly ridiculous and watching them to see if they’re really going to go through with it and just reading in a vague, desperate hope that at some point the author would yell “ha! Fooled you, this is a parody!”

It was not a parody. If it were a parody it would be a bad parody because good parodies are more subtle than this.

So, since there’s absolutely nothing right with this book, let’s tackle the wrong. The oh-so-very wrong.

I will begin with the marginalised characters – on team good guy we have one gay man, Damien, and one Black woman, Shaunee, playing sassy sidekicks to the protagonist (along with two white woman, one of which, Erin shares exactly the same personality as Shaunee because characterisation is hard. We also get the joy of these two characters calling each other twin. The other is just a kicked puppy dog following Zoey around with utter devotion she developed within 10 second of meeting her because characterisation is hard).

Damien is gay, we know this because it is mentioned all the time. Even when mentioning things completely irrelevant to his sexuality – like how smart he is – he is the “gay genius.” We’ve seen this trope before and labelled it the Lesbian Shark. It definitely applies. Like all of Zoey’s “friends” Damien exists for the greater glory of Zoey, being slavishly loyal and obedient pretty much from the first meeting. As a bonus he’s used to excuse using the slur f@ggot. We also have such joys as Damien not counting as a guy because he’s the, direct quote “token gay”. He also takes on the rule as the expert of all things “peniled” because while having no relationship himself, it is the duty of all good GBFs to play advisor and counsel to straight ladies. To top this off we have derision of gay men who are “swishy girly-guys”. And all Lesbians are some kind of like minded cult who spend their whole time in the temple because Matriarchal Goddess = Lesbian devotion.

Frankly, it’s almost insulting when the author has a terribad awful caricature call Damien a “f@g” so Zoey can have a PSDA on how homophobia is wrong – you don’t get to inflict this utterly dreadful portrayal on us and then throw in a paragraph PSA and call it good. Throwing in a “homophobia is bad, ‘kay” speech in the middle of a grossly stereotyped and homophobic portrayal is almost comic.

 In the few times Shaunee is mentioned (which is usually so she can speak in the most over the top caricature of a sassy Black friend), or any other Black person, the words “mocha” “cappuccino” or “chocolate” will appear. I think the author may have copy and pasted her Starbucks order every time she described this woman. She’s Like Damien, this dubious racial fetishising is justified by Shaunee herself remarking “thank you for appreciating my blackness.” And comparing her to a beverage, apparently. Just because you have your marginalised characters agree with your poor word choice doesn’t make it ok. Shaunee also has “good hair” by which she means “long, straight hair” which is racially problematic to begin with. It’s further compounded by her deciding a Black woman in the enemy camp with “good hair” is definitely “wearing a weave.” Because she’s subtle like that.

Then we get to the portrayal of women – and before we do that we need to look at the caricatures who are Zoey’s enemies. And I say caricatures for a reason because of her friends are one dimensional sycophants (hilariously, this is how she refers to people who follow the big bad Mean Girl Aphrodite but, really, it’s a perfect description of Shaunee, Erin, Stevie Rae and Damien) then her enemies are such over-the-top terrible people that they may as well have twirly moustaches and black hats and spend their weekends tying women to train tracks. And this is relevant because, except for two (her ex-boyfriend who is a drunken, drug using, inept fool and her father who is a cookie-cutter religious patriarch, neither of whom are that influential in the story) all of these villains are women. This means this book is positively brimming with girl-hate – Zoey (and her minions) hate these terribad women and constantly refer to them in the most misogynist terms – slut, hag, ho, bitch, cow, constantly over and over. With an added bonus of Aphrodite’s top minions being the most blatant Straw Feminists you ever did see (they hate all men and want them to die! Because feminism!)

Aphrodite herself is so unbelievably awful that her special magical power, the one that actually gives her the leadership of the Dark Daughters (a special Mean Girls Clique and super influential), is one she actively suppresses and hides. Why? Because it gives her the power to foretell disasters and stop them. Because she is terribad evil she hides it because she doesn’t want to. No, really. She is that awful that she actually goes to great effort to NOT help people.

This book also has a very simple way to designate evil women as evil – they are even slightly sexual. Sexual women are the worst and this book contains completely unnecessary and ridiculous screeds against blow jobs (because oral sex is evil), Aphrodite is repeatedly attacked for being a “ho” and a “slut” (and she was first established as evil because she was trying to give said blow job therefore making her a slutjezebelhussy and therefore evil). I can’t stress enough how Aphrodite being sexual – from her clothes, from her dancing and, again, to the very first time we saw her being giving oral sex to a man saying no, is shown as evidence of her evil. And this could be a comment on consent, but since that man, the oh-so-over-the-top-dreamy-Eric (who smells like a forest  - so apparently Zoey has a thing for decomposing wet leaves) is actually Zoey’s love interest it’s more a comment on how much better than Aphrodite Eric and Zoey are because they are not sex crazy sluthussyjezebels like Aphrodite. Or Zoey's sister - when arguing with her mother, Zoey decides to tell her that her older sister has "slept with half the football team". Classy Zoey.

This terrible slut-shaming is rammed in everywhere in this utterly terrible writing (and, yes, it’s awful), even when it makes absolutely no sense – like this gem: “as fake and cold as Pamela Anderson’s humongous huge boobs.” Eternal shame on not just the author but any editor who allowed this simile to pass.

Of course not all this judgemental hatred is sexual – she loathes and judges her weak and ineffective mother despite all the, in any more reasonable book, indications of her being in a deeply abusive relationship. The way she refers to her ex-friend is judgmental and cruel from the very first chapter (dismissing her conversation as “babble”) though she quickly gets to the slut shaming later on (because evil women = sexual. It is known).

If someone is not evil but still deemed to be hated, like some disposable guy called Elliot, he is just unpleasant, briefly homophobic (not that anyone seems to care about that) and is smelly, ugly and has an annoying cough (things Zoey finds utterly intolerable). This also brings us to another toxic element of this book and vampyre culture (beyond the terrible spelling with Word keeps correcting, damn it Word, I know it isn’t a real word but work with me here). This matriarchal society still has uber-strict gender roles (men are supposed to protect and consort with the women though quite what the women need protecting from is unknown and unclear) and a super-ableist ideal that they’re all perfect physical specimens and fledglings who aren’t (who dare to be fat or sickly) are just doomed to die.

This also means the vampires insist the fledglings have super healthy lifestyles which includes banning all junk food but does allow infinite full sugar sodas because this book doesn’t try to make sense.

In the end this comes down to making Zoey an utterly terrible person and one who is utterly lacking in self-awareness. I’m supposed to think her displacing Aphrodite is her removing a terrible Mean Girl and taking her place as someone good and true – but it actually feels more like one Mean Girl being supplanted by another – only this one would like to hand out chastity belts, habits and mouth soapings to everyone (yes, she does not swear because she’s a Good Girl, you foul mouthed hussy, you).

So the characters are terrible, the writing is awful – but what about the plot? There isn’t any. Zoey discovers she’s a vampire one day and after dealing with terrible caricatures she ends up in the House of Night where we’re introduced to this terrible world (with a magic system cribbed from Wikipedia and a Wicca-for-dummies book and every single artist ever being declared to be a vampire – sorry, vampyre – with enough pop culture references to render it dated approximately 2 minutes after the first edition was published) and this awful school. It’s a good thing all vampires become artists because their curriculum includes fun things like horse riding and dispenses with pesky subjects like Maths and any Science. They also have a Spanish teacher who, apparently, doesn’t speak Spanish (authors, do not include foreign languages you don’t actually speak). Zoey gits into this world effortlessly, instantly gathering her team of sycophants and being supported by the most special of vampires not because of anything she does but simply because she is the Most Special Mary Sue Chosen One with the Shiniest Unique Powers ever. She faces no conflict except Aphrodite being occasionally snide to her and she has no decisions to make. Because she is the super-epic-Chosen-Shiny-Sue the goddess Nyx is inside her causing irritable bowel syndrome of divine guidance. Whenever Zoey has a decision to make, Nyx gives her stomach cramps or pains or feeling to guide what she must do so we’re spared any pesky reasoning or motivation development. Nyx has spoken through divine indigestion, praise be, don’t question. Nyx is clearly evil or Zoey would spend her life in the bathrooms having volcanic hell-diarrhoea for being such a terrible person.

Also, Neferet is a terrible headmistress/priestess. She signed off on Aphrodite being the head of the Dark Daughters and having all this influence and power and being her heir apparent, despite knowing that she was a caricature of a terrible person. Not only does Neferet clearly know what a terrible person Aphrodite is, but she’s clearly known for some time because she knows EVERYTHING. It’s kind of the go to role of her character, randomly knowing stuff to spare anyone the difficulty of having to do anything. Yet she decided to keep her around in the vague hope that she’d grow out of it? Why would she? Her constant awfulness was constantly validated and rewarded and she must have expected Neferet to approve – or the all-knowing-one would have intervened. Instead she waits for divine intervention to provide Zoey with the most specialist chosen-one-Mary-Sue powers of them all.

The review of this awfulness is getting super long so let’s get on to Zoey’s Cherokee heritage. On the plus side it isn’t brushed under the rug, it’s a definite part of her character and the author has clearly done some research read some Wikipedia articles and maybe a translator. But Zoey being Cherokee is used for one reason – woo-woo. Her Cherokee grandmother dispenses wisdom and mystical advice as well as having some ill-defined psychic powers. She herself is the Super-Shiny-Chosen-Sue because of her Cherokee woo-woo and she can out-magic Aphrodite, despite the other girl being a vampire for much longer and being much more practiced about magic, because Super-Shiny-Chosen-Sue is Cherokee therefore magical and magically educated. In short, while it’s nice to see her being Cherokee included it is largely there as an excuse for Zoey to have ALL THE WOO-WOO more than any actual characterisation

With that I can now sigh with relief that this review is over and be certain in the knowledge that the series must get better from here. Because it can hardly get worse…