Thursday, January 14, 2016

Better Off Undead (The Bloodhound Files #4) by D.D. Barant

Despite the fact that everyone has told her to give up on Doctor Pete, Jace is determined to kill Tair and bring back her friend.  To that end, without securing back up, Jace attempts a magical rescue mission of sorts, only to end up scratched by Tair and no closer to Doctor Pete.  Now Jace has to deal with the potential of turning into a werewolf - that is if her boss cannot cure her with vampirism.  If that weren't enough to deal with, Jace now finds herself chasing down a mob boss gone rogue, as she follows Tair's trail.  With so much at stake, Jace is desperate to hold onto her humanity; however, even if Jace is cured, someone might still have to die.

As mentioned in the description, a lot of the plot revolves around Jace's quest to stay human; however, as a reader I never believed that Jace would lose her humanity. Other than being from another dimension, Jace's humanity is a lot of what makes her super special in this world and if she were to lose that, she wouldn't be the same character.  The minute that Cassius became involved, it became evident that not only would Jace remain human but that this would be used to advance the romance between the two of them.  At no point did I ever really feel that either  Jace or Cassius were in actual jeopardy. Let's be honest, the two have plot immunity up the ying yang.

I still very much enjoy this alternate dimension world with its slightly twisted versions of what we have today.  Gally the weredog continues to be one of my favourites, along with Charlie the golem. At this point, Jace is pretty much acclimated to this world and is quite comfortable with the fact that she doesn't really fit in anywhere.  Jace knows that remaining human means that she won't quite fit in  but is confident that without her humanity, she won't be her authentic self.  Even though the end goal is to return to her home, Jace seems less and less fixated on this as this series goes on.

As a protagonist, I still find Jace somewhat irritating because she tends to just barge forward without much forethought. When Jace frees a group of vampire sex slaves for instance, she sends them to a hotel with a bag of money and that is pretty much the last we see of them.  How exactly is this solving the problem that these now free women find themselves in? Jace is simply content to pat herself on the back for a good deed done and move on.  As much as the acclimation with this new world is good, Jace as a character really needs to have some growth.  At this point, she feels absolutely stagnant.

In terms of isms, Better Off Undead is absolutely loaded with problematic elements.  Reading this book very much feels like wading through muck to get to the good parts. None of the problematic elements in Better Off Undead are necessary to the plot whatsoever, particularly given that Thiropirelem is an alternate universe.  This means that Barant made very specific choices about what to include and what to exclude.  The history of Thiropirelem didn't have to unfold the way that it did.

Jace was brought to Thiropirelem in Dying Bites to chase down an insane human serial killer. From the very start of this series, it was clear that ableism would be an ongoing problem and Better off Undead seems to bear this out. Until Stoker (yes, an actual descendant of Brahm Stoker) circulated a video of an Elder God designed to make everyone who sees it "nuts", mental illness really didn't exist on Thiropirelem.  The recording would later come to be known as the Ghatanthoa meme. Thropes can also be infected by Hades Rabies, which is a cursed virus which makes them mentally ill.  Let's start with the fact that mental illness is not caused by woo woo. There's also the issue that everyone in this series thus far who has been labelled mentally ill is extremely violent and a serial killer.  This is an ableist trope because as we've said countless times, the person most in danger of being hurt, is the person who actually has a mental illness and not the population at large.  The idea that mental illness means violence is a harmful and reductive stereotype. Even if I could forgive the ableist trope which Barant unfortunately seems wedded to, there's tons of ableist language in Better Off Undead.
I try to bring my breathing under control.  "In my considered professional opinion," I say, "he's in a state of nocturnal airborne rodent feces."
"He's batshit. Crazy as a square cueball.  Off-his-rocker-around-the-bend-out-if-his-mind.  Your Don is riding the crazy train, compadre, and I think he's brought a first-class ticket. (pg 28-29)
The aforementioned is the kind of language Barant has Jace use throughout the book to discuss people with mental illness.  Jace is a doctor and a professional FBI profiler, therefore; I find it hard to believe that this kind of language is something that she would utilize on a regular basis, even if the above quote comes from a time of stress in her life.

After a few minutes of interviewing the Don, Jace is quick to diagnose him as a paranoid schizophrenic, based on the belief that he had a psychotic break.  When it is discovered that the Don has been killing his own people, Jace explains that, "paranoid schizophrenics often attack the people closet to them." Here's the issue: the people that the Don is attacking are not people he is actively interacting with; they are not his carers.  It is also worth noting that when violence does happen with paranoid schizophrenics, it's often because they are not getting proper medical treatment and are self medicating with drugs and alcohol.  This is an important distinction that must be made.  Jace does tell us at the very beginning of the book that there are no mental health facilities on Thiropirelem because until the introduction of Ghatanthoa meme, with the exception of thropes who suffered from Hades Rabies, no one actually had mental illness.  This may explain why violence can become an issue in Thiropirelem but at least in the world that Jace came from, as a doctor, she would know that problems largely stem from inappropriate care such as treat and release and that the most common victims other than mentally person themselves, are the mothers of the mentally ill because they are most often the carers. If Barant is going to continue with the ruse that Jace is a doctor who specializes in mental illness, then he needs to have her act like one and think like one.

As much as I like this world, the appropriation of atrocities has got to stop. Just as in our world, Thiropirelem went through a second world war.  Just as in our world, six million people died during this war but in the case of Thiropirelem, it was so that vampires could procreate.  Barant directly compares this to the holocaust by invoking Hitler.  While Jace does not approve of what happened, she seems to understand it.  How exactly does one understand genocide?  It seems that the real reason behind Jace's so-called understanding, is her attempt to justify what she believes Cassius's role in the event was.  Jace actually questions, "was it justifiable to kill millions of one race to ensure the existence of billions of another?"  Later, we learn that Cassisus attempted to save humans which to this day would be considered treasonous; however, this does not make up for the way in which Jace tried to twist events in order to continue her at that point friendly relationship with her boss.

The holocaust is not the only atrocity that Barant appropriates.  When Jace decides that she needs to get back in touch with her humanity, Cassius takes her to a human reservation.  Cassius is quick to explain that the security precautions are for the protection of the humans - something that humans insisted upon.  I personally can understand why a human would be scared to live in a world in which vampires, golems and shifters make up the dominant population; however, the idea that they would willingly choose a reservation is beyond problematic. The entire reservation system as we know is the creation of White supremacy, as a by product of colonialism and racism.  Barant's spin of the reservation system belies the actual damage it has caused and doing this in an alternate world does not somehow magically make it okay.  This is particularly so because Jace makes a point of noting how defeated the human population is, despite Cassius's protestations otherwise.  Jace doesn't want to be like the people who live on the reservation because she still has fight in her.  This point ignores the lack of choice. People who live or lived on reservations didn't just give up and sequester themselves away from the world.

Relationships and sexuality, Better off Undead are a problem as well. We are introduced to a subculture known as "crosskink", where werewolves dress up as vampires and vampires dress up as werewolves.
I read the file while Charlie drives. The Mix and Match isn’t your ordinary sort of bar; it’s a fetish club.
On the world of my birth, that would mean leather and rubber, whips and chains, masters and slaves. On Thropirelem, though, it’s something very different. Whereas most thropes and pires seem attracted to only their own kind, there’s apparently a subculture known as crosskink where the opposite is true. And it’s not just about members of one supernatural race dating another—there’s also an aspect of it devoted to pires posing as thropes and vice versa. Transexual Transylvania, indeed—though maybe transpecies is a better way to describe it. (pg 70)
Not only does Barant establish this kink as a sexuality. he invokes gender identity with the snide reference to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's worth noting that there are no LGBT characters in Better Off Undead; however, this does not stop Barant from invoking homophobia and gender identity discrimination.
It's supposedly a kink for shifters to dress up as vampires and vampires to dress up shifters.  
"Interesting," I say. "A club like this, I guess you get your fair share of females.  I wouldn't have thought your tale wagged that particular way, but live and let live."
And now the grin is gone. "Hey, my bitches are real bitches, okay? Just because I sell the drinks doesn't mean I -"
"Oh, I know they're real, Iggy. I can smell that. Just like I can smell the hair remover and white makeup they use to give themselves that nice, pale, smooth skin." Every Moob guy I've ever met was a raging homophobe, still it's not surprising that a thrope version would be deeply offended at my insulting his red-blooded wolfhood.  Sometimes insulted is good; it can lead to a subject saying things he shouldn't.
He glares at me. "I don't got a thing for shampires, awright? I like my babes furry, four-legged, and howling at the moon."
I believe him. But if that was true, why the hell was he running a transpecies club? I can't think of a single case of the Mob operating a gay bar, eve as a front, Which means there has to be a really, really good reason for it - and when it comes to the Mob, that means really, really profitable.
And then, out of the blue, it hits me where I know that smell from.
"You know," I say. "I'm sorry I implied you were anything less than an alpha male.  Matter of fact, you're such an irresistible hunk of man - wolf I think I just have to spend some quality time getting to know you. (pg 75-76)
This is direct appropriation of homophobia reified by the suggestion that Iggy is somehow less of a man if he finds shampires sexually attractive.  He asserts his manhood by saying that he is only attracted to his own kind. Barant could have made this all about inter species relationships but he directly invokes the identities of GLBT people.  Later, when Barant approrpiates coming out and being rejected by one's family, there can be no doubt of the correlation that the reader is meant to make.
“What you have to understand is that people in the crosskink community are very secretive. A lot of people don’t use their real names, a lot of people never show you the face the rest of the world sees.”
“So they’re paranoid.”
“Paranoia is when you think people are out to get you when nobody is. I wish that were the case, but it’s not. We’re discriminated against, we’re attacked. People call us race traitors. If my family knew about me, they’d never speak to me again.”
 “So you weren’t just afraid of the Gray Wolves—you were afraid of being outed.” 
“Yeah. I don’t know how he found out, but when Iggy learned about my other job and what I was studying, he made me an offer. Only it wasn’t really an offer, it was a threat.” (pg 200-201)
On one hand, this kink is associated with being a "race traitor" because vampires have sex with humans or other vampires and thropes have sex with thropes or humans. As much as the category of race is a human creation, it is still problematic to utilize the term "race traitor" and apply it to imaginary creatures like vampires and thropes.  It is a complex term that has to do with collusion with the oppressor and in this case, both vampires and thropes have their strengths and their weakness and no one group -- despite the long term animosity between them -- has the power to directly oppress the other.

There's a long history of tension between thropes and vampires which stems from a struggle for power. However, Barant invokes cross dressing and makes it clear that this is about sex and sexuality, as well as gender identity because this is something people pay prostitutes to do. This is absolutely outside of the historical power struggle between the two supernatural identities. There can be no denying the sexual nature of this kink. It's something people are forced to hide and seems to be an intrinsic part of their identity.   It's really no different than Charlaine Harris using the phrase "coming out of the coffin" as an analogy to the experience of coming out as LGBT.

In Better off Undead, there are no characters of colour whatsoever but there's plenty of appropriation of cultural and religious practices.  Animism is the magic force in this world and is stolen directly from Shintoism and Barant also invokes Voodoo. "Animist magic is mostly based on either Shinto or African shamanism; what's coming out of Eisfanger's mouth sound more like Swahili than Japanese." (pg 204) All of the woowoo in this world stems from cultures and religions of culture and yet Barant didn't see fit in this book to include a character of colour. The closest we get to a person of colour is Charlie, who is a golem.  Charlie is all black because he is made from the remains of a tyrannosaurus rex.
The problem with Charlie is that he's black.
That sounds racist, but it's not - well, not exactly. Golems are filled with different-colored sand depending on what sort of job they're designed for; that job is usually defined by the spirit of the animal they're animated by.
All Black Lems are made from predators and were among the first to turn on humans. Yes, Barant doesn't literally mean Black as in the race but black as in the colour yet the correlation between blackness and violence is far from unproblematic.

Even as Barant emphatically has Jace denying the term Black in reference to Charlie is  race based, he appropriates slavery and the Under Ground railroad, making Jace's denial unbelievable at best.
I don't ask him the obvious question, which is how a lem would know about an illegal lem-making operation. Same way a slave knows about The Underground Railroad, or an undocumented immigrant knows about border crossings.
Lems have no control over their reproduction and have a long history of being used as slaves.  When some illegal Lems are created, rather than report them because that would mean their destruction, Charlie helps them to escape.
“Golems have to be careful. Deactivation for Gray Market lems is automatic—but so is assisting lems like that in any way. The big monster in the closet for thropes and pires is the idea of lems controlling their own production. Afraid we’re going to start breeding like rabbits or something. They bring the hammer down hard on anything like that.” (pg 87)
So, not only do we have the invocation of the Underground Railroad and slavery, there's also the trope of Lems not being able to reproduce for fear of overwhelming the dominant supernatural population. This kind of thinking is ripped directly from White supremacy and even more specifically eugenics. We see this play out with the fact that the majority of the black market Lems are childlike and simple minded.  They are barely able to think for themselves and spend their lives as submissives.  They readily accept the fact that they are products to be owned and used. It's the white supremacist fantasy of the childlike negro slave who needs controlling for their own protection.

Barant also references "Purebloods, the pire equivalent of white supremacists."
"And then there's Japan, where human blood is an expensive black-market item controlled by the Yakuza - who keep underground blood farms pumping out product from human captives." 
Then we have the racial slur "bag of meat", which is used as a reference to Jace.  Yes, Barant actually had his White female character experience racism.

Finally, we come to fatphobia.  All of the fat characters mentioned in this book happen to be members of the mafia which it is heavily alluded to is of Italian origin.
You don't see many overweight thropes, but this guy obviously worked at it. At least three hundred pounds of flabby flesh stuffed into an expensive suit.
First we must deal with the fact that someone can be fat for a myriad of reasons and therefore the implication that this character simply worked hard to get there is both fatphobic and wrong. Each time a fat character is mentioned, Jace is there to express some kind of disgust with their appearance. No one ever calls her out on her language, thus normalizing her fat hatred.

Between the ableism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia, there's a whole lot of hot mess in Better Off Dead.  The sad part about this is that none of this is necessary for the story to be told.  In fact, Better Off Dead is actually not a bad book but it is nearly destroyed by the appropriation and problematic elements.  It's not okay to create an alternate universe and then appropriate the experiences of marginalized people for the sake of world building and cannot fodder, particularly when the source material in this case is so heavily erased.  The experiences of marginalized people are certainly due more respect than granted by Barant. As long as this book is read with a full awareness of the problematic elements, it's not bad and the story is interesting. The issue however is that one must actively consider whether wading through the horrible muck of problems is worth the story and if by reading it, one is supporting the oppression of marginalized people.  As a reviewer, this puts me in quite a bit of a bind. As much as I enjoyed the story, because the appropriation and problematic elements were so overwhelming, it leaves me in the position of suggesting that you read it at your own risk.  Some people may be able to overlook the bad for the sake of the adventure and others will not be able to. do so. In this case, I am going to give this story 2.5 Fangs as a reflection of its many problematic elements which is a shame because without it, I probably would have given the book a 3.5-4.