Sunday, February 16, 2014

But Where Are the Werewolves? I Was Promised Werewolves!

Santa Olivia
by Jacqueline Carey
Published by Grand Central Publishing
2 Out of 5 Stars

The town of Santa Olivia lies between the U.S. and Mexican border, but becomes a sort of present day leper colony when it is walled off from the rest of the world. Apparently the epicenter of a particularly nasty flu virus, the U. S. military builds a base there so the soldiers can keep the townspeople in line. And, as governments are wont to do, it decides, "Hey, while we have this super-secret base cut off from the rest of the world, how's about we take the opportunity for a little genetic experimentation? Maybe splice some animal DNA into human DNA and create a super soldier? Anyone have any wolf DNA lying about?" Which is all fine and dandy until your super soldier escapes, impregnates a local waitress, and hightails it for Mexico after the townspeople turn against him. And so Loup Garron is born, a child with super-strength and an inability to feel fear. 

Following Loup throughout her childhood and teenage years, we witness as she deals with the deaths of loved ones, bands together with others in her orphanage to create miracles and punishments in the name of the town's patron saint, grapples with her identity and her sexuality, and enters into a military sanctioned boxing match as a means of avenging her brother's death. To have focused on any one of these stories might have made for a more cohesive (if not more satisfying) narrative, but, as it is, the plot structure seems clunky and jumps from one idea to the next. It doesn't help that, through it all, Loup doesn't seem to feel much of anything or develop a personality beyond "gee, I feel different from everyone else." The climax of the book leads to the aforementioned boxing match, which lacks any real sense of tension or drama.

I've seen summaries of Santa Olivia that claim it gives a new and intriguing slant to both the werewolf mythos and to the superhero concept. Except for it doesn't. Because, really, it's not about werewolves or about superheroes. The whole wolf DNA angle is basically irrelevant; the only wolfy characteristics exhibited by Loup are her super-strength and stamina, a keen sense of hearing, an increased appetite, and some poorly executed idea about her "mating for life." Any animal could have been selected for the same traits--there's no real reason as to why it had to be a wolf. In terms of her superhero abilities, see the list provided above. Not exactly thrilling stuff. She's no Wolverine (although one of the orphans compares her to him). Here she is, blessed with the strength of the big bad wolf, so what's she going to do? She's going to box her heart out, baby! This failed to blow my house down. 

There were some intriguing ideas here whose executions fell flat, but I did appreciate the inclusion of a strong lesbian character. However, even that feels a little disingenuous in that it seems to exist only as a means of reinforcing the idea that Loup never fits in, in case it's not really coming across that she's different. During her sexual experimentation with boys, the boys always reject her, saying that she just "feels different" when they kiss her or that sex with her is like putting a "penis in a vise." It's almost as if seeking out another female is her only option, although it's later connected to the whole tendency to have only one mate idea. I would have preferred it if her attraction to women had been separated from this strange connection to her lupine heritage.

Overall, I feel this is the type of book that was born out of a tongue-in-cheek conceit: "Hey, what if I named the main character Loup Garron? Get it? Like loup garou? As in werewolf? Why aren't you 'howling' with laughter?" 

Also, I'm pissed about that cover. Because that cover has nothing to do with the book.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Weak Rule

Emperor (Time's Tapestry #1)
by Stephen Baxter
Published by Ace
2 Out of 5 Stars

You know that whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing? Yeah, well, I totally did. In a heady bit of book buying when I graduated from college and got a full time job, I may have celebrated by overindulging in a Books-a-Million and grabbing anything that struck my fancy. I may or may not have read the book blurbs. After all, I was young, financially independent, had a whole life ahead of me to read--who cared how many books I wantonly threw into my book basket? Life was a library, baby, and I was going to spend it all in the stacks.

Tragic mistakes were made that I'm still paying for years later.

For example, Emperor, a book that I feel must shoulder some of the blame for underwhelming me because of its blatantly misleading cover. There's a statue of Julius Caesar on the front pictured over what is clearly Rome. You might think that this is what the book is about. As did I. We're both mistaken because the book takes place in Britain and focuses on the rule of Claudius, Hadrian, and Constantine. It's the literary equivalent of being roofied and waking up next to an ugly book. 

Emperor revolves around a prophecy passed down from one family's generation to another in Britain around the time of Roman rule. Unable to understand the enigmatic message in its entirety, each generation uses it to its own ends: during the reign of Claudius, it is mistakenly believed to vouchsafe Britain against conquest by Rome; during the reign of Hadrian, it is used to gain the family profit by manipulating the emperor into building an ill-advised stone wall to protect his empire in Britain; and during the time of Constantine, it is used to make an assassination attempt on the emperor's life.

Consisting of three interlocking narratives that necessarily skip forward in time with only loose connections to the previous tale, the reader never really gets to know any of the characters--which is a shame because many of them could be fascinating if given more depth. Baxter writes with authority about the time periods involved, but the novel is billed as an alternative science fiction history. Without a historian's understanding of the time period, it is difficult to ascertain which parts are alternative and which are authentic. And the science fiction bit is definitely AWOL. There's some very brief philosophical debate about the nature of time (is it linear, or do the past, present, and future coexist at the exact same time?) and about whether or not the prophecy was sent by someone in the future (known only as the Weaver) attempting to change the past, but nothing that I would classify as "science fiction." 

The novel would have been far more successful for me if it had been a straight historical fiction (really the alternative part is virtually nonexistent and seems to stem entirely from the prophecy, which never really changes events) and focused on one of the three narratives presented. Baxter has the ability to bring the past to life in a real and satisfying way, but the lack of payoff in terms of the novel's presentation and in its use of the prophecy as an unnecessary device to explore the past make it a tedious read. While I will not read the other books in the series, I would not entirely rule out reading another Baxter novel.

So, the moral of the story is: the next time a cute little book starts making eyes at me from the shelf, I'm damn sure going to take the time to read the blurb before I take it home with me.