Wednesday, 14 April 2010

rob thurman - nightlife

This week I’ve been reading the first book in Rob Thurman’s Cal Leandros urban fantasy series, Nightlife. While I found it an overall enjoyable read, I also have mixed feelings, not least about the gender roles. I recommended it to my friend and fellow gritty urban fantasy fan Dystophil, but not without reservations.

I picked up this book because I have a good track record with urban fantasies about two brothers pursued by the forces of evil: I love the TV show Supernatural, and I’m a huge fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA debut The Demon’s Lexicon. On that front, Nightlife did not disappoint. The two Leandros brothers are well-drawn and sympathetic; much as in The Demon’s Lexicon, a younger brother for whom evil is in the blood is saved by his older brother’s redemptive love, a trope I adore. The world is dark, there’s plenty of violence and the dialogue is amusingly snarky.

Unfortunately, the author has a serious case of overwriting. No good line goes uncluttered. Dialogue tags drip with adverbs and adjectives. At times I wanted to take a red pen to the novel. The novel could lose a good 10,000 words and come out leaner and tighter.

About two-thirds of the way through comes a story decision that dropped my jaw: the protagonist Cal is taken over mind and body by a third party. For nearly the entire rest of the novel, including the climax, Cal is just completely gone. Not only does he not make an appearance onscreen, in a metaphysical sense he doesn’t even exist! He doesn’t reappear until the resolution. I can’t understand what the author was thinking here. What kind of protagonist is entirely absent during the climax of the novel? I’m coming to think that maybe the first-person viewpoint is a ruse, and older brother Niko is the real protagonist. Niko is present while Cal is absent. Niko is suffering while Cal is not. Niko makes the decisions while Cal doesn’t even exist. Cal isn’t even there when Niko heroically saves the world. I found that extremely disappointing.

And then there are the gender roles. Yikes.

All the main characters are male. 95% of the screentime is devoted to male characters. All the important relationships are between male characters. Everybody present at the climax is male. Everybody present in the resolution is male. The book’s primary relationship is between two brothers, but that’s neither cause nor excuse for the complete exclusion of female characters. Look at The Demon’s Lexicon: there’s kickass Mae Crawford, demon-summoning dancer Sin and Goblin Market matriarch Morris, and that’s not even mentioning the protagonist’s crazy mother.

But most worryingly, the only female characters featured in Nightlife are all either virgins or whores, and the whores are made to suffer.
  • Georgina, the virgin, is the personification of innocence. She’s “truth and faith ... hope and warmth ... Everything about George was gentle”. Despite being only two years younger than Cal, she’s treated as being much younger. (Disturbingly, Cal’s romantic interest sees it as her role to “be a child for [him]”.) Not gruesomely killed.
  • Meredith, the whore, is heavily sexualised. She wears revealing outfits, her breasts get enough screentime that they should have their own credit in the ending sequence, and her flirtation is both a manipulation technique and a nuisance the male characters have to tolerate. She’s presented as artificial -- hair dye, plastic surgery, breast augmentation. Gruesomely killed.
  • Sophia is a literal whore, as in Cal’s father paid her to have sex with him. She’s also physically and emotionally abusive, a liar, thief and drunk, who extorts money from her own sons. Gruesomely killed.
  • Promise, the whore, marries old men for their money and then they die shortly afterward. Cal thinks of her as the “human version of a succubus”, before he discovers that she isn’t actually human at all. She’s a vampire who takes supplements to avoid having to drain blood. (Pity there isn’t a supplement she can take to avoid having to drain money.) Gruesomely k -- sorry, that was a reflex: Promise is the only sexually active female character who is not gruesomely killed.
I think I need to repeat that with more emphasis. Every sexually active female character but one is gruesomely killed.

Verdict = 3 out of 5 stars. Like fast food, Nightlife is tasty. Enjoy it, and don’t look too closely at what went into it.


  1. *laughs* That last line totally summarizes what I've been thinking when I read the first few chapters yesterday ;)

    Anyway, I think this will be one of those reads that will point to some things I desperately want to avoid with LIGHT, which is also heavy on male characters, but also has some kick-ass female characters (or so I hope.) I've put The Book Guy on this and will come up with a verdict shortly - thanks for the rec!

  2. It is somewhat ironic that Robyn Thurman is a woman... :D

    But really, two out of three is not a big deal. If there were thirty dirty whores who were all gruesomely killed, that would be something.

  3. I don't know - for me, the virgin-whore divide was striking. The virgin is innocent and pure. The non-virgins are a crazy evil bitch, a manipulative flirt and a gold-digging black widow. It *is* ironic that Rob Thurman is female, but she wouldn't be the first female author to have issues with depicting female sexuality.

  4. Just chanced upon your blog, and enjoyed reading your review -- especially since I just finished reading "Nightlife" myself. Got a couple comments, though.
    First off, thank you for "The Demon's Lexicon" recommendation. I just added it to my Amazon wishlist ;)
    Now, as for Rob Thurman's generous use of adjectives/adverbs... I dunno, for me it worked just fine. Maybe because it sounded okay (to me, at least) when coming from Cal, using a 1st person POV. Yup, there ARE all sorta rules -- "Kill the -ly words! Rip out those adjectives' throats!" But rules are (sometimes) made to be broken, and I do believe Rob Thurman did a damn fine breaking job, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
    Regarding the dominantly male cast. I actually found that refreshing, considering the oh-so-many urban fantasy offerings out there featuring dominant, kick-ass female protagonists. And I didn't agonize over the virgin/whore issue, I simply enjoyed the ride.
    The POV switch in the last third of the book is a bit tricky, I admit, and might lose some readers. However, I think it takes guts for an author to make such a POV switch, and I appreciate an author who does take a chance or two.