Friday, 10 December 2010

guillermo del toro and chuck hogan - the strain

Horror is not normally my genre of choice. As I huddled under the bedcovers in gibbering terror, perversely compelled to keep turning the pages of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, I remembered why.

This is a petrifying book, packed with body horror, gruesome murders and general extreme creepiness. It also works superbly as a thriller; it’s tautly-written and the pages flick past at an impressive speed. There is some supreme badassery here, including UV light bombs and vampires getting decapitated with swords, and some great set-pieces like the dead plane at the beginning of the book or the eclipse in the middle.

The one aspect that disappointed me was, and I apologise for yet again banging the same old drum, the gender roles. All the badasses are male. All the main characters are male. All the characters present at the climax are male. There are only two female characters; one is a damsel distress who is kidnapped and later fridged, and the other was ordered by the men to stay at home and look after the children during the climax. I rolled my eyes pretty hard at that point, especially since that second female character was supposed to be the protagonist’s colleague and equal, her training every bit the match of his. But she’s a girl, so she stays sidelined.

If you can overlook the gender aspect, The Strain is a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read which is still giving me the creeps a month later. You may experience sleep deprivation and/or uncontrollable sobbing, is all I’m saying.

Verdict = 4 out of 5 stars. I'll definitely be picking up the sequel.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

pc and kristen cast - marked

Oh dear. I cracked open PC and Kristen Cast’s Marked hoping that House of Night would be another gem a la Richelle Mead or Rachel Caine. I ended the book feeling not just disappointed but bitter, and I feel the need to share my bitterness with the world.

Marked repeats all the worst flaws of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series without the strength of character that makes Alanna (mostly) sympathetic. Like Alanna, the protagonist Zoey Redbird is designated by the author as special, and that point is hammered home so hard and so often I ended up with a slight concussion. A mere sampling of the ways in which we’re told Zoey is special:
  • She has a special tattoo. By the end of the book her tattoo is even specialer.
  • She has special magic powers.
  • She has a special unique bloodlust.
  • She has a special mentor who had a special vision of her.
  • She herself has special visions.
  • Everyone constantly reassures her that she's wonderful.
  • Goddesses literally intervene in person to tell her how amazing she is.
  • She has a special cat, which I assume was ripped directly from Tamora Pierce.
  • She has a special ability to just somehow know the right thing to do by instinct. (This is a trope I absolutely hate with a burning passion. If your character has no actual reason to make the next plot step, rethink your plot. Don’t just lazily give her special intuition.)
  • She’s being lined up to become the next high priestess, except super special because of her amazingly special magic powers.
That’s a truckload of special trinkets the author hands to her. What does Zoey actually do to deserve this universal admiration from the gods on down? Well, her world-shakingly epic achievement is ... wait for it ... she defeats some school bullies.

Yup. That’s the scale of the plot here -- gossip, backstabbing and dresses.

A key problem is the lack of an external antagonist posing a real threat to the protagonist and her comfortable world. In Richelle Mead’s excellent Vampire Academy series, protagonist Rose Hathaway has a driving purpose in life: to protect her charge Lissa Dragomir by fighting the evil Strigoi. That’s why Rose gets up in the morning. That’s why she fights, why she struggles, why she sacrifices. That threat, which cases a progressively longer shadow across the series, puts everything into perspective. Schoolgirl bitching is a minor irritant when your best friend could be murdered and your world crushed at any moment.

By contrast, Zoey has nothing to worry about. Her world contains no threat greater than another girl stealing the boy she’s crushing on, no purpose greater than earning queen-bee status among her classmates. The protagonist is innocent to the point of childishness; her worldview divides people into into slutty evil bitches and perfect beautiful people. (As you can probably imagine, this immaturity sits a little oddly with the dubiously-consensual public blowjobs -- it comes across slightly like an eight-year-old set loose on the set of a porn film.)

And that’s why this novel feels small and shallow to me. All the epic specialness and personal visits from goddesses are wasted on high-school bullies and slut-shaming.

Zoey Redbird needs to grow up.

Verdict = 2 out of 5 stars.