Writing reviews on an author’s debut novel is a tricky thing. The writer’s first book is almost universally their worst, for the simple fact that they are just starting their career, and have nowhere to go but up. Even the giants of literature like J.R.R. Tolkien have this problem: I doubt you will find anyone arguing that the Hobbit is superior to the Lord of the Rings, we just don’t think about because the ‘inferior’ Hobbit is still better than the vast majority of all fantasy ever written. So the question is how critical to be of the work of fiction. You can’t be too hard, because then you fail to recognize the potential of the author, and it isn’t fair to sour potential reader’s based on a rookie work only. Then again, potential is all it is. The next novel might be greatly improved, the same, or even, rarely, worse. Too glowing a review sets up the audience for later disappointments, which only abuses the trust they put in the reviewer’s judgment.
Knowing myself, I have to admit that I will likely favor mercy towards the novel, my irrepressible optimism combining with my own experiences with over-harsh critics. So, take this review with a grain of salt.
In any case, the debut novel in question here is Red-Headed Stepchild, the offspring of writer Jaye Wells, first in the series titled simply “Sabine Kane” after the protagonist. And yes, THAT Kane.
No, NO, not the bald terrorist, the biblical figure. Honestly. (But give yourself twenty geek points for recognizing the Command and Conquer reference)
Joking aside the biblical story of Cain (as well as the legends surrounding him) forms the basis for the fantasy world Wells has created. Cain being the father of vampires isn’t a new concept (Vampire: the Masquerade springs to mind) but then it is nigh impossible to craft a unique urban fantasy/horror realm while remaining true to the core elements of vampire lore. What is interesting here is the fact that Cain is basically a footnote, merely the reason all vampires have red hair, hair that darkens as they age. The important figure in Well’s mythology is Lilith, Cain’s brief consort and mother of vampire kind. Lilith is in fact believed to be the progenitor of not only the vampires, but all the various races of supernatural beings: Mages, Fairies, Demons, etc. Cain is father only of the vampires, however, vampires who reject everyone else’s claim to decent from Lilith. With such a warped creation story (essentially all the races are cousins, even humans [Adamites] though Cain) one has to wonder how they cope with a Matriarchal figure that got around so much.
As intriguing as the basic premise is, the novel’s world feels incomplete, as if the author only mapped out the parts necessary for the plot of this book, leaving nothing but a great big “Here there be monsters” on the rest of the world. Vampires feel the most fleshed out, but even their characteristics have a few holes, not helped by the fact that anything that strictly follows vampire stereotypes is left unsaid but assumed. It is admittedly difficult to explain why kills vampires to an audience that has read it dozens of times before, but it can be done. Assuming they know is sloppy craftsmanship and a dangerous assumption, especially given plenty of vampire mythos where even sunlight does not harm the monster. For example some of the vampires in the Dresden Files have no fear of sunlight, nor does Stoker’s Count Dracula for that matter, the originator of the whole literary archetype. This lack of definition in the fantasy world is most glaring in the protagonist’s dealings with non-vampires. Early in the novel a demon is summoned directly into her apartment by a mage (It having already been established that mages and vampires do not get along and are in a state of near cold war) and we are asked to believe that Sabina, top assassin for some of the most powerful vampires in the world, has no preparation for fighting a demon, or indeed, any idea how to kill one. It just feels that Jaye Wells has no idea how to kill a demon, so neither does her character.
As annoying as an incomplete world can be, it is a very common sin of first novels, especially in fantasy and science-fiction, because let’s face it. Creating an entire world with its own rules and dangers isn’t just hard work; it’s a massive amount of work. Even great sci-fi worlds like Star Wars or Star Trek are guilty of this crime, so in the end, I can overlook it. There is one major issue I cannot overlook, that of characterization. Take the protagonist, Sabina Kane. The book opens as she is digging a grave to hide the body or the drug dealer she has drained and killed. Obviously, she is a vampire and needs to drink blood, but the book makes it abundantly clear there is a blood substitute available (even if it tastes terrible) and vampires don’t have to kill to feed. Before she’s even done with that she’s assassinated a childhood friend (albeit on the orders of her superiors) without even giving him a chance to explain himself. Now, as a starting point for a character that’s designed to grow and improve over the course of several novels, it’s not a bad place to start. The problem lies in that almost immediately the reader will intensely dislike if not hate the protagonist. Having a character improve and grow only works if the audience sticks around long enough to see it. If disliking the protagonist wasn’t enough, her personality seems somewhat bi-polar as well. Through the course of the novel Sabina befriends people (things?) totally outside of what seems normal for the character. (Remember, the book opens with her killing her closest friend of nearly a half century) My complaint isn’t so much that she makes these odd friends; it’s that the text doesn’t seem to justify such behavior. It almost feels like we are missing pages, that something has happened when we weren’t watching to bond these characters.
Now, despite all these concerns and annoyances, I must say I really enjoyed Red-Headed Stepchild. The plot is innovative, surprising the reader by not only playing off of the clichés and conventions, defying the reader’s expectations, but then occasionally obeying the stereotype, surprising in its lack of surprise. I talked earlier about the uncertain nature of potential, but the book shows it in abundance. The characters are likeable yet flawed, once I got past my distaste for the protagonist’s beginning moral standing, and the book’s ending serves as the starting point for an even more interesting sequel. The novel’s not groundbreaking or high literature (but then, that’s probably a good thing as so much high literature tends to be unfathomable and unentertaining) and people who aren’t fans of the genre are not likely to enjoy it especially, but it is a good solid example of urban fantasy/horror, a pleasant read with promises of better stories to follow.
[tags]Urban Fantasy, Sabina Kane, Jaye Wells[/tags]