Go Buy This Book Right Now

Maggie Stiefvater has written her best published novel to date and it was released last week. The Scorpio Races is perfect. There is literally not one thing to be said against it. If you like any of these things: action, horses, horror, competition, racing, gambling, social commentary, fantasy, mythology, boys, girls, women, men, baked goods, islands, suspense, violence, tragedy, going really fast, or cute fuzzy things that transform into monsters you want to read this book. The characterization is flawless, the action rises, rises, rises, and just when you think you might black out from the altitude it gives you an eerie little breather before it punches you in the face and you come back wanting more.

READ. IT.

Update: Late yesterday we got word that Warner Bros. had optioned the movie rights for The Scorpio Races. Less than a week after its release. Told you it was good.

Advertisements

You’re a Hideous Thing Inside

Building on yesterday’s objection to werewolf-teen-romance yawners, I have decided on a twofer review of solid YA novels that feature both romance and werewolves for those who like both. One is fairly recent and the other came out while I was in high school.

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, 324 pages, released 2010

Sisters Red fits neatly within the description of fairytale update, in this case the Red Riding Hood story. The novel opens with a brutal attack drawn in broad, bold strokes: a kindly grandmother is killed by a vicious werewolf, which mutilates the elder of the titular sisters even as she kills it. Pearce distills the essence of Red Riding Hood into these eight pages: innocence, lust, violation of trust, familial duty. She even manages to squeeze in woodsmen and goodies, leaving her 316 pages in which to play with her characters and their universe. 

The narrative jumps forward and we next meet the sisters, Scarlett and Rose, as young woman who have dedicated their lives to hunting down the lustful werewolves who prey on young women everywhere in this alternate reality: the Fenris. These werewolves don’t disappoint: while not governed by the moon in the traditional sense the change is nonetheless out of their control, and they are menacing and fearsome only quasi-human creatures. Pearce plays with the werewolf myth, bending it to her needs and adding complexities that suit a novel of this length. Neither do Rose and Scarlett disappoint as hunters: both possess strength and skill with their weapons, and they have refined using femininity and sexuality (and that red hood) as bait into an art.  What’s more, Scarlett and Rose are two of the most three-dimensional female characters I have seen in recent Young Adult fiction. Each has a clear voice and distinct personality, and the novel is stronger for it. Their somewhat strained relationship is at the core of the novel: Scarlett’s need to hunt and her desire to protect Rose, and Rose’s desire to grow up and decide who she wants to be.

There is also a Boy, Silas, who is equally well-rounded and manages to complement both the sisterly-relationship and werewolf-hunters aspects of the story without drowning it in Love Triangle. Action and personal drama accelerate as an unprecedented number of Fenris accumulate and the heroes move to the city to both do more damage and prevent a new Fenris from being created.

It is not a perfect novel, at times Rose and Scarlett’s inner turmoil threaten to swamp the narrative, but the author generally manages to right things and keep the story moving. Still the writing is rich and descriptions give the impression of heightened, even animalistic, senses. Sisters Red is not for everyone, but for fans of fairytales, werewolves, and the YA genre (or maybe for those with a strained sisterly relationship) it’s a filling basket of goodies.

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, 288 pages, published 1999

Let me preface this review by saying two things: one, the movie is terrible. Do not watch it under any circumstances. Two: I read this almost a decade ago and I am working from memory, so if the review isn’t the most detailed I apologize.

My overall recollection of this werewolf novel is sweatiness. Extremely hormonal parents and teens (some are literally in heat), a sixteen-year-old heroine with distinctly animal desires warring her longing to fit in with plain old humans. The werewolves are in fact an entirely separate race, the loup-garou (French for werewolf), and live in secrecy alongside humans. Pack politics dictate human interaction amongst the wolf-people, and our heroine accidentally wins herself the Alpha male while trying to save her mother from a dogfight early in the novel.

The problem is, she doesn’t want the fully grown motorcycle-riding Alpha Gabriel. Instead she sets her sights on a tender “meat-boy” her own age, a boy at school who writes a story that convinces her he might be able to both understand and appreciate what she really is. The story progresses from there, Vivian building a relationship with meat-boy Aidan and a social life with his equally human friends, Gabriel’s relentless pursuit of Vivian as his new mate, and the pack’s struggle to remain hidden amongst the humans of their Maryland suburb. Paralleling this struggle for concealment, Vivian’s desire to share her shifting ability with Aiden grows ever-stronger, a yearning Gabriel understands all too well.

This novel works so well because the themes of the novel, lust and longing, infuse every word of the prose. Imagery is sensual, visceral like the loups-garous themselves. Lycanthropy provides a perfect vehicle for the coming-of-age turmoil at the heart of every YA novel. Vivian loves who she is, a total bad-ass, and she longs to find a way to both be herself and be loved for it.

This book is seriously Sexy, and it has the action to satisfy readers of any gender (and I would argue, any age). Read it.

And now, just to prove that a werewolf story doesn’t have to be wordy to be good I give you TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me”

Why Must I be a Werewolf in Love?

I’ll be the first to admit I love a werewolf (well, the idea of one anyway). The idea of dreading a full moon, bones cracking and re-arranging completely out of one’s control, trying to piece together what atrocities have been committed when the human returns bloody, muddy, and naked…thrilling! The mythology with its essential question: is salvation possible? The silver bullet. Gets me excited just thinking about it! Werewolves are grotesque, violent, and often chock full of self-loathing.

Why then, have the werewolves of recent YA fantasy fiction been so deadly dull?

The creatures I refer to here are those found in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight  “saga” and those in Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls novels (Shiver, Linger, and Forever). Meyer’s version are angsty Native American teens governed by hormones and the nearness of her equally dull vampires. Stiefvater gives us a more diverse set of individuals who shift from human to wolf as the termperature drops and eventually stop returning to human form altogether. The problem is that none of these werebeasts are particularly beastly.

Meyer’s werewolves “evolved” (this term is used though the actual explanation describes something more like a summoning and fusing of wolf power with human, drawing on Native American spirituality)  in response to vampires preying on members of the Quileute tribe. One bcomes a werewolf by being the right age at the wrong time, and the only cure is the bloodsuckers (in this case, drinkers) finding a new hangout. Shifters resemble very large wolves and retain human thought, even gaining telepathic communication with the pack. Effectively, this takes the teeth out of werewolf myth. The “curse” goes from eternal damnation status to something akin to a period, and there is no real need for salvation. Just wait around and hope those Cullens move real soon.

Stiefvater’s werewolves don’t even qualify, as far as I am concerned. The only similarity to the werewolves we all know and love is the fact that lycanthropy is contracted via bite. Humans become, in  every way save one, wolves whenever the mercury drops. They look like wolves, think like wolves, and behave like wolves with human eyes (and, again, some telepathic ability). Though Stiefvater’s main shifter Sam Roth is properly self-loathing, the tension of the story relies on an assumption that very soon he will be Canis lupus for good (this gives Sam and his would-be girlfriend Grace a sad). Salvation figures into the story, but in a fashion more scientific than spiritual.

Compare these tepid creatures with Stephen King’s Reverend Lester Lowe or J.K. Rowling’s Remus Lupin. Out-of-control when shifted, these beasts’ vicious ferocity can only be contained by other beasts or a life-ending silver bullet. Even Lupin’s monthly potion can’t stop the change, it only sedates him until the danger has passed. There is no cure, and in Rowling’s world a werewolf who chooses to embrace the change like Fenrir Greyback is a fearsome thing indeed: an evil creature not fit for human society. Lowe and Lupin each struggle with the contradiction of their position in society and the curse that makes them inclined to maul people. Lupin suffers endless discrimination and resultant poverty, while Lowe is killed within a year of his first transformation. For these characters lycanthropy is a cursed existence, not an obstacle to teen romance.

With that, we have arrived at the real problem. Teen romance. In both Meyer’s and Stiefvater’s novels lycanthropy is mere window-dressing on the young swains vying for our heroine’s affections. What a dreamboat and oh, how quaint, he turns into a dog sometimes. This shameful bastardization of mythos is an insult to occult beings everywhere. Werewolves aren’t big dogs with dreamy eyes, they are beasts neither man nor wolf who can tear out the throat of the woman they love with their own teeth and suffer the guilt in the morning! Werewolves are destined for tragedy, not romance.

10 People You Don’t Want to be in a Stephen King Novel

10. A Man of the Law: Things never seem to work out well for lawmen in Stephen King novels. In fact, they often enjoy “ensign redshirt” status: sent to check out the Big Bad, only to be added to the mounting list of casualties. For some reason this only applies to lawmen, female officers have plenty of uncomfortable situations but nothing compared to what happens to the fellas.

F’rinstance:

  • Chief Howard “Duke” Perkins, Under the Dome
  • Constable Lander Neary, Cycle of the Werewolf
  • A nameless Colorado State Trooper, Misery

9. A Fat Woman: In many Stephen King novels there is at least one fat woman, often of the extremely lazy variety, who meets with a grisly end. These characters are often stupid in addition to being fat, and they often bring their deaths upon themselves.

  • Rebecca Paulson, The Tommyknockers
  • Cora Rusk and Myra Evans, Needful Things

8. A Grandfatherly Type: Sometimes actually the grandfather of a main character, other times just elderly men, these poor fellows have already been through the ringer and it ain’t over yet. Several kindly old gentlemen in King’s novels knowingly put themselves in harm’s way trying to save/help a main character. 

  • Ev Hillman, The Tommyknockers
  • Jud Crandall, Pet Sematary
  • Don Gaffney, The Langoliers

7. A Younger Brother: Life as a younger sibling is always tough: never getting first pick, getting left behind on all the really good adventures; but in a Stephen King story it’s worse than you ever imagined. One might have one’s arm ripped off, be run over by a truck (then buried, dug up, buried again, and killed again by your own father), or be sent to an alien planet in another dimension. Serves you right for breaking the crayons.

  • Georgie Denbrough, It
  • David Brown, The Tommyknockers
  • Gage Creed, Pet Sematary

6. An Abusive Husband: Not that this is high on my list of things to be in any case, but King has a history of seeing that the handsy jerks get what’s coming to them.

  • Joe St. George, Dolores Claiborne
  • Tom Rogan, It
  • Danforth “Buster” Keeton, Needful Things

5. A Man of the Cloth: This is another gender-specific affliction. While female spiritual leaders end up all right in the end, and are even instrumental to salvation, the men aren’t so lucky. To be a male spiritual leader in a King tale is to be troubled, insane, or downright sheisty. Multiple stories include a Priest or Minister who tries to turn it around and do the right thing, only to find it is too late for redemption.

  • Father Callahan, ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Reverend Lester Coggins, Under the Dome
  • Reverend Lester Lowe (maybe King knew a really crappy Lester?), Cycle of the Werewolf

4. A Person With A Sensory Disability: Finally, some gender-equality! The deaf or blind are guaranteed something spectacular like psychic ability or intended-savior status, but they will definitely die (violently).

  • Dinah Bellman, The Langoliers
  • Nick Andross, The Stand

3. A Socially Awkward Person: Life is just one humiliation after another until you kill everyone! Following which you are killed by the one person who gave you the time of day.

  • Carrietta “Carrie” White, Carrie
  • Harold Lauder, The Stand

2. A Writer: Drunk, delusional, doomed, or all three this particular occupation can only mean suffering and lots of it. One thing is for sure: the writer is Afflicted. However, it’s a crapshoot whether they are causing or receiving the suffering (and again, sometimes it’s both).

  • Paul Sheldon, Misery
  • Roberta “Bobbi” Anderson and James Eric “Gard” Gardener, The Tommyknockers
  • Mike Noonan, Bag of Bones
  • Thad Beaumont, The Dark Half
  • Mort Rainey; Secret Window, Secret Garden
  • Ben Mears, ‘Salem’s Lot

And the number one absolute worst thing to be in a Stephen King novel is:

1. The Everyman: This poor sap is just an Average Joe trying to get by without hurting anyone, but he somehow ends up in the middle of everything. He might be persecuted, see everyone he loves die around him, sit-half starved with a broken leg in the desert for weeks hoping the apocalypse doesn’t happen, he might be beset from the outside with mysterious deadly monsters and from the inside with fanatics. Worst of all, he will live to tell the tale and get to suffer with the memories for the rest of his days. Couldn’t pay me to be the Everyman.

  • Gordie LaChance, The Body
  • Stuart Redman, The Stand
  • Dale Barbara, Under the Dome
  • David Drayton, The Mist
  • Bill Denbrough, It

Now, all of this may have you asking “Well, if I ever were a character in a Stephen King novel, I mean, you know, for the sake of argument…what is it safest to be?

The answer:

The Little Girl or The Loudmouth