Sunday, December 19, 2010

Non-Laughter Review: BENEATH THE 13 MOONS

by Kathryne Kennedy
Sourcebooks Casablanca
December 2010 (reissue)

Premise: On an aquatic planet ruled by access to a narcotic root, individuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum have an opportunity to increase their own paranormal talents and influence their whole society if they co-operate.

Cover: Title - Intriguingly worded, accurate of content, and displayed in a lovely purple cartouche with cool font. Art - Sourcebooks' love affair with the nekkid anonymous manchest continues. Though Apprentice Writer despises this fixture of romance covers, honesty compels her to state it gives the potential reader fair warning of what to find in these pages, including the mullet wafting in the breeze. AW personally wished that more of the gorgeous background had been visible. She would have loved for the bakers dozen of moons (obscured by the chest), and the partially submerged trees backlit by diffuse sunlight (obscured by various text bytes), to be shown in full on the back cover or maybe in a stepback. Overall: representative of content.

What Works: Would-be writers are often instructed to start their stories with a 'hook'; situation so fascinating or action so gripping that the reader can't help but read on to find out more and get 'sucked' into the story. This novel takes that advice to heart, opening with a woman so desperate to save her village from a killer fever that has struck down her lifemate and child that she risks all to kidnap a healer only to realize that he is heir to the royal throne and she will likely die en route from overdose of the narcotic she uses to enhance her powers to 'See' through the waters. Definitely not a boring opener or ho-hum stakes.

Even better: the world is marvelous. Thirteen moons that exert different types of tidal pull on the waters, villages and palaces alike built in trees, amazing plant life ( including some you can crawl into with interesting results) and animals, aboriginal beings who can mindmerge and be seen or invisible at will, an entire society built around a controlled substance (much like the spice in the classic 'Dune' series)... A lot of imagination went into creating the setting for the story. It reminded AW a bit of Pandora from the recent movie 'Avatar', if the trees had been surrounded by water and the indigenous people less blue.

What Doesn't:
'But AW,' says the Gentle Reader, 'after that kind of intro, what could possibly have not worked?'

Sadly, multiple aspects. Nothing about this book was average for AW; she kept shooting back and forth between elements she loved that those she unloved. Such as:


- Pacing. After a rocketing start with high stakes kidnapping (hooray!), the two main characters proceed to spend most of the next 100 pages in a boat feeling physically attracted to one another and covering this with verbal sniping (boo!).

- Writing. One of the most fun and creative things about sci/fi and fantasy is the opportunity to create variations in language and expressions to go along with invented worlds. Here, there were scenes in a remote smuggler village (yay!) where the inhabitants say things like 'sexy', 'get it?', and 'boyfriend' that tore this reader out of the story (boo!). There were instances of cliche, both in word choice (people 'tense' and 'freeze' a lot, garments 'fit like second skins', the hero frequently 'threw back his head', etc.) and in genre stereotype, such as the heroine thinking during a life-or-death pursuit situation how much the hero's eye color and hair swishing make her presumed-to-be-lost sexual desire reawaken. There was one (presumably unintentional) comical instance when the frequent romance genre use of 'paling' of a character's face to signify emotion shown rather than told was applied to an animal. This would have been OK except that his skin is covered in scales.

- Character Development. It's nice when there is some, and when it is roughly equivalent if there is more than one main character. In this case, the reader starts off with pleasant sense of curious anticipation about how the author will bring together a woman who is fiercely independent, resourceful, and talented but poor (yay!) with a man who is fiercely proud, privileged, talented, but not entirely closed-minded (double yay!). In practice, far too much space is taken up with the character's growth stalled at thinking/saying to/about each other that one is a 'water rat' and one is 'arrogant' (boo!).

The hero does start to come around and show notable improvement through his association with her and others of her background, but the heroine took far too long to make not enough mental/emotional progress for this reader. It made what was interpreted as independent spirit and fortitude early in the story look more like pig-headedness and reverse snobbism as the novel progressed. Frex: when the hero says he loves her, she thinks and tells him with absolute conviction that he has no idea what love is - without ever having inquired about his previous romantic involvements. Or, for that matter, non-romantic love experiences. It made her endless accusations to him of arrogance sound like the pot calling the kettle black.

- Internal Logic. The conflict between the main characters hinges on the impossibility of their relationship, given her pariah status and his princeliness. Yet when he arranges their wedding within a day after returning to the palace (royal wedding and true love: hooray!) there is no peep of protest, including from his parents, who promptly disappear again from the remainder of the book (boo!). Wildlings (born outside the royal family with unusual powers) are supposedly 'hunted' as the heroine's mother was, yet the heroine is almost entirely ignored by the palace dwelllers. The hero supposedly has enemies at court, yet after a very long time of doing nothing while the heroine is in proximity, they suddenly make their move through her at a highly unlikely time when she is not, that seems calculated purely to emphasize the romantic connection. Etc.

- Sacrifice of other elements to serve the romance. This was the aspect AW had most trouble with because she so yearned for more description of the fantastical world. For the first time ever, a member of the royal family spends time in a hardscrabble swamp village (hooray!) Yet rather than experiencing it through his eyes, it is summarized as '...these past few weeks, hunting and working with your people, I've come to realize they're my people too' (Boo!) The heroine has succeeded in bringing a healer, thus saving the village from mass deaths, yet apart from her immediate in-law family, there is neither reaction from anyone else, nor interest on the heroine's part on how others have fared under the hero's treatment. The only non-family villagers mentioned are two women who remain nameless, who serve solely to make the heroine jealous of the attention he bestows on them. The couple travel to the palace (hooray!) where the heroine has precisely zero curiosity in what the prince does or where he goes all day (boo!). She learns the aboriginal people and animals have astonishing unsuspected knowledge and powers of the mind, but categorically dismisses their efforts to make contact with her because she doesn't like their encouragement of her relationship with the hero, etc.


AW was desperate for more page time devoted to worldbuilding and less time to the push-pull (literal and figurative) between main characters. The gentle reader may ask: Can a satisfying balance between the two be achieved? Yes! For excellent examples of believable emotion with richly detailed worlds, take a look at Ann Aguirre's sci-fi 'Sirantha Jax' series, Alison Sinclair's dark fantasy 'Darkborn' series, Ilona Andrews urban fantasy 'Kate Daniels' series and rural fantasy 'Edge' series, and the queen of them all: Sarah Monett's dark fantasy 'Doctrine of Labyrinths' series. All excellent at providing relationship-building and believable alternate settings in equal measure.

Overall: Rather than fantasy romance, which was what she had expected, AW would describe this novel as Romance, capital 'R', with some fantasy elements.

Consequently, 'pure' romance fans would probably find it more to their liking than this reader, who struggled with unfulfilled expectations about what fantasy novels entail, and with the cover quote that promised '.....will give adult lovers of Harry Potter the fix they've been missing.'

The only thing that could be considered reminiscent of the Potter world were the rare occasions Harry and Lord Voldemort connected with each other's minds for brief flashes of time. But that occured in such a different way that it is a tremendous stretch to compare the two, meaning AW is at a loss to understand why the Potter parallel was even drawn.

She will, however, watch 'Avatar' again, and imagine how the movie could have been enhanced if the Pandoran trees had been in a swamp with treecats and narwhals, subject to the tidal pull of thirteen moons, if the antagonistic groups had socioeconomic rather than ethnic differences, and so on and on.



Rachel said...

Holy damn! Great review! How thorough and thoughtful.

So, do you think that guy is taking the jacket off or putting it on?

(That is the FIRST THING I thought of. Yikes! Some cover designer is crying right now.:)

M. said...

Thanks, R. And ha on clothing or disrobing - I confess it never crossed my mind. I guess I was too fascinated by the mullet waving.

I had lunch with two writer friends today and mentioned my pet peeve of people thinking about hooking up during life or death situations, and one friend said, 'You know, if I'm ever in a life-or-death situation, I think I'd like to think about sex.' So I laughed and learned my lesson about what forms a DNF moment for one reader is the highlight for another.

Rachel said...

hehe, the waving hair is pretty eye-catching but... I can't tell if it's an official Mullet. It's possible he just has regular long hair. :)

I'm with you on the life or death. I can fully get on board with it being something one wants to do after surviving the life or death situation (or if one is in a hopeless situation and you need one last rumble before The End) but if the situation is on-going and one must be clever and come up with solutions then I don't believe a quick stop will be made for teh sex. But honestly, all of it is a little wearying. As a reader I'm totally focused on the life or death sitch and then I have to stop and make the mental change to hanky panky???