REVIEW: Moonburn by Alisa Sheckley
Dear Ms. Sheckley,
Earlier this year I read and reviewed (with Janine) your first urban fantasy book, The Better to Hold You. (Wait, can a book be termed “urban fantasy” when it’s set in the boonies? Maybe it should be called semi-rural fantasy? Though that’s kind of unwieldy as a name…) Janine and I agreed that The Better to Hold You deserved a high B grade – missing a B+, but not by much. I was eagerly anticipating this next book in the series, though as it turned out the glut of good books coming out lately means that I didn’t get around to reading Moonburn until several months after it had been released.
Moonburn opens some months after The Better to Hold You ended; Abra Barrow, lycanthrope (or werewolf, in layperson’s terms) is living the rustic life in a cabin in the woods of upstate New York with her lover, Red. Red is a shapeshifter, different from Abra in that he was born with an animal nature he can transform into, whereas Abra was infected with a virus (by her jerk of an ex-husband, Hunter) that causes her to turn wolf around the full moon every month. Abra is working for her old boss, Malachy, as a veterinarian, and trying to adjust to life without the culture and convenience that Manhattan offers.
Strange things happen in the Northside as a matter of course, but in the course of Moonburn, the strange gets considerably stranger. Developers building up nearby hillsides seem to be disturbing some ancient spirits who don’t appreciate being disturbed (the whole thing put me a bit in mind of Poltergeist). Weird stuff starts happening in town – the animals are behaving oddly and there have been mysterious attacks on humans.
I found the central paranormal plot rather confusing. While I appreciate an author who doesn’t feel the need to over-explain or infodump, there were aspects of the story that seemed like they could have used at least a little more background than was given. I ended up Googling “liminal” and “manitou” to try to understand how these concepts fit into the story. The former, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Liminality (from the Latin word lÄ«men, meaning “a threshold”) is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual by such writers as Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and others.”
Well, alrighty, then.
Okay, to be fair, it wasn’t that hard to understand, but the way it was related (or not related) in the book didn’t help my understanding. A manitou, by the way, is a sort of Native American spirit that, as far as I can understand, manifests as an animal. (But can take other forms. I think.) Manitous come into the plot when Abra encounters one after a car crash on a deserted road.
I have always found your plots (in your chick lit books written as Alisa Kwitney) a bit chaotic. But there’s something about the combination of chaotic plots and paranormal elements that for me as a reader leads to a clusterfuck of confusion and headscratching. There’s also a quality to the plot that’s…not exactly episodic, but doesn’t feel cohesive. It’s like, “this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens”, but even if these things are related they don’t feel that way to me as a reader. Each little vignette feels random.
I will say about the above criticism that it doesn’t have a huge effect on my grade or my enjoyment of this book (or any of your books). It’s something I accept as your style; I do consider it a flaw to a degree but not one that really keeps me from reading or enjoying your works. I do think I’d like it if the plots were more coherent, because I’m the type of reader that likes and admires neat plots. But in terms of grading it’s probably only a third of a letter grade (the difference between a B and a B+, for instance).
The other problem I had with Moonburn was somewhat similar, and it was more of an actual problem for me. Abra is all over the place in regards to her love life in this book, and it makes the relationship between Abra and Red very frustrating to read about. I had to check myself to see if my frustration stemmed from being a romance reader, and having certain expectations of a hero/heroine relationship. I really don’t think that’s it. Abra is almost continually ambivalent about her relationship with Red. While that’s not exactly romantic, as a reader it didn’t really bother me (perhaps partly because I really like Red but I’m not hugely invested in the Red/Abra pairing). The real problem was that her ambivalence (and thus their relationship) keeps seeming like it’s been resolved once and for all, and then it turns out that it’s not. This happened at least three separate times, and as a reader, it left me feeling off-balance. That’s not a feeling I generally enjoy while reading. Abra’s ambivalence extends to an attraction to two other men – Hunter, her aforementioned jerk of an ex-husband (did I mention that Hunter’s a jerk?) and her mysterious boss, Malachy. I found myself annoyed when the plot required Abra to make out with each of them (not out of lust but feelings of attraction did come up) in the course of the story. This felt contrived and rather silly the first time; by the second instance I was definitely rolling my eyes. Abra is also going into heat and that leads to some instances of attracting unwanted male attention. While these vignettes were amusing at times, they also felt a little silly – perhaps a too-literal play on the Mary-Suish heroine who every man wants.
Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy Moonburn very much. Your writing style is always engaging, and I like Abra as a heroine in spite of, or perhaps because of, her tendency towards wishy-washiness. She’s an interesting mix of insecure woman and kick-ass werewolf (though even in wolf form Abra is sometimes submissive). I find the secondary characters interesting and the town of Northside is a great setting – it’s sort of developing into a Northern version of Charlaine Harris’ Bon Temps (from the Sookie Stackhouse series). I will definitely keep reading your books as long as you continue to write them. My grade for Moonburn is a solid B.