Feb 19 2008
Dear Ms. Briggs,
I’ve been putting off writing this review for some time. As readers, we each have our own preferences and quirks in what we like to read. We also have our personal hot buttons with regards to what we don’t. While I liked the first two-thirds of Iron Kissed, the last third hit my biggest hot button hard and it’s taken me this long to work through my distaste and articulate why.
Jane posted a favorable review a few weeks ago, which contains a good summary of the book, and I encourage interested readers to look at it if they’ve not done so already. I found it beyond my ability to write about the book without mentioning significant spoilers, so let that be a warning to people who haven’t read the book yet and wish to remain spoiler free. This second half of this review is not vague.
First, the good part. I admit I don’t particularly care for the Fae when it comes to urban fantasy, or any fantasy for that matter. I don’t actively dislike them the way many readers do vampires; they just don’t do anything for me. But I really enjoyed the way the Fae were portrayed here. They had the right mix of otherworld strangeness and danger, and it worked well. The mystery plot was my favorite part of the book, and it showcased how good the writing is. In urban fantasy, often times the mystery plot gets sidelined for the romantic plot and that very rarely works for me because I prefer both plots to be strong and on even footing. I like some meat with my romance and if I find the main plot is merely scaffolding for a romance plot, I become cranky. I don’t have that complaint here.
That said, I will be honest and say the love triangle of the Mercy Thompson series has never worked for me from since the very beginning. It has nothing to do with the fact it’s a love triangle. I can go either way with those, depending on how they’re executed and handled. It has to do with the fact that choosing between Adam and Samuel never felt like an actual choice to me. For all that their backstories were different, their interactions with Mercy were too similar — that of an overbearing Alpha wolf relentlessly pursuing his potential mate — and most of the time I wished Mercy would ditch both of them. I knew that would never happen, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t harbor that hope.
While I liked the fact that the love triangle was resolved midway through the book and did not resort to the “One of them dies” option, I felt a little disappointed. After all that build up through two and a half books, the actual resolution was a letdown because again, it didn’t seem like Mercy made an actual choice. I think I would have been more satisfied if Mercy had chosen one of the men instead.
And now for the bad, and my disappointment, and the part of the review that is laden with spoilers: the tragedy that occurred at the climax of the book did not work for me at all. It didn’t help that the antagonist obviously needed to read the Evil Overlord List. Specifically Points 26 and 53, taken from the traditional fantasy landscape and adapted for an urban one. He pulled one of the biggest clichés ever to grace the fantasy genre: invite the enemy into your lair, tell them your plans for world domination, and gloat. All he lacked was the flamboyant cape to twirl and curly mustache to stroke. I’ve read a number of fantasy novels that use this particular cliché. They all end the same way: the enemy gets free and kills the bad guy, because the bad guy is so convinced of his own brilliance, he never considered the possibility of failure. This plot sequence might have worked for me once but after a hundred or so times, it loses its impact.
But that’s not my hot button. If I were that picky about insecure, undersexed, megalomaniacal antagonists, I’d have stopped reading the fantasy genre years ago. My hot button is rape. The issue of rape comes up in other genres and mediums, but what I’m specifically referring to here is how rape is used as a narrative shortcut in the fantasy genre. Longtime fantasy fans might be familiar with this storyline: Woman gets raped and survives, so she learns swordfighting (or magic or political dealing or…) to get revenge on her attacker (and/or fight bad people like her attacker). The trope even has its own name: Rape and Revenge.
Then there’s the other main rape trope in fantasy: A woman is doing a man’s job in a man’s world and because it’s dangerous for a woman to do a man’s job in a man’s world, she gets raped. But if the job is that dangerous and the default punishment for taking that risk is rape, why is it that male characters rarely suffer the same fate? And that’s why, when I reached the climax and read what happened to Mercy, I nearly threw this book against the wall. If it’d been a less skilled writer, it would have but Moon Called and Blood Bound had built up my trust and I hoped the remaining pages would save me from disappointment. When they didn’t, I was left feeling hollow and cheated.
I’m not saying these tropes should be thrown out and never written about again. But what makes readers weary of them, what makes them a well-trodden cliché, is that they’ve become shortcuts and substitutes for actual character and plot development. Need to give the heroine an angsty backstory that makes her vulnerable? She was raped! Need to explain why the heroine fights crime? She was raped! Need to make the strong, independent heroine an emotional wreck so she’ll run to the hero for help? She gets raped! And then she can heal herself through the magical power of sex with the hero.
If it were organic and essential to the plot, there’d be no complaints. But more often than not, it’s a piece of information that’s never mentioned or referred to again or, as I felt was the case here, it’s a convenient plot device used to make the characters do certain things and act a certain way.
I’ve no doubt the Mercy Thompson series will continue on to bigger and better things. It’s getting its own comic book, and I predict hardcover format in the not too distant future. But for all that we try to approach our reviews here at Dear Author with a critical, detached eye, it’s still a reader blog at its core and you can’t control reader hot buttons. This was a well-written book and if I were grading solely on the first two-thirds, I’d give it a B+.
That said, endings also matter, and an ending can determine whether I plan to pick up the author’s next book. Sad to say, the last 50 pages of Iron Kissed left such a bad taste in my mouth, I don’t even want to look at my copies of Moon Called or Blood Bound anymore, let alone any future books in the Mercy Thompson series. So while this bus continues on the road to continued bestselling success, I think it’s time for me to get off at this stop. Some readers pass over books about vampires. I pass over books in which rape is used as a plot point to force the heroine along a certain path and nothing more. Using Dear Author’s grading scale, this ultimately gets a C+ from me.