Monday, April 28, 2014

Microreview [book]: House of the Rising Sun, by Kristen Painter

Painter, Kristen. House of the Rising Sun. Orbit: May 13, 2014.

Breaking News: Fauxmance Strikes Again!

The Meat

I have a hate affair with urban fantasy. The mixing of various otherworldly creatures and a seedy cityscape just seems like a losing combination to me, and there have been precious few books (or movies, come to think of it) that have challenged my low-grade distaste with the subgenre. Does that mean I'm some sort of purist who wishes to insist that vampires or whatever should only appear in stories set in medieval Eastern Europe, or something? No, not really—but shouldn't there be a compelling reason why a given story is placed in a particular setting? For example, contemporary New Orleans just screams vampires because of that Christian Slater movie (you know the one I mean, and yes, I know he's not the actor from that film that people usually focus on, per se). But if, when writing a new urban fantasy story, the decision is made to set it in New Orleans and we the readers begin to sense a "yeah, it's set there because lots of other otherworldly tales were set there!" vibe, that's not exactly a mark in said new story's favor. In that respect, I liked Meyer's decision to set Twilight (etc.) in the American northwest, a 'region less trodden by', so to speak.
  Sadly, Kristen Painter's new human, vampire, voodoo, witch, 'fae' (magical being) mash-up House of the Rising Sun is stuck back in that supernatural cesspool, New Orleans. There are of course some things to appreciate about the story (interesting echoes of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard! An appealing variety of races/character types!), as there are about the city (test tube shots! Those doughnut things!), but do the good bits outweigh the not so good ones? Nope—or rather, insert whatever folksy quasi-Creole expression "the natives" of New Orleans use for "no" here.
 The logic of the various races' magic, etc. was intriguing, and so for the first third of the book or so just learning about the principles of the world Painter was creating was enough to sustain my interest, but where she lost me was in her decision to hang the story around two of the least believable (and, in Harlow's case, least likable) characters I've encountered in ages.
  Remember the Vomit Comet at amusement parks, where in the blink of an eye you've moved 180 degrees? That's what Augustine and Harlow seem to do in terms of character motivation, and at times it induced the same visceral reaction in me as I clutched my spinning head, trying not to paint the furniture. Harlow in particular is all over the place. She's supposedly a mousy yet also smoking hot computer nerd obsessed with RPGs (every male computer nerd's ultimate fantasy girl, no doubt! Take another look at the cover of the book, posted above), who hasn't spoken to her Norma Desmond-like mother in years because the latter denied the former the chance to form a relationship with her father. Wait, what? She severed ties with her loving, compassionate mother because mommy wouldn't give her any info on daddy? There's nothing believable about this at all, and before you get on my case over the absurdity of pointing out suspension of disbelief problems in an tale filled with vampires, witches and an almost limitless variety of magical 'fae', this is an issue of character development and motivation, or in other words, the emotional and dramatic core of the story (since all the magical stuff is just window dressing, in the end). If we find it impossible to believe the characters' relationships or actions, that's a serious problem no matter what kind of story is being told.
  The relationship at the center of the book, though, is the burgeoning romance between the fae Augustine (who is supposedly as tough as he is self-confident: he pompously remarks at one point, to reassure the sometimes brash, sometimes wimpy Harlow, 'I am by far and away the most frightening creature that lives in this city') and Harlow. Here, too, I'm not buying it. Augustine is perfect in every way, impossibly sensitive throughout Harlow's crazy mood swings ("I want you out of this house" followed by, a day or so later, pleas that he not stay with her), and so deeply does he care for her after spending a few days near her that he prioritizes her moods and feelings over the ostensibly critical investigation (of Harlow's mother's murder).
   Not only would no actual being, human or otherwise, be this infuriatingly accommodating, his pathological overprotectiveness of Harlow and her precious feelings frequently impedes his efforts to find a solution to the very problem upsetting her, meaning any self-respecting woman (human or otherwise) would tear him to shreds for his counterproductive condescension (and to make matters worse, he utterly fails to protect Harlow from physical danger, but does a bang-up job shielding her from any risk that she might get tired, etc.). And if Augustine's really such superhuman man candy, how is it that two totally normal humans could get the jump on him? If run-of-the-mill humans could manage to grab his arms before he could capture a certain vampire ("Augustine jerked away, but it was too late"), even his much vaunted abilities become mere deus ex machina tools to be deployed—or in this case found wanting—when the romance at the heart of the book demands he let Harlow down (or, alternatively, impress her/us with his prowess later).
  There is also a certain unevenness in the writing, a tendency either to get carried away in hyperbole or possibly a lack of editing for plot consistency (the third person narration gives us windows into various characters' psychological states, including one who mentally remarks how much more exorbitant a certain service had been than she expected, only to follow up a few pages later with "[it] had been as exorbitant as expected". But this is all small potatoes next to the fact that there's nothing likeable about Harlow and nothing believable about Augustine. This is a fauxmance, I'm afraid.

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for echoes of Sunset Boulevard, +1 for an interesting menagerie of creatures in this world

Penalties: -1 for the lack of believable characterization (and wildly shifting character motivation), -1 for everything about Harlow, and -1 for the fauxmance between her and Augustine

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 "not very good"

[Even though a 4/10 probably sounds brutally low, it's not nearly as bad as you might think: see here for more info on how we score these things.]

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