Friday, November 18, 2011

Unclean Spirits, by M. L. N. Hanover

One of the urban fantasy series(es?) I've been following is The Black Sun's Daughter, by M. L. N. Hanover. The fourth book comes out at the end of the month, so I've decided to re-read the first three, to pick up on what I missed the first go round - because as the series progressed, it became clear that shit was not as it first seemed, and I had missed a lot.

To be honest, Unclean Spirits, taken by itself, is not all that awesome. It's a pretty straightforward find bad guy; kill bad guy plot (summary: Jayné's favorite uncle dies and leaves his fortune and his magic tricks to her, with which she pursues vengeance against his supernatural murderers), and it starts off with a bad case of Too Many Dicks On The Dance Floor. If I'd picked up this book randomly from the bookstore, I'm not sure I would have continued the series.

But I didn't pick this book up randomly - I did it because Hanover is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham, who wrote the absolutely stunning Long Price Quartet. I'd read that he had Big Plans that involved starting The Black Sun's Daughter out rather conventionally for the kickass-heroine model, but gradually breaking from the tradition. Beating the shit out of the baddies is not what makes a strong woman, he wrote (and I paraphrase).

So I bought the next two books anyway, on trust. And it turns out that the first book is more complicated than it looks. There's a lot of subtle foreshadowing that at first feels like casual detail, but later turns out to be really important. And major female characters join the cast pretty soon; there's a very interesting friends-with-an-awkward-conflict-of-interest dynamic between Jayné and Kim. Actually, due to reading the three books in quick succession, I'd forgotten when exactly Kim joins up; I thought it was the beginning of the second book, but in fact it's midway through the first. Kim's entrance, that moment where Jayné gains an ally of her own rather than being guided by a bunch of boys who think they know better than her, is where I start enjoying the series.

On the re-read, I can see that Unclean Spirits starts off so patriarchal deliberately, in much the same manner that my two-year-old carefully builds a tower out of his wooden blocks: dude's just looking forward to knocking it down and watching the pieces scatter. Midway through the book, the patriarchal model does start to collapse: Jayné stops following orders and starts giving them instead; she adds women to the team; she starts considering not what her uncle - from whom she inherited this mess, and this group of people - would do, but what she will do. Breaking out of the male-dominated power structure is one of the major points of the book, not something that just happens accidentally.

It doesn't make the first part of the book any more comfortable to read, though; I suspect I will continue to prefer the second and third.

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