February 01, 2013

Book Review: Silver Borne, A Mercy Thompson Novel

I remember clearly the first time I saw a Mercy Thompson book sitting on a bookstore shelf. I was looking for the next episode of the "Wheel of Time" and wondering why it wasn't out yet. What I didn't know at the time was that Robert Jordan was very ill and would die later that month, delaying the last episode in his epic series until his son could find the courage to finish it. The cover of "Blood Bound" showed an attractive young woman covered in tattoos wearing work coveralls and holding a crescent wrench. Having a passion for both beautiful women and automotive technology, the combination of the two on the cover of a fantasy novel immediately grabbed my attention. The book seemed to be standard urban fantasy fare, a shapeshifting coyote woman with a flair for the mechanical, a gremlin assistant mechanic, and a werewolf boyfriend must work together to overcome an evil demon bent on destroying the world. I flipped through the book, found a couple of really awkward dialogues, competent prose, and reasonably well developed characters. Mercy Thompson got added to my mental list of "one of these days I'll read one" fiction series. Over the next few years I kept an eye on the how the series developed by scanning the books as they appeared on bookstore shelves in airports, Barnes and Noble branches in a dozen cities, and the "Times Square" Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo.

Then one day last summer I went to Amazon.com to pre-order Mark Levin's "Ameritopia: the Unmaking of America". I wanted to get my copy within a couple days of its release, and I didn't want to pay as much for shipping as the cover cost of the book, so I needed another $10 or so in books in order to qualify for free two-day shipping. After scrounging through all the normal genres and styles, I stumbled across Amazon.com's "bargain books" page for the first time. I had no idea Amazon even offered such deals. I knew regular bookstores did, and I knew the Kindle books of famous authors will often be temporarily free or nearly free in the month or so before a new release, but an actual "bargain bin" at Amazon.com was a novelty for me. So I went plowing through the hundred or so heavily discounted titles looking for items I would normally not buy. One of the titles that immediately jumped to the head of my list was "Silver Borne", a recent Mercy Thompson novel that was being cleared out to make way for "River Marked", which came out in December of last year. This seemed like as good a time as any to grab up an example of the series and read it more thoroughly.

Now, many people will cry "foul" and tell me the only way to truly appreciate a series is to start at the beginning and work my way through. Not an impossible task with a six volume series like this one, but still not a plan convenient for my limited time schedule. Jumping in at number five (Silver Borne) would allow me to see several things that would not be apparent if I read the first book by itself (since I really didn't want to take the time to read the entire series). For example, I could easily get a feel for how her characters developed over time, how she wove in experiences and memories from the earlier books, and how well she balanced the need to both maintain continuity and tell a story that could stand all on its own. Very few writers are able to maintain that delicate balance with any degree of success. The most common flaw is having the characters in later books not bother mentioning, remembering, or referring back to the earlier events in the overall timeline, a timeline that a devoted fan will know by heart. The second most common flaw is opening with a chapter (or two, or three!) of flashbacks and/or summaries to remind the fan and update the new reader, hopefully providing a larger context that will illuminate the depths of each main character's personality. Neither of these techniques works. Both styles leave me as a reader feeling disappointed and quickly disillusioned.

The Mercy Thompson series (at least in book five) falls into neither of those categories. Instead of a long review or a complete absence of memory, Patricia Briggs looks for and finds numerous opportunities to refer back to the earlier books in a very natural way. When Mercy Thompson encounters a familiar scent in her coyote form, she immediately "remembers" where she encountered that same scent in an earlier book and how the final result of that encounter turned out. When one member of the wolfpack that has taken her under their wing expresses strong, polarizing objections to the presence of a coyote in a wolfpack, that wolf does so by directly referring to multiple crisis and damages experienced in the earlier books. As the story in book five unfolds, a new reader such as myself is gradually and naturally caught up on all of the earlier books and how those storylines did or did not resolve themselves. Most interesting to me was how she wove in the histories of the relationships between the main characters as a natural development that could easily be understood. Every primary relationship is reviewed using a variety of small snippets remembered or talked about in the same way that you and I might reminisce about how we first met and how we came to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. Patricia Briggs strongest literary skill (at least as evidenced here) is in her ability to seamlessly weave the earlier storylines into this one in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening. I was quite impressed with how easy she made it look!

Unfortunately, that same mastery is not reflected everywhere. While her characters are more solid and realistic than most fantasy characters, they still fall far short of the depth and profoundness of characters like Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter. While Mercy Thompson, Adam Hauptman, Samuel Cornick, and the rest of the cast display their flaws like trophies and their normalcy like the thin disguise it is, they never really rise to the level of tragedy or heroism that makes characters like Hermione Granger and Gandalf the Grey so very real to us that we find ourselves expecting them to come knocking on our front door to invite us on some grand adventure, or perhaps just to lend them what little aid we can in the midst of their deepest trials and tribulations. The differentiation between each character is also shallow and not well developed at all. Every time a complex three-way dialogue takes place between Mercy, Adam, and Samuel, it gets frustratingly difficult to figure who is talking to whom, who is listening, and whose attention has wandered off. In one scene Mercy is reprimanding a character named Mary Jo for taking actions that endanger not only Adam and Mercy, but the health and welfare of the entire pack. As the chapter-long dialogue unfolds the two women's personalities become so intertwined that this potentially suspenseful and powerful scene becomes little more than Mercy talking to herself in a mirror.

Patricia Briggs also seems to come under the Hemingway school of narrative description, attempting to use a word here or there to cast an entire scene into vivid reality. Unfortunately, she lacks Hemingway's mastery of descriptive verbs and visual nouns. Throwing in an adjective here and there is certainly more succinct than Faulkner's rambling multiple page descriptions so rich in detail that the theater of our mind comes alive in color and form, but it also left me as a reader wondering about the most basic details of wardrobe and equipment. For example, Mercy Thompson owns a yellow Volkswagen bug, but it is never clear if her "beat-up old car" features a few dents in the doors, broken windows, failed wipers, rust in the floor panels, a malfunctioning heater, etc. What exactly does her "beat-up yellow Volkswagen bug" look like and how is it any different than the same car driven by Barry Osgathorpe or Mr. Pucci or any of a hundred other fictional characters who from time to time find themselves driving the quaint, iconic German people's car in a faded sunshine yellow?

I don't mean to say Silver Borne is poorly written. Patricia Briggs is a competent, experienced writer who tells an entertaining story that starts slowly, picks up speed in the middle, and has a powerful ending. From a missing bookstore owner to a mysterious fairy queen's lethal interest in an ancient book, every plot line is resolved. The bookstore owner is rescued, the fairy queen defeated, and the book restored to its rightful owner. Along the way Mercy Thompson's Alpha werewolf lover is badly burnt trying to rescue her from a burning trailer that she is not even in, right before getting into a fight for dominance necessary to bring peace to his pack, and finally in the end the two of them get past old scars and misunderstandings to fall into bed together. Silver Borne is a satisfying story, but it falls far short of the epic heights that fantasy is so well suited to achieve.