Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shadowflame: The Perils of Challenging Tropes

I read a great book over the weekend, Shadowflame by Dianne Sylvan. I had loved her debut, Queen of Shadows, and was excited to see the second book come up on my Amazon recommendations.  I was, however, taken aback by the three star aggregated Amazon review, so I got the sample instead of just outright buying it. The sample was great, so I committed. I read on and was totally invested and I just couldn't figure out why people had given the book low ratings. The writing was great, the story was intriguing and while I don't always like the heroine, Miranda, I think she's a great character.

About midway through the book, something happens that you almost never see in urban fantasy or paranormal romance. Now I know why.

Spoilers for both Queen of Shadows and Shadowflame ahead!

The first book, Queen of Shadows, was all about Miranda Grey, a human with psychic abiliites that were slowly driving her mad, finding her soul mate in lonely master vampire David Solomon.  It was one of those "our souls are destined to be together" things, and I felt it was pretty standard except for being maybe three shades darker than the average girl-finds-soulmate book. The whole matebond thing squicks me out, personally, but I know a lot of people love it. We'll be together forever! We're bound for eternity! He can never leave me! Yeah, and you can never leave him, either, sweetheart. No matter what. Forever is a long a time, and there's no guaranatee that the man he is today is the man he'll be in five years, let alone in five hundred. The second part of the soulmate trope is that you'll live Happily Ever After - but it's only the Ever After that's guaranteed, not the Happily.

The soulmate is one of those urban fantasy/paranormal romance tropes that authors generally don't mess with - or if they do, it's subtle. For example, Lillith Saintcrow's Dante Valentine series shows you the ugly side of "never gonna give you up" but even then a lot of people missed that point. I'd even say most of them did. There are lots of fans who think Japhrimel's love for Dante is so romantic. Except it's really a terrifyingly inhuman obsession that Dante can never be free of, ever. Yeah, that's so romantic, I may swoon. Or, you know, get a restraining order and a shotgun. But that's the beauty of Saintcrow's writing - her touch is so light that those who get misty-eyed over the romance and those who cringe at the idea of infernal fixation can both love those books.

Shadowflame starts three months after the end of Queen of Shadows.  Miranda, now a vampire, is still trying to live her life like a human, until she nearly gets staked by an assassin. It becomes pretty clear that she has got to give up at least some of that, but she's determined to stay in touch with her human life for as long as she can. As someone starts picking off those close to Miranda, human and vampire alike, the situation gets more and more tense. This isn't helped by the sudden appearance of David's old lover/mentor, Deven, and his consort. David has never gotten over Deven breaking his heart, and Miranda is uncertain how to deal with it.

Sylvan's unforgivable sin in Shadowflame isn't just making the soulmate trope more complex than a happy Rickroll - it's the fact that she does it with a hammer. Nearly halfway through the book, David cheats on Miranda with Deven. It was foreshadowed beautifully, and the setup was flawless. In fact, if David hadn't slept with Deven, I would have been pissed off. I even admit that I was a little irked at Miranda when she utterly lost her shit about it. I guess I figured that expecting human behavior from a non-human is naive to the point of foolishness. That was sort of the point of the interlude; Miranda needed to realize that, too. You may be bound for eternity, but that doesn't mean you can't feel something for someone else or that you might not desire another person at some point. (Which is one hell of a lot healther than the classic soulmate trope, if you think about it.)

However, I figured I was probably in the minuscule minority on that one, and boy howdy, was I right.

He WILL love only me forever.
If you read the Amazon reviews for Shadowflame, the two main ones are furious about the cheating - not that David and Miranda had such a solid love that cheating wasn't realistic, but that any cheating was written by anyone for any reason at all. They follow it up with how this book's writing was subpar, the dialogue was bad, and Sylvan was pressing her perverse ideas on us. I bet she went to their houses and kicked their dogs, too. It's a little disturbing how wrapped up in the wish-fulfilment angle of this trope they seem to be. Like Sylvan personally did something to them by taking away the creepy surety of "he has no choice but to love only me forever." Sylvan's job is to tell a good story and the cheating served the story very well, actually. It shocked Miranda out of her complacency and forced her to confront the fact that she wasn't human anymore - and that things might be a little different when you could live forever.

It chaps my ass that this book is getting low reviews because Sylvan dared to challenge this preciously guarded trope. This is a great book in a great series by a great author. I love that she knocked Miranda down so that she could build her back up. The relationship between Deven and David felt very real.  Both of them are bound to other people, and yet they're still in love with each other. That's sad and different and something new I hadn't seen from this trope before. I don't want the next book in this series to be just another basic urban fantasy that hits all the specified tropes because a bunch of chicks are angry that they didn't get their standard wish-fulfillment story. I want to shake them and say, "Seriously!  This is better!  This is glorious, cruel conflict that probably won't ever be resolved and adds a layer of complexity to what I thought was just a standard by-the-numbers story! Embrace something new and different and exciting!"

Besides, if this sort of reaction chills innovation in urban fantasy and paranormal romance, I might just go to their houses and kick their dogs.
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  1. Great post! I was a fan of this book for exactly the reasons you provide. I find the reviews on Amazon mortifying. And I left a positive one explaining why I liked the book and was jumped all over with the trolls and their "unhelpful" clicking. It was stressful. I can't even imagine how Ms. Sylvan handled all the awful hate going on over there.

  2. Yeah, I posted a revised version of this review there, I bet it's been troll-faced like a mofo by now.

    However, this incident has motivated me to get my Goodreads profile up and running. I want to be sure that reviews like ours are getting heard, not just the people that demand - and troll for - the status quo. I was taken aback by this whole thing, honestly. I mean, it's just weird.

  3. Your review has convinced me to buy this book. I haven't read anything by Sylvan yet, but I'll definitely be doing it now. I love urban fantasy and paranormal romance that pushes the envelope. Thanks for supporting it here!

  4. I haven't read this one yet, but it's been on my list. A lot of my goodreads pals have loved it. All of the controversy actually ups its appeal for me.

    What ticks me off about the trolling is that I've defended the romance lovers in the past when certain "traditional" fantasy fans have urged the banishment of UF and romance from the hallowed halls of fantasydom, but the same thing goes here - just because a book goes against the common romantic tropes doesn't lessen it's place in the UF/paranormal genre. Note I said UF - I always saw this book as a fantasy series first, that had some romantic elements in it, not a Romance. I also am afraid that a lot of the hate has to do with the relationship being between 2 men. [There have been more than a few books where I've seen similar responses.]

    One place where the impossible, strange or different should be embraced is the fantasy genre. This means that sometimes, there will be sex and romance in fantasy and sometimes fantasy will turn the HEA or the fairy tale on its head. And I am ever grateful that it happens.

  5. I loved this book...for all of the reasons you just listed!
    I think that this author is brilliant and so amazingly courageous to have taken what SHE wanted to say and putting down on paper in spite of knowing (she HaD to know how ridiculously closed minded some readers would be!) that it mat not be taken well bt John and Susie Public.
    Even if I han't completely loved this particular book, I would now have Sylan on my automatic buy radar because of it.

  6. I completely forgot this was coming out. I really enjoyed the first book and was looking forward to it. I think there's probably a lot of bitterness from women who have been cheated on. What I find interesting is that it is a very REAL situation, and I think that's something writers should be writing about. I get bored with the glorified versions of life we see in books. No pooping, or shaving, or zits. No bad hair days. This sounds much better and would ADD to the story rather than detract from it. I'll be more inclined to buy the book because of it. I only really pay attention to Amazon reviews when they mention bad grammar and spelling errors or things like that and the reviewer has a good grasp of language themselves. You really have to screen the reviews.