Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Burning Down the House

by Laurie K.

Ever notice how some of our urban fantasy series go on forever? For awhile, there was character growth, there was a sense of fleshing out the world, and we got to know our characters better with each installment. Then at some point, you reached that tapering off where the series is kind of just going through the motions; the character holds no mystery for us. The thrill is gone.

For example, I'm pretty sure we're on book 73 of the Anita Blake series. I stopped somewhere in the double digits and by that time, the books were so formulaic that I could set it to music. Will Anita overcome her issues? (No.) Will Anita give in to the temptation to bang the entire wolf pack? (Yes.) When even a threesome with a necromancer, a werewolf, and a vampire makes you yawn, it's time to shake things up a little bit.

This is a salute to the authors who aren't afraid to shake it up. They meticulously built the house then burned it down and danced in the flames. (Minor spoilers for Fair Game by Patricia Briggs, Changes by Jim Butcher, and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.)


One of my most beloved authors is Patricia Briggs. She writes the Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series, and both are set in the same world. If you've read Briggs's work, you know that she tends to have elaborate, needlessly convoluted mystery plots that build and build - and then come to pretty much nothing in the end. However, I ignore that because her characterization is so damn fine. Admit it: You'd read about Mercy and Adam buying curtains or Bran hitting the 7-11 for a snack run. I'd smile all the way to the book store for it and eagerly hand over my cashmoney. She's that good.

In Fair Game, Briggs finally goes all in. She builds a solid mystery with no extraneous parts, she keeps the pace steady and the tension high. She even manages to weave together both the overall story and the relationship between our two main characters seamlessly, something that's always been a bit of a problem. As I neared the end of the book and the relationship question was answered, I prepared for another "and then the mystery was sort of solved or whatever" finish. Instead, all hell broke loose. The throw-away mystery blew up huge and now everything is changed forever - in not just one but two series. I literally gasped when I read those lines. I nearly dropped the Kindle, in fact. I can't wait to see where she goes with this. It's like that big dog that was lying on the porch finally opened its eyes, got up, and stretched. I'm excited.

Changes, book twelve of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, is another book where an author goes from building up to tearing down. Over the course of the series, we've watched Harry become more powerful and more dangerous to both friend and foe. He's a good man who struggles with anger issues. He tries to take his moral cues from Luke Skywalker; Harry is very concerned with where he falls on the Jedi/Sith index. At least once in the series, he mentions the Tao of Peter Parker: With great power comes great responsibility. And in Changes, he throws it all into the flames. He takes power for his own ends, however noble those ends might be. There's no one he won't sacrifice, nothing he won't do to accomplish his goal. We watch the morals and ethics of a good man fall away to nothing, and in the end what's left is truly frightening.

We felt so bad for Harry early on in the series when he was persecuted by the Wardens. He was just a kid who made a mistake! It was laughable to think he'd end up a bad guy. And yet by the end of Changes, you understood exactly why Donald Morgan wanted to cut Harry's head off - and you wondered if maybe he wasn't right all along. This journey is masterfully written by Butcher. Harry justifies every choice so thoroughly (and wrongly) in his head, that I believe many readers didn't realize we had seen Harry stop being Luke, morph into Anakin, and dive right on in to Darth Vader territory. (The next book, Ghost Story, tries to retcon this incredibly executed downfall, which is a shame.)

The last book I want to talk about, The Lies of Locke Lamora, is the first in a series. It's like Ocean's 11 meets sword and sorcery, and for the first half of the book, you jump between the past and the present to see how the gang all got together. It's a hilarious and utterly engaging set of scenes, interspersed with interludes with Locke and the mentor of the gang of thieves that subtly show us just how dangerous Locke can be without a moral compass to guide him. As events in the present start to take a darker turn, we get the sense that maybe our heroes are in a bit of danger. Events are moving that might impact the job, and they may end up having to give up this particular heist. Then everything goes to hell and the light, funny, sweet narrative becomes agonizingly real. We go from Ocean's 11 to Scarface in the span of two scenes.

I've gushed about this book before, and I'll say it again: The Lies of Locke Lamora is probably my favorite book of the last five years. (Its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is actually even better - and when is the last time you can say that happened?) I love that Scott Lynch took what I thought was a fun, light romp and turned it into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. All that work up front to establish Locke as a lovable rogue who, without the right guiding hand, could have been something much darker paid off in spades when the story itself went dark. I remember thinking that those inadvertently murderous tendencies were something the author might want to do something with in the future, say five books in. Or, you know, immediately.

Before we get to Anita Blake's adventures in Shady Pines Elder Care Facility or Sookie Stackhouse applies for Medicare, the authors might want to throw these gals a curve ball. It can breathe new life into a mature franchise, or shock the hell out of a reader in a brand new one. Either way, I admire an author brave enough to defy expectations and toss their creations into the blender from time to time. Not everybody has the stones to do so.
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10 comments:

  1. Love that description of Mercy Thompson. Love it! And yep, I would read about Bran going to the 7-11. But sadly, you have made me miserable because I haven't read Fair Game yet and don't have the book budget to buy it at the moment and now desperately, desperately want to read it. ARGH! I bet I won't be able to resist...

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    1. After the last couple of Mercy Thompson books, I was like, well, this is nice but I can wait. I picked up Fair Game because someone on my Twitter feed (I can't remember who) gushed about it. Hands down the best book she's written, coherent from start to end, and everything that happened mattered. (I imagine that sounds to people who haven't read the series like I'm damning her with faint praise. ><)

      Not that I would suggest you break your budget and buy it, but I suggest you break your budget and buy it. ;)

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  2. I gave up on the Anita Blake books a loooong time ago. It just got to the "OMG she is so powerful and has to have sex ALL THE TIME or else she will DIE" point.

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    1. I was cool with it up until the end of Obsidian Butterfly. It was like she chickened out or something and decided to keep going with the same old same old. The series had been building and building, as though there were some necromantic destiny she was supposed to fulfill, and then... nothing but sex.

      I miss the pure necromancy. You could do so much more with that.

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  3. Anita was my gateway to UF. I only read the first 5 books, but those early ones were pretty good and definitely stayed with me when I came back round to UF a few years ago.

    I have an absolute love of anything written by Ilona Andrews. They are just consistently a fun escape from reality for awhile. On her blog she once wrote out the grocery shopping lists for a few of the major characters. It was hilarious and I totally would have paid for it. :)

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    1. Looked at stuff by her before and never went through with buying it... will have to reconsider if you think it's that good. :)

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    2. I love her series about The Edge. Such snark and humor! Bookwench - if you haven't read her, DO IT! You will not be sorry.

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  4. The first five Anita Blake books were so well-written. I wish that something more UF had happened in the next few books. I think she's taken her characters on a journey that is decidedly more erotic fiction (which is great for readers of that) and much less action and mystery than what she began with. LKH lost the readers that wanted what Anita started as.

    Fair Game is on my list already, but it's good to know it's droolworthy!

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  5. I have to add to the "Authors not afraid to do incredibly life-changing stuff to their characters" list and put in my votes for Morgan Howell, starting with "King's Property" (Queen of the Orcs).

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  6. Thank you!! I thought I was the only one who hit Anita Blake #6 or was it 7, and thought, "You have got to be kidding me". LKH is such a talented writer, but when the soft core porn left the Merry Gentry series and came to Anita Blake I gave up. And thanks for the new author suggestions!!

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