Friday, August 6, 2010


Series: Dark Guardian (#1)
Genre: Romance/Adventure
Author: Rachel Hawthorne
Publisher: HarperTeen

The story Moonlight sets out to tell is not a bad one, though it is somewhat lacking in originality. However, right at the point where the plot starts to get good, it drops the ball completely, leaving the end result a massive letdown.

Our heroine Kayla, ordinary high school student, is spending summer vacation working as a guide in a unnamed National Forest. More specifically, she's working as one guide on a team of six, the leader of which is the mysterious and attractive Lucas. The team's first job is to escort a scientific expedition deep into the forest. They claim to be studying wolves, but Mason- the main scientist's son and right hand- suggests the truth to be that they're looking for werewolves. The reader knows, due to a flash-forward prologue, that werewolves are real and Lucas is one of them, but Kayla doesn't at first. Pretty soon Kayla is caught in a Betty/Veronica love triangle with Lucas and Mason, and things get worse when the expedition is attacked by an unknown saboteur.

Now, there are two kinds of readers: those that value originality, and those that value execution. Those that value originality will soon want to throw this book across the room, because there's precious little here that hasn't been done before. The execution, however, is very strong. Pacing is immaculate, and the narrative is lean and mean. There's very few wasted words or digressions, every scene is important.  The characters are a little bland, but very realistic. These are not people who go on big navel-gazing monologues or make impassioned declarations of love. It's a very down-to-earth cast. You probably remember friends like this from your high school days.

One thing that's done especially well is the central love triangle. Kayla almost immediately identifies Lucas as the dangerous "bad boy" and Mason as "safe". And at first we go along with it since Lucas is, after all, the werewolf. But Hawthorne subverts expectations. Reading between the lines indicates that Lucas' aloofness is actually a respect for Kayla's independence, while Mason is controlling and possessive. Kayla doesn't seem to realize it, but if the reader hasn't figured it out by the time Mason gets her buzzed on cheap beer before a night of stargazing, well...

So, not great literature, but an enjoyable read. At least until we get to the big turning point. Then Hawthorne makes two critical mistakes and sinks the whole book. I'm going to have to get into spoilers now. If you're averse, skip down to the last paragraph, where I try to end this on a high note.

Still here? Okay...

We know Mason's the real bad boy, but we eventually discover he's not just an unlucky romantic rival. His attempts to seduce Kayla turn out to be a ploy to draw Lucas out so that he can be captured. Mason does his obligatory villainous speech, then Kayla plays the trickster, breaks Lucas out, and they escape. What happens next? Exposition. Lots of exposition. Several chapters of it, actually. The plot grinds to a halt while Kayla plays spear carrier for Lucas' explanations of how lycanthropy works. Occasionally they break for an obligatory romantic scene. These could have been good, but broken up by lectures on the abilties, weaknesses, and culture of werewolves, they can't gain any momentum. The book becomes a tiresome trudge.

Second mistake: the science crew- inculding Mason, the antagonist built up as such for most of the book... leaves. Exit stage right on a helicopter. Offscreen, even. Mason's replaced as villain by a rogue werewolf with the not-very-subtle name of Devilin. Obviously, Hawthorne's saving Mason for the sequel. But still, the reader is robbed of any sense of closure to his arc here and now. It feels like a very bad bait-and-switch.

The worst part is that Devilin is actually a pretty good villain. Sure, he's a bog-standard vengeful psychopath, but he's an entertaining psychopath. He's completely over-the-top crazy. He the kind of character you imagine coming out when the director tells an enthusiastic young actor "Go big. I mean, Tim Curry big." He quotes Nietzsche, shoots up a cave, nearly kills the hero, and absconds with the girl, all while grinning like his insane namesake. He steals the show for a good two or three chapters. And then? An anticlimactic fight that ends with him falling off a cliff to a very permanent death. And we're left thinking, "That's it?" If Mason had stayed as the villain until the end, he would have made a good one. If Devilin had been better developed then one or two mentions before hijacking the plot, that would have been good. Instead, we've got two very solid, very hateable antagonists, and both of them go to waste.

The romantic climax follows. It's pretty well done, making up for some of the above problems. But instead of picking that note to end on, we go on to clumsily resolve a dangling subplot, and then... more exposition. Only the story we came for is over, so this is just dragging things out and setting up the sequel. When the back cover finally closes, the overwhelming feeling is one of wasted time and wasted imagination.

I should reiterate that Moonlight is not, at it's core, a bad story. It's predictable, and it could have stood a few more revisions, but the author is unquestionably skilled. Why she made such serious blunders in the second half, I can't speculate. And while a lot of the scene-setting has no bearing on the immediate story, the world that's been set up here is intriguing. So Moonlight gets a check minus, but the series in general has potential. Let's hope the next installment lives up to it a little better.

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