Author: Carrie Vaughn
The Kitty Norville series has had its ups and downs thus far. The first book was excellent, but rough around the edges. The second mostly treaded water, serving up overall weaker material but remaining entertaining. The third had some serious issues. But with book four, things have turned around dramatically. Carrie Vaughn has gotten back to basics, returning us to the characters and storylines that were left hanging after Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Now the series seems to be heading in a new direction, and it works. In fact, I can confidently say that Kitty and the Silver Bullet is the best of the first four books.
Four months after the close of Kitty Takes a Holiday, Kitty and Ben have settled in to a peaceful life at Pueblo, Colorado. Kitty wants nothing more than to stay out of trouble and put on her radio show every Friday night. But of course, trouble has a way of finding Kitty. Her old pal Rick- right-hand vamp to Denver's vampire master Arturo- shows up with a proposition. Rick is planning a coup against his boss, who has Kitty's old pack in his pocket. Rick wants Kitty to take out the alpha pair- Carl and Meg- and assume leadership of the pack while he moves against Arturo. Kitty refuses. But when her mother gets cancer, she's forced to come back to Denver anyway, and soon finds herself knee-deep in the brewing vampire civil war.
As usual, compelling characters are this series' strong point. After showing off a lot of angst last time, Kitty and Ben are back to exhibiting the vibrant chemistry they had in Kitty Goes to Washington. They support and uplift each other even while they quarrel and trade barbs repeatedly. And have sex just off-page. Ah, love.... Most of the major players are returning from the first book- most notably Rick and Carl. There are new faces, too. Standouts include a pair of punk-rock vampires- who unfortunately were stuck on the sidelines, and Mercedes Cook- a Broadway singer who "comes out" as a vampire on Kitty's show.
Also as usual, Vaughn creates a novel by weaving together several plotlines. Meanwhile, the overall theme is in the details- it's there, and it's important, but attention is not drawn to it. This time out, the theme is familial bonds. It's her mother's illness that brings Kitty into the conflict, and her need to do right for her pack- her own family- that motivates her to stay and fight. Carl rules the pack like an abusive father- treating women like a personal harem, and men as a threat to be kept in line with intimidation. One of the better chapter is spent on Kitty's attempts to help an abused young woman get away from his control. While not the biggest threat Kitty's faced, Carl is easily the most repulsive and hateable villain of the series thus far- a representation of everything that's wrong with a dysfunctional family.
By contrast, Kitty and Ben- and a couple of defectors they pick up later- represent the system done right. In reviewing Kitty Takes a Holiday, I noted that their relationship was a stabilizing influence. It remains so here. Kitty notes once or twice that she was supposed to be taking care of Ben, and yet Ben's taking care of her just as often. Indeed, that's how it's supposed to be- love is built on a foundation of mutual support. Carl's relationship with his pack is stabilizing as well, but also abusive. He's not trying to maintain a status quo because it's best for the pack- he's doing it because it's best for him. He likes the power, and he's afraid of what will happen if he loses it. He twists the same social unit towards self-serving ends. In essence, the central conflict of the book is social- it's a battle over the meaning and purpose of a familial structure.
Arturo, our other major villain, isn't quite so good at being a bad guy. This was true in the first book, as well- he was played as a villain, but the only truly villainous thing he did was as a go-between for someone else. He's played as more of a threat here, but still only does one truly unforgivable thing in the book. Many would say it's enough to qualify him as evil, but I'm not entirely convinced. And even so, the next scene he's in pretty much kills any chance at the audience despising him. This isn't necessarily bad, though. In fact, I think the story works better because he's a pawn of his own power structure- it gives Rick's quest to change the system more weight.
The various subplots we've come to expect from Kitty Norville and meandering about a little. However, this book is a lot tighter than its' predecessors. Halfway through, the shit hits the fan and the main story takes center stage. The second half of the book moves at a lightning-fast pace and delivers excitement and drama in spades. Battle lines are drawn, alliances are made, plots are hatched and blood is spilled. It would all be an epic cluster-boink in the hands of a less experienced writer. But Vaughn has been wrangling plots like this since book 1, and she knows what she's doing. Everything comes together very naturally. Each scene ultimately serves a purpose in the grander storyline, and the unfolding is controlled enough that the reader never feels overwhelmed by the plot twists. Still, it gets to be a bit much. I felt like I was being pummeled with knockout punches after a while, and the last battle proved a little anticlimactic in the face of what came before.
Talking about family before, I may have made Kitty and the Silver Bullet sound rather literay. Well, it is and it isn't. This is the world of the mass-market paperback, where books are supposed to be entertaining first and foremost. It certainly is that, and you can take or leave the deeper issues as you will. Either way, it's a smashing good read- enthralling plot, appealing characters, and well-crafted throughout. Here's hoping that the series continues on this upward trajectory.