Friday, October 29, 2010
Lonely Werewolf Girl
Author: Martin Millar
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Hard-luck protagonists are nothing new, but Kalix MacRiannalch is on another level. We first meet her as a homeless, degenerate junkie living on the streets of London. She's pawned her only means of protection to afford laudanum- her drug of choice. She's evading a guild of Van Helsing wannabes that want her dead on general principles, as well as the members of her former clan, who want her dead for trying to kill her father the Thane. We soon learn she's also illiterate, friendless, pining for a lost love, depressed nearly to the point of suicide, and quite possibly insane. So I was expecting a moody and depressing view of life in the streets of London, but it turns out that- some very dark bits aside- this book veers more towards comedy. By way of literary anarchism.
The plot defies easy description, but I'll do my best. We have four major plotlines running concurrently: 1) Kalix falls in with a pair of human university students, the milquetoast Daniel and the perky-goth-slash-bleeding-heart Moonglow. On the logic of "She followed me home, can I keep her?", they more or less take Kalix in as a ersatz daughter, trying to give her a good home and help her get over her various complexes. 2) Kalix's older sister Thrix- fellow werewolf, sorceress, and fashion designer, tries to navigate a very stressful life that involves both MacRinnalch clan intrigues and a respected by incredibly meddlesome client, the Fire Elemental Queen Malveria. 3) The death of the Thane triggers a struggle for his throne, as his sons Sarapen and Markus clash amidst a mess of intrigues, betrayals, plots, and murders. Kalix becomes a pawn in the struggle, with Sarapen trying to kill her to curry favor with the Thane's mother. 4) To garner the votes of a pair of young werewolves, Beauty and Delicious, a werewolf named Dominil- fitting the mold of Intellectual-Ice-Queen-You-Want-To-Defrost-Personally - heads to London to try and straighten out the twins' musical career.
Because a lot of readers apparently got the idea that I hated 13 to Life, let's get things straight right off the bat: I liked Lonely Werewolf Girl. In fact, I loved it. It has problems, but it's immensely entertaining. The random-events nature of the plot means it will be able to surprise even the most jaded reader, and the characters are endearing and memorable. No, not everyone's going to like it, but it's unique and enthusiastically written, and that counts for quite a lot these days.
Got it? Okay. Now, about those problems...
Lonely Werewolf Girl is a difficult book to wrap your brain around, because... well, it's a mess. An entertaining mess, but still a mess. It can't seem to decide what it wants to be- it starts out grim and dreary, but ends up as something akin to a moe anime. I'm serious. All the elements are there. Female lead Kalix is easy to sympathize with, due to her being so pathetic and helpless. But she's also capable of taking care of herself, which prevents her from looking like a worthless wimp. As she starts to get character development, she reveals an innocent, childlike personality beneath her psychological problems- she behaves like an elementary-schooler despite being biologically 17 and having had a highly sexual relationship in the past. Likewise, the supporting cast is quirky, predominantly female, and sympathetic. The book has an episodic layout, with a status quo that the situation tends to fall back to between adventures. There is forward movement in the plot, but it's slow. Whether any or all of this is good or bad depends on your perspective- some people like this kind of stuff, some don't. I like it so long as it's paired with either sympathetic characters or interesting stories. Lonely Werewolf Girl has both, so it passes.
Between gritty urban fantasy and heartwarming comedy, however, is a long stretch where tone is wildly inconsistent. One scene is Malveria and Thrix bantering comically about a recent tryst of Thrix's. The next is a different character baring his soul to yet another regarding the recent death of a loved one. The next after that is Kalix having a massive anxiety attack that she's convinced is the sign of her mind finally cracking completely... and a few scenes later, she abruptly gets over it when Agrivex shows up bringing enough perkiness to power half a dozen Starbucks'. Stop the ride please, I'm getting dizzy.
The plot is similarly chaotic, with the author making nearly everything up as he goes. Here, off the top of my head, is a list of things that are obviously thought up on the spot: Malveria's airheaded niece Agrivex, who is mentioned in an off-hand way midway through and shortly thereafter becomes a crucial mover in the plot; Dominil's laudanum habit; Thrix's torrid love affair with a secondary character, which starts off reasonably but strains plausibility in continuing; and Kalix and Thrix each pulling out a special ability never before hinted at in the final fraking battle. Other things are brought up and then never addressed- I'm still wondering how Kalix acquired a phobia of eating, and why said phobia goes away in werewolf form.
Some bits are just sloppy- in particular, Millar has a bad habit of resorting to indirect dialog when there's no need for it. Also continuity issues: Sarapen's romantic feelings for Dominil seem to come and go randomly, and Kalix's secondary addiction to a prescription anti-depressant is forgotten about when we find out she has a self-cutting problem. It's like Millar decided that the latter worked better than the former and couldn't even do a quick copy & paste to patch it up.
However, the above doesn't actually matter too much if you approach the book from the right angle. In fact, the randomness arguably helps. The one-thing-after-another nature of the plot lends it a quality akin to The Big Lebowski. And like that film (one of my favorites), trying to make sense of it is a bad idea. Instead, it's best enjoyed by just sitting back and letting the absurdity of it all wash over you. Don't worry about how ridiculous it is, just let yourself be amused.
Still and all, it must be said that I found it a rather empty experience. The author has stuff to say- about how friendship and camaraderie is important, about how we can never fully control what happens to us, and about how we'll be as happy as we make up our minds to be. Sugary stuff like that. But it tends to get drowned out by all the sound and fury, leaving the book feeling intellectually ethereal. Around here, we don't require our books to have deep thoughts, but if they do, we like to see them well-developed instead of lost in the shuffle.
All in all though, I had a great time with Lonely Werewolf Girl. It's disorganized, with an often nonsensical plot, but immensely entertaining regardless. Not great literature or a must-read, but worth looking at for witty writing, unique style, and some lovely moments. Recommended, with the proviso that it's a long book (560 pages, twice what I normally review), and also that if you try to keep track of everything, you'll need a flow chart. So, I wouldn't really blame you if you get the urge to heave it through a sheet-rock wall.