Friday, October 8, 2010
Author: Jackson Pearce
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Our friend Kitty Norville- channeling her creator, Carrie Vaughn- once noted that Dracula is not about vampires. It's about much deeper themes and issues, with the vampire being a representation of the things humanity has to conquer. In a similar vein, Sisters Red is not about werewolves. Oh, there are werewolves here. The old kind of werewolves- nasty, monstrous, remorseless incarnations of the beast inside man. But this isn't really a book about werewolves. Nor is it really a reinvention of the Red Riding Hood myth. It's a story about big issues- love, sex, family, growing up, finding your place in life- all in all a very human story.
Dramatis personae: The Fenris- vicious, bestial creatures who prey on pretty young women, using charm and good looks to get close and then devouring them gruesomely. Scarlett- An eighteen-year-old girl who survived a Fenris attack seven years ago. The attack left her scarred both physically- including a missing right eye- and mentally. Since the attack, she's devoted herself to hunting down Fenris with an axe, propelled by a burning desire to ensure noone should ever again suffer like she did. Rosie- Scarlett's sixteen-year-old sister. She survived the same attack Scarlett did, but was uninjured because her big sister protected her. She aids her sister's quest with a collection of knives and a deadly throwing arm, but her heart is not in the fight. Devotion keeps her at Scarlett's side, but what she really wants is to to be a normal girl. Silas- The youngest son of a large woodcutter's family and Scarlett's former hunting partner. He left town to try and find himself a year ago. He returns to rejoin the hunt, but winds up stoking the flames of romance with Rosie as well, complicating the situation. The Potential- a living MacGuffin. A Potential is an ordinary human, but destined to turn into a Fenris if bitten during a certain lunar cycle. Early on some Fenris passing through town cue the trio to the presence of one in the area. Expecting good hunting, they pack up and head to the city of Atlanta, where a rash of murders suggests the Fenris are congregating to search. Their goal is to stop the Fenris from turning the Potential at all costs- and take as many lycanthropic heads as they can in the meantime.
However, the hunt for the Potential is actually a B-plot. The A-plot is the love triangle that develops between the three leads. This is a good move- the Potential hunt is driven by a series of convenient coincidences, but the characters are well-developed and sympathetic. Silas offers Rosie the happiness and contentment that goes with a normal, everyday life. Yet Rosie is bound to Scarlett- not only because they're sisters, but because of gratitude for saving her those many years ago. Scarlett is bound to Rosie out of duty and a fear of loneliness, but is also secretly jealous of her. She wants to live a normal life, too, but her scars make it impossible- her only fulfillment is to lose herself in the hunt. Life, in short, is pulling them in different directions, and each sister has to decide whether to hold on to the present or seek after an uncertain future. It's deep stuff, and very compelling. Pacing's good, too- there's not a lot of hemming and hawing or will they or won't they. Aside from the aforementioned convenient coincidences, everything moves along smoothly and naturally.
What I'm not quite so keen on is the portrayal of the Fenris. We've seen a lot of "new" werewolves on this blog, but very little of the old, monstrous lycanthropes. In Sisters Red, we have the old style- a brutal, animalistic savage motivated by bloodlust. No conscience, no morals, just pure, destructive id. I don't mind the idea of a werewolf as a monster. In fact, an old-school werewolf makes a very effective monster- you can't reason with it, can't appeal to it's compassion or sanity, and can't appease it. You have to take it down, and depending on the writer this could be very, very difficult. Sisters Red plays all this well- the Fenris are tough to kill- but not so tough that they become invincible- and easy for the reader to loathe.
However, Pearce's werewolves have some rather unsettling overtones hanging over them. There are no female Fenris- they're all men. And they all prey on women- pretty, young women- exclusively. They're stated to enjoy the terror their victims feel as much as the meal. We've mentioned the whole "good looks and charm" thing. In short, they're rather obviously sexual predators dressed up as more traditional predators. Sisters Red is a very feminist book, in that it's about women using their own power to stand up to an oppressive and destructive male force.
I'm not disparaging any of this. Sex is intrinsic to the Red Riding Hood myth that Sisters Red takes its' overt inspiration from, and I don't have a problem with feminist stories. But I do have a problem when feminism crosses over into misandry. Sisters Red doesn't, but it skirts the edge. The Fenris attacks are a symbolic rape and a literal murder, which- in literature, at least- makes the Fenris fair game for vigilante justice. Fine. But the sisters' hunting tactics are a symbolic seduction and a literal murder, and no one really brings up the apparent double standard. It's repeatedly pointed out that Fenris have no souls and are as good as dead already, which justifies the sisters' actions. Okay, fair enough.
But now, here's the big problem: the Fenris are the only significant male force in the story. The others are either irrelevant background characters, or dis-empowered somehow. Silas is an exception, but... well, he's not a very good exception. He's a positive force, but he's also a one-dimensional love interest who exists primarily to offer Rosie a different life, and plot twists later on complicate his role in the story.
Spoiler time, so skip these next three paragraphs if you have a problem.
It turns out near the end that the Potential the trio has been hunting is Silas himself. Honestly, I'm not sure this even counts as a spoiler. Plotwise, Pearce could have pulled some random no-name extra out of nowhere and have the heroes and villains play Capture The Flag-In-The-Shape-Of-A-Dude for a climax, or somesuch. Thematically, however, the Potential has to be Silas. The villain of this book is, metaphorically, male sexuality. Since Silas' relationship with Rosie is starting to get physical, this makes him a threat. The final battle has Scarlett, Rosie, and Silas trying to fight off a pack of Fenris while at the same time protecting Silas. If Silas gets bitten- just so much as a nip- he becomes a Fenris himself.
Dramatically, it makes for a great climax- suspenseful and action-packed. But the implications leave a sour taste in my mouth. Silas may be a shallow character, but he's never portrayed as anything other than a good man. Yet he's faced with the possibility of becoming a slathering, amoral, rapacious monster, through no fault of his own. The only choice he has in the matter is in asking Scarlett to kill him if it comes to that. In the end, he doesn't wind up turning- but that is through no choice of his own either! Rather, it's pure luck that saves him, and it's not even permanent salvation. He's a Potential, he'll always be a Potential, and he can be as good or as kind-hearted as he wants, but he'll always be at risk of becoming a monster. Sucks to be him.
I wouldn't be anywhere near as upset about this if not for the fact that Pearce's werewolves explicitly represent sexual predation. The underlying message I got from all this is that a man is always in danger of becoming a rapist, simply because it's in his nature and he can't do anything about it. His free will and his personal choices are irrelevant. Frankly, I am insulted.
End of spoilers.
I pretty sure most readers won't care about this stuff. More's the pity. Because, despite the previous six paragraphs full of chiding and finger-wagging, I quite enjoyed Sisters Red. I like books that are able to make me think, even if I wind up thinking something different from what the author intended. This isn't a disposable story- it's carrying around serious thoughts about love, families, responsibility, and growing up. And, if you don't like your books philosophical, you're still getting a damn good adventure story with strong writing, well-developed heroes, and eminently hateable villains. Sisters Red is a good story. Yes, it's got a very bad idea hiding in it. So what? I plucked out the idea, cast it away, and enjoyed the story anyway.