Monday, November 22, 2010
Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
Author: Carrie Vaughn
The Kitty Norville books are kind of difficult to classify. They almost fit in the urban fantasy genre, but Kitty is not your typical urban fantasy heroine. She's not a badass. She's not even the adventurous type- despite hosting a radio show that brings her into contact with a lot of strange characters. All she really wants is to settle down into a quiet, normal life with her pack, her radio show, her new bar, and her man. When you think about it, it's a natural choice for Carrie Vaughn to send her heroine to Las Vegas. I mean, is there a city on earth that is less normal?
One month into their engagement, Kitty and Ben are already sick of wedding planning. Facing nagging relatives, insane logistics, and the possibility of toiling for months on end to bring it all together, they very logically decide, "Screw it, we're going to Vegas." Simple. Then her producer gets word, and she gets talked into doing a televised "Live from Las Vegas" episode of The Midnight Hour. Then Rick finds out, and ropes her into delivering a message to Dom, the vampire master of Las Vegas. Okay, not too bad. Once in the city, a search for material for the show turns up some of the colorful characters Las Vegas is known for- including the smoking-hot Balthasar, who's running a stage show that is essentially Siegfried and Roy with weretigers. And whips and chains. There's also a less-elaborate stage magician working in town, rumor has it, knows real magic. And she's sharing the hotel with a gun show in town that has attracted a handful of freelance werewolf hunters. A pair of which may be gunning for Kitty's head.
So much for simple. Viva Las Vegas!
I don't envy whichever muse was appointed to watch over this book. Kitty and the Silver Bullet is a tough act to follow. But, Vaughn knows what she's doing, and even on the occasions where she stumbles her books make for entertaining reads. The word of the day this time around is "normalcy". Kitty is in town to get the wedding madness over and done with in a vaguely dignified manner, so as to go home and get on with her life. In a sense, Las Vegas itself is the enemy- bright, glitzy, and full of the exotic and unusual, it throws complications by the dozen at her plan to just put on a show, get married, and have a drink by the pool. Foremost among them is Balthasar, a fellow lycanthrope who has embraced his animalistic nature and sets out trying to seduce Kitty. Balthasar is sexy, domineering, and alluringly sinful- the kind of sexual predator that PNR fangirls swoon over in a manner that makes me want to kick the stuffing out of them.
Not that I'm objecting. To the contrary, Vaughn plays this character type exactly as he should be played- sleazy, depraved, and without any redeeming qualities. Admittedly, he does somewhat slide down the slippery slope of characterization by the end. What he turns out to be up to is a bit... much. But still, after my dispiriting encounters with Team Ren, I approve of an author putting dirtbags like this solidly where they belong.
As counterpoint to Balthasar, we get Odysseus Grant. Where Balthasar is larger than life and embraces a libertine's lifestyle, Grant is a simple, down-to-earth stage magician. He performs time-worn, old-fashioned sleights-of-hand- card tricks, the interlocking steel rings. It's magic, same as Balthasar's act, but familiar magic. He's not interested in showing his audience spectacle- just showing them a good time. The simple dignity of his act makes Balthasar's bombast seem egotistical and self-serving- which Balthasar most definitely is.
Between one and the other is Dom, vampire master and playboy. He's an interesting one, seemingly more interested in running his casino and holding cocktail parties than the usual vampiric schemes and conspiracies. Again, normalcy. Albeit a somewhat different kind of "normal." Vegas, baby.
TL;DR: we've got the usual colorful cast of characters. We expect nothing less from Carrie Vaughn. What about the plot? Well, that's kind of a problem. It always is, when reviewing these books. The patchwork structure is a tricky thing to get exactly right. I've said before that Vaughn is really a short story writer, and her novels are multiple short stories woven together. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. In Midnight Hour and Silver Bullet, it all fit together like an elegant jigsaw. In Washington, it didn't work quite as well, but it was still a mostly interesting story. Holiday was very solid logically, although everything except the love story was phoned in. With Dead Man's Hand... things don't go as well as usual. Two or three plot threads twine together to form a major plotline eventually, but there's also a lot of stuff that just pops in from time to time as throwaway scenes. Also, while events move along pretty briskly, they don't really go anywhere. With a few minor changes, all the storylines are more or less in the same place by the end of the book as they were at the start. It's like the plot got lost, wandered around the strip a bit, then wound up back at the hotel feeling like a day was wasted.
A side effect of this- and it's a crippling one- is that Kitty seems to be completely impotent throughout the book. She never affects any of the varied storylines in any meaningful way. She spends most of the book's first half digging up material for her live show- essentially a lot of walking around and observing weird goings-on. About halfway through, trouble comes a callin', and she spends the rest of the book looking for leads, and finding none. That's not bad storytelling by itself, but the lack of forward momentum makes things tedious. Exacerbating the problem, Vaughn has to pause the sleuthing for totally inappropriate bouts of character development and exposition. One truly obnoxious bit has Kitty going to Dom for help, finding none, and then hanging out at his cocktail party for awhile anyway, chatting with vampires she herself describes as "vapid". Given the stakes, it's highly out-of-character for Kitty to decide to take a break and chill right at this moment.
Things do eventually come together in a big fight scene involving most of the cast... where Vaughn completely drops the ball. Now, look, I'm aware that Kitty's never been a fighter, but she usually contributes at least something to the climactic brawl. Hell, in Silver Bullet, she showed some serious heroine cred- over the course of the book, she killed an old enemy, was instrumental in turning Rick's rebellion around, and wrested the pack away from Carl's hands. But here, she's backslid dramatically. She's reduced to playing the damsel in distress until the good guys show up and the fight starts in earnest... at which point she blacks out and misses the whole damn thing! Adding insult to injury, the plot that she's been trying to resolve all this time has nothing at all to do with that brouhaha. Instead it gets resolved offscreen! As a writer with four published books and more than two dozen short stories under her belt, Vaughn really should know better than this.
I did enjoy this book, but at the end of the day it was kind of a letdown. I kept reading and reading, desperate to find out what happened next. And that was great, it was a wild ride. But then at the end I was like "Uh... that's it? Well... okay, that was fun. I guess." It was kind of like the real Las Vegas- a carnival full of bright lights and tourist trap attractions, all excitement, all adventure, always something to do. But also like Las Vegas, it left me with something like a hangover and a nagging feeling that I should have gone camping instead. Devoted fans who've followed Kitty since book one will have a good time here. But if you're new to the series, this definitely isn't the place to start.