Sunday, November 14, 2010
Low Red Moon
Author: Ivy Devlin
Publisher: Bloomsbury Childrens
About thirty pages into Low Red Moon, I e-mailed a couple of friends giving my estimation of how the plot was going to turn out. When I got to the end, I had to sheepishly admit that I was wrong on a good number of things. So I suppose I should give the author props for being original. But- call it sour grapes if you will- the story I had assumed was coming was a whole lot better than Low Red Moon.
Our story takes place in Woodlake, a small town somewhere in America surrounded by forest. Avery Hood's parents were the local weirdos- they lived pretty far out in the woods, had a ramshackle house that was literally cobbled together in bits and pieces, and owned a large track of forest land that they left completely undeveloped. Avery, their only child, was homeschooled until fifteen and was branded the local freak upon entering high school. Her parents are pretty much all she has- and now they've been murdered right in front of her eyes. She saw everything, but due to traumatic amnesia she can't remember it. After the funeral, she moves in with her grandmother and tries to deal with the pain of losing everything she's ever cared about. Then she meets Ben Dusic, the New Kid in Town. Right off the bat, Avery senses a mysterious connection to him. But clues keep piling up that Ben is something more than human- and may be responsible for her parents death.
Low Red Moon is described on the dust jacket as "part murder mystery, part grief narrative, part heart-stopping, headlong romance." That tells, I think. If you need more than two genres to describe a book, there's a good chance what you've really got is a jumbled mess. And indeed, the author doesn't seem to know if she's writing a fantasy novel, a paranormal romance, a horror story, or a tale of a girl who's lost everything trying to find a new life. If you ask me, though, she should have gone with the last one, because the grief narrative bits are the only parts that really succeeds. You can feel the sense of loneliness Avery is confronted with, and the pain that the loss of her family brings. I generally don't like protagonists who sit around mourning their lot in life, but this time it works- Avery watched her parents murdered less than a week ago, of course she's going to be shell-shocked.
But that's not the whole book, and the remainder drags it down. The paranormal romance and murder mystery aspects work explicitly against each other- the entire book sets up Ben to have killed Avery's parents during a lycanthropic blackout. But the reader knows that this can't be the truth, since there's no alternative love interest and the paranormal romance genre demands a happy ending. (Or an annoying cliffhanger, but that's a complaint for another day.) The vaguely-hinted yet incredibly obvious real killer turns out to be a red herring- something which I admit impressed me in it's execution- but then the truth turns out to be that a mildly-important secondary character did it. And is secretly a raving psychopath. Lame.
Meanwhile, the romance is undermined by the fact that Avery is falling for a guy who she believes killed her parents. The book tries to justify this with a bit of Love At First Sight Via Magical Bonding, but this just makes the problem worse. Honestly, even if Avery's parents were still alive I'd have a hard time believing that she'd fall for Ben, because he has no personality. We learn almost nothing about him over the course of the book- he wears moccasins, his parents were killed recently, and he swears up down and sideways that he didn't kill Avery's parents. Even his lycanthropy is underplayed- it's a reason to suspect him as the killer, and gives him some vaguely-defined empathic powers. Nothing more. It was the penultimate chapter before I realized that we never even learned what his wolf-form looks like- doggy-style, or Lon Chaney Jr.? I don't know, and it doesn't mean a thing in the end, anyway.
Actually, that may be the core problem right there. "It doesn't mean a thing in the end, anyway." That could easily apply to the entire novel. There's no heart here, no spark, no real point to it. A bunch of stuff happens, but it's all sound and fury. There's some vague subtext about land development that comes around via the old man vs. nature route, but it feels like it's drawn out of the bag of musty old storytelling cliches. Normally, a book like this would be sent into the vaults to re-do later. Devlin runs with it, and it just doesn't work.
Normally the story could be salvaged by turning it into character study. And that might actually have worked, since both romances and mysteries are powered by strong characterization. But again, no such luck. Every character in Low Red Moon is underdeveloped. Avery and maybe her grandmother Renee are the only ones who seem like real human beings- everyone else is one-note at best. And the author falls into that old newbie trap of having the cast spout exposition frequently. Some authors can make this work, but it requires capturing either the sense of wonder or the angst. Most of the time it instead comes off like reading lines off of cue cards. Ben is, again, either the worst offender or the most prominent one. You'd think he could at least be less cardboard when talking about the fact that he turns into a wolf under stress, but the author plays it with a just-the-facts approach that is blandness incarnate.
I hate to heap scorn on debut novels- it always makes me feel like a schoolyard bully picking on the scrawny kid. But the fact of the matter is, I can't find a single reason to recommend Low Red Moon. It had absolutely nothing that appealed to me except some well-written make-out scenes, and that's nowhere near enough to make a good book. The ending sets up a sequel, but I'm not holding my breath. There actually is some interesting world-building on display here, but it's buried in a pile of unmotivated writing, uninteresting ideas, and bland dialog. Skip it.