Thursday, December 2, 2010
Curse of the Wolf Girl
Author: Martin Millar
Publisher: Underland Press
Lonely Werewolf Girl was one of those books that made you struggle to figure out which genre it belongs in. In hindsight, however, I think the best comparison would be a webcomic in it's early stages. It had a continuing storyline, which appeared to have been sketched out in broad strokes. The details were being made up as the author went, with no going back to shore up earlier bits. Instead it embraced an episodic structure, which ensured that every chapter was meant to be read for what it was, not for things that would happen down the road. Along the way it experimented with a lot of different plot developments, characters, and tones, keeping what worked and casually discarding the rest. The resulting story, if not exactly to everyone's taste, was at least unique and unpredictable. Now it's sequel time, and Millar hasn't changed the formula much. He has, however, refined it so as to weed out some of the thornier problems in the first book.
As before, Millar works multiple plotlines that weave in and out of one another. The fire elemental Princess Kabachetka, who was mainly a behind-the-scenes force in the first book, comes to the forefront in her continuing fashionista feud with Queen Malveria. Figuring she can get an upper hand by eliminating Thrix MacRinnalch, Kabachetka seeks aid from the local werewolf hunting guild. Meanwhile, she forges an alliance with a scheming traitor in Malveria's inner circle, with each of them seeking to unseat their respective ruling monarchs and take the throne for themselves. As for our heroine, Kalix MacRinnalch, she doesn't have anything to do with it. Her biggest problems are plowing through remedial arithmetic courses, dealing with the suddenly-competent werewolf hunters of London, and angsting over her estranged lover Gawain. But when a love letter brings her to Gawain's place for a reconciliation, she instead finds him lying face-down on the floor, dead for several days. A vengeful werewolf who also happens to be psychologically unstable is not going to be good for anybody...
Curse of the Wolf Girl is a notable step up from it's predescessor. It's a lot more focused and consistent, and funnier as well. While subplots still run around willy-nilly, it's a lot easier to keep your head around the story. Part of this comes from keeping a tight reign on the cast- while Lonely Werewolf Girl introduced new characters seemingly every few chapters up to the very end, Curse sticks mainly to the already-established cast. The newcomers could probably be counted on one hand, and the newcomers that have a significant effect on the plot number exactly three. Instead, time is spent developing old characters, sometimes repurposing them for new roles in the story. In particular, Agrivex and Decembrius get a lot more to do here- the latter turns into a potential love interest for Kalix, the former plays her perky airhead routine to the hilt, providing much of the incidental humor along the way.
Kalix herself has grown a lot since we last saw her- a relatively-stable home life has diminished most of her psychoses. She retains her addictions to laudnum and self-cutting, as well as her bouts of depression and anxiety, but she's also a lot more social, a little more mature, and is growing capable of facing her problems. A lot of this reflects a rather lighter tone then the previous book, with a focus more on the comedy than the tragedy.
With all that said, though, the unusual writing style Millar uses- make it up as you go and never look back- is still very much an acquired taste. Things are brought up, made to look important, and then dropped because he decides to take things in a different direction. Just to take the most egregious example: Kalix is tricked into walking into an ambush by some enemies. Outnumbered, unwilling to retreat, and unable to transform because it's still daytime, she prepares for a last stand. Then, out of nowhere, Thrix shows up bearing some recently-acquired magic which turns the tables. Unfortunately, a spell backfires and results in both Thrix and Kalix being transported to another plane of existence, where they spend two short chapters meeting some characters before finding their way home. Not a bad scene. The problem? None of it has anything to do with the story. Thrix's new magic is never used again, their little sojourn in weird-land accomplishes nothing, the characters they meet aren't important, and we never even learn why Thrix happened to stop by at that moment. Kalix does come out of it with an important clue to the mystery of Gawain's death, but she never makes any use of that either. The entire sequence is a huge waste of time.
On the subject, Gawain's murder is another- and even more massive- waste of time. Kalix of course swears revenge and tries to find his killer for half the book. But since an illiterate werewolf with mental problems isn't exactly Sherlock Holmes, her investigation never goes anywhere and instead winds up with her angsting a lot about how worthless she is. Eventually, the case is solved offscreen by another character, and Kalix learns the truth just in time to head out in pursuit and wind up in the midst of the book's big climactic fight. The main purpose of the whole deal seems to be to leave Kalix open to a love-hate relationship with Decembrius.
I admit that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. To be frank, Gawain was a very shallow love interest. His main attributes in the first book were his undying devotion to Kalix and his inability to let her know how much he loved her. Decembrius has much more personality and better chemistry with Kalix. He's dealing with depression himself, though he hasn't taken to cutting himself, and is notably too proud to admit to his problems. So he and Kalix wind up doing what anime fans will know as "the Tsundere dance". They take their personal frustrations out on each other with verbal- and sometimes physical- sparring matches, meanwhile providing support when the going gets really rough. It's rather charming.
Actually, none of the randomness is necessarily a bad thing. Most stories tend to tread well-worn paths that we've seen a dozen times before. Curse of the Wolf Girl... okay, it treads those same paths, when you get down to it. But it also scatters around so many red herrings that you can never be sure which is which. Kalix winds up getting a pet cat, and Agrivex can apparently talk to it. Is that important, or is it going to be dropped later on? With most authors, of course it would be important, but with Millar I can't be sure, so there's actual tension in the story for once. The mysterious fashion blogger Susi Surmata is obviously Thrix's new boyfriend Captain Easterly, who also happens to be a werewolf hunter. Or is it? Who knows, a twist wouldn't be the most random thing in the book. It's a rare book that has the ability to repeatedly surprise even jaded readers, and a rarer one still that does so without having those readers call shenanigans. Apparently, embracing complete literary anarchy is the way to do it.
What I'm trying to say is that even though the plot is a mess, with dozens of dangling threads and contrived coincidences, the book is still a good read. In fact, it's a damn good read, featuring sympathetic characters in a universe that delights in screwing them over in absurd and amusing ways. It's one of those stories that's best experienced for the journey rather than the destination. And make no mistake, the journey is amazing.