Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Author: David Wellington
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
I try to go into each book I read with a kind of presumption of innocence. I flip the front cover for the first time with the idea that the book will be good, and as I read the evidence is presented for or against that point. With Frostbite, it wound up going in the other direction -- I started to hate the book in short order, but slowly warmed up to it as the story progressed. The result was a read that was kinda lumpy -- the bad stuff is piled at the beginning, and the good stuff at the end. I found it rewarding overall, but having to slog through the first half may be too much for some readers.
We open with our heroine, Cheyenne "Chey" Clark, getting her ass kicked by the Canadian Arctic. The environment is not at fault for this. Chey's the one who was stupid enough to go hiking in the wilderness alone with no idea of what could happen out there, and thus is completely surprised when a flash flood whisks away most of her gear. Things get worse when a werewolf attack leaves her with a nasty slashing wound on her ankle, and we all know what that means. Fortunately, the next day a kindly if dim-witted Native American named Dzo shows up and takes her to see Powell. Powell is the werewolf that attacked and infected her, but it's not really his fault. In this world, a werewolf in wolf-form is not in control of his actions, and has a supernatural compulsion to kill humans. Powell deals with his affliction by living a hermetic existence away from human contact, and encourages Chey to stay with him so that he can provide comfort and show her the ropes. And, it's implied, get some occassional nookie. Chey doesn't like the idea, but she at first seems to coming around. Then about a quarter of the way through the book the true objective of Chey's little hiking expedition is revealed and things start getting ugly.
It is very, very rare that I want to throw a book across the room merely ten pages in, but Frostbite earns an X-Box achievement of dubious merit for managing to accomplish it. In the first two chapters, our heroine does no less than four flagrantly stupid things that ought to get her killed, and the reason she's even out here in the first place turns out to be a fifth. In the very first chapter she's saved from a grisly fate only because the author doesn't seem to understand the concept of hypothermia.
Not the best of first impressions, and the fact that Chey never smartens up doesn't help. She consistently fails to solve her problems or makes them worse by doing stupid things. Her boyfriend Bobby, introduced after the big reveal and a co-conspirator in her scheme, is either just as stupid or faking it for the purposes of using her. The book takes its time resolving the ambiguity. And their eventual motives for this venture don't make either look especially sympathetic. Near the end, Chey actually seems to realize what an idiot she is, and it looks like we might actually get some character development. But that idea gets scrapped hilariously when she then immediately tries to fool a guard with the old "Come here, I've got something to tell you" ruse.
There are other flaws on display here. The first half of the book has some truly awful pacing. Up until Chey's second night as a wolf, things are moving along pretty well and we're getting a decent picture of the main characters. But then the plot stops dead in its tracks so Powell can relate his backstory in the form of a twenty-page flashback. It's a badly executed flashback, too. It's written like the rest of the book, but the narration is put in Powell's mouth, which just doesn't work. Real people don't talk like real literature is written, it sounds forced and awkward. And the author seems to want to remind us that this is a flashback, so Chey is constantly interrupting the monologue with snarky remarks and pithy statements such as "Oh-ho, the plot thickens".
Another flashback occurs after the big reveal and takes up the entire second quarter of the book, basically expounding on Chey's backstory and motivations. This, too, is kind of tedious. It's not a bad summary, but it leaps around to different time periods, drops some information that is frankly irrelevant, and generally feels like the bullet points of Chey's Crappy Life. It also commits the cardinal sin of sidetracking us in the middle of a tense scene. When we finally get back to said tense scene, it resolves in an anticlimax caused by Chey's stupidity, which makes the preceding suspense feel like a big tease.
With that said, though, I realized after the story was over that this was actually a pretty brilliant idea structurally. The delayed reveal of Chey's motivations isn't just for the purposes of suspense. You see, the early chapters divulge a lot of information about both lycanthropy in general and Powell in particular. They also paint Powell in an ambiguous but more or less sympathetic light. Then Chey's backstory shows us a different, brutally realistic view of the world, and as the story progresses she's slowly coming around to Powell's perspective. It's important for this purpose that the reader see Powell's viewpoint as having merit, and that means putting it on the page first. Think of an episode of The Twilight Zone where the protagonist starts in one world, and then winds up in a totally different one. Barring any overt indication of "wrongness", you would tend to assume the first world is the good one, the one where things are going as right as can be expected, because you've gotten familiar with and accepted it before the change of perspective hits. Likewise, if we had learned Chey's perspective before Powell's, sympathizing with Powell would be very, very difficult, which would mean the story wouldn't work.
In any event, after the halfway point the book picks up quite dramatically. Chey remains an idiot until the end, but she suffers such disproportionate retribution from the universe that the reader cheers for her anyway. When her attitude towards Powell changes, it feels... well, not exactly reasonable, but the best move she can make given the sheer amount of crap she's taken to this point. The true bad guys are revealed, and they do enough eminently hateable things to make for effective villains, although they occasionally wind up afflicted with Chey's stupidity. I wound up in that place where you finish your page quota for the day and think "Just one more chapter, Just one more chapter." After having such trouble with the early bits, the recovery was doubly surprising. And the ending, while ambiguous and a bit rushed, does both resolve the primary conflicts and fit with the overall themes and ideas of the story.
You may notice that this book is classed as "Horror/Romance" above, but tagged only for "Genre: Horror". This is intentional, and the reason is that while it's technically a love story, it's a love story in the same way Fight Club is a love story -- a dark and twisted one. I don't think it will appeal to the usual fanbase for paranormal romances, but it will appeal to readers looking for something unique and impactful.
So can I recommend Frostbite? Really, I don't know. It has an awful first half, but then an interesting if unusual second half redeems it. Whether or not it redeems itself enough is a question of personal preference. I liked it in the end, but the Antique Scales of Judgement are wobbling back and forth with no stopping in sight. So I guess the verdict is: if you're looking for something a little different, and can tolerate a protagonist who is too stupid to live, then give Frostbite a try. Just be prepared to have to acquire the taste.