Sunday, January 9, 2011
Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith
Sometimes in literature, the hero will have a poorly-written love interest. You know the type: not a really defined character, little personality, even less agency in the story. She hangs around the hero a lot, just kinda being there, not really contributing anything except maybe a sex scene or two (If it's an adult book, instead of YA). Then, in the last act, she finally serves some purpose in the book by being kidnapped by the bad guy, prompting the hero to get really steamed and race to the rescue. Tantalize is this girl's story: the story of the shallow, uninteresting, totally-irrelevant-to-anything love interest. Who thought this was a good idea?
Quincie Morris, Ordinary High School Student, has two goals for the near-future: save the restaurant she's inherited from her dead parents by converting it from standard-issue Italian to a vampire theme, and get Kieren, her half-werewolf BFF, to bury his bone in her backyard. Or maybe the front yard. Or the garbage dump out back. This is YA, you think we're going to get details? Anyway, the second goal ain't happening because Kieren's being all emo, and the first gets torpedoed when Quincie's head chef is brutally murdered in the kitchen a month before the grand opening. In search of a replacement, she finds a young, hot chef named Henry "Brad" Johnson and starts grooming him to be both a five-star chef and a regal vampire impersonator. She and Kieren start to grow distant as she becomes more and more attracted to Brad-- who demonstrates a rather impressive knowledge of vampire myths and realities.
We shall address the problems one at a time. Firstly: yes, you read that synopsis right. A close friend of Quincie's is murdered and her reaction is to shrug it off and look for a replacement. She shows little interest in the murder, even when the clues start pointing to her half-werewolf kinda-sorta-boyfriend. It's not like the matter isn't being dealt with-- Kieren is investigating the murder for most of the book, both to clear his own name and to protect Quincie. But all that happens offscreen, and Quincie's never really involved in it. Instead we get a lot of talk about food and picking out clothes and "subtle" hints the Brad's really a vampire.
The truly annoying thing about Tantalize is that there are some interesting ideas on display, but they don't make any difference because the execution is just one botch after another. While the author is an experienced writer, up until Tantalize she wrote children's books. And it shows-- Tantalize often displays the matter-of-fact tone and lack of detail associated with relying on illustrations to tell half the story. Since we don't have any, parts of the book seem half-formed, and the reader often has trouble getting a clear picture of the scene in his mind's eye. The writing isn't great, either. When it isn't just dull and listless, it throws you outrageous bits like "Johnson's rigatoni marinara was an orgasm in tomato sauce."
Characterizations don't help. Quincie's defining personality traits are her persistent and sometimes eye-rolling lust for Kieren, her devotion to her restaurant, and a drinking problem. Not a terribly interesting protagonist. The men are even worse, though. Love-triangle stories like this tend to encourage readers to take sides. Unfortunately for fans who like that sort of thing, in this case neither guy is really rootable. Brad starts off dull and quickly progresses into dull and sleazy. That aforementioned drinking problem? Caused and enabled by his influence. Even laying that aside, he's more than a little posessive and manipulative. And what sympathy he does engender quickly evaporates when he spouts off a ream of anti-werepeople prejudice in one scene. Noone likes a bigot, even if he's bigoted against fantastic creatures. And we get more and more reasons to hate Brad as the story goes on.
Kieren is only marginally better. You get the sense that he truly cares for Quincie and wishes he could stay with her instead of heading off to join a pack. And Quincie reciprocates, or at least wants to sex him up really, really, bad. In one early scene, she's actually fawning over a wolf documentary with mating scenes while waiting for him. Not very subtle, but not too bad either. But then the author decides that Kieren's lycanthropy gives him an anger-management problem, which causes some awkward outbursts. It never causes any actual violence, but it results in a creepy, abusive pallor to settle over their relationship. And Quincie seems to take it in stride. Misplay, my dear author, misplay.
The book is divided into four sections. Most of the actual meat of the story is in the last section. Up until then, we've got a little scene-setting and a whole lot of padding. It feels a lot like a NaNoWriMo project-- the kind where the ambitious writer buckled down and put in her thirty days to produce 50,000 words, then after a celebratory glass of Chardonnay realized that a YA publisher wants at least 80,000. So she added in things that didn't have any purpose, and as a result the reader spends a big chunk of the book watching irrelevant nonsense. Occasionally, we're reminded that there's a supernatural killer on the loose-- not just the chef, but a string of bodies wind up around town. It barely matters because Quincie doesn't care. Yeah, okay, the world can't stop turning just because of a crime wave, but given that her boyfriend is suspect #1 and her chef was victim #1, you might think that she'd be a little more interested.
About 80% of the way through the novel, interesting stuff does start happening, and for a while the book looks like it might be worthwhile after all. But then it all falls down with a string of stupid moves on Quincie's part and plot twists out of absolutely nowhere. And then we get that most annoying of all endings, the zero-resolution cliffhanger. Not even a cliffhanger, the book just stops at the end of a scene, with a few sequel hooks tossed in casually. Weak.
None of this is the real problem. This is just Dr. House's whiteboard full of symptoms. The disease: Tantalize is dull. It's average. It's bland. It's such a relentlessly ordinary YA paranormal that the story's strengths-- and it does have some-- are unremarkable, almost old-hat. So the flaws are what the reader sees. It's disappointing, because this could have been a great read. The world-building is sound, the villain's plan both realistic and interesting, and there are hints of some deeper themes that could have and should have been developed more. But it misfires so often and so seriously that the end result is as drab and unappealing as the minestrone Quincey rags on. A pity.