Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kitty's House of Horrors

Series: Kitty Norville (#7)
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Hachette

By now I'm very familiar with the fact that Kitty Norville is a sequence of ups and downs. None of the books thus far has been a bad read, but the generally episodic nature of Carrie Vaughn's storytelling means that different books -- or even parts of the same book -- will fall somewhere in a range between awesome and mediocre. I'd have to say that Kitty's House of Horrors falls in the mediocre category. There's enough good stuff here to make it worthwhile, but a lot of it also has a phoned-in quality to it, and it comes off as an idea that seemed a lot better than it turned out.


The titular "House of Horrors" is a luxurious vacation lodge in the wilds of Montana, where our heroine Kitty Norville has come to participate in a reality show. Which seems a bit out of character given that way back in book 1 she spoke of reality TV in the same breath as witch hunts and pogroms, but hey, it's a two-week vacation and free publicity. Her housemates turn out to be a varied bunch of new and returning characters. We of course remember Tina the psychic paranormal investigator and Odysseus Grant the magician from last book. We also have some more obscure returners -- Jeffrey Miles, the medium from book 2, and Ariel, Kitty's old comrade in airwave weirdness. Also on hand are a pair of vampires and their human snack bar, a pro-wrestler werewolf, a were-seal (Uh, really?) from Alaska, and Conrad, a professional debunker who's job is to do what he does best and/or maybe have a nervous breakdown in front of the camera. Fun and games ensue as Kitty tries to play along while avoiding embarrassing herself on national TV. But you know the weird thing about reality TV? The standard "X people locked in a house" formula isn't all that much different from a slasher film. Which Kitty learns firsthand when she wakes up one morning to find the power cut, the only phone missing, and one of her housemates dead. And the bloodshed is only just getting started.

When you think about it, the genre shift here was really unnecessary. The reality-show satire of the first half was working just fine, and provided some fun moments. I could see Vaughn making a good book -- if a bit fluffier than usual -- by just playing that out to the end. But, this is by and large an adventure series, so we have to have some action and a real threat to deal with. Throwing the same characters into a slasher film plotline is not without its artistic merits. The reality TV formula typically involves getting participants very worked up about very small dramas. By doing a bit of that before shifting to a "fight for our lives" scenario, Vaughn drives home how petty we can be, and how insignificant our everyday problems are when real trouble comes a' callin. Fundamentally, Kitty's House of Horrors is about keeping our priorities straight. 

So, the usual varied cast of characters we've come to expect, a nice premise, and some deeper underlying themes as foundation for the story. Does it work? Eh, kinda.

I enjoyed Kitty's House of Horrors, but I'll be honest with you: for the most part, it was a rather tepid kind of enjoyment. It wasn't until the last seventy pages or so that it really grabbed me. Everything up until then seemed to be a lot of setup and filler, punctuated by the occasional violent death. It was entertaining, and it was a fun ride, but it seemed like a bit of a misfire. It was like Vaughn had an idea she thought was great, but couldn't quite get it together.

One moment that's a kind of zeitgeist for the book is when Kitty runs into some wolves out in the woods. Not werewolves, ordinary everyday wolves. In theory, that's a great moment -- out in the wilderness, in a time of great personal turmoil, Kitty meets a representation of her other self  and attains an epiphany that focuses her for the coming conflict. It's marvelous, except that that's not how the scene happens. Instead, the wolf pack becomes a minor obstacle for Kitty to get around, using her unusual talents. It's like Vaughn realized the potential, but had no idea what exactly to do with it, so it sits there in the text with a kind of a shrug attached to it.

A bigger issue is the way the story treats its cast. There's a good number of characters here, and they're pretty well-developed, but it comes to naught because the story treats them more or less as cannon fodder. We get to know them -- in some cases we already know them from previous books, and have been clamoring for a return appearance -- and then they die messily. And they seem so impotent in it all. As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that the only real movers on the side of the good guys are Kitty, Anastasia, and Grant -- everyone else is just trying to keep up and stay alive. Not all of them get killed off by the end, but there is a significant body count. In fact, disregarding nameless red shirts, there are more fatalities in this book than any previous one, except maybe Silver Bullet. Add in all the psychological trauma suffered, and you have a very, very dark book.

Also, Odysseus Grant is awesome, but he's becoming a bit too awesome. In fact, he spends 80% of the book godmoding like an Uchiha. Over the course of the story, he's able to calm down an agitated werewolf, summon an angry ghost, hypnotize someone to recover repressed memories, pick locked doors, and win the producer's cheesy treasure hunt. I have nothing against competent men, but it's sometimes hard to remember that Kitty is supposed to be the hero here. This makes it all the more vexing when Grant seemingly forgets at a crucial moment that he was established way back in book 5 as being able to teleport people. Admittedly, we never did learn exactly how Grant did that little trick, and I suppose it's plausible that it requires circumstances he can't replicate easily, but it still struck me as an oversight. 

Yes, yes, I realized I've just bashed Grant both for being overpowered and for having his power level dialed back. Both problems spring from the same issue, which is that Grant has never had his limitations firmly established. That's fine for maintaining his air of mysteriousness, but if he's going to keep being a major player, then there have to be clear rules in play. Otherwise everything he does or fails to do is going to seem like a cop-out.

As I mentioned, in the last seventy pages or so the book really finds its voice. Besieged in their cabin with a killer on the loose, the cast starts to crack under the pressure. You could probably make a case that the true enemy in this book is not the physical antagonist, but the us vs. them mentality he represents. This mentality infects the house, too, during the reality show part of the storyline. Kitty distrusts Anastasia and the producers, Anastasia and Grant distrust each other, and Conrad distrusts everyone. Getting over these issues and banding together is the only way the good guys wind up succeeding in the end. Along the way Kitty herself has to do some very bad things in the heat of the moment and be driven close to a breakdown by everything going on around her. In these last bits the writing shines, and though you can't escape the fact that it was two hundred plus pages of bland to get there, it pulls the book back up to a respectable showing.

Kitty's House of Horrors is not a book for series newcomers. And I'll be honest with you, it's not Vaughn's best work either. It has moments that are clumsy and uninteresting, and takes forever to get going. In the end, though, it's a serviceable read, and the ending sets up much bigger things in store for Kitty Norville in the future. Recommended, but for fans only.

3 comments:

  1. I hate it when I'm looking forward to a book and it's mediocre. Maybe the next one will be better!
    bethfred.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi! just stopping by via the hop. Thought I'd say hello :)

    Rachel
    And the plot thickens...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey you, just stopping by on the hop and follow.
    I'm currently reading Master of Smoke by Angela Knight.
    Happy Reading!!!
    See ya!
    Dana
    Readaholics Anonymous

    ReplyDelete