Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Author: Rachel Vincent
I try my best to keep Lupines and Lunatics on-topic, but when your topic is as niche as mine is, you find yourself straining to find a good read on occasion. So for the next few weeks, you might see us drifting a little off-topic. Stray is not the first step. It's billed as a werecat novel, but makes no mistake, these kitties are just werewolves by another name. All the cliches of a UF werewolf book are here: the rigid, chauvinistic social structures, the anger-management problems, the superstrength and metabolism, etc. etc.. The only real difference is that when the heroine gets called a bitch, it's not clever and meta. Not that there's anything wrong with this. A story is a story, after all, and whether you're a cat person or a dog person, this one turns out pretty good.
Our heroine Faythe Sanders is a young female werecat, something which is pretty rare. Only about one out of five werecat births are female. This means that there are two or three hundred "tomcats" in the U.S., compared to exactly eight available "tabbies". Said tabbies are thus extremely precious, and live sheltered lives under heavy guard. Faythe had a hell of a time convincing her father to let her leave the pride and go away to college, and when a stray tomcat tries to abduct her, all bets are off. She gets dragged home kicking and screaming, which makes Daddy look more than a bit overprotective. After all, the stray that attacked Faythe got a sound thrashing at her hands. But when Faythe gets the news that two other tabbies have also been kidnapped, she starts to think that maybe a little paranoia is justifiable.
The above summary is, to be honest, a little misleading. While the kidnapped tabbies are indeed the major plotline, said plotline only takes center stage for the second half of the novel. The first half is about Faythe caught in a love quadrangle between her ex-boyfriend Marc, a friend Jace who wants to be more, and her own personal independence. And I have to say, Team Independence has a pretty clear advantage. As described by Faythe, werecat society is shockingly misogynistic. Marc starts off just being overprotective and a bit obsessed, then loses all sympathy when he pins Faythe to the ground in beast mode and makes out with her without her permission -- something which is explicitly meant to signify ownership of her. Jace isn't much better -- when Faythe wants his car keys, he challenges her to a footrace, insisting she wager the use of her naughty bits against the use of his car. Jace loses the race, mainly because Marc takes exception and holds Jace up, in addition to threatening physical violence. Oh yes, Marc is that most annoying of therianthropic love interests -- the one who's animal side manifests as an anger-management problem. Honestly, how many times do I have to tell you people? This does not give your man appealing bad-boy qualities, it gives him the qualities of an abusive boyfriend.
There's also the matter of "Daddy", who if anything is even less sympathetic. First of all, while he seems well-intentioned, he's domineering to the point of tyranny. He ships Faythe with Marc so strongly, and largely against her wishes, that the story begins to resemble a rebel princess tale. And his relationship with Faythe has further undertones of abuse. One scene has him lecturing Faythe while cracking his knuckles intimidatingly and threatening to lock her in a cage.
With all the problems going on at home, you might be wondering why I wasn't rooting for the bad guys. Well, the answer to that is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity: they're even worse. About midway through the story, they string up the mutilated body of a raped and killed girl in her parents' backyard, apparently to send a message. And then they snatch Faythe, kicking the plot into high gear, and they don't look any better as the story goes on.
If you think this is meant to make the pride look better by comparison, you're not wrong. But it actually goes somewhat deeper. In fact, it's the core of Faythe's dilemma. The oppressive social system that surrounds her is constricting and confines her to a preset social role, with no option to change it. Again, typical rebel princess stuff. What's interesting here is that we get the other side of the situation as well. The system may be oppressive, but abandoning it for the life of an outlaw would leave her with no protection from the criminal element. Faythe actually knows this, and has been trying for most of the book to find a middle ground -- despite her protests, she doesn't want out of the prides, she just wants some room to breathe.
Mind you, this doesn't mean that the system doesn't still have its flaws. The bad guy is rotten to the core, but his underlings are a bit more sympathetic. They did try to go against the system, and wound up stuck under the thumb of a sadistic psychopath. It's their own fault for being foolish, but they never would have been in this situation if the prides hadn't failed them in the first place. In essence, the real conflict in Stray is not a battle against a group of kidnappers, but the contest between freedom and social stability. Vincent wants to make the point that, while the anarchy that comes with total freedom is an explicitly bad thing, a system that pushes individuals to abandon it is not much better. By the end we're seeing a move towards social reform of the prides, symbolized Faythe's reconciliation with her family.
That's Vincent's intent, anyway. The problem is that she overplays her hand in the first half. Having Daddy threatening to lock Faythe in a cage and trying to shoehorn her into a functionally arranged marriage is pretty hard to sympathize with, psychopaths at the gate or not. And the aforementioned problems with Faythe's love interests make me a little reluctant to play along with the idea of reconciliation. Vincent tries to shore things up by having her realize that her upbringing wasn't quite what she thought it was, but this doesn't sell. It feels incongruous with the rest of the story, like it was tacked on in a late revision to patch things up. Something to work harder on in the sequels, perhaps.
So does that mean I disliked Stray? Hell, no. This is a pretty generic plotline in a well-established genre, but it goes deeper than most. It demonstrates a real handle on the ideas and themes that its premise works on, and I rate that very highly. Stray stumbles a bit, but it's still both an entertaining and interesting read, even thought-provoking at times. At the end of the day, I have to say I'm still rooting for Faythe to go back to her muggle boyfriend at college, but I can understand that her life is a lot more complicated than it at first seems. There's a lot of potential in this series, and you can sign me up for the sequels.
Well, after I get done with Kitty Norville, anyway. A guy's gotta have priorities...