Saturday, April 9, 2011
Secrets and Shadows
Author: Shannon Delany
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
I diagnosed the first 13 to Life book as having Trilogy Syndrome, and the sequel is as good an opportunity as any to raise awareness of this crippling narrative disorder. Trilogy Syndrome occurs, appropriately enough, in three phases: Phase one is ADD: throwing out a lot of ideas and plot hooks and not following up on a lot of them, leaving the development and resolution for further books. Phase two is ennui: Having set up everything, and needing to put off the resolution until the big finale, the patient winds up meandering around and getting nothing much accomplished. Phase three is mania: running around half-crazed trying to tie up all these plot threads before you hit the wordcount limit. 13 to Life had a bad case of phase 1. Secrets and Shadows has moved on to phase 2, but the series' condition is being treated with an injection of wit and character, and I'm pleased to say that the patient is responding to treatment rather well.
We open a few months after the conclusion of 13 to Life with our hero Pietr and heroine Jessie getting used to "the new normal." Officially, Pietr is still with Sarah and seeing Jessie clandestinely. The plan is to let Sarah down slowly and spare her unstable psyche the shock of betrayal. Jessie has made friends with the rest of the Rusakova family, and is getting a crash course on the ins and outs of dating a werewolf from Pietr's sister Cat. But things start to go bad when Pietr begins pushing Jessie away, showing signs of actually having feelings for Sarah. Jessie counters by reverting to her previous crush, hot football star Derek, but it's just not the same. Other players get into the act, and pretty soon we're tangled up in about a half-dozen love triangles. Meanwhile, the CIA is both protecting the Rusakovas from the Russian mafia and keeping their mother captive. Obviously, the family's not really cool with the arrangement. They want to spring Mom from her cage, and Jessie and friendly neighborhood spook Wanda are stuck trying to negotiate an appropriate solution. Plus, weird stuff is happening around Junction -- weirder even than werewolves -- and Pietr begins to suspect a third faction competing with both the CIA and the Russian Mafia for control of his family's secret.
The underlying message of this book is that lying to you friends never helps. The good guys are all keeping things hidden from each other for their protection. Not only does it never work, they all get screwed over repeatedly because of it. Pietr hides the reasons for his sudden souring on Jessie, causing her a lot of unnecessary grief and pushing her into the arms of a dangerously wrong man. Wanda hides the extent of the CIA's plans from the Rusakovas, resulting in bloodshed and violence. Jessica hides nearly everything from her friends and family, which backfires with varying degrees of epicness. It makes for a deeper story than it's predecessor, but alas, it also drags a bit. A lot of pagespace is devoted to Jessica trying to figure out What Went Wrong With Us, and getting nowhere. When things do move forward, it commonly takes the form of stilted expo-speak from a more knowledgeable character.
Then again, this is nothing new. The first book had the same problem of a very slow plot, and countered with style. Delany pulls the same trick again in Secrets and Shadows, and it works just as well, perhaps even better. The large but mostly-irrelevant supporting cast I ragged on in the first book? Turns out there was a method to the madness. The characters that worked best have been promoted to larger roles, and the ones not working so good fade into the background. (A bit like Battlestar Galactica actually, only that show tended to kill off the non-starters instead of just pushing them aside.) The biggest beneficiaries of this treatment are Max and Amy, who have a nice little subplot of their own that (eventually) relates in a subtle manner to what's going on between Jessie and Pietr.
Likewise, although her plotting is a matter of some concern, Delany's writing is generally quite solid. Dialog is crisp and punchy, and the characters are both consistent and well-rounded, with the exception of some one-dimensional villains. Her description does fall a little short, which leaves the reader occasionally confused. But for the most part the book is a compelling read. As before, Jessie has a distinct voice, alternately snarky and determined. So, for better or worse, this is a fun read.
That said, there are moments when the author reminds us that she's still new to this career. Mixed in among the great reading are a handful of scenes and subplots that are cheesy, mismanaged, or just plain retarded. The whole subplot of Sarah's potentially reverting to her old, venomous personality leaves me completely cold. I'm not a psychologist, but the way her personality disorder seems to work rings completely false, and it's even more dumb because the book tries to sell a manipulative teenage rich bitch as a comparable threat to armed CIA operatives. We've also got instances of lazy writing. At one point a minor character does a Tarot reading, something which makes me silently squee because I actually know a bit about tarot motifs. And then Delany cheats blatantly by never telling us what cards were drawn, we just hear the reader's interpretation. I'm left with the impression that the author couldn't be bothered to do the research and figure it out.
Certain bits are just completely at odds with suspension of disbelief. The CIA facility holding Mom is allegedly built from scratch in about a month, but the sheer size of it makes that an idiotic notion. A clue in an enigmatic journal takes the form of a neat little verse riddle, which is fine until you realize that one of the Rusakovas just translated it from Russian, which means it couldn't possibly have wound up in such a neat form in English. And there's a scene where Pietr, suffering from lycanthropic hormones or somesuch, goes into an oh-so-cliche werewolf RAAAAAAAAGE against his brother, wrecking the living room before Jessie calms him down by slowly opening her shirt, button by button, to show him her breasts.
I wish I was making that up.
Probably the biggest problem, though, is that the major payoffs are delayed yet again. Major plots like the search for a lycanthropy cure, the Rusakova's mother, the various not-werewolf weirdness and what the hell's up with Derek look like their going to come to a head, but none of them do. Towards the end it looks like the climax will get us resolution to at least one of these, but it winds up with an inconclusive battle and then the Final Twist.
Now, I'm not going to say the Final Twist is out of nowhere, because it was set up properly, although somewhat vaguely. And it fits the general theme of causing problems by keeping secrets from the ones you love, so okay. But it seems... petulant, somehow. To the characters and the reader both. We've been watching the protagonists make slow but steady progress dealing with their problems up until the last five pages or so, and then they get screwed over hard just as things as starting to look up. It seems like a big stretch for an edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger, and just like with 13 to Life it's followed by a full-page ad for the next volume. Which, I will remind you, makes me twitch.
When all is said and done, though, I enjoyed Secrets and Shadows. It's clever and engaging, and carries itself with grace and wit. It's got issues, yeah, but what book doesn't? I will say, however, that this series is still very much one story dragged out over three books, so if you haven't read the first one it may be a better idea to wait for the third and then do them all in one go.