Monday, May 23, 2011
Author: Rachel Vincent
My experience with series books is that sophomore jinx is very much a reality. There are several possible causes: a planned trilogy that tends to sag in the middle, a swiftly-produced add-on to book that was never intended to have a sequel, or an author who just hit the big time and isn't terribly sure on his feet. Whatever the cause, book #2 tends to feel like a step down from book #1. But there are always exceptions, and with the followup to Stray Rachel Vincent has done things right. Not only does she tell a much better story, she's improved markedly on her setting and world-building. Stray was a book with potential, but Rogue has started to realize it.
Following the events of Stray, Faythe is now a pride enforcer, running all over creation doing daddy's errands. One such errand is the corpse of a stray in the neutral territory of Mississippi, which needs to be disposed of before the authorities discover it. Nothing big, part of the job. Stray werecats apparently kill each other off fairly often. But when a second corpse, killed the same way, shows up in New Orleans, we've got ourselves a mystery. Faythe and Marc investigate, and soon turn up a shocking revelation: Their mysterious killer is a tabby. And she seems to be connected to a second string of crimes.
One of the problems with Stray was that it was difficult to cheer for the good guys. Faythe was rootable, but the pride was misogynistic in the extreme and her relationships with both her father and Marc bordered on abuse. Sequels, however, are a fine opportunity to fix these little screwups, or at the very least pretend they didn't happen. This time out, we have a rather more sympathetic portrayal of the social order. Daddy -- now referred to as "Greg" as often as not -- still wields unquestioned authority, but he's mellowed a lot, and we get hints of vulnerability. Faythe's relationship with Marc is now a lot more mutual, though he's still a bit on the possessive side. Just a bit. Oh, alright, Marc is still the kind of urban fantasy love interest half the fandom is sick of: he has a jealousy problem and a serious case of testosterone poisoning. But, you also see his affection for Faythe clearly, as well as the fear of abandonment that stems from Faythe leaving him at the altar in the backstory. So if he's still an obnoxious cliche, at least there's nuance in it.
Mind you, it's not all wine and roses. Faythe still mourns about how werecat attitudes towards gender roles are backwards, and Mama is on her case to get married and start breeding. However, it's evident that this is intentional on Vincent's part. Early on, we learn that the werecats have just discovered that cross-breeding with mundane humans, once thought impossible, is in fact very possible. This doesn't have any real relevance to the plot of Rogue, and it's mentioned in such an off-handed way that it's clear noone has yet considered the implications. But it's one thing setting up the series as a whole to be about a society in transition from old ways to new. The old ways have to be problematic for the story to have any urgency.
So, with all that said, is the plot any good? As a matter of fact, yes it is. It's a very well-executed mystery story, with the werecats investigating first the stray-killer, and then the stray-killer and the stripper-snatcher at once. Unlike some urban fantasy books we could name, it's paced out very well. There's no sudden burst of inspiration that provides the answer, but a series of inductions building one upon the other (with a few lucky breaks), until eventually the whole plot is revealed. Faythe draws most of the conclusions herself, which makes her seem a lot less impotent than she tended to be in the first book.
The main problem is that about halfway through, following a particularly jaw-dropping twist, the plot gets sidetracked for a hundred-odd pages while Faythe and Marc's relationship issues take center stage. Now, I liked this, don't get me wrong. It's well-written, the motivations are realistic, the emotion genuine, the actions believable. But they get into it so hard that it not only derails the mystery plot, it almost becomes comical. A huge argument that sends Marc storming off. The next time we see him, he's walking back in the front door with ice cream and an apology, which puts him in the right place at the wrong time to hear Faythe drop another bombshell. He storms off again, and Faythe breaks down a door to get to him. Then there's another huge argument, which leads to some really, really hot make-up sex, after which they resume arguing, which leads to him proposing and her breaking up instead. Stop the ride, please, I'd like to get off. It would have been a much better idea to spread this material out over the body of the work, even if that would mean dropping the big bombshell early.
Still, that's a relatively small issue. When all is said and done, Rogue is a solid book with an engaging plot and solid characterizations. It's well worth the time invested in it.