Monday, July 25, 2011
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls series is an odd beast, one that's a lot better to read than to have read. Looking at it in retrospect, it's full of plot holes, writing fumbles, and pacing pacing problems. And, to be frank, Forever has a few more problems than usual. But in the moment of actually reading it, you're so enthralled by Stiefvater's detailed world-building and the realism of her characters, that none of that matters. I guess that in the end it's not love, but style, that conquers all. And whatever else you might say for or against it, Forever has the style. It's held on to the same strength of voice and expression that made the last two books hits, and thereby transcends it's limitations to provide a fitting finale to one of the best YA paranormals of recent memory.
Two months after Linger wrapped up, a muddy spring has come to Mercy Falls. Grace, you may recall, had been re-infected with lycanthropy at the end of Linger in a desperate bid to save her life. It worked, but now she's an unstable werewolf, struggling to hold on to human form long enough to find her way back to Sam. Sam has sunk into depression, pining for Grace and not doing much else. Cole, meanwhile, has turned himself into a guinea pig, playing with weird drug cocktails in an attempt to understand what catalyzes lycanthropic shifts. Isabel, our fourth protagonist, is out of the loop by choice, trying to ignore her feelings for Cole. Then a young girl is killed by the psychotic she-wolf Shelby. Isabel's father, still nursing a grudge for the death of his son Jack, uses the resulting public outrage to call for an extermination of the local wolf population, putting our heroes on a deadline. They have to stop moping and start acting if they want to save the wolves from certain death.
Forever has an interesting history. Apparently, after getting all the way to a final draft, Stiefvater took a step back, looked at the novel, realized it was all wrong, and rewrote it practically from the ground up. With that in mind, the book holds up remarkably well on a technical level. It's got some rough edges, true. Running on a tight deadline after she chose to re-write, Stiefvater seems to have skimped on the touch-up work. Cole's dialog, for example, feels a little off, like he's trying too hard to be snarky and smartassed. But the writing is adequate enough that Stiefvater's talent for storytelling shines through.
The plot, unfortunately, doesn't fare quite so well. There are a few missteps. A dangling plot thread from way back in Shiver is resolved by throwing the relevant character under a bus. There's also a blatant deus ex machina moment midway through. The heroes have developed a plan to save the wolves from Tom Culpeper's hunters, but they need several things to pull it off. A minor bad guy defects to their side, which was properly set up. What isn't set up was that said character just coincidentally happens to have the most difficult-to-acquire piece of the puzzle essentially lying around in perfect condition for their purposes. Weak. And a very strange plot hole is in evidence. As long-time readers will know, Stiefvater's wolves turn human in the summer heat, and lupine in the winter. They get less and less human time each year, until finally they're wolf year-round. Problem? Forever takes place somewhere between mid-May and early June, but we don't see any wolves in human form except for Cole, Grace, and Sam. So... what about the other 20-odd wolves in the pack? I mean, maybe they're had a worse winter than usual or something, but unless I'm misremembering Shiver badly, at least a handful should be walking around on two legs by this late in the year.
These are small problems, however, compared to the big one: the guiding story arc of the entire series -- the search for a cure for lycanthropy -- has been abandoned. Well, not abandoned entirely. Cole spends much of the book doing his mad-scientist bit trying to understand the shifting process. But that takes a backseat to saving the wolves from the hunters, and eventually Cole figures out that the cure they figured out back in Shiver was right after all. The whole bit about the "wolf toxin" which led to the cliffhanger ending of Linger is dropped. This is logically plausible -- it was never more than Cole's best guess, after all -- but it feels like a cop-out, and emphasizes that ultimately, lycanthropy follows whatever rules Stiefvater needs it to follow at the moment. It leaves the series looking like this:
Shiver: "Hooray I succeeded at winning the mission!"
Linger: "Not so fast, Mr. Gordon!"
Forever: "SHUT UP AS HOLE I DID TOO!!!!" "oh ok"
Honestly, though, none of that matters very much. It's annoying, certainly, but Wolves of Mercy Falls is and always has been a character-driven work, and this is where Stiefvater's writing shines. Her heroes and heroines have an emotional authenticity about them that surpasses what most YA authors are capable of. And while, yes, they make stupid decisions, they make realistically stupid decisions -- decisions born of the naivete, fears, and messed-up priorities of adolescence. Indeed, you can argue that the entire series is a deconstruction of teen love. Grace and Sam fall in love easily, then spend the entire first book doing lovey-dovey things and ignoring their problems. Having everything easy, they fall into a stagnant life, and refusal to face reality almost destroys what they have. In the end, things work out... but this means they don't learn their lesson, and continue to live out their Happily Ever After through the second book, until it finally ends in tragedy. This is very intentional, too. Stiefvater notes, via Cole, how superficial it all is: "That kind of love only worked when you were sure both people would always be around for each other. If one half of the equation left, or died, or was slightly less perfect in their love, it became the most tragic, pathetic story invented, laughable in its absurdity. Without Grace, Sam was a joke without a punch line."
With this book, our heroes are forced to work for their happy ending. No more free rides. Thankfully, they rise to the occassion. Cole snaps out of his self-hating funk, Sam finally stops thinking and starts doing (after some prodding), and Grace takes control of her life. In the Linger review, I postulated that Isabel was the real heroine, since in the first two books she was the only human character moving the plot. Everyone else was moved by the plot. In the context of the entire series, however, I think Isabel is more of a unwitting mentor character. The series, essentially, is about loss of innocence, and growth brought about by tragedy. Isabel had her major tragedies back in Shiver, and grew up because of them, becoming an active force. It's taken the others this long to catch up to her, but they're here now, and building their own destinies.
Perhaps ironically, this is the biggest thing holding Forever back: it's a far more upbeat book than its predecessors. The first two volumes were about decay, about time and circumstance destroying happiness. This book is about transcending it through personal growth. Sam and Grace can't hold on to their innocent relationship forever, but they can forge it into a greater relationship, and adult relationship. In an unusual way, the series mirrors it's paranormal element in that ultimately, it's about abandoning a simplistic, edenic mindset and becoming human. This is good, but at the same time, some readers will be disappointed at the lack of the dreary melancholy that made the first two tug at the heartstrings.
The truest expression of this last point may be the ending. When I first read it, my thought was "Uh... that's it?" It seemed insubstantial, and I felt like something was missing. Then as I thought about it, I figured it must be alluding to a tragic ending that Stiefvater couldn't bring herself to write. Then, around 3 A.M. that evening, unable to figure it all out, I read through that last chapter again, and said "Oh, I get it." It was actually a happy ending, and a perfect coda to what came before. The reason I didn't get it at first was that something was missing: the punch. Shiver's ending made me tear up. Linger's was an annoying type of cliffhanger, but ensured I'd read the third book. Forever's wrap-up lacks the same emotional or narrative force. I don't know if this is a consequence of the shift in tone or the massive rewrite, but it's... just weird. Much as that makes me sound like the one copping out. Still in all, I'm not going to begrudge a happy ending to characters who work for it, even it did take them two full books to get off their butts. Redemption narratives are some of my favorite stories, after all.
So, should you read Forever? Well, that's a silly question, isn't it? If you've read the first two books, of course you're going to read this one. How else will you know how the story turns out? The better question is: is Forever worth reading? Is it an appropriate conclusion for the series?
Yes, yes it is. In fact, it's crucial. It puts the events of the previous books in context, and brings both the characters and the story itself to a fitting resolution. You could harp of the disappointments (which I've done myself, a bit), but when it comes right down to it, there are precious few series finales that won't disappoint someone. Read this book. More than that, read this series, if you haven't already, because it's some of the highest-quality YA literature out there. It has genuine characters, a beautiful writing style, and deep ideas about the nature of adolescence, humanity, and love. I only wish all the books I read were at this level.