Monday, July 18, 2011
Kitty's Big Trouble
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Whenever I sit down to read a new book, I tear off a sheet from a small notepad to use as a bookmark. As I read, I write down notes as they occur to me, to help keep my thoughts straight for the eventual review. When I got through with Kitty's Big Trouble, the notepad sheet wound up being completely blank. I hadn't jotted down a single thing. This is good and bad. Good, because nothing sufficiently annoying to jar me out of the story happened. Bad, because nothing sufficiently good to require noting happened either. Don't get me wrong: Kitty's Big Trouble is a very enjoyable book, at least the best of the series since Kitty Raises Hell. But it's hampered by a recurrent problem with the Kitty Norville series: it lacks a certain intellectual depth. It's a popcorn read: tasty, but somewhat bland and, at the end of the day, unremarkable.
Our heroine Kitty Norville has recently taken an interest in history -- more specifically, in tracking down historical figures with supernatural connections. We join her in the middle of a mission to prove that William T. Sherman, the famous civil war general, was actually a werewolf. When it goes nowhere, she instead goes looking for evidence of Wyatt Earp's past as a vampire hunter. None of this matters because around forty pages in, Kitty gets a call from Anastasia, the vampire from House of Horrors, who wants Kitty to come to San Francisco. Vampiric archvillain Roman has apparently gotten wind of an ancient magical artifact hidden somewhere in Chinatown, and Anastasia's got to get to it first. So, despite the annoying lack of any flowers for Kitty to wear in her hair, she's going to San Francisco, taking Ben and Cormac along for the ride. Adventure awaits.
Kitty's Big Trouble is a much more entertaining book than the last two. I'm tempted to call it a return to form. The problem is, I'm not sure the Kitty Norville books have ever really had a distinct form. While the setting is solidly urban fantasy, the series as a whole has been a chaotic, cross-genre romp. Beneath it's conglomeration of plotlines, Midnight Hour was a drama about abusive relationships and self-empowerment. Holiday was a love story in the guise of a horror/mystery novel. Dead Man's Hand was a "Vegas wedding" comedy that veered into a more serious exploration of commitment angst. House of Horrors started off as a piss-take on reality TV, then became a slasher flick halfway through. A clear definition of Kitty's Big Trouble is elusive, but "folktale pastiche" is close. In case the words "ancient magical artifact" didn't tip you off, this book is a quest. An adventure story for a magic MacGuffin updated to a modern setting.
For a Kitty book, Big Trouble is kind of unusual. As I've said many times before, these books tend to be amalgamations of distinct plotlines. Discounting the historical investigations at the beginning, Big Trouble only has one story to tell, and tells it well. Even that beginning part is more than tangentially related to the overall story, because continuity with the past is an overarching theme here. Kitty goes along with the scheme out of a debt to Anastasia for her help in House of Horrors. Other characters are motivated by similar responsibilities. In opposing Roman, Anastasia is forced to reconnect with her past, before she became a vampire. Grace Chen, a local who serves as their guide through a strange underworld, is compelled to do so because of a promise her ancestors made to Anastasia.
On the subject of characters, the focus is significantly narrowed from the past few books, but this isn't a bad thing because it allows for better development of who's here. Ben gets to contribute to the fight, after being sidelined for most of three books. Cormac shows off his new magical powers, which were underplayed in Kitty Goes to War. Readers will recall that Cormac also had a spirit in his head, Amelia. She doesn't get a whole lot of development, but he presence is handled very well. Several times she hijacks Cormac to help out. Kitty seems to have learned to fight somewhere along the line, and acquits herself well in the various battles that spring up in the course of the book. And there are several: in keeping with the fantastic quest aspect of the plotline, this book is a lot more action-heavy than previous entries.
The shift in focus is a bit of a stumbling block, at least it is for me. It's not explicitly bad, and makes for a good tale all things considered, but the appeal of the early Kitty books lies in how they defied genre conventions. While the genre likes badass women in the vein of Anita Blake, Kitty was a normal, ordinary woman trying to survive in a harsh world through wits and diplomacy. Where the standard UF werewolf is a proud, savage warrior and part-time sex-god, Vaughn's wolves are conflicted individuals clinging to humanity. Lycanthropy itself is frequently compared to mental illness and alcohol or drug abuse, albeit Vaughn plays fast and loose with both metaphors. Whereas your standard UF heroine falls for a dominating bad-boy -- sometimes borderline abusive -- Midnight Hour was about Kitty getting out of such a relationship, and later she hooks up with a coolheaded (by werewolf standards, anyway), clean-cut lawyer.
In Big Trouble, the series is slowly twisting from a fresh take on Urban Fantasy to something closer to the standard model. I acknowledge that, given the direction of the storyline, Kitty has to evolve as a character. In Dead Man's Hand, and again in House of Horrors, she spent the entire book treading water at best, thus looking ineffectual. With a two-thousand year old vampire holding a grudge against her, we can't expect Kitty to continue being a weakling who has to rely on networking skills to stay alive. But still in all, it's disappointing to see the things that originally made this series stand out fall by the wayside.
Mind you, not everything has fallen by the wayside. The core question upon which this series turns -- what it means to be human -- is very much intact. Indeed, the most striking thing about Kitty Norville is how down-to-earth it is on the subject of humanity. You may be able to turn into a wolf, or become immortal by drinking blood, or cast magic spells, but nothing releases you from the responsibilities that go along with being human.
As I said before, though, this book has a problem which has dogged the series time and again: at the end of the day, the story feels superficial. Yes, I know, I talked about how this book is about the importance of history, of knowing where we've come from and where we're going. But the thing is, I had to think pretty hard to realize that, and think harder to come up with the evidence to support it. Maybe I'm not reading things correctly, but it seems that Vaughn has these great, deep ideas, and doesn't play them up as much as she should. Like that encounter with mundane wolves in House of Horrors that just came and went with a sense of missed opportunity. While Vaughn certainly shouldn't operate under the impression that her readers are morons who need everything spelled out for them, she shouldn't act like they're geniuses who will intuitively comprehend everything either.
I stress that Kitty's Big Trouble is far from a bad book. The plot moves well, the characters are unique and likeable, and the world-building is solid as usual. Between the fights and the chase scenes and the meetings with ancient Chinese deities, there are also moments of humor. Grace trying to fight off werewolves by throwing an angry fox-demon at them is probably the book's best moment. And as usual, the quiet, tender scenes between Kitty and Ben make them my favorite fictional couple. (Vaughn seems to have gotten over the impulse to have them bang like horny teenagers just off-page roughly once per book. Not that I'm complaining, it just seemed like she overdid it sometimes.) I was never struggling or dragging my feet through the book. I met my page quota for the day and went away satisfied.
I suspect that the root cause of my disinterest might be a lack of tension in the story. Kitty's life has fallen into a kind of status quo that I can't really see Vaughn disrupting. I went through the entire book knowing that at the end, Kitty was going to go back home to Denver with her husband, a little banged up but not really any worse for wear, and go back to her radio show and her normal life until adventure calls again. Yes, Roman is off somewhere plotting and scheming for world domination, but that seems shrug-worthy. The faceless masses of the world are just that -- faceless and unimportant. And with the characters we care about having a sense of contractual immunity to serious harm about them, the reader doesn't really have any emotional stake. There's no pressing urgency to see what happens next.
When all is said and done, I got my eight bucks worth, and I can see a definite improvement from recent entries. So, Vaughn has done her job. But she's capable of better. There's a spark in this series that seems to be fading, and if she can't recapture it... well, maybe it's time for Kitty Norville to sign off.