Monday, September 19, 2011
Author: Christine Johnson
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
I had some harsh words for Claire de Lune when I first read it. After a year, however, I look on it a little more highly. Yes, the author made some bad mistakes, and her general inexperience was obvious, but at least it was creative. It wasn't just trying to be another Twilight knockoff, and it wasn't just another batch of standard-issue lycanthropes, either. Johnson had some good ideas, and blended the werewolves with elements of a witch's coven and a predominantly-female cast to give the story a feminist bent. Nocturne is a substantial improvement from it's predecessor, with a deeper storyline and much-improved characterization and pacing. But unfortunately, it hasn't improved enough. Try as I might, I just couldn't get into it, and it leaves me with the sour, undercooked taste of wasted potential.
Nocturne picks up more or less where Claire de Lune left off. With the pack out of danger and the rogue werewolf dead and gone, the pack settles in, expecting a peaceful autumn. Victoria is expecting a baby, and Claire is to join the pack officially at the next full moon. Trouble is a-brewing, though. Claire's relationship with her boyfriend Matthew has soured with the revelation that she's a werewolf. And Claire's initiation requires that she light the ceremonial fire with magic, which she's unable to do. Caught between two worlds, Claire must figure out whether she wants to be a werewolf or a human. And whether or not she can live with the consequences of her choice.
It takes a while to get into Nocturne, because for most of its length it lacks tension. For all its faults, Claire de Lune at least served up storylines that grabbed your attention. A rogue werewolf committing murders and evil scientists out to capture our heroines are both somewhat different kettles of fish from what we get here. The evil scientists show up now and again to remind us they're still around, but they're irrelevant to the plot. Most of the book concerns Claire trying to learn her fire-lighting magic and failing because she'd rather spend time with her friends or her boyfriend Matthew than practicing. In place of murders and kidnappings, we have Claire on a quest to be accepted by the werewolf world while not losing touch with the human.
The truly disappointing thing is, I like these kinds of stories. I like conflicts that are personal rather than world-threatening. I read a lot of books that treat lycanthropy and other supernatural attributes as not-always-controllable superpower. There's nothing wrong with that, but a great storyteller can go further, using the paranormal world as a representation of more real, down-to-earth conflicts. Red Moon Rising, for example, used the old Vamps vs. Weres plotline as an avenue to explore discrimination and racism. Similarly, Nocturne uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for adolescence. Claire wants to become a fully-fledged member of the community (the pack), but this requires balancing her responsibilities to them, with her own desires and, eventually, her own moral beliefs. Her packmates have found various places along the spectrum between wolf and woman which are comforting to them, and throughout the book, Claire is seeking a happy medium of her own.
It's a great idea, but as the song goes, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Like Claire herself, the book has no fire. Just like in the previous book, Johnson's story is undone by bland writing and cardboard characters. In the first book, we didn't get a real sense for Matthew, making him a dimensionless love interest. Not only has this not changed, but the problem is worse. Matthew and Claire have grown distant because, essentially, he has no idea how to handle dating a werewolf. So he keeps Claire at arms length, causing Claire to think he's abandoning him entirely. We get this info through telling instead of showing, which is a problem in and of itself, but the bigger one is that we wouldn't know it if we weren't told. Matthew remains a cipher, giving us so little clue as to what's going on in his head that we can't get a grip on him. For half the book I figured the coming twist was going to be that it was just Claire's own angst playing tricks on her.
Marie gets hit worse. She came off poorly in the first book, and just as poorly here, although this time I'm not sure it's her fault exactly. As the new pack alpha, she's required to keep distance between herself and her packmates, and to enforce the pack laws. It's really not her fault that said laws are a disastrous blend of zero-tolerance rules and merciless punishment. The excuse is that they need to keep the pack hidden and safe, and with evil scientists gunning for them maybe they've got a point, but that's no excuse for this kind of heartless barbarism. You may say that the entire point of the story is that Claire eventually become strong enough to defy the laws, but that's missing the point entirely. The point is to find balance between the two worlds she lives in without having to choose one and cast the other aside. The pack laws are so draconian that it's hard to see why Claire just doesn't give them all a big kiss-off.
I tried very, very hard to like Nocturne, but I just couldn't. It has some solid ideas and themes, the skeleton of a fabulous story, but in the end it's just that: skin and bones. I can give props for trying to be more than your standard YA paranormal, but in the end it's just not a good read. I hope Johnson keeps writing, though. There has been noticeable improvement in her craftsmanship since book one. If she's able to develop the writing skill to go along with her ideas, then she could land herself on my recommendation list someday. But that day is not today.