Monday, October 31, 2011
Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith
I've been advised that criticizing other authors on this blog could hurt my chances of getting agented. Unfortunately, I also have an obligation to my readers to be honest. And I'm terribly sorry, but there's just no easy way to say this: Cynthia Leitich Smith can't write. She got her start in children's literature, and maybe she's good at that, but YA is a different beast. While Eternal is generally an improvement on its predecessor, Tantalize, it's still light-years away from where it needs to be to stand out in the crowded YA Paranormal field.
Miranda was turned into a vampire a year ago, at the age of seventeen. Specifically, she was turned to become the adopted daughter of Radford, a vampire king whom she lovingly calls "Father". She's spent the last year learning to adapt to her new situation, and has finally developed enough to take an active role in vampiric politics. To that end, she places an ad in the Eternal Herald-Gazette for a Personal Assistant, and hires a young man named Zachary after falling head over heels for him. Unbeknownst to Miranda, Zachary is a former angel. Specifically, he's Miranda's former guardian angel. On the night she was turned, Miranda was supposed to die instead. Zachary's intervention saved her life, but cost her her soul. Consequently, he was booted from the angelic host and sentenced to walk the earth in disgrace. However, he's recently been given an opportunity to regain his wings. All he has to do is kill Radford. Unfortunately, Radford's currently out of town on a big media tour. And, while the cat's away, the rats will play.
For a while, Smith shows potential. The world she crafts is a strange mixture of medieval fantasy and modern trappings, presented in a humorously tongue-in-cheek manner. The kind of world where official angelic correspondence includes Yahoo!Maps directions and a thoroughly evil vampire loves country music. The kind where a twenty-something job seeker tries to suck up to his potential employer by eating live insects in front of her. ("Classic Renfield", Miranda calls it.) In fact, the first half of Eternal is the most fun I've had reading in a while.
But whenever the book starts to get serious, it trips and faceplants in the ground. Hard. For one thing, the pacing is awful. That summary above starts out "Miranda was turned into a vampire a year ago", because that's where the story begins. Specifically, at her coming-out party. But it's not where the book begins. The book first spends a sixth of it's total length on a glorified prologue depicting Miranda's turning and Zachary's fall. Then another big chunk is spent on more setup, so that it's only halfway through the book that the conflict proper gets moving. Actually, in retrospect, it feels like the whole book is backstory: a bit of background for Blessed, the proper Tantalize sequel, that got so massive it spun off into a story of its own. While this isn't necessarily bad, it means the book has to work extra hard to stand on its own, and it doesn't.
Then the second half of Eternal moves too fast. Zachary's relationship with Miranda proceeds at breakneck pace from meet-cute to half-hearted Tsundere dance to first date to the obligatory relationship catastrophe that sets up the climax. Meanwhile, things go to hell around the castle with startling rapidity. Characters betray and/or die before we've even gotten a chance to know them properly, making it very difficult to get a handle on anyone other than the mains.
A bigger issue is that the plot relies so much on the characters being incompetent that it's painful. It says something about Miranda that literally as soon as she takes over, all the servants start sticking it to The Man. We're probably supposed to get the idea that she wasn't cut out to be evil, but she still looks like an idiot. Zachary, for his part, is the worst secret agent in history. He's supposed to be infiltrating the castle to assassinate Radford, but he makes no attempt to blend in whatsoever. He literally turns up in a rumpled suit with a stake on his person for the job interview, getting caught with the stake, and winds up hired anyway because Miranda gets hot and bothered by him and Radford's butler is training himself in the fine art of Not Giving A Shit. And then after being hired, Zach spends most of his time subverting or questioning authority. In the real world, he would have gotten his ass fired after half a day, but to hell with plausibility, this is a romance!
Like it's predecessor, though, the real problem with Eternal is that it has no spark. Everything is related to us in a very matter-of-fact manner, like a news report. And much like a news report, it seldom makes for interesting storytelling. A character gets clandestinely turned and goes on a bloodthirsty rampage, but there's no tension in the scene. The vamp behind it is later revealed to be a minor character of no importance, and then the plot kinda shrugs and gets back to what it was doing. Geoff, Miranda's crush from her human life, shows up unexpectedly and this should be cause for drama, but the guy's role in the story is that of a living prop who might as well have been a cardboard cutout with a blood bag attached. The whole book has a feel of the author not really caring that much.
Eternal is not a good book. It's a decent outline for a good book, but it squanders it's potential with painfully poor execution. I think it could have been good if it were properly developed, but Smith is either too green to YA or not invested enough in her story to make it work. She does some things right: the setting, the characters, etc., but it's like a big-budget film with lots of gloss and little substance. It might take me a while to get to subsequent books in this series. I might not get to them at all.