Friday, May 4, 2012
Author: Andrea Cremer
The Nightshade books have had their ups and downs. The first volume gave us an impressively deep story with a lot of potential, but also some issues arising from a tenderfoot author and an overdose of epicness. The sequel Wolfsbane stumbled, giving us more epicness when we had too much to begin with while introducing new problems. Wolfsbane was still a decent book, but it was more or less coasting on readers' goodwill. That goodwill is now exhausted. Bloodrose is thus a make-or-break point. Either the trilogy finishes strong, leaving open the possibilities for sequels (and prequels, one of which is being hyped as we speak), or it sputters out. After reading, I have to report with sadness that it's the latter.
Wolfsbane ended with Calla sneaking behind enemy lines to retrieve Ren, the third wheel in the series' ongoing love triangle. Bloodrose picks up as her mission goes horribly wrong and she gets captured... err, well no, actually. I was expecting that -- I think we all were -- but in reality she meets Ren, already reeling from the climax of the last book, and successfully convinces him to defect to the side of the good guys. After Calla lays down the law and forces a truce between Ren and Shay, the Searchers and rebellious Guardians join forces to retrieve the remainder of the Elemental Cross, all the while preparing for the final battle with Bosque Mar.
I liked Bloodrose while I was reading it. It's well-paced, and draws you in. But at the end, I have to say I felt cheated. The story wasn't what I was expecting, and not in a good way either. The first book set a lot of stuff out on the table. There were themes of social injustice and oppression that drew on Cremer's background as a history scholar and elevated the book above the usual Paranormal Romance cliches. There was a deep history to the world, stretching back centuries and with official records obscured by the Powers That Be. There was a cast full of well-developed characters, all with distinct personalities and their own personal conflicts to deal with.
But after the first book, all that was chucked aside in favor of a much less interesting direction. The themes were buried under the storyline of a shallow fantasy adventure. Wolfsbane dropped most of the first book's cast in favor of giving page time to a equally-large but less-interesting group of newcomers, and now the third book fails to bring the old cast back into focus. And the history and backstory are pushed aside in favor of an utterly retarded Dismantled MacGuffin plot. One of my favorite moments of Wolfsbane was Shay getting right in the fourth wall's face to diss this storyline as trite and unoriginal. When your own characters tell you that your story sucks, maybe you should back up and try something different.
Don't get me wrong. If the Nightshade series had been a unapologetic fantasy adventure from the start, and done right, I might have enjoyed it. But book one captivated readers by promising meatier fare than usual, so when I get this I just stare and wonder, "This is what Cremer had in mind all along?"
And she doesn't really do it right, either. Her action scenes are not memorable. She wastes time with pointless filler like rock climbing and scuba diving. She kills off characters and totally fails to make it meaningful or moving. And she stuffs her story to the gills with cheese. The climactic fight scene is corniness from start to finish, ending with a tying up of loose ends that I swear to God was ripped straight from Doctor Who. And that's not even getting into forty pages of post-fight angst that exist purely because we couldn't have a happy ending.
At points the Nightshade series reminded of Gena Showalter's Intertwined books, in that I get the feeling that both authors really want to be writing X-Men. Nightshade has the same expansive cast, complex personal relationships, and serious themes underlying the story, but doesn't do anywhere near as much with them. Or, perhaps more accurately, can't do much with them. Since the middle of book two, the elephant in the room has been that Cremer had bitten off way more than she could possibly chew. Every named character has at least one subplot of his own, and there's just not enough page space for all of them. So when the time comes for the buildups to have payoffs, we get wrap-ups instead. Quick and tidy resolutions that sometimes defy credibility. The saving grace, if you can call it that, is that most of these characters have been out of focus for so long that the audience doesn't care that they're being shafted. At one point it's mentioned that Cosette committed suicide off-page, with horrified reactions from Calla. My own reaction was "Ummm... who?" I spent five minutes trying, but couldn't for the life of me remember who Cosette was, or whether or not I had ever cared about her. So it stinks, but it's not a lost game so much as a scoreless draw.
But enough generalities. We have to talk specifics. In particular, we have to talk about Ren.
I'll tell you this for probably the third time: as a character, I like Ren. Not in the manner that many readers seem to, but I've always thought Cremer handled him well. The narrative has been uncompromisingly upfront about his failings, but has nonetheless depicted him sympathetically as a victim of the society he lives in. All this came to a head in the Wolfsbane finale and left him two possible paths to follow: abandon his old ways and seek atonement, or embrace the monster and become that which destroyed him. He chooses the former. I generally like it when the story goes that way, because I don't believe that a man can become irredeemable. But Cremer botches the execution so badly that it brings the book down.
Here's the thing: At the end of Wolfsbane, Calla chose Shay as her love and abandoned the Keeper's society completely. At that point, the love triangle was resolved. Shay wins, and Ren's plotline from then on should have been about his search for redemption. For whatever reason, though, Cremer didn't want to do it that way. So she moves the princess to another castle by having Ren and Shay get all alpha-male on each other, which in turn forces Calla to broker a truce by holding her love hostage until the Keepers are defeated. I might be able to buy that plot twist if it was done well. Certainly it's realistic; people don't just change overnight. The problem is, it is obvious to all three parties that Ren has no chance. Calla has chosen Shay, whether she admits to it or not. Shay knows this, and if he's in anyway unsure it becomes obvious after Shay tries to "set Calla free" and she responds "the hell you will!" and jumps on him for make-outs. (Okay, not exactly, but you get the idea.) Ren himself, in one of the book's best scenes, reveals that he wants another chance and that, deep down, he knows he's not going to get it. Everyone knows that the truce is nothing more than a formality. The game is over.
But this stalling tactic does succeed in wrecking any hope Ren has of redemption. Calla was presented to him by the Keepers as a reward for his loyal service. A crucial step in turning over a new leaf is giving her up. He doesn't get the chance. Instead, he winds up in limbo for the entire book, and dies without having had any kind of cathartic moment. It's not even a particularly ennobling death, it's more like Cremer tying off yet another loose end. Ren is essentially killed off in the middle of a stalled character arc because the book was ending soon. Weak, dudette. Maximum weak. Love him or hate him (Lord knows I've done both), Ren was one of the lynchpins of the story, and he deserves better than to be casually tossed aside.
(End of spoilers)
This series is disappointing to the point of being depressing. It had so much going for it at the start, but over the course of two sequels everything great about it has dribbled away bit by bit. I'm not going to be reading the Nightshade prequels, or the sequels suggested by the fact that several villains are still at large. Cremer still has some talent, and maybe with a fresh start she'll be able to make the most of it. But I just don't have the patience. Sorry.