Monday, January 14, 2013

Prey

Series: Shifters (#4)
Genre: Adventure
Author: Rachel Vincent
Publisher: MIRA

Oh MAN, that feels so much better.

2012, as you may have noticed, wasn't such a great year for my blog. Between stressful events, burnout, and  some disenheartening reading choices, I didn't have a lot of energy or motivation to focus on this blog. So, for my 2013 new years resolution, I resolved to get back in the saddle and start reading again. I picked up the fourth volume of Rachel Vincent's werecat series hoping that it would remind me why I do this. Though at times frustrating, Vincent's saga of fur, fangs, and feminism has never failed to grab me. I'm happy to report that Prey continues the series' high standard of quality.

When we last left our heroine Faythe, her werecat pride was in a precarious state. Faythe herself had been acquitted of murder, but her friend, the refugee Manx, still had to face justice for her crimes. Marc has been exiled to the free zone, the no-man's-land between pride territories. Kaci, a teenage tabby improbably born of human parents, has been adopted by the pride and bonded with Faythe, but this proves as much a curse as a blessing. Psychologically unable to shift, Kaci is slowly fading away, and other alphas, particularly the slimy Calvin Malone, see an opportunity to claim custody of her for themselves. Amidst all of this Faythe is sent on a mission through the free zone, escorting Manx to her trial. She's psyched for the opportunity to see Marc again, but her elation doesn't last long. Ambushed by a huge force of outlawed strays, the caravan barely makes it to their destination. Then Marc vanishes from his home, leaving behind two dead strays and signs of a struggle. Faythe has to put everything on the back burner to try and rescue her love from his mysterious kidnappers.

The first two books of this series made it very hard to cheer for the good guys, with werecat society being sexist, tyrannical, isolationist, and generally backwards. Prey continues the trend, started in Pride, of portraying the south central pride as a voice of reason against the less progressively-minded werecats, particularly Calvin Malone. It works very well, and the story retains it's topical edge while no longer being rage-inducing. In particular, Faythe's characterization -- independant and competent, but hampered by the rules of her society -- is a much-needed contrast to authors who think feminism is a heroine with fate-decreed superpowers that needs to be rescued by the men in her life.

It's not just the social commentary that makes this a good book, though. Vincent is talented. In a genre crowded with half-hearted clones, self-published trash, and taudry romance novels, she stands out from the crowd with characters that are neither bland nor cliche nor idiotic. It happens too often that the bad guys start winning because the good guys do stupid things. Not so here. Admittedly, sometimes it takes Faythe and her pridemates a while to be smart in the right way, but they always make good decisions. Faythe herself has come a long way since Stray. She spends most of the book leading the search for Marc, and thus gets to look a lot less powerless and impulsive than she was painted in previous books.

Other characters have also evolved. Jace, the other love interest destined to wind up dead or tossed aside at some point, nevertheless grows into his own late in the game. We also get to see the human side of Greg, Faythe's dad, as both the tiredness and the frustration that comes with his job eat away at his stoic facade. Minor characters from previous books also return in beefier roles, a good sign the Vincent knows where she's going with all this.

Marc, oddly for this genre, seems to have been sidelined. He was already barely there in Pride, and he spends most of Prey as an off-page damsel in distress. This will likely ruffle some feathers among those who read this genre for the romance but I, for one, applaud the reversal of roles. After all, this story is about Faythe first and the prides second, and they have to stay at the center of it all.

For all that, I have to admit that this is one of the weaker books in the series in terms of plot. The first half is great, a slow build over many chapters, the mystery unfolding bit by bit, revelation by revelation. In this it's far superior to Pride, which dragged a lot. There's more action, more suspense, a lot more tension, and the plot moves in ways both unexpected and brutally obvious. To a large extent, this series has always been about chickens coming home to roost -- every book's conflict is ultimately provoked by the werecats' ass-backwards policies towards strays, women, and outsiders. Prey focuses on the latter; the exiles in the free zone don't trust Faythe to represent their interests, and given their mistreatment by the prides, can you blame them?

But then, just as things are building to a crescendo, the book shifts gears to a temporary side-trip, which turns into a permanent change of direction after some especially bad shit goes down. It works, in isolation; it's unexpected, it grabs your attention, and it tells you in no uncertain terms that shit has gotten real. And the aftermath gives the characters time to show off their humanity. But eventually, it's done with, and we have to go back to the main plot, which is no longer as interesting by comparison. Faythe has two goals throughout most of the book: First, find Marc, and second, find the bad guy, take him alive, and figure out what's going on. The bad shit makes number 2 unimportant, so we're left with just Faythe trying to rescue Marc. This robs the story of much of it's bite, meaning the finale kind of fizzles -- I was more interested in the fate of the secondary characters than Marc, although this might be my personal taste and sympathies.

Warts and all, though, I will always give props to this series' storytelling, if for no other reason than because the werecat books are a model of how to do a series right. None of this "one book for the price of three" nonsense, dragging things out forever and ever until the audience wanders away, bored. Each individual volume is a complete story, and yet also contributes to the series' overall plotline. And the stories are good, with just the right mix of action, angst, and suspense. If Prey stumbles -- and it does -- it still keeps on its feet better than the only-just-now-abetting flood of Twilight clones over the past few years.

So, an overall positive impression of Prey. It's not perfect, nor classic, but it is a much-needed reminder of the importance of solid craftsmanship. And the fact that there is still room to tell interesting stories in this genre. Hats off to Rachel Vincent for showing us how it's done.

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