Monday, February 18, 2013

Necromancing The Stone

Series: Necromancer (#2)
Genre: Adventure
Author: Lish McBride
Publisher: Macmillan

Second novels are a tricky business. As the saying goes, you have all your life to write your first and only a few months to write your second. The sophomore jinx is very much a reality -- it even has its' own TVTropes page. On the other hand, though, first novels tend to be where the young author makes all their worst mistakes. Writing, like chess, is learned by continuously and embarrassingly screwing up. So while the author may go into their second book with less enthusiasm, they compensate with more experience, a more assured hand, and an understanding of common pitfalls. So you also get books like Necromancing the Stone, the followup to 2010's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer which manages to exceed it's predecessor.

When we last left our hero, Samhain Corvus LeCroix, he had managed to defeat the vile Douglas Montgomery, thus inheriting Douglas' estate and his incredible necromantic power. Since then, he's been trying to enjoy his (formerly Douglas') new house, no small feat considering that the staff includes some rebellious lawn gnomes and Douglas' passive-aggressive manservant, James. He also has to deal with the new responsibilities of being a member of The Council, the local supernatural governing body. On the bright side, he's scored some sweet, if creepy, necromantic powers of his own, a hot werewolf girlfriend, and a backyard big enough to erect a half-pipe for skateboarding purposes. Unbeknownst to him, he has an even bigger problem brewing: Douglas has survived his apparent death and is recovering in a cabin in the woods, plotting revenge. And his first strike will hit uncomfortably close to home.

When I read Hold Me Closer, Necromancer way back in 2011, I found it entertaining, but it had some issues. Most of them seemed to stem from the fact that it was originally a shorter story, solidly told but too short for publication. So it had to be padded to reach a publishable wordcount, and it showed. The side-material was extremely weak and exposition-heavy compared to the better-crafted main story. This time around, Lish McBride knows her target wordcount and hits it. The story never slows down, at least not due to poor or slipshod craftsmanship.

That's not to say that there aren't still a few problems. Most notably, the scene order is off. The pacing is great; each scene entertains on its' own, and most develop the plot too, but sometimes the revelations come out oddly. Several times I thought that things would flow together much better if the chapter I was reading was swapped with another.

There are also issues with cast. The characters are universally an interesting and sympathetic lot (even Douglas, but we'll get to that in a minute), and both new and old get good development. But there's too many of them. There is a limit to how many characters you can put in a story before some of them fall out of focus. The Nightshade books had this problem early and often, and the Intertwined novels also struggle to juggle their cast. McBride hasn't yet reached the point where important players have to be pushed aside, but it's obvious she's having some issues.

Brid, for example, abruptly gets sidelined halfway through, although this isn't necessarily a bad thing. A problem I had with the first book was that, realistically, Sam's relationship with Brid should not have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Necromancing the Stone fixes that -- or at least sews a patch on it -- when Brid and Sam have to take a break and step back from one another a bit, and they don't get back together by the end. The stated reason for this is bad stuff forcing Brid to focus her attention elsewhere, but it's easy to see that the honeymoon is over and reality is setting in.

Another complaint I had with the first book was with Douglas, who was an evil schemer who couldn't decide what his scheme was. The major problem here is worked around, as Douglas now has a clear and straightforward goal and he goes about it in an intelligent manner. Surprisingly, though, we also get to see a lot of depth in his character. We see early on his attachment to James, and the importance they both hold to one another. We also, in a series of flashbacks, witness important events in Douglas' life; the moments that shaped him into the man he is now. It's an oddly humanizing way to treat the character, and it succeeds in engendering pity and even sympathy for the man. Which is a masterstroke on McBride's part, because without that sympathy, the ending would feel like a huge cop-out.

James also has a lot to do in this book. His basic character arc has him wrestling with his long devotion to the resurrected Douglas and his growing friendship with Sam and his friends. Essentially, he's a mole for Douglas, but also genuinely cares for his new friends. The great thing is, the book doesn't spell this out. McBride just puts the hints right there in front of you and winks knowingly, confident you know exactly what she's talking about. Thank you, madam author. It is a pet peeve of mine when an author treats me like an idiot. The fact that you don't makes me respect you all the more as a writer.

But for all that, and some interesting new characters, there's the crucial problem that this book doesn't bring much new to the table. In fact, in many places it feels like a retread of the first book; it's McBride correcting what she did wrong last time. The climax, although moving and meaningful, is also a fairly shameless regurgitation of what's come before. The book, in short, feels like a do-over. And while it's serviceable enough as a story, it's kind of a disappointment; I wished McBride had been able to give us something vaguely new.

Still and all, Necromancing the Stone is encouraging because it shows a substantial improvement in McBride's craftsmanship. She has a classic of the genre in her somewhere, and while this isn't it, we're getting there.

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