Monday, August 29, 2011

Kitty's Greatest Hits

Series: Kitty Norvile (Side-story)
Genre: Anthology
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Tor

A while back, I shared with a friend my opinion that Carrie Vaughn was a short story writer applying herself to novels. Hence, she produced novels that are really collections of 2-5 shorts woven together into an intricate tapestry. "Well," my friend opined, "maybe the short story collection she has coming will be the best Kitty Norville book ever."

I wouldn't go that far. But still, Kitty's Greatest Hits is an excellent addition to the world Vaughn has created, steeped in the uncommon layer of realism that keeps her fans coming back. Where other authors of urban fantasy are satisfied making pulpy escapism, Carrie Vaughn reaches higher, giving us characters who are human beings instead of cliches, conflicted instead of angsty, and ultimately just trying to get by the same as everyone else.

As is customary, we will take this anthology story by story, with warning of unmarked spoilers to readers who haven't read the main series to this point:

Il Est Ne: A tale from the "lone wolf" period of Kitty's life, after being booted from the Denver pack and before hooking up with Ben. A depressing Christmas away from home turns first into Kitty counselling a fellow lone werewolf, then the two of them tracking a spree killer. For non-fans, this is a good start to the anthology. It brings the reader up to speed on the basics of Kittyverse lycanthropy, the setting's major underlying themes, and Ms. Norville's unique style of heroism.  To readers familiar with all that, however, the story is kind of bland and predictable. Kitty's voice isn't as strong here as expected. Daniel, her sidekick-for-the-day, is better, but his personal issues are solved mainly by hanging out with Kitty for an afternoon, which feels cheap. The implication is that he's stuck in an epiphaniac prison -- he can't get out until he realizes getting out is possible -- but it still comes off as a conflict resolved far too easily. An average story, overall.

A Princess of Spain: Intrigues and vampires in the court of Henry VII. Wasn't expecting historical fiction, and it puts me out of my element. Seems well-researched, though; I'm not an expert on English history, but the world is consistent and believable. The three main characters are also well-developed, and you can see Vaughn's feminist tendencies in both characterization and setting. The only weak point here is a villain. Not only is she a cipher with a vague and uninteresting goal, but she goes down way too easy. A drawn-out fight would be inappropriate, given the genre, but you don't expect an immortal vampire to be blindsided by a pair of teenagers who mistake her for a completely different supernatural. A minor problem in an otherwise solid tale.

Conquistador de la Noche: Rick's origin story. As a down-on-his-luck caballero in colonial Mexico, he gets dragged kicking and screaming into the vampire world, then makes his new master regret vamping him. This one really grabbed me. Rick is entertaining as a protagonist, demonstrating moral clarity and willpower amidst a cast that revels in villainy. The plot is also quite good, with both action and pathos in ample supply. The climactic moment is the most memorable part: it's the perfect encapsulation of the themes the story manifests. However, it introduces some logical issues regarding the interplay of vampirism with religion in this universe. Explainable issues, but in context it seems like a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. It's also a bit shorter than it should be. Some expansion to smooth out the pacing would have been nice. Nevertheless, I liked it.

The Book of Daniel: And speaking of religion.  In an early Kitty book (Kitty Goes to Washington, I think,) it was mentioned that the biblical Daniel was secretly a were-lion, which is how he survived being thrown into a lions den.  Here, we get elaboration.  An excellent story with good characters, but -- like A Princess of Spain -- it suffers from a weak climax. The outcome was always a foregone conclusion, so I won't object to that, but Daniel literally talking to the animals is a bizarre deviation from how therianthropy is suppossed to work. Maybe Vaughn is trying to imply there's more to it? Decent and agreeable, in any case.

The Temptation of Robin Green: Scientist at a super-secret military/government institution gets seduced by one of the test subjects. The author's notes indicate that this story has an interesting history. It was written very early in Vaughn's career, predating Kitty and the Midnight Hour even, when she envisioned her magnum opus being a series of stories about Rick walking the earth in the manner of Caine from Kung Fu. Later, she wound up writing a story about a werewolf talk-radio star and the plan changed. Still later, this story was dusted off and rewritten for a PNR anthology. Vaughn was only just starting to conceive of the world her stories would take place in, and it shows. We have a talking dog, mermaids, and Rick (in what feels like a "before they were stars" moment) somehow having wound up as a government lab rat. Vaughn admits she had no idea how this would have happened and that the story itself is borderline-apocryphal. Shenanigans! All that said, though, this is a great story on its own merits. The main character is a sexually repressed virgin, a state which renders her vulnerable to a selkie's bewitching. You know it's not going to end well, and so does she, but you also know that she's going to fall for it hook, line, and sinker. The plot is unforgivingly real, with a powerful emotional core and steamy love scenes. Rick also makes a strong showing as the voice of reason in all this. You can see why Vaughn almost tapped him as her main protagonist before he slid into his current role in the 'verse.  The continuity issues nag at me, but in terms of quality, it's a very worthy inclusion.

Looking After Family: A tale from Cormac and Ben's shared childhood. Young Cormac takes Ben out to hunt a werewolf, but an unforeseen complication arises. Vaughn mentions in the author's notes that this story is one of the most historically important in the book, defining Cormac, Ben, and their fraternal relationship to each other. Honestly, I don't see it. While well written, the story is missing something. There's not a lot of tension, given that we know what these kids grow up to be. The twist is good, and the setting is realistic and believable, but nothing especially grabbed me. One scene has Cormac undressing in great detail, which is a little creepy since he's sixteen at this point and the perspective character is his cousin.

God's Creatures: And for an encore, here's grown-up Cormac doing what he does best. Having tracked a werewolf to a Catholic boarding school, he has to suss out who it is before the wolf loses control and goes homicidal. Very well paced and exciting, even if the mystery is a bit obvious. Fans will be interested in seeing what Cormac was like before he met Kitty. It's not a pretty picture -- in fact, he's a stone-cold killer, cold enough to con a teenage girl into being live bait. Apparently he didn't take his lesson from the last story. Solidly written, and very appealing.

Wild Ride: Origin story for T.J., the gay werewolf from Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Interesting thing about this one: it could have ended five pages earlier than it did, the major conflict resolved and it's job done. But the story goes on, and those last five pages make it a whole lot deeper. T.J. made a lot of fans in the first book by being the only named character in Kitty's pack that wasn't an asshole. But his death at the end meant we never really got to know him. Here we do, and he's a compelling character: headstrong and free-spirited, but also lonely. Unable to fit in, he's constantly on the move, searching for somewhere he belongs. And it's a tragedy, because if you know his later life you know that he never found it. Very poignant, and one of the better stories on display here.

Winnowing the Herd: ...unlike this next on. Well, I suppose every anthology needs a stinker. A glorified deleted scene from Kitty and the Midnight Hour shows Kitty, pre-stardom, dealing with a bunch of obnoxious co-workers at an office party and not seeming to realize that she's no better than them. Amusing, but utterly pointless. This is the kind of thing that goes into the first drafts of my novels and is important for me to get on paper, then comes out in revision and is tossed aside for not contributing to the story. The only real benefit here is a glimpse into Kitty's day-to-day life as a DJ, and the fact that much of it is new information only drives home how little Kitty's job really matters to the series. I know Vaughn can turn an outtake into a proper story, as she did in Kitty Learns the Ropes. By contrast, the lack of effort put in here is really obvious.

Kitty and the Mosh Pit of the Damned: Kitty goes to see a band whose fans have a rep for partying a little too hard, and things get real bad, real quick. A fun little action story with an inordinately solid supporting cast. Not much to say about it, but a good read.

Kitty's Zombie New Year: Another lame party, this one to celebrate New Year's Eve. Kitty mopes over her lack of a date, then a zombie shows up at the door. How's that for a party-killer? Vaughn's stated goal with this story was to revive the old-school zombie tradition. Rather than a flesh-eating monster, we have a enslaved corpse resurrected by black magic. Vaughn's passion for research shows through, and the story that comes out is both heartbreaking and creepy as hell. Fun stuff.

Life is the Teacher: What a pleasant surprise this was! Emma, the newly-turned vamp you might remember from Kitty Goes to Washington, tries her hand at the art of vampiric seduction. The D.C. paranormal scene is one of the great missed opportunities of the main series; the cast and setting is some of Vaughn's best work, but she never got a chance to revisit it after the second book. Here we get a long-delayed second glimpse of this world, and it has all the vibrancy that I remembered. The plot is a kind of multi-layered metaphor: Emma's first hunt has overtones of sexual initiation, which in turn is played as a right of passage. Alette, the maternally-inclined vampire who is also underused in the main series, gets a nice role as the supportive mentor in all this. This was originally written for an erotica anthology, and it shows, being much more explicit than longtime fans are used to. But Vaughn knows what she's doing, and constructs a tale that is sensual without losing emotion, and vice versa. The pacing is just right, too. A definite high point.

You're On the Air: The other side of a scene from Kitty and the Silver Bullet. A pretentious vampire who claims to have known Lord Byron calls the Midnight Hour and talks about how awesome vampirism is. A down-on-his-luck vamp stuck working at a convenience store hears, gets miffed, and calls in with a different perspective on the vampiric lifestyle. Predictable, and with a really moldy old plot twist, but amusing enough, and short enough not to wear out its welcome.

And now, our feature presentation:

Long Time Waiting: In 1900, a Victorian adventuress and occultist named Amelia Parker was executed at a Colorado prison for a murder she didn't commit. Decades later, after the events of Kitty Takes a Holiday, Cormac is serving a term for manslaughter in the same prison. Unknown to anyone, Amelia is still around, having bound her spirit into the prison walls. When inmates start dying mysteriously, she turns to Cormac hoping he can help her fight the supernatural killer. But doing so requires her to get into Cormac's mind, and he's not going to let her in. Vaughn has been hyping this story on her blog for awhile, and it's easy to see why. Like the previous Cormac stories, it's a glimpse into the psyche of a man who's less hero than antihero. It's also our first real look at Amelia, who until now we've known only by her influence. My first thought on it was that it was an idiot plot. Here's this demonic killing machine prowling the jail, this ghostly woman offers help, and Cormac rebuffs her repeatedly. Meanwhile, she acts just as dumb by trying to force her way into his mind instead of being diplomatic about it. However, in retrospect this makes perfect sense. As Cormac notes, he's in prison, where the inside of his mind is pretty much the only thing he has left to control. Amelia is in the same situation, but worse off because she doesn't even have a body anymore. Their confinement has worn them down until they have nothing and are mortally afraid of losing what they do have. The story, in other words, is is about learning to trust. Well-written, well-characterized, and with an awesome finish. First-rate work.

Should you get this book? If you're a Kitty Norville fan, definitely. (Beware of spoilers if you're not up to date, however.) If not, it's still good reading. The stories are encapsulated enough that you don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of the series to enjoy, and the writing is as strong as we expect. Fully in her element, Vaughn demonstrates the creativity and down-to-earth world-building that makes her work endearing among a sea of mass-market paperbacks about chicks in leather with guns and katanas. Time well spent.

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