Monday, September 5, 2011

Bargains and Betrayals

Genre: Adventure/ Romance
Series: 13 to Life (#3)
Author: Shannon Delany
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

The 13 to Life series has never been the best YA paranormal out there, but it's always been a notch above the crowd thanks to likeable characters and a winking sense of its own absurdity. Bargains and Betrayals is therefore a disappointment of the highest caliber. It's a pity, too, because the problem with the first two books -- namely, that not much happened during them -- has finally been overcome. It its place, however, we have a new, more serious problem, one that destroys any potential in the story.

During Secrets and Shadows, Jess was seeing a therapist, Dr. Jones, ostensibly to work through her issues with her mother's death. Only it turned out Jones was in league with the mysterious organization that employs secret agent Wanda and psychic vampire Derek, and is also keeping Pietr's mother in captivity. The book ended with Jess' therapist having her carted off to an asylum. So now Jessie's locked up in Pecan Place -- "where the nuts gather", har har -- where strange things are going on. While Pietr and her father try different approaches to get her out, Jessie herself tries to avoid being attacked by fellow inmates or drugged into unconsciousness by the staff for long enough to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile on the outside, the Rusakovas have problems of their own. Max and Amy are still dealing with the fallout from Amy's breakup with her abusive boyfriend Marvin, Alexi is haunted by his own troubled past, and Pietr's trying to not only engineer Jessie's rescue, but their mother's as well. The impossibility of just a handful of teenagers pulling something like that off -- even if they are werewolves -- leads Pietr to make a risky alliance.

For a while in Bargains and Betrayals, I saw the 13 to Life series coming into its own. The first half is some of the best material Delany has turned in yet: locked up in the loony bin, Jessie finds intriguing characters and compelling mysteries, plus hints that the organization behind it all is much bigger and more powerful than previously thought. Our secondary plotline, told from Alexi's point of view, involves him coming to terms with the consequences of unsavory actions in his past, all the while watching helplessly as Pietr makes the same bad decisions that he did. Delany tells both stories with her characteristic style: alternately snarky, self-aware, and romantic. There are missteps here and there indicating that she is still fairly new to the writing game, most notably some occasions of stilted dialog. On the whole, though, it's engaging and enjoyable.

Then things go wrong. Badly wrong. The major plotlines come together and wrap up, as they should. There's a climactic battle, an equally powerful emotional climax, and our heroes succeed in escaping their current predicament only to wind up knee-deep in another. To Be Continued. A perfectly good ending. The problem is that it comes halfway through the book. The second half is the story on the other side of the To Be Continued, with its own conflict and narrative arc. In other words, we have two stories in one book.

There's nothing at all wrong with this. I've done it myself, in fact. But there's a good way to do it and a bad way to do it. As a writer, I can tell you that the optimal length of a story is the length the story demands to be. Sometimes this comes in at less than the wordcount you need for a full book. So, you tinker with it a little, adding and expanding scenes as necessary, but you can only stretch things so far in either way before the quality of the story starts to suffer. So if you still fall short of what you need, you write a different, related story and put it together with the first, doing your best to blend them into a cohesive whole.

Bargains and Betrayals seems to have wound up here by the opposite route: both of these stories could have been expanded to a full book on their own, but instead they're combined to make a single book. I don't know what went on behind the scenes, but my theory is that the first half originally was the entire book, and it was complete and good at that length. Then someone -- maybe the author, maybe the publisher, who knows -- decided it was no good by itself. So the projected sequel was hastily written and tacked on to become the second half, with the first half cut down to bare bones to accommodate it. Essentially, two books were cut down to a half-book each and then smushed awkwardly together.

Both stories suffer for the change. The first winds up with continuity issues and a woefully underdeveloped supporting cast. We meet three major new characters and re-introduce one in a new role, but by the end two are dead and two vanish for the entire second half. The second story winds up even worse. It's very obviously an early draft that has not been properly revised and developed. Dialog is awkward, characters lose their depth and uniqueness, the pace is rushed, and the climax just flat-out stinks. I mean, it really stinks. It feels like it was supposed to be a wrapup for the entire series, and thus has to deal with a lot of stray plot threads. So Delany sets up a bunch of plot twists like dominoes, and they go off one after another during a long action scene with very sparse detail to what exactly is going on. It's compressed way too much, leaving no time to process one twist before its on to the next one. And while the final boss was set up adequately in the first two books, it still feels random because his presence in this one has been limited. It's all really, really slapdash and obviously thrown together on a tight deadline.

It feels a lot to me like this series was intended by the author as a quartology or ongoing series, but for some reason the plan was changed to a trilogy, thus necessitating the compression. If so, whoever had the idea must be seriously miffed now, because book 4 has been approved after all. So we get a tacked-on sequel hook rather than a complete denouement and a promise of a new direction for the series in the next book.

Bargains and Betrayals is a horrible letdown, all the more painful for the fact that it seems to have been a solid story before it was re-worked. But while her stories have been solidly above average to this point, Delany isn't a good enough writer to save the book from the consequences of ham-handedly Frankensteining two stories together. If you've read the first two books with only moderate interest and wonder if you should skip this one, then go ahead and skip it. Properly executed, the forthcoming Destiny and Deception could revive the series, but Bargains and Betrayals does not deliver.

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