Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lunatic Fringe

Series: Stand-Alone
Genre: Erotica (Lesbian)
Author: Allison Moon
Publisher: Self-published (via author's website)

(Review copy provided by the author.)

Lunatic Fringe was significantly better than the last self-pub book I read, and better than a lot of books from big publishers, too. But it ran hot and cold. Author Allison Moon's craftsmanship is alternately talented and slapdash, so that at the end of the day, I felt that the book wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been. Possibly it's a matter of perspective. This book is aiming at a rather specific niche, and I may not be in tune enough with the target audience to "get" it. But Moon has potential. She may not be able to make the most of it in this debut outing, but the raw talent is there.

Our heroine Lexie is a young girl, just eighteen, off to college for the first time. No sooner does she arrive that she falls in with a lesbian sorority called "The Pack", who awaken Lexie's own desire for other women. And not a moment too soon, because lust hits Lexie like a bullet train between the eyes in the form of Archer, a badass, cabin-dwelling woman who is more than willing to introduce her to the myriad ways of girl/girl loving. The Pack has some secrets of their own to share with Lexie: they're werewolf-hunters, seeking to exterminate the beasts that lurk in both the woods and the towns, raping women and killing men and women both to sate their perverse desires. When Lexie learns that Archer is herself a werewolf, and that she's unwittingly changed Lexie into one, the two halves of Lexie's new life wind up on a collision course.

A self-published author has to make do without many of the basic conveniences available from a traditional publisher. So, a general lack of polish is to be expected from Lunatic Fringe. There are proofreading mistakes, passages in need of revision, and the occasional typesetting snafu. (EDIT: The author reports that the review copy was an uncorrected proof, and the released version should have these cleaned up.) Plus, there are signs of an author playing without a safety net in the form of a developmental editor. A lot of tell-don't-show is in effect; long paragraphs are devoted to the Pack's feminist rants and Archer's expo-speak. But if Lunatic Fringe is a rough diamond, it glitters nevertheless. The characters are well-developed -- excepting a big underlying problem which we shall get to in a moment -- each with their own distinct personalities, and Moon's descriptive writing is vivid and compelling, almost lyrical. 

The plot is... well, I wouldn't call it bad, but I can't deny that it's schizophrenic. Moon seems to have trouble settling on a single genre and tone. At first the book has the makings of a coming-of-age story, with Lexie falling in with the Pack and discovering herself. But then, as soon as all the members have been introduced and properly fleshed out, Archer shows up and everything else takes a back seat. The book swerves into erotica, with a string of Archer/Lexie sex scenes interspersed between bits of plot and world-building. Then late in the game the plot swerves again into a romantic adventure story.

I wound up putting Lunatic Fringe on the erotica shelf, because quite frankly you can't have this much explicit sex in a book and be anything else, regardless of whatever other motives you may have. If you prepared for it, however, it's not bad sex. Girl/girl is not my cup of tea, but I think it was executed well. Occasionally, however, Moon gets carried away. One scene goes on for so long that I just started skimming it, and while the prose never hits purple, it veers violet on a few occassions. Also, there's a fisting scene. Yes, fisting. As in, shoving a hand in a woman's vagina up to the goddamn wrist. Granted, if you look at it a certain way, it makes sense. Archer's clenched hand is described as a "knot", which is brilliant if you know canine reproductive physiology. It's still fisting. Whatever makes you happy, ma'am. Me? I'm gonna turn the page now.

There are other problems, too. Even overlooking the fact that seemingly every woman Lexie meets over the course of the story is a lesbian, the story has moments of extremely flimsy construction. Twice -- once with Lexie's Nana and again with Hank -- a character is introduced with no foreshadowing at the exact moment they're needed to move the plot forward. This is just pure authorial laziness. It would not have taken that much effort to insert a mention or two or a brief introductory flashback earlier in the book so that these people don't wind up coming out of nowhere.

There's also the matter of how widespread and well-known werewolves are in this world. For most of the book they seem to be a local problem, a college town's dark secret. But the business of the Full Moon Tribe and the mention of other packs later in the book contradict that. The latter also opens up a massive plot hole: If there are killer werewolves around, and the locals can't handle it, why have none of the other packs stepped in to take care of the situation? These packs are implied to have authority to act as a group against a serious breach of the pack laws, so how does a score of deaths and murders not count?

But by far the biggest problem with Lunatic Fringe is that the characters are all incorrigible horndogs.  The Pack's lifestyle includes a concept of "free love". They're stated to sex each other up on a regular basis. Sometimes this is in the context of monogamous relationships between packmates or with other women, but sometimes not. Lexie is just as oversexed, at one point mentioning that she masturbates five times a day over the course of a month after meeting Archer. And as for Archer, she is so flamingly butch it's ridiculous.

Yes, I know this is erotica, and a bit of unreality is to be expected for the sake of getting it on. The problem is that all the pheromones running around  majorly undermine the story's feminist themes. Moon either doesn't understand or doesn't care that the characters she's created embody all the ugly, objectifying pornography stereotypes of lesbians. Ironically, despite the presence of some obnoxious frat boys and a lot of characters ranting about the oppression of the patriarchy, two of the book's three major male characters are decent types who keep it in their pants. That part is probably intentional; it's clear very early on that Moon has contempt for the more misandrist aspects of the feminist movement. But put it next to a group of liberated women whom the story defines mainly in terms of their sex drives, and the overall picture starts to look really ugly.

Enough, already. I said I liked Lunatic Fringe, and despite all the obstacles it presented to my enjoyment, I did. That's because Moon's potential shines through it all. When it doesn't degenerate into political monologues, her dialog is fast-paced and punchy. When she doesn't drag them out, the scenes she writes are engaging. Her writing is surprising deep, with a good amount of symbolism. Her characters, despite their perpetual hornyness, are have varied and well-rounded personalities. And though the identity crisis holds it back, the plot is serviceable. On rare occasions -- the Dionysian Full Moon Tribe party comes to mind -- Moon hits her mark dead-on.  All the ingredients of a good story are here, they just don't quite come together.

So, it's a mixed report. The Antique Scales of Judgement judge this book to be good, but it's a very, very wobbly, very qualified "good." You won't find it more than average unless your in the niche. Even then, it's like an inexpertly-grilled hamburger: you have to put up with the charred crust to taste the juicy center. But its main problem is the author's lack of experience, which means in time the shortcomings will shrink away. The prognosis for Ms. Moon's career is distinctly positive.

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