Saturday, June 02, 2012

"Darkfever," by Karen Marie Moning

The Chick: MacKayla "Mac" Lane. A bubbly, blond Georgia bartender who goes to Ireland to find out how her sister died while studying abroad.
The Rub: Once there, she discovers the answers are weirder than she thinks - her sister might have been able to see the magical sidhe that have begun infesting Dublin's darker neighbourhoods. And now Mac can see them, too.
Dream Casting: Revenge's Emily VanCamp, slightly dumber.

The Dude: Jericho Barrons. Asshole extraordinaire and all-round waste of character development and fictional oxygen. Has a bookstore, lots of money, and a dark, mysterious past.
Dream Casting: Keanu Reeves.

Urban Fantasy Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Inconveniently Dead Relative
  • 1 Untested, Just-Discovered Magical Power that Is Way More Magical Than Regular Magical Powers
  • Several Ugly Fairies
  • 1 Intentionally Stereotypical Vampire
  • 1 Magical Spear
  • NO Magical Power Training Montages (for SHAME!)
The Word: Thanks to lovely Commenter Suggestions, I Storify'd my LiveTweets here

I came across this book at my second RWA - it came in a lovely package that included a free book and a soundtrack. And several friends of mine enjoyed the book. Sadly, I did not.

MacKayla is a sweet-natured Georgia peach chilling by the pool when she receives a phone call on her parents' landline that informs her that her beloved sister Alina, who had been studying abroad in Ireland, has been murdered. MacKayla is further shocked when she replaces her old phone (which she'd dropped in the pool a few days prior to Alina's murder) and finds a host of confusing, frantic voicemails from her sister about how the world's in danger and they have to find something called the Shi-shadu.

Against her protective parents' wishes, MacKayla flies to Ireland, determined to find Alina's killer. Unsurprisingly, this goes nowhere, and soon MacKayla finds herself having creepy visions - where beautiful people suddenly appear ugly and inhuman.

Her quest for justice eventually brings her to Barrons Books and Baubles - a mysterious bookstore run by a particularly nasty individual masquerading as a hero, Jericho Barrons. He's violent, callous, manipulative, misogynist, and cruel - but hey! He's hot! So that makes everything okay.

He identifies MacKayla as a sidhe-seer, a rare human capable of seeing through a fairy's glamour. This puts MacKayla in more danger, since fairies take serious umbrage with buzz-killing humans who can warn people of their tricks. As a bonus, MacKayla's new power also extends into detecting magical objects, which Barrons hopes can prove useful in finding the Sinsar Dubh, a powerful spellbook and the same thing Alina warned MacKayla about in her last voicemail message.

MacKayla responds to this exposition with a violent denial and flees, nearly killing herself several times in a whirlwind of Too Stupid To Live decisions.

Once she's tired herself out Almost Getting Killed For a Really Stupid Reason, she returns to Barrons, who promptly holds her hostage and drags her (all but on a leash) to the homes of various Shady Paranormal Criminals in order to see if she can detect if they're hiding the Sinsar Dubh.

I really just did not like the protagonists of this novel at all. MacKayla, in particular, is a borderline-infantalized character - an immature, thoughtless girl who goes out investigating the paranormal in overly-described "cute" outfits, spouting "cute" swearwords (she says "petunia" instead of ass) and "cute" Southern wisdom - only to get into not-so-cute scrapes.

I get that Moning was trying to write Mac as a bit of a departure from the standard UF heroines (who tend to be described by most or all of these words: hardbitten, bad ass, no friends, leather jacket, dress in black, foster kid past, sullen demeanour). However, in this novel, Mac just came across as shallow and frequently TSTL. There's nothing inherently stupid about liking fashion or make up or blond hair - but there is if that's what you think about first when you're in mortal danger, to the detriment of your personal safety.

As for Barrons, I don't want to dwell on him too much because, frankly, he's a terribly written character. He controls and harasses the helpless and hapless Mac for much of the novel, often violently, with no discernible character traits or motivations beyond Whatevah, Whatevah, I Get What I Want.

I understand the whole "anti-hero" attraction, but in such cases, the author usually gives the character understandable flaws, background, and actions to humanize them, so that our understanding of them as a person helps us like them despite their flaws. Barrons remains completely opaque - in saving his actual motivations, heritage, and backstory to try and get people to read future books, the author left too little actual development in this book to make him anywhere near appealing enough for me to care about how he does in future books.

As for the writing, the author employs a very irritating Future-Narrator technique. Darkfever is told in the first person by Mac - but by a Mac in the future who already knows everything that's going to happen. In an increasingly-frustrating habit, the Future-Narrator will drop irritatingly obvious hints, often giving away the ending of a scene before the scene even starts:
[Barrons] "I'd rather you screw up while I'm with you, so I can manage the situation, than have you attempt your first kill on your own and get yourself killed instead." I had no idea how prophetic his word would prove (p.259).
In retrospect, I'm still stunned that I went into the abandoned neighborhood alone that day. It's a wonder I survived. [This is written BEFORE SHE GOES INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD] (p.298).
Wow, way to completely suck the suspense out of a scene. Way to make the writing even more hamfisted. Because Heaven knows we wouldn't be able to figure it out on our own just by reading the damn scene!

Or else she will hint at something that is not explained or doesn't happen in this book:
Something nagged at me, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was a thing that I would stupidly fail to put my finger on until it was too late. Before long, I would understand that nothing had been what it seemed that night, and the reason Barrons had faced-off so coolly with the blood-sucking Master was because he'd gone in with the quiet assurance that, no matter what, he would walk out alive, and not because he had Malluce [the vampire] by the proverbial fiscal balls. (p.155-156)
Or how about:
One day I would stop taking off my clothes in V'lane's [hot fairy prince who induces uncontrollable horniness] presence, but the cost of that resistance would be a piece of my soul. Today, here and now, strolling through the National Museum of Archaeology and History ... I had no idea that pieces of one's soul could be lost.
I have honestly no idea what these excerpts mean, because they're not explained in this book - clearly, they're meant to hint at future books. It's simply confusing and annoying. It's understandable for some sequel-baiting to occur in the first book of an intended series, but the best type of sequel-baiting is to write a coherent and creative first book. If the first book isn't good, I don't care how many "secrets and answers" you promise me will be in later books. And if your first book spends more time hinting at cool stuff to come then writing an understandable and cool story happening right now, then you've failed.

And in that scene, Darkfever fails, because not only does it sequel-bait like it's going out of style, but there's no solid conclusion to the book at hand. Do we find out who Barrons is? Nope. Do we find out, definitively, who Alina's killer is? Nope. Do we find out Mac's true heritage? NOPE. None of the plot threads started in this book have a conclusion. I finished this book with almost no answers at all. I'm sorry, but even a first book in a series is still a book. A story. And stories require a beginning, a middle, and an end. Concluding the initial plot doesn't mean you can't continue into the next book with new plots that cropped up along the way, but every book needs a payoff.

I'm sorry, but I did not enjoy Darkfever, on any level. I'm off to go read books that live in the now.

Disagree? Purchase Darkfever here.


  1. I had pretty much this reaction to the book - though I think I stopped reading at about the first time she went a bar in Ireland. I've heard she gets less Barbie-like as the books progress, but aside from finding her TSTL, the writing kept throwing me out of the book. It's an odd style, where she summarises whole chunks of narrative, rather than letting us experience full scenes. Not sure if this changes (it does feel a bit like a first book - her writing probably improves as the series progresses). Didn't grab me at all.

    1. Well, I was kind of annoyed at how obvious the book tries to make me like Barrons without developing his character at all. I really get pissed at characterizations where the hero acts like a complete jackass but he's hot, so that's a redeeming feature? I dislike the message that women are willing to overlook abusive behaviour if the guy's good-looking.

  2. I never quite understood why these books were so beloved for many of the reasons you mentioned. I was okay with Barrons as I found him interesting but Mac did my head in, and yet I still read the whole darn series!

    1. Really? Who did Jericho Barrons turn out to be? Did they ever explain him?

    2. they did by the end (they would want to by the end of 5 books wouldn't they), but I couldn't explain it to you now! Read it too long ago.

  3. Keanu Reeves as Barrons? Yikes. That's not working for me. :)
    I enjoyed these books for the scary-fae bits and the development of Barrons from outright asshat to sexy asshat (what can I say, I'm a sucker for terse a-hole heroes!)
    As much as Mac annoyed me in the first book I did appreciate the development from rainbow-girl to kickass heroine. (Gee, how many times can I use "ass" or a derivative thereof in a comment?!)