Sunday, May 29, 2011

THOUGHTS on: Gena Showalter's "Awaken Me Darkly"

Title: "Awaken Me Darkly"
Author: Gena Showalter
Series: Alien Huntress 001
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal/Science-fiction Romance
(Review written April 19th, 2011)
I've just finished reading Gena Showalter's "Awaken Me Darkly." It feels more like urban fantasy than paranormal romance to me (which is too bad because I picked it up craving some paranormal romance), given that it's written in first-person, which is characteristic of urban fantasy. However there's more emphasis on romance (or at least, more paragraphs dedicated to the romance) than what I noticed in urban fantasy series that I have previously read, like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series, and Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series, etc.
Unfortunately, this novel doesn't work for me as either an urban romance or a paranormal romance. In short, I don't like it very much. As a warning, there are unmarked spoilers below, as I have used specific plot “twists” to illustrate some points.
First, I don't like the heroine, Mia Snow. A government-sanctioned alien hunter, Mia is pretty much a bigot when it comes to aliens. I almost stopped reading three pages in because she was so hateful. Although we are eventually given the reason for her racism, I still can't like her given that for the majority of the story, Mia never questions these prejudices, or acknowledges that circumstances in her history might have given her a skewed, less-than-rational view of aliens. This lack of doubt on her part suggests to me that she is either i) aware that she's a bigot, but too hateful to care, or ii) too stupid to realize that her views are bigoted. Not even when she finds out that she herself is half-alien do we see Mia spending much time questioning the validity of her (I assume by then, former) views. We don't see her feeling any guilt about having ruthlessly killed aliens, or any remorse for having bigoted views. Rather we see her being angry at her father for lying to her and “misleading” her into hating aliens. To me this indicates a serious inability or unwillingness to acknowledge her personal responsibility for her past actions/views.
This emotional immaturity is a facet of her character that I really dislike. While I'm sure Mia is supposed to be the typical "strong heroine" associated with urban fantasy, as she can kick physical ass, is ruthless as an alien hunter, and supposedly has an “indomitable will”, while reading I felt that Mia lacks mental/emotional strength. For example, when Mia first learns that she is half-alien, and that the murderer she was pursuing was her biological mother, we see Mia wanting to inwardly scream in defiance of the truth, and we also see several instances of her refusing to listen to the truth (eg. her screaming at Kyrin to shut up, cursing at him, slapping him, etc.). These repeated references of her unwillingness to face the truth[1] indicate an unjustified emotional immaturity. Now, Mia doesn't actually scream in defiance (usually), which I suppose might be meant to show that she has some sort of mental fortitude, but we're never shown her struggle with these issues. She just wants to scream at the unfairness of it all, but doesn't. So instead of seeing her as vulnerable, and overcoming her vulnerabilities through an admirable emotional strength, I got the sense that she was emotionally weak...and that her actions were completely disconnected from her emotions/internal state. In general, I thought that Mia screamed too much, either out loud, or silently. When a story is written from a first-person point of view, even though the screaming is silent, it's annoying.
As for her ruthlessness in hunting, which I expect was supposed to show her badassness, troubled me greatly. In fact, it came off rather like power-tripping irresponsibility. Thus not only is Mia emotionally irresponsible regarding her own personal conduct, she is also irresponsible regarding the rights and personal welfare of others.
Exhibit A: The situation where Mia ordered all of the citizens, at what seemed to me like a peaceful protest, to be arrested.
Note that she herself had instigated the protest as a scheme to trap Kyrin, who also plays the role of her "love interest", for questioning in a serial murder case[2]. Mia never even tells her underlings on what grounds to arrest the citizens - and this is obviously because there are no grounds to arrest the citizens! It was just part of her ploy to make sure Kyrin did not escape her trap.
Ok, right. I'm sure this is an obvious point but: this completely tramples over the rights of the citizens that she is supposedly protecting! This, to me, shows that the heroine completely lacks a sense of responsibility towards the public she has supposedly sworn to defend. Her claims that she hunts aliens to protect humans is a lie. She hunts aliens because i) she's a bigot and therefore hates them, ii) she wants revenge because aliens killed her older brother, and iii) because she's trying to make her alien-hating father love her again. If Mia's ruthlessness actually stemmed from some honourable source, like wanting to protect the public, I may have been able to accept it (maybe...), but it doesn't. It stems from what I felt to be weaknesses in her character. For me, this would only be acceptable in a character if that character were the villain of a book, not the heroine.
Exhibit B: Mia's parroting of laws that are obviously ruthless and unjust - for example, any aliens involved with crime are to be eliminated/executed. They don't have to be guilty, they just have to be involved.
Now this is obviously a problematic law. If Mia were a child, I could understand how she could parrot these laws and not question them...but she isn't! Here I am in a similar situation as regards to her bigotry: I can't decide if this is an example of her ruthlessness - i.e., if she realizes these laws are wrong, but doesn't care, because it lets her kill more aliens, or if it's an example of stupidity, because she doesn't realize these laws are unjust. In either case, I care for Mia less and less.
For all of these reasons, I found it impossible to admire or like Mia. And thus I found it beyond annoying whenever I was told or shown that the majority of the characters in the book did admire and like her.
As for the hero, Kyrin? He could have been a computer for all I could tell. To me he seemed little more than a requisite plot device. Sure, he was described as powerful, beautiful, and given the requisite bad past to atone for. And I suppose the way he continually overrides Mia's free will with either i) physical binds (eg. tying her up) ii) a magical armband (which inflicts pain on her if she tries to escape his house), or iii) drugs, are indicative of the requisite domineering aspects we expect from an urban-fantasy alpha-hero[3]. But I never got a sense as to what his character was like. There is a part in the book where Mia describes what she has concluded about Kyrin's character, given the state of his home, but as we were told instead of shown these things, I didn't really buy it.
Needless to say, the romance didn't work at all for me. It was pretty much doomed since I didn't like either the hero or heroine, but even so, I didn't see them getting to know each other at all (I could refrain from making the actual joke about “know” in the biblical sense...) There was no sense in which I felt they complemented each other, or, actually enjoyed each others company.
So in short, this book didn't work for me as an urban fantasy, because what I look for in an urban fantasy is i) a strong heroine and ii) a good plot[4]. Nor did it work for me as a paranormal romance because what I look for in a romance is i) likeable heroines and heroes, and ii) scenes that show the hero and heroine are falling in love. I didn't find any of those in “Awaken me Darkly.”
Will I read another book by Gena Showalter? I think I would, if only because I think this is one of her earlier books. Perhaps she hadn't hit her stride yet. And I didn't read the book all that carefully - it may have been the case that the things above all jumped out at me, and I missed the significance of things that may have changed my mind about my assessment.
Prose: C (I wasn't too fond of the writing style - there was more telling than showing, I felt)
Plot: C (predictable, but not terrible)
Characters: F (...obviously, I did not like the characters)
World-building: C- (I wasn't very drawn in by the world, but I'm not big on aliens in the first place. And since this is the first in a series, maybe it gets fleshed out in later books.)
X-factor: n/a
[1] A truth, which really, she must have, or at least should have, suspected.
[2] When I say "a serial murder case," I should actually probably say "the serial murder case” since this murder case forms the backbone of the plot.
[3] Right, I haven't even voiced my opinion on how these actions by Kyrin are, to say the least, problematic. But that's because although now that I've listed them, I see objectively how problematic they are, but I didn't really care when they happened in the book. This is probably because I didn't (and still don't) buy Kyrin as an actual character, whom I might expect to have admirable characteristics.
[4] I haven't mentioned the plot above. Basically, I felt it was rather predictable. I saw it coming that i) she was half-alien, ii) Atlanna was her mother, and iii) that the brother Atlanna referred to would be Dare, and not Kane. But that may be because I've been reading quite a bit of Carol Berg recently, which has primed me to look out for plot twists. Although I must say, this is the first novel I've ever read where the heroine uses a poisoned whip to whip the villain to death.
...Also, there is a part where Mia tries to glean insight from an Atlantis myth, into the motivations of a suspect named Atlanna, purely because "Atlanna" sounds like "Atlantis". If that's representative of the type of police work that Mia uses to link suspects to crimes, the aforementioned laws are even more problematic than I thought.

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