Book Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Title: The Indigo Spell
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.43
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Warning

the indigospell.jpg

Plot Description: Having kissed Adrian once, Sydney is now struggling with the realization that she might perhaps return his feelings, even as she continues to follow up on leads that hint towards corruption within her organization, the Alchemists. She also finds herself in danger thanks to a mysterious serial killer witch who is tracking down young magic users and draining them of life and power.

The Indigo Spell begins on a hilarious note:

This wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I’d been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.

“Are you a virgin?”

“Huh?” I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear. An urgent phone call had dragged me out of bed five minutes ago, and I was having a little trouble adjusting.

My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: “I said, are you a virgin?”

“Um, yes. . .”

I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm’s lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange.

Sydney’s proficiency in spellwork is improving, as is her willingness to engage with her potential for magic. These are two reasons why Jaclyn Terwilliger pulled her out of bed in the middle of the night to help her with a spell. The third reason is her virginity.

This is possibly due to my own personal hang ups, but I hate the idea of virginity holding any special kind of power. It’s a theme that’s inescapable however, turning up in a wide range of subjects from historical virgin sacrifices to modern society’s obsession with virginity.

For one thing, the concept of virginity is highly subjective. We’re given to understand that the historical definition of virginity centres around the heteronormativity of sex – (i.e. where a man, a woman and their respective private parts are involved). This sucks for a lot of reasons – anything that’s not heterosexual is not included, for starters. Even within this narrow definition of sex, one still runs into problems, because people have been using the hymen as the designated virginity marker. And the hymen often… doesn’t exist. Or is lost in ways other than through sex. Or can remain unbroken despite intercourse due to incredible elasticity. In young women, it even shows remarkable healing qualities.

A theory I like more these days is that virginity is more psychological than physiological. If you feel like you’re a virgin, then you’re a virgin.

Whoa, I’ve gotten slightly off track. Bloodlines is not the first universe to attribute magical qualities to virginity, and I don’t doubt that it won’t be the last. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes allusions to this trope by contrasting the unmarried and virginal Granny Weatherwax against the thrice married and happily promiscuous Nanny Ogg. But yes, the idea still makes me uncomfortable – partly because of the horrendous mess ‘virginity culture’ has become, and partly because I’m afraid it might be true.

Ms. Terwilliger’s spell reveals the location of a powerful witch – one who she worries is going after young witches for their youth and power. Once again, she’s pushing for Sydney to actively learn more magic – for her own protection if nothing else.

On a much lighter note, Bloodlines provides us with happy Vampire Academy cameos in the form of a Royal Wedding (Sheesh. Does there have to be so many of those?) Queen Vasilisa Dragomir is getting married to longtime boyfriend Christian Ozera, and it’s all very cute. Of course, the Queen is still in college, but when you’re a monarch, I’m guessing such mortal concerns go out the window. Sydney is attending the wedding as part of an Alchemist contingent who are there to ensure that they don’t accidentally insult the Moroi by not turning up. Adrian manages to create quite a lot of controversy by asking her to dance – a proposition that horrifies the Alchemists, and shocks many of the Moroi (including – get this – Abe Mazur).

Ha! Got you, old man.

Sydney’s boss implies that she’s got to take one for the team because they don’t want to look ungracious (or repulsed) by declining. And so we get our first Sydrian dance.

Told you it was cute.

He was unconcerned. “You’ll make it work. You’ll change clothes or something. But I’m telling you, if you want to get a guy to do something that might be difficult, then the best way is to distract him so that he can’t devote his full brainpower to the consequences.”

“You don’t have a lot of faith in your own gender.”

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth. I’ve been distracted by sexy dresses a lot.”

I didn’t really know if that was a valid argument, seeing as Adrian was distracted by a lot of things. Fondue. T-shirts. Kittens. “And so, what then? I show some skin, and the world is mine?”

The Sydrian plotline converges neatly with the rogue witch plotline as Sydney and Adrian go roadtripping. Their objective? Track down young women in the neighbourhood who might be in danger and ask them to be on their guard.

Sydney finally manages to track down Marcus Finch, an ex-Alchemist who rebelled and has been in hiding from his former employees ever since. Marcus is the one that finally reveals the secret behind the golden lily tattoos worn by all the Alchemists. The tattoos are made with Moroi blood and have bits of compulsion infused into them, making it impossible for the Alchemists to reveal the secret of their occupation to anyone not already in the know. It also makes them compliant and unquestioning, and might even promote the revulsion for vampires that they all seem to share. The good news is, Marcus has found a way to break the compulsion in his tattoo by means of an indigo coloured ink.

The teenager subplot drags alongside the main plot, being neither so interesting as to catch my attention, nor so boring that I’d completely skip over those parts (which is what happens to me every time something romantic turns up in a James Patterson novel). A love triangle turns into a love quadrangle and eventually resolves itself to mutual satisfaction. Sort of like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with gender roles reversed.

Mead’s humour and comic timing is as ever on point, which makes the occasional hiccup in her writing style so much more bearable.

It was hard for me to talk. “It’s instinct. Or something. You’re a Moroi. I’m an Alchemist. Of course I’d have a response. You think I’d be indifferent?”

“Most Alchemist responses would involve disgust, revulsion, and holy water.”

The overarching story line continues to be paced off well, with Sydney and Adrian finally taking their friendship to the level of a tentative relationship, and with the appearance of a new antagonist more powerful than any Sydney has faced up until now.

“Are we going to run off to the Keepers?” he suggested.

“Of course not,” I scoffed. “That’d be cowardly and immature. And you’d never survive without hair gel – though you might like their moonshine.”

The Indigo Spell is a comfortable middle ground for a series – ferocious action combined with cheesy and heart warming romance and serious character development. And my favourite parts about the Bloodlines series are yet to come.

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review in this Series: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Book Review: Shifters #6 – Alpha

Title: Shift
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.33
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

9780778328186_smp.indd

Plot Description: After the death of a couple of family members and the loss of their father’s position as Chair of the Werecat Council (or whatever it is they’re calling themselves these days), Faythe Sanders’ Pride finds themselves about to be turned out of their own home – all because the current Werecat Council refuses to recognize the new Alpha.

SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SHIFTERS SERIES: BEWARE

Faythe is Alpha now. At least, her father named her Alpha before he passed away in Shift. The new Council mandates, however, that every new Alpha is to be recognized by them, and they’re not about to recognize the first female Alpha in North America.

This means war. Right?

Nope. This actually means Faythe once again forgets to learn that leadership is not defined by your literal physical strength as she accepts a challenge by a contender for her Alpha-dom. As Alpha, it’s her right to have a minion fight on her behalf. She does not choose this option either. And she has her a** handed to her on a golden platter as a result, the idiot.

Once we’re past that really embarrassing bit, the book really picks up. Say what you will about her pseudo-macho delusions about having to prove herself, but the woman sure knows how to plan for a battle. And her adventures over the past five books has assured her an assorted band of allies, from Bruins and Thunderbirds to the much neglected Stray cats in territories outside the Prides. And towards the end, the book also illustrates what we already knew all along – that while any tomcat can defeat Faythe while in fully human or cat form, she’s the undisputed master of the Partial Shift. In fact, that’s also where her true strength lies.

Alpha is without a doubt the best of this series. It’s an enjoyable read, and combines the empowering elements found here and there in the previous books with the non-stop action found in most of the previous books. It has vengeance and satisfaction of a job well done.

My biggest disappointment was one that ought to come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my reviews of the previous books. The love triangle came to its inevitable end, and Faythe picked the underdog. That is to say, she had no real choice but to pick Marc (from a plot perspective) because picking the healthy option would have meant that Marc would lose all werecat credibility and would end up an outcast. In true Adrian Ivashkov form, Jace gets his own novel (and his own romance) in Rachel Vincent’s Wildcats series.

I don’t regret reading Shifters despite my frustration with the series because it achieved at least some portion of its potential. It has the makings of a really good story, and I can always just let my imagination do the rest of the work.

Next: Cloud 9 Minus One by Sangeeta Mall

Book Review: Shifters #5 – Shift

Title: Shift
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.23
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

shift

Plot Description: Whilst dealing with the aftermath of an attack by rival Alpha (and current head of the Council) Calvin Malone, the Sanders Pride finds itself attacked by a flock of Thunderbirds – supernatural creatures who are half human, half bird. Faythe finds herself taking a road trip with Kaci, Marc and Jace on a diplomatic mission to see if they can get the thunderbirds to stop trying to massacre their Pride.

In fact, the Thunderbirds are the only things Shift has going in its favour. It’s not, of course, the first time a new species has been introduced into the Shifters universe. Once the we, the readers, got over the shock of reading about werecats, the werewolves were mentioned. Briefly. Apparently they’re all extinct, but even a blessed mention is more than sufficient for the exhausted fantasy reader’s mind, which keeps trying to insist that we’re actually supposed to be reading about werewolves out of sheer habit.

The bruins – or rather, one Bruin (singular) – made their first appearance in Pride. Half bear, half human, solitary and rather given to hibernation, and yet the bruins are portrayed as far more human than the werecats who greatly outnumber them and are far more sociable to boot (in as far as ‘sociable’ refers to not attempting to kill everything that moves on impulse).

The Thunderbirds fall on the end of the spectrum directly opposite to that which is occupied by the bruins. They’re more fluid in their morphing abilities, not requiring time to shift from one form to another, and fully capable of going from human to bird (or vice versa) at an altitude of approximately Top-of-a-huge-freakin-mountain meters.

This means they’re far more removed from human civilization than are the other shifter species, possibly because there’s no way you can integrate when your young spend most of their time navigating that peculiar niche of life reserved for those sporting a wing and an arm each at any given point of time. That is to say, young thunderbirds spend all their time in a constant state of flux which they haven’t learned to control yet. Bit of a dead giveaway, that.

I found the careful construction of Thunderbirds as a species and a society far more interesting and far less annoying than I did the werecats. It’s not every day that you encounter a group that retains its status as The Other so perfectly, even after all the shades of grey have been pencilled in.

Faythe demonstrates some qualities in Shift that are supposed to be diplomatic in nature, and she doesn’t do too badly. This step forward in the character development department is, however, largely obscured by the dynamics of her botched relationships with both Marc and Jace and by the ugly rearing head of patriarchal oppression that isn’t bothering to conceal its views behind an insincere smile anymore.

The ugliness of the truths upon which werecat Prides have been built are hammered into the mind of the reader in Shift with about as much subtlety as is demonstrated by a blunt axe. This trend carries forward into Alpha and makes you want to keep quoting Faythe all the time:

“Don’t you bad guys ever get tired of the same old routine? You threaten rape, I kick your ass, and evil is defeated again. Couldn’t we shake things up? How ’bout you try to smother me with my fluffy pink pillow instead?”
– 
Faythe Sanders, Alpha, Shifters #6

As this self aware quote illustrates, the heavy handed, black and white misogyny – a total contrast from the benevolent misogyny depicted in Books 1 and 2, and to a certain extent Book 3 as well – turns the Sanders Pride’s enemies into cartoonish rapist villains. This has the simultaneous effect of also white washing Faythe’s Pride. The Pride under Greg Sanders’ leadership, it is suggested, has always been a place where women are respected and revered. Examples put forward in favour of this argument include Greg grooming his daughter for the post of Alpha and the fact that Faythe’s mother used to sit on the council next to her husband.

Good points, both. Except it’s hard to see how exactly Greg groomed his daughter for command, apart from giving her a job as an enforcer (a job she landed after much negotiation and by threatening to run away from home multiple times) and allowing her to take over the planning of a couple of attacks in the previous books. Nowhere does Greg consider it important that he teach his daughter how to be a female Alpha. Unlike, say, Marc Ramos, who is his second choice for Alpha, Faythe cannot beat every challenger by dint of sheer physical strength. It was important for Greg to show her that being Alpha isn’t – contrary to popular belief – about your abilities to pound everyone else into the ground, but to be the master of every situation.

As for her mother’s seat on the council, Karen Sanders did take a seat at the head of the Council – by her husband’s side. That is to say, after her marriage and motherhood had deemed her respectable enough to be tolerated on the council. And then she stopped doing that once she had Faythe, who was a handful and needed all her time and attention.

On the other hand, a notable example against this argument is the fact that Greg and Karen tried everything in their power to get their daughter married by the time she’d barely hit eighteen, including locking her up in a cage. Another notable example is the rampant slut shaming that goes on amongst Sanders’ enforcers (such as Faythe’s brothers) and the fact that Marc’s abusive behaviour is accepted by everybody (including Faythe) as fairly normal.

Speaking of Marc and abusive behaviour brings me to what I was talking about in my review of Prey – namely Jace Hammond and his approach to relationships and prospective Alpha material. Unlike Marc, Jace doesn’t go around trying to mark his territory. When he wants to make out with Faythe, it’s not to prove a point, but because he genuinely wants to be with her. And when he’s aggressive towards Marc, it’s not because he thinks Marc needs to get off his porch, so to speak, but because he’s concerned that Marc’s short temper might result in him hurting Faythe.

In short, Jace is the only one who seems to even register the fact that Marc is an abusive piece of s**t. Sadly enough, he only realized this after he got together with Faythe.

“This isn’t about you….” “Well, it should be!” he shouted, and I flinched. “Everything I do is about you, and I want the reverse to be true, too.”
I wiped more tears, my throat aching with words that would only make this worse. “What, you need a reminder? That’s what he was doing, right? And now you smell like him. You probably taste like him. You should taste like me.…”
He was on me before I could even catch my breath, his mouth bruising mine, and after that, breathing didn’t seem so important. 

This quote (and the ensuing sex scene) [from Alpha, Book #6] was put up as the sexiest scene in literary history by someone. Personally, I don’t know how the words ‘flinched’ and ‘sexiest’ can even exist in the same plane.

Shift could have represented a great leap in character development for the young female protagonist of this series, but unfortunately, all one ends up seeing is a heroine who is severely disadvantaged both by patriarchal forces and notions, as well as by her own bad taste in men. The weak facade of an Alpha growing in strength and wisdom falls away almost as soon as a discerning eye is turned on it.

Next: Shifters #6 – Alpha

Book Review: Shifters #4 – Prey

Title: Prey
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.21
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

prey

Plot Description: Faythe, Marc and a couple of other characters are attacked by a group of strays while on neutral territory, and Marc goes missing soon after that. Prey chronicles the ensuing manhunt and the list of never-ending problems that rival Alpha Calvin Malone manages to lay at their door, both directly and indirectly.

Prey provides a very good set up for the next two books, complete with a high stakes finale. It also proves a turning point for Jace Hammond, who is the Adrian Ivashkov of the Shifters universe.

We need to talk about Jace. My reviews of the first three books in this series were too taken up with Faythe’s complex personality, and how it fits into this incredibly contradictory and patriarchal universe, and with Marc Rants. But now it’s time.

Jace Hammond is introduced in Stray via some mild sexual harassment. Well, it’s not technically harassment because Faythe didn’t really mind that this guy had suddenly turned up and put his arms around her, but I object to the fact that he expects she won’t mind. Standard of enthusiastic consent and all that.

Jace is promptly pulled away by two of Faythe’s brothers – Ethan (everybody’s favourite brother) and someone else. Jace protests that had it been Marc, they wouldn’t have done that, and they counter it by saying that Faythe would have taken care of Marc herself. It’s notable that Faythe’s agency only comes into play when there’s a dude they don’t approve of in the picture.

Jace, it soon turns out, is the anti-Marc. In fact, his persistence is the only thing he has in common with Marc in the romance department. Jace is respectful. Jace gives the fact that Faythe is someone with real opinions a lot of importance. Jace doesn’t walk around beating people up just because they’re encroaching on what he sees as his territory. This is because Jace recognizes the fact that Faythe is a woman and not actually territory, and that she has the right to take her own decisions.

Jace also has every bone in his body broken (more than once) simply because he dared speak to Faythe. Thanks a lot, Marc. You’re clearly ideal Literary Boyfriend material, right up there with Christian freaking Grey.

When Faythe and Marc resumed their abusive relationship, Jace was understandably bummed, but didn’t really do anything that would make him stand out in the ranks of ‘Good’ Literary Boyfriends – like inflict grievous body harm on Marc because he thinks she ought to belong to her. The points in his favour just seem to keep piling up, but that’s actually because the standard’s pretty freakin’ low.

In Prey, with Marc exiled and therefore not around to protect his territory, Faythe and Jace end up getting drunk and hooking up. I’m honestly not a fan of the ‘Guy gets his s**t together for a girl’ trope, but that’s basically what happened here, (and with Adrian Ivashkov) and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, Jace-wise. Suddenly, Jace is exploring a possible future he’d never imagined before – one that involves being Alpha-like enough to be able to marry Faythe. He changes. He’s suddenly more mature and responsible. Sadly, this also means he’s slightly more territorial – as is purported to befit an Alpha werecat. The difference is that Jace, unlike Marc, never lets his territorial instincts get in the way of Faythe’s agency.

This plot also allows Vincent to explore a subject close to my heart, albeit on a superficial level. With Faythe’s realization that she’s in love with both Marc and Jace comes the radical notion that it’s perfectly normal to love more than one person, and that that’s okay. In a society obsessed with monoamory, poly-amorous relationships rarely get the credit they deserve. And books 5 and 6 in this series take a look at some of the dynamics that would presumably be involved in a romance involving more than two people. While said study is admittedly more of a guide on what not to do, it still takes their relationship one step beyond the classic love triangle, and that’s something.

The pros of Prey are that it provides an action filled mystery and a thickening of the political plot, the better to explain the alliances formed in future books. The cons of this book are that the action is often slowed down by what can only be described as sheer stupidity on the part of the protagonists forming the hunting party for Marc. Oh, and that it features what can only be termed child abuse.

Kaci, the young werecat found in the previous book, is now living under the protection of the Sanders Pride. She’s extremely attached to Faythe, and follows her around all the time, hanging onto her every word and being extremely perceptive as to the dynamics of Faythe’s love triangle. But the one thing Kaci will not do is shift into cat form, and it has been repeatedly impressed on the reader that it’s important for the cats to shift regularly, lest they sicken and eventually die.

Traumatized by the fact that she had ended up killing several people while in cat form for the first time, Kaci refuses to shift. This does not, to put it delicately, have a good impact on her health.

As her de facto mentor, it’s Faythe’s job to talk Kaci into shifting. There’s also the option of medically inducing a shift, but Faythe refuses to allow this, citing a potential loss of Kaci’s trust. One would expect then, under the circumstances, that Faythe would put every effort into giving Kaci the therapy she needs and thereby getting her to shift.

This is precisely what Faythe does not do because she’s busy with enforcer work, and with missing Marc. And this is the point at which I stop making excuses for Faythe and call her an irresponsible idiot.

The mounting tension in this sub plot is meant to eventually pay off when Faythe talks Kaci into finally shifting, but this is honestly not the kind of plot that absorbs such a plot device. Being careless about the health and well being of minors under your care is not something to be taken lightly. Nor is it an easily forgivable offence.

As far as the plot is concerned, Prey provides a good set up for the final act of the story, but by itself, it’s bogged down by slow moving action sequences and slow thinking protagonists. Like with all the books in this series, it’s just interesting enough to make you wonder what happens next.

Next: Shifters #5 – Shift

Book Review: Shifters #3 – Pride

Title: Pride
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: Shifters
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.16
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

pride

Warning: Spoilers for Books 1 and 2

Plot Description: Faythe is now on trial by the Pride for intentionally infecting her ex boyfriend Andrew, and then for killing him to cover up the crime. The trial quickly devolves into a sham front for Pride political machinations, Faythe and her family make a LOT of new enemies, and a new young tabby, Kaci, is introduced.

After discovering that she had accidentally infected her ex with a bite while she had been Partially Shifted during sex, Faythe has a showdown with Andrew at the end of Rogue. The easy going and amiable guy she used to know is gone, leaving a stray cat turned crazy by scratch fever. Andrew tries to kill her, and she ends up killing him in self defense. Now she needs to defend her actions in such a way that she escapes being executed for her crimes – or even just permanently declawed.

At this point in my reviewing career, I’m honestly cursing all authors everywhere who think it’s a good idea to write six books into their series. I mean, when you’re a fabulous author and your books are really good – well, that’s amazing. But we can’t all be a Joanne Rowling or a Richelle Mead. Sometimes we’re a Cassandra Clare. Or, God forbid, a Rachel Vincent.  At least Clare had the decency to keep her books short.

I suppose I’m being a bit harsh, because Pride was in fact an improvement on its predecessors. But when you have to keep point the same old sh*t out, and when you have to read the same kinds of reviews on Goodreads – well, it gets tiring.

Once again, it’s easier to survive Vincent’s book if one were to focus on what we in the legal industry call ‘the spirit of’ (the law book), rather than ‘the letter of the book’. That is to say, if one were to look past the book’s faults to the story struggling to be told, and if one were to try and divine the intention behind the story – as opposed to what’s actually expressed…

Faythe proves herself a good fighter in the course of this book, and in the process shows up a couple of enforcers from their rival Calvin Malone’s pack. Pride politics are shown for the first time in the series, and this actually feels a little disconcerting, especially since I was comparing the depiction of werecat politics to the depiction of vampire politics in Vampire Academy. In the latter series, the gradually increasing role of vampire politics didn’t feel forced upon the reader due to expert seeding right from the first book in the series onwards.

The Alphas of the other Prides are introduced, and I feel the atmosphere of Stray gently settle on my shoulders again… and begin to suffocate me. Once again, graphic imagery – of brutal and unforgiving imposition of a patriarchal system upon female members of the system – assaults the reader’s senses. Among the various things debated at the trial is the question of whether Faythe ever plans to get married and have children – if she does not, she’s completely expendable and can be executed for her crimes. If she does, then the usual punishment does not apply to her, and she’d be merely declawed – thus rendering her completely defenseless and dependent on the male members of her Pride for protection.

This brand of sexism is engaged with within the book itself by Faythe, and the fact that she is constantly required to be polite and keep her anger under control only emphasizes the ‘angry feminist’ trope. That is to say, when defending yourself against attacks against your physical and mental integrity, you’re going to have to do so in the most teeth clenchingly civil manner. And they’re just going to ignore everything you have to say anyway.

Things get tenser when they find a very young tabby cat called Kaci, who promptly attaches herself to Faythe. When considered in addition to Manx, the tabby serial killer from Rogue who had been taken into protective custody by Faythe’s Pride, this gave her Pride three tabbies of child bearing age – completely unprecedented. What follows the events of Pride, therefore, is the natural consequence of treating human beings like endangered natural resources. That is to say, war follows – war for the literal possession of women. Talk about feminist dystopia, huh?

The only thing I’m eternally grateful to Pride for – aside from the introduction of Kaci – is the fact that the tribunal exiles Marc from Pride territories, thus opening up the plot for an opportunity for Jace Hammond to take center-stage – romantic plot-wise. Jace is the best, really. I look forward to getting to talk about him for a change.

Pride is an improvement on the first two books in the series – plot-wise, Faythe-wise, and due to the introduction of Werecat Pride politics and open engagement with sexism. In comparison to other books everywhere, however, it still ranks very low.

Next in this Series: Shifters #4 – Prey

Next: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood