Book Review: The Sisters Grimm #7 – 9

Title: The Everafter War; The Inside Story; The Council of Mirrors
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2009; 2010; 2012
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 7, 8 & 9
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.31; 4.28; 4.39
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 2; 2

SERIOUS AND MAJOR SPOILERS (Especially for Book 9) INCLUDED.
Don’t even think about reading this book unless you don’t care about spoilers. 

Also, REALLY long review. Sorry, but there was a LOT to rant about.

Plot Description: The final three books in this series are darker, edgier, and the plots get more wilder and implausible than ever. To add to this mess, there’s more sexism and problematic plot points, story lines that drag on forever, and TERRIBLE editing and continuity issues.
To summarize, The Everafter War deals with a Civil War between factions led by Charming and the Queen of Hearts respectively. Oh, and the children’s parents are finally awake – which is not the good thing I was hoping it would be. The Big Bad is finally revealed, and while this reveal is impressive at first, I was progressively less impressed and more annoyed by the Master’s plan, motivations, minions… everything.
The Inside Story is a bizarre and completely meta journey through the original book with which the fates of all the Everafters are entwined. Sabrina and Daphne follow the Master through all the fairytale stories as they try to stop the Master from rewriting their story.
The Council of Mirrors features the final showdown/ battles/ curses et cetera et cetera. It also features what was possibly the most random subplot; inserted as the most random plot twist ever, and about which I’m completely conflicted.

While Sabrina and Daphne are finally beginning to show signs of solid character development, the appearance of their parents on the scene kind of sets the whole family back by about ten steps. To be more specific, it turns out the girls’ dad is a controlling idiot who won’t listen to reason, doesn’t consider his daughters’ opinions worth listening to despite everything they’ve achieved so far, and follows a policy of requiring strict obedience. Including from his wife.

Suddenly, the girls’ mother getting involved with the Faerie in NYC is put into greater perspective. She went to great lengths to keep her activities secret even though she was standing up for something she believed in – all because her husband will throw a temper tantrum and ‘forbid’ her from doing things he doesn’t like.

[Full disclosure: The girls’ father is only unreasonable when it comes to Everafters, and that’s because he watched his father die because of them/ at their hands or something else. This, however, does not excuse a grown man for dragging his family out into the woods in the midst of a war, with NO plan, NO money or supplies, and NO agenda except for ‘you’re all supposed to just listen to me’. ]

One of the characters in the book tries a retcon justification for his behaviour by calling him the ‘protector’ of the family. But dude, no.

I think this nonsense about confusing protection (and the affection that comes with it) with the need to control people needs to stop, and it needs to stop NOW. Too many fathers and other kinds of paternalistic figures have justified the most unacceptable kinds of behaviour by claiming that they were acting in the best interests of their dependents. And this is despite the fact that in a LOT of these cases, their behaviour when evaluated from an objective perspective was found to NOT to be in the best interests of their dependents.

Clearly Mr. Grimm isn’t the only person to ever have engaged in such nonsense behaviour, and he certainly won’t be the last… but let’s not confuse protection with control, and let’s not ignore this issue.

From an objective plot perspective, The Inside Story is convoluted and largely unnecessary. It’s clear by this point that the story is being stretched as thin as it can be without it falling apart.

But I won’t deny that The Inside Story was kind of fun to read. It’s every reader’s fantasy to be able to step into their favourite books and get to enact parts of it out – maybe even change stuff around. To suddenly be the star of your favourite show – that’s what this book is all about.

And that brings us to The Council of Mirrors and an end to this whole… experience (for lack of a nicer word). The final scenes of the story involve Snow White – a character who has always been a part of the story without really taking centre stage at any point of it. Her on-off relationship with Charming is one of the running gags throughout the stories. Snow is someone who actively works to shed herself of the damsel in distress tag – she’s a Ferryport self defence instructor, and she refuses to allow Charming’s self absorption to define her or their relationship.

In the final plot, it is revealed that the story of Snow White has been faked – it wasn’t the version included in the original Grimm stories. In the real version, she’s married off to a sadistic and abusive husband, at whose hands she dies. Unable to watch her daughter’s life play out in this manner over and over again, her mother – the Evil Queen – steps in to modify the story and edit the abusive husband out of it (replacing him with herself as the villain instead). Charming, the sadistic Prince’s younger brother, was written into the story as Snow’s love interest, and that was that.

Or it would have been, if Sabrina and Daphne (and the Master) hadn’t crashed through the Fairytale book in which he had been trapped, and freed him. In a final showdown between this man and Charming, (after Snow has been kidnapped and taken away as the guy’s lawful wife – and property), he’s finally overpowered. It took like, a bunch of people to get the job done. And then Snow delivers the killing stroke – and with that action supposedly reclaims her identity and her life.

Heavy stuff, huh. At first I felt it a little inappropriate – introducing such a horrible sub plot into what’s essentially a book for children. But then I remembered that the original tales by the real brothers Grimm had been graphic, gory and ugly.

This evocation of the spirit of the original tales – be it conscious or unconscious – seems to be a theme in the Sisters Grimm series. I was discussing Sleeping Beauty a few days ago, and we were talking about how in the original story, the Prince rapes her in her sleep, causing her to become pregnant and to deliver twins – whilst still asleep. She only woke up when one of the twins accidentally sucked the cursed flax/ needle out of her finger.

At the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d read something similar. At least, not until I began reviewing books 4 – 6 of this series. The girls’ mother, Veronica, is pregnant at the time when she’s kidnapped by the Master along with her husband and put into an enchanted sleep for two years. She delivers the baby while in her sleep – because yes, THAT’S how childbirth works. (I don’t know why he didn’t just throw a stork in there too, just for kicks.)

I mentioned in my review of Books 1 – 3 that I had issues with the subtextual messages being sent by this series. In addition to the conflation of protection and controlling & my issues with this trivializing of subjects like childbirth and murder (remember the juvenile homicidal maniacs from book 2?), I find the way Snow White’s story was resolved extremely problematic.

For one thing, that entire subplot was completely unnecessary to the plot – the homicidal husband was never a part of the Master’s plan – so clearly it was thrown in there because Buckley thought this a masterful retelling of the story on his part. Now, I’ve mentioned that he has managed to that very thing with the story of Little Red Riding Hood earlier.

But whatever worked for that subplot does NOT work for this one. For one thing, trauma is not easily or instantaneously gotten over. If years of training herself hasn’t helped her yet, putting a knife through a man she didn’t even help overpower is not going to do it. Life’s not that easy, and if you’re going to try and make it “realistic” for the kids by including homicidal husband storylines, then you really ought not to pull a last minute cop out and wrap it up neatly in a very unrealistic bow.

The final three books in the Sisters Grimm bring a series that started out promising to a very disappointing (and badly edited) finish. The story was dragged out unnecessarily, and at times, it felt like the only thing keeping Buckley’s universe together was a thin strand of fiction – which is the only thing every character and subplot in this series have in common after all.

Next Review: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines by Richelle Mead

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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: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year of Publication: 1985
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99 
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

thehandmaidstale

Plot Description: In a dystopic world ravaged by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, infertility is the second biggest problem faced by what once used to be the United States of America. The biggest problem is the Religious Right, although they probably don’t see it that way.

Offred, the eponymous protagonist, is a part of one of the Gileadean empire’s greatest schemes to combat infertility – that is to say, the imprisonment of women of child bearing age and their subsequent induction into sex slavery as Handmaids. The Handmaids are surrogates to the infertile wives of rich and powerful (and ever fertile) men deemed worthy of this shot at reproduction.

This review falls smack dab in the middle of my reviewing of the Shifter series, which is, incidentally also set in a universe where women are controlled for reproductive purposes.

Offred provides a first person narrative voice that is muted and numbed in tone but unceasingly rebellious in its content. Her thoughts shift from scene to scene the same way one would flip through a book one has read too many times already. And while her memories may not make for a pleasant book, it’s a compelling one all the same.

Sometimes she isn’t in the mood for the really tough parts, so she might read to you from a different, only slightly less horrifying scene. This gimmick, in my opinion, works well for the empathetic reader, because by the end of the first chapter, you’re dreading hearing Offred tell her story just as much as she dreads telling it.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been marked down both as feminist dystopia as well as speculative fiction. I find these classifications incredibly stupid for one particular reason: Both terms refer to a vague and distant future filled with horrid things that may or may not happen, and this is a singularly inaccurate way of describing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

This book is Contemporary like nobody’s business. Look around you, and you’ll see the events described in this book happening on a large scale, systemic basis somewhere or the other in the world. Sex slavery? Saudi Arabia has perfected it to the extent that their diplomats feel it’s NBD to be practicing it* carrying on with it in their embassies to foreign countries. 

* These guys don’t need to ‘practice’ sex slavery anymore, because they’ve got it down pat.

Regulation of human rights of women with regards to reproduction? The State of Alabama tried to terminate a woman’s ‘parental rights’ to her foetus. On grounds of chemical endangerment of said foetus. Because she wanted an abortion

Between the Planned Parenthood Bill and the rising prices of female contraception everywhere, there really shouldn’t be much doubt as to whether there’s a call to increasing regulation of female bodies, should there?

The fact that male politicians continue to legislate female bodies (on the basis of arguments that sound like they came out of a Insult and Dehumanization Randomizer) whilst carrying on with their often hypocritical personal lives merely holds a mirror up to characters like Commander Fred. I’m talking about those people who are literally half a step away from instituting a Gilead involving morally legitimized surrogacy cum sex slavery whilst maintaining that prostitutes are still a necessity because “men like variety”.

Patronymics (the handmaids are stripped of their original names and named after the man they now belong to – E.g.: OfFred, OfWayne, OfWarren, OfGlen), victim blaming, male privilege, and systematized rape culture. All of it exists in the extremely non fictional here and now.

(What are our surnames but patronymics after all?)

And the Religious Right is everywhere. ‘Which religion?’ is an irrelevant question. All of them. And they’re all always Right. And the one thing they all seem to agree on is woman’s rightful place (or rather, the lack thereof) in the universe.

Ookay, point made. Rant over. The next rant observation has to do with the other reviews of this book on Goodreads. In hindsight, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that The Handmaid’s Tale has a wildly polarizing effect. For one thing, the style of writing doesn’t work for everyone. Some think it’s inconsistent to juxtapose Offred’s everyday monotone (submissive, quiet, repressed) with sentences that suddenly end with “The Commander is fucking.” Others just found it too distracting.

The other notable thing about the reviews is that on the one hand you have reviewers who – like me – see in this book a very accurate description of the world around us today (and possibly read dire warnings of the book eventually coming true). Others are quick to denounce the book as the most speculative of speculative fiction, and state categorically that “Time has not been kind to Margaret Atwood’s vision.” [As I’ve already stated, I firmly believe that the latter lot are completely wrong.]

Something I grappled with quite a lot was my inability to understand why all the characters were so subdued. It wasn’t possible, my brain reasoned, for human beings raised in lives of independence and freedom to bend their knees so easily.

Throw a frog into boiling water and it will hop out immediately. Drop it in ordinary water and slowly bring it to boil, and the frog will cook in it and die without realizing what is happening to it (until it’s too late).

Besides, that’s basically what happened during the Holocaust anyway.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautifully nuanced book that looks at all aspects of life under the patriarchy. It looks at the impact on the Handmaids – simultaneously the objects of revulsion and hope by the rest of the community and on the Wives – considered Failures because of their inability to conceive and set aside. It looks at the Young Men who are both considered ineligible for wives (and by extension Handmaids) as well as forbidden to masturbate by religion and on the Daughters fated to grow up to be Somebody’s Wife. The book even takes pity on the Husbands who seem to have it all, even Husbands like Commander Fred who wrote the system only to find, too late, that he’d robbed himself of the twin pleasures of intimacy and variety.

Motherhood is one of the central themes of the book – Offred is a mother to a lost child who is now someone else’s daughter somewhere else in the city. She is also expected to be a mother again – only for a while, only for nine months – and she hopes for this as well. Except a new pregnancy means something different to her than the first one had – it’s freedom from the threat of exile, protection from a variety of punishments, and sadly, a hunger for approval, like a dog hungers for its owner to recognize that it has been a good dog. (This makes quite a lot of sense, because in addition to the fact that she’s a sex slave being forced to bear children, it’s also important to note that the real mother of any children born to her would be the Commander’s wife.)

The book’s real ending depicts an academic conference at least a couple of centuries into the future, adding additional context in a manner reminiscent of the found-footage genre of horror movies. And as with that genre, the reader finds themselves stepping out of an intensely engaging personal narrative of horror into a disorienting context where characters who are centuries removed from the book’s subject remark upon those past events in a lighthearted manner.

After I was done reading, I compared notes on the book with the friend who recommended The Handmaid’s Tale to me. We were specifically talking about which part of the book made us feel the most physically nauseous. For her, it was the scene where Offred and her fellow inmates at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre are made to repeatedly chant “It was your fault!” at a new girl who had recounted her story of having been gangraped at the age of fourteen.

For me, it was the moment Offred realizes that the government’s move to remove women from full citizenship made her inoffensive husband happy, not sad. She has lost everything, she thinks, but he has gained instead. Everything that was hers is his now, and she too, is his.

Next: Shifters #4 – Prey

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

Book Review: Shifters #1 – Stray

Title: Stray
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2007
Series: Shifters
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.81
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

stray
I find this cover disturbing rather than alluring. If you have a strong female protagonist, the least you can do is show her face.

SPOILERS

Plot Description: Faythe Sanders is a female werecat and a rebel. Her happy go lucky days at college come to an end when it becomes known that there’s a rogue werecat out there kidnapping tabbies – female werecats. Faythe’s family bring her home to keep her safe, but she ends up running into the kidnappers anyway, leaving it up to her to save herself and her cousin.

Despite my Goodreads rating of 2/5, this will not be a Negative Review. There will, however, be a lot of ranting. Brace yourselves, please.

Stray had me extremely conflicted. I think it had something to do with the combination of an extremely repressive and patriarchal environment, a spirited, rebellious and irrepressible female protagonist, and the fact that I tend to react very violently even towards depictions of paternalism. This last is due to my personal experiences, which have acted as a trigger for me more than once in the course of reading and reviewing novels in the Young Adult fiction category.

So it should come as no surprise that I spent the first half of this novel swearing loudly at it.

At first I thought Stray was one of those novels that you reject out of hand and warn other readers away from. But then I couldn’t stop reading until I’d finished Alpha, book six in this series. Stray – and the Shifters series – is a mixed bag. It has its good points. And it has bad points as well. And not in a salvageable, let’s close our eyes and we can forget all about it kind of way. It’s actually so bad that the bad aspects of it tend to thoroughly negate any good the book might have done.

But let’s start at the beginning. Faythe Sanders is the coolest kind of rebel – she fought her family for her right to attend college, instead of staying home like a good little tabby and fulfilling her life’s objective – marry a competent Alpha-in-training and start makin’ babies.

This hard won right, sadly enough, is taken away right at the beginning of Stray, when Faythe is ordered to come home because there seems to be a kidnapper who’s targeting tabbies on the loose. Now, girl-nappers would be a problem in any scenario you could imagine, but the reason they’re such a problem is that there are only eight – EIGHT! – tabbies of baby making age in all of North America at the moment. This fact is drilled into our heads time and time again, until you’re just about ready to smash a screwdriver into the head of the next person to mention the 4:1 tom to tabby ratio. The low frequency of female werecats being born gives the werecat population the perfect reason to turn their society into an ultra patriarchal hellhole. The women are over-protected and severely sheltered because the Prides are matrilineal yet patriarchal. That is to say, control of a Pride can only pass through the Pride’s (sole) daughter, but that actual control goes to the guy who marries her to become the Alpha. Losing your daughter – or not having one – means losing control of your territory and seeing it pass to another Alpha or Alphas after your death (or deposition). This is turn means the women only marry Alphas, and that they keep having babies until they produce a female heir. The whole thing is so f#$%d up that I’d be shocked, except for the fact that I have seen similar (patriarchal and patrilineal) systems up close.

Here marks the start of the paternalism rant. Faythe’s dad is the Alpha of her Pride, and she’s the heir. Her father’s concern for her is doubly the function of his role as a dad, as well as his role as the Alpha of his Pride. Now, even if someone’s daughter was in actual danger, I wouldn’t be very comfortable with her parents using actual force to bring her home. And yet that’s exactly what happens right in the second chapter.

Faythe is attacked by one of the kidnappers before she even realizes there’s a kidnapping plot afoot. She breaks the guy’s nose and sends him on his way. It is just as she’s done with the rogue werecat that Marc appears on the scene. Marc Ramos is Faythe’s father’s second in command – and her ex. Seriously, she left him at the altar – and this was BEFORE she went to college. Now you know I haven’t been exaggerating the stay home, get married, have kids rigmarole.

Faythe’s college education was something she fought tooth and nail for, and it doesn’t come without strings attached. Her father has always ensured that there’s at least one of his enforcers – mostly one of her many brothers or their friends – skulking around her college campus, ensuring her safety. Which makes sense, I guess, in light of the kidnappings. But he’s always been careful to keep Marc out of the way, knowing how she feels about Marc.

How does she feel about Marc?

Faythe – and eventually the reader – has a love-hate relationship with Marc. He was her high school boyfriend and prom date. He was her fiance, once upon a time. Clearly, she must have had strong feelings for him. And she does. I cannot, however, for the world of me, fathom why.

Marc Ramos is hypermasculine and uber-aggressive. He has a jealous streak five miles wide, and is extremely possessive of her. Since their break up, Marc hasn’t dated anyone else. He hasn’t even tried to move on. He’s, in my opinion, WEIRD.

AND CREEPY.

Seriously, I get that your ex boyfriend being able to smell the fact that you had sex with your current boyfriend just from being around your bed is one of the occupational hazards of a story about werecats. But if your ex is going to get so angry that you’re borderline afraid of what would happen if he were to sniff your secrets out…

Run, girl. Run.

Because that’s not one of the occupational hazards of a story about werecats, although the author does try to present it that way. Faythe believes that Marc’s ugly possessiveness and jealousy stem from his feline nature. Cats are territorial, after all. Male cats would fight each other for control over the females. In fact, male cats in the wild have been known to starve females in their territory in an effort to get the females to mate with them. One documentary I once watched showed a starving female cat (I think it was a leopard) unwilling to mate with the aggressor males because she already had a litter – cubs who would be killed by those males in order to ensure their own progeny a fighting chance.

So yes, cats are wild. But a werecat isn’t just feline – he’s also human. He has a brain, doesn’t he? Use it, Marc. USE YOUR F****G BRAIN! She’s not your f****g property.

Despite the frequency with which I shouted this message at Marc Ramos throughout the series, he refused to get it. And this is the big failure in the Shifters series. This guy – Marc Ramos.

The books are never completely able to explain Faythe’s love for Marc. I mean, sure, he’s a stand up guy as long as he’s secure in his relationship with Faythe. He doesn’t suffer from Christian Grey Syndrome (aside from the emotional abuse) – he doesn’t see her as weak or pathetic or responsible for the bad things that happen to her. He respects her abilities as a fighter and a leader. He respects her as alpha. Good. Good for him. But he’s an obnoxious ass, and nothing can change that.

It’s weird and f-d up, because Marc is crazy chivalrous. He’d never hit a woman. However, he has no issues whatsoever with breaking every bone in the body of any tomcat that dares touch her.  If something bad happens to her, he finds someone to blame, and punishes them in brutal fashion.

So here’s the deal with good boyfriends. If they’re sweet and loving and caring and affectionate AS LONG AS they’re getting what they want, but they’re COMPLETE assholes the minute they’re denied their ‘rightful possession’ – i.e. you – then they’re not the one, honey. THEY’RE SO NOT THE ONE.

So why does Faythe love him? Is it because her father and her brothers and her mother and MARC narrowed her horizons for her? Because they convinced her that the Pride was her whole life and Marc was her only plausible future?

Faythe herself isn’t perfect. A lot of GR reviewers have pointed out her penchant for ill timed ‘tantrums’. When people around you – and you yourself – are in danger, that is not the time to affirm your independence, they say. Survive first, then be independent. The same people also point out that despite her repeated demands for freedom, she’s had no problem living on her dad’s money for five years.
[There was also that one reviewer who was appalled that Faythe was rebelling against “Family and Responsibility” and called Faythe a ‘cheating whore’, but I’ll discount her.]

Here’s the thing about those reviewers: I don’t think any of them have ever experienced actual loss of freedom. I doubt they know what it means to be emotionally brainwashed from birth, to be financially hobbled, and actually, physically restrained from leaving your house. I don’t think they know how that feels.

It feels like dying. It feels like being smothered to death or buried alive. For those people calling Faythe ‘daddy’s spoilt little princess’, please allow me to remind you that her Daddy locked her in A CAGE. For wanting to go to college. For not wanting to be a teen bride.

A CAGE.

She’s not a brat, she’s a survivor of abuse. She’s not throwing a ‘tantrum’, she’s desperately and instinctively reacting to remembered – and potential – trauma. To someone like that, independence is paramount. Yes, even above her life.

Stray is definitely a conflicting read. I get the feeling that the wildcats are super patriarchal because maybe Rachel Vincent wanted to stage her own version of a feminist revolution. I get that tabbies are rare and thus all those idiotic toms tend to treat them like an endangered resource – locking them up. I get that Faythe has to fight the system and prove herself the best – which she actually (eventually) does. But having her date someone like Marc ruins all of that, which I deeply regret.

Next: Shifters #2 – Rogue