Monday, January 30, 2006

SB Day: A Series of Series Romances

It’s Smart Bitches Day! Only it’s been awhile since I contributed to a Smart Bitches Day, and there are a lot more people (supposedly) coming here now, so perhaps I should explain. SB Day was started by Beth many, many moons ago as away to promote open and honest dialogue about the Romance genre, or as she puts it in this latest installment:

Now, think of something romance-related about which you feel compelled to speak the unadulterated truth. Lemme tell ya something - SBD is not about being nice. It's also NOT about being mean. It's about being honest. Gush if you wanna, be all fangirly. Perfectly fine. Doesn't have to be a rant, it just has to be plain honesty. So if there's a romance author out there that you love so much you'd say "I'm so totally straight, but I'd go lesbo for her" - let us know! If there's one whose work you hate so much you'd say "I'm so totally a lesbian, but she makes me crave the taste of boyparts" - share! Or it could be something about romance-in-general. That's usually what it is. Anyway -- tell us whatever, man, just go for it.

If this very idea fills with you revulsion and disgust, then don’t read on. Romance isn’t for everyone, and I’m cool with that as long as you are cool with the idea that some people like it. If we were all the same the world would be a really boring place and there would be fewer books in my store.

What I’m saying is that if you don’t want to read rants and raves about the Romance genre go here and read yesterday’s post or wait a few hours and I’ll get something else up. For those of you still here, let’s begin:

First of all, today is not a rant, or at least not much of a rant on the grand scale of ranting about birth control and penis size. Today is all about the romance novel series with a little bit of informal reviewing thrown in for flavor.

In the Romance genre the romance novel series seems to be a staple. You know what I’m talking about, when the secondary character from one novel gets his/her own book as the next one, and then a secondary character in that one gets his/her own book, and so on and so, until an author has five bagillion books about one group of friends and you’re thinking to yourself, “Shouldn’t someone die already? Doesn’t she know the divorce rate in this country? How is this possible?” Only recently has the Romance genre been more accepting of the other series format, one in which one character drives the entire series; the Romance equivalent of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, if you will.

Many find the first series type nice because it allows a reader to revisit the old characters from book one in later books, but does not jeopardize their happy ending. Others like the second type because it allows the characters to grow, develop and mature (ideally Stephanie Plum should not be exactly the same character in book eleven as she was in book one). In the romance set-up this allows readers to follow the evolution of a relationship and maybe, just maybe, get to see the couple work out some actual issues. In theory this should allow you to really believe the “Happily Ever After” when the series ends because, wow, look at all they’ve been through.

It’s that ending thing that writers seem to have a problem with. You know, saying good-bye to the characters they’ve labored over for years and years must be hard…which is why it doesn’t seem to happen. I stopped reading Evanovich’s Plum series because Stephanie seemed to be making the same mistakes time and again. I stopped reading the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton because, well, it became one big orgy where I was left wondering where to find the plot. I was disappointed when Sarah Strohmeyer’s Bubbles books went from a trilogy to an ongoing series. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the character anymore, but simply that I was afraid that she was going to fall into the same trap as those before her: the inability to move on when it was necessary.

This same problem infects most series based on the secondary characters. When the series gets popular suddenly there are more friends, and then more books of those friends and then even more books, and geez, they’re all starting to sound the same! Sometimes I wonder if it’s a trap that writers fall into, if they do plan to get out of writing the series only to have their editor, agent, or readers tell them, “You can’t stop now. Your readers love these people!”

So they spend the rest of their lives writing for their readers instead of themselves.


It was with these qualms in mind that I read two books in the last couple of weeks: Shadow Touch by Marjorie M. Liu, and Working for the Devil by Lilith Saintcrow.

Shadow Touch is the second installment of Liu’s ongoing Dirk & Steele series, an example of the chain-linked through secondary characters series done right. The primary characters of this book own the book, and the primary characters of the last book are mentioned only in passing and even then only when the plot allows. While reading this I knew that secondary characters in this book would eventually have their own story, but none of them made it obvious in a “hey, pay attention to me” way that sometimes happens. This was Artur and Elena’s book and any help they received by secondary characters like Dean, Amiri, or Rictor served only to help forward the plot and Artur and Elena’s adventure.

Much of this can be attributed to Liu’s writing style. What could have been an okay suspense/paranormal is elevated by her lyricism and empathy with her characters. She doesn’t try to make them black and white as many writers do, but instead embraces their shades of gray. Artur used to work for the mafia, Elena kills with the very powers she heals with. These are not perfect people and they know that they are not perfect people.

We know that they are not perfect people.

Also Liu isn’t writing a series for series sake. Each book reveals a tiny glimpse at an overarching plot, a thread that ties all the books together. Yes, they might share characters, but they also share clues to a later plot. Something is not right with Liu’s imaginary world and it’s the job of the Dirk & Steele characters to discover how to fix it; something that cannot be done in just one book.

As far as books go, this is one of the best paranormal romances that I’ve read in quite some time. The plotting, characterizations, and writing were so strong that they got me to read right through the dinner hour and straight on until the end. When I finished, I finished satisfied with Elena and Artur’s ending, but still intrigued enough by the plot thread suggested throughout the series to want to pick up the next novel.

Actually there were only two times when I was pulled out of the book, which is a small number for me. The first was when Artur and Elena met, which bordered a bit closely on deus ex machina, but I decided to go with it and was glad I did (although one would argue that deus ex machina was the point given the players involved). The second took place when they were freed from the facility and discovered where they were. It really had nothing to do with Liu’s writing and everything to do with my own mind making a connection to an old Dean Koontz’s novel, House of Thunder. Intertextual allusion? Probably not, but my mind went there anyway and it pulled me (briefly) out of the story, mostly because I kept trying to remember the name of the novel.

Why yes, I do look for connections where none exist, thank you very much, I find it fun.

Quit looking at me like that. It is.

Lilith Saintcrow’s Working for the Devil differs from Liu’s book in a number of ways. First of all it’s the first of a series that follows Dante (Danny) Valentine, and it will always follow Dante—none of those secondary character stories here, at least not unless Dante is involved. Secondly I cut it a lot more slack plot-wise than I did Liu’s book. I knew it was the first of the series involving one character and therefore I expected some ground work to be done to get me to know that character. Danny’s billed as a dynamic, foul-mouthed necromancer, and that’s what she is: a foul-mouthed, issue-carrying, raiser of the dead.

Many of the reviews of this book that I read took to task the fact that it takes Danny awhile to get around to the plot point involving her deal with the Devil, but I think that’s wise. By the end of the book it’s obvious that we haven’t seen the end of the Devil or this plot, but what we do have is a pretty good understanding of what makes Danny tick. It’s that understanding that gives us the knowledge that she’s not going to let this one go. It also hints that all is not what it seems (or so I tell myself because I’m convinced that since the Devil is the Prince of Lies then seeing shouldn’t be believing and therefore what we think happened to someone might not have happened…vague enough for you? I thought so. I’m not going to spoil it so you don’t have to read the book).

I accepted all of the action taking place in the last third of the book and the various side jaunts that Danny took throughout the story because they allowed me to get to know the character…a character I had to know if I planned to continue on with a series based around her adventures (which I do). Where Artur and Elena’s story was self contained for Artur and Elena, Danny’s story is an ongoing exploration of her life, future, gifts and how they affect the world around her. Where Liu gave us a touch of Artur in Tiger’s Eye and then gave us the full story in Shadow Touch, Saintcrow is laying the groundwork for the mystery that is Danny and Danny’s past and future. This requires more time spent on Danny than the plot on this first outing.

This is not to say that the plot is left in the ditch while Danny frolics with the readers and other characters. No, Saintcrow simply allows Danny to take a few side trips to show us her network and give us a glimpse at some of her characteristics.

Does this detract from the story? I didn’t think so.

Would it appeal to anyone looking for a novel with a kick-ass heroine? I think it would.

It should be noted that the romance element in Working for the Devil is just that, an element, and not a plot-driving force. In fact, the way the “romance” plays out is not traditional in any sense of the word as it is in Liu’s book. Like Hamilton’s books, or Armstrong’s various series, this is a book focused on one character—Dante—and her story, not Dante and Jaf, or Dante and her former boyfriend. From the research I’ve done, it looks like Barnes & Noble can’t decide whether they want to shelve it in the Fantasy or in the Thriller sections, while Borders is calling it Romance (I was reading an ARC, the book has a March 2006 release date). Given the world building and character elements that Saintcrow develops, I would guess that Fantasy and Romance would be your best bets.

What I’m trying to say with these two books is that here are two authors who’ve seem to have this whole series thing down. I don’t foresee any cookie-cutter plots in their immediate futures and they both seem to have a long-term game plan. There’s a goal, a deeper plot-line with an ending, that they are trying to reach, and each book is to help forward that even as it tells its own unique story. When the time comes I would like to believe that both Liu and Saintcrow will know when to say goodbye to these characters and move on to the next story, the next plot, and the next world.

Or at least that’s what I believe with all the optimism of the newly converted reader to their books. I’ve been disappointed before.


Nicole said...

I'm all jealous here that you got to read Working for the Devil. I really want to read it.

I liked Shadow Touch and the glimpses into the larger world that Liu is creating.

Bookseller Chick said...

I highly recommend it as the start of a series. I would send you my copy, but I already passed it on, and I have a feeling it won't make it back to this country. When you do get a chance to read it, and if you want to discuss, I'm here.

Bookwormom said...

I'm glad you have a good opinion of these two series, I've Liu's books in the TBR & am looking forward to Saintcrow's book as well.

You enumerate the differences between series types quite well, BTW.

Nicole said...

Have you read Saintcrow's previous books?

Bookseller Chick said...

Thanks Amanda, you'll have to tell me what you think when you read Liu's novels. I think she's got a real future in the business as a frontlist author.

Nicole, I haven't but I plan too. I looked at their prices in electronic form the other day, and now it's just a matter of figuring out if it would be cheaper for me to order them into my store (in print) and using my discount to buy them. I picked up the ARC for her Valentine series completely at random.

Elsie said...

I've read all of Miss Saintcrows other books, and this one is by far my faborite, it's absolutely delicious.

Bookseller Chick said...

Thanks for letting me know, Elsie. I can't wait for the next in the series.

reece said...

I like the Amada Blake Novels

LKH is a very good author and her books are real page turners,