Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: Darkest Mercy, by Melissa Marr

On the day I received my copy of Darkest Mercy, I was late. I'd just driven five and a half hours through one of the poorest regions in the United States after teaching most of the day on very little sleep. It was hot. I was frightened; I had never seen the kind of poverty I'd just driven through, solo, to get to a book signing in Jackson, Mississippi. I slid into a metal folding chair next to a man who looked at me funny. I didn't blame him. I had no idea what was going on and I probably needed a shower.

Many fine writers graced a low stage. They spoke in hushed, cultured voices, answered questions, and gave away prizes.  They laughed and seemed to know each other.  One, in particular, was the reason I'd come: Melissa Marr. I had, in fact, claimed that I would crawl through glass to meet her. One writer said something about trivia questions and more prizes. I remembered a crossroads in lower Alabama where children played in front of a burned out building next to a liquor store. It was the only business for twenty miles. Too badly rattled, I knew I was going to suck at the trivia questions. I would never win. I dug for a mint in my enormous teacher's bag and tried to stop shaking.  Melissa Marr said something about "only four copies."  The man next to me looked at me funny again.  None of it made any sense. I was late and glad to be alive. Then Melissa Marr walked down the aisle. She looked as if she was praying and if she might trip, so I stood up to help her. She put a book in my hands and I thought, "Oh. She must want me to help with the trivia questions." 

It was Darkest Mercy. One of four copies in the world. I didn't realize what I had done until the man who periodically looked at me funny leaned over and gave me the low-down.  "You know, Jessica wants to read that too," he said as I gaped at the cover.  Jessica?  Who the hell was Jessica?  "Verday," he said, taking pity on me at last.  "The writer?"  

Oh, hell.  He was married to one of the writers.  I smiled and told him I was looking forward to reading his wife's book.  Privately, I felt sorry for him, that he had to sit next to late clueless me, and wondered why I had gotten a reprieve from the trivia questions.

Fools and children; separate gods: there is no other explanation. 

I absolutely loved it. It definitely merited the emergency hotel room all-night read. I can truly say that the ending of the series fulfilled the promises of the beginning. Several times, when I'd come to grips with a character's fate, she threw a wrench in it. I cried a couple of times. I threw the book across the room once and yelled, "Melissa, how could you?" She took my least favorite character away from me by making me feel sympathy, understanding, and yes, love. Gross! At the very end I smiled, misty eyed at the beauty and logic of it all. This is not a tale of Happily Ever After, however. Rather, Marr leaves her meticulously crafted universe and deliciously wicked faeries room to breathe and grow, if only in our own imaginations. Fans of specific pairings and.. er... arrangements will be satisfied, but to my mind everyone is in for surprises.

What surprises, you ask? There is no way I'm spoiling, but I will say this: Use Your Brains. Re-read the books *carefully.* Marr is nothing if not methodical and her world, although one of fantasy, has consistent rules that she does not break. The answers to some of my most burning questions were gracefully obvious. It made re-reading the series feel like finding buried sub-plot treasure. 

Like everyone else, I love certain Courts and certain pairs.. er...arrangements more than others. I traded away my Summer Court bracelet for a Dark Court one, if that gives you a clue. But the beauty of Marr's universe is that she creates a place where everyone, and I do mean *everyone*, can find bits of themselves, both bright and dark, broken down and reflected back in new and sometimes beautiful ways. Tempestuous temper tantrums become a Summer Court asset. Nightmare scenarios of drugs and sexual abuse become the Dark Court's greatest strengths: the fierce loyalty and resilience of the survivor. Darkest Mercy continues the series' astonishing power by taking expectations, shattering them, then rearranging all the broken pieces into a strange new reflection, and asking, simply, "Have you considered things this way?" 

No, I hadn't. I hadn't known that nightmares could be beautiful, that lies could be more honest than truth, that summer and winter really had nothing to do with temperature, that I'd come to love a character I didn't like at all. 

As a storytelling vehicle, Darkest Mercy is not my favorite. I would have to rank it second or third among all five books. This probably has something to do with a thing that happens that I wish didn't but that's all I'm going to say about it now. I mention it to point out that I wasn't entirely happy, but so what. Some others will be thrilled. Ink Exchange was actually my favorite book, which is not at all usual. When considered against the arc of the entire series, Darkest Mercy ties up loose ends but still leaves the universe room to breathe. Which is exactly what a good finale does.

My favorite part of Marr's writing, and what so often goes unrecognized, is her sheer narrative brilliance, and this is by far my favorite part of Darkest Mercy. Yes, I said it. I have advanced degrees in English Literature to back it up, too. (Yes, I'm touchy about that.) Marr has managed to invent Faerie Courts with their own distinct stylistic traits, including characters, settings, mannerisms, and even Internet hit squads. But she has also given each Court their own unique narrative technique. I'm going to expound, with the caveat that if you're here for the spoilers or Seth's piercings or Irial's British accent (Iri!) you might get a bit bored. (Irial!) Where was I? Narrative technique, right. 

Part of what make's Marr's universe so strong is that the very language she uses to create it reflects the Court it represents. Winter and the High Court are both written with more formal diction, complex sentence and paragraph structure, etc., to highlight their cold, remote natures. But with the Dark Court, Marr plays with time, warping character's perceptions of it to emphasize emotional power. As readers know, the Dark Court feeds on emotion. Marr uses one of the most innovative narrative techniques I have recently encountered by compressing two points of view to warp time; after all, time loses all meaning in the grip of strong emotion. The stronger the emotion, the greater the warp. I first encountered this in Chapter 30 of Ink Exchange: 

" 'It's been a long day,' she murmured as she swayed under his caresses. She closed her eyes and asked, 'The second day will be better, right?'
'It's been a week, love.' He pulled the covers up over her. 'You're doing much better.' " (272). 

This brief exchange caps less than a page of a powerful montage of addiction and loss in which time is an unreliable marker of reality. The emotional connection is the real power here, once again underscoring a key Dark Court trait. Marr is just that good- she's created a unique stylistic technique that is nothing short of (dare I say it) literary brilliance. (I invite my colleagues who disagree to examine pages 271-72 of Ink Exchange. I'll be right here on Good Reads, waiting.) Darkest Mercy serves up more of the same masterful writing, and that is why I love it so. 

The reasons why we love the books we do are so often tangled and messy. Part of why I love this one is because it is The End to the series that taught me that Faeries and Literature are not mutually exclusive. It hurts me to say goodbye to the characters I love so much, and even the ones I just kind of tolerate.
But Marr makes sure that her Faeries are happy enough to suit their natures. After all, if she didn't leave them with enough conflict to scheme and plot and be wicked and lovely then they wouldn't really be happy, would they? And neither would we. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: The Demon's Lexicon, Sarah Rees Brennan

This book was a pleasantly unpleasant surprise. The opening was vivid and engaging; it definitely pulled me in and kept me wanting to know more. However, about a third of the way in, I found myself increasingly disturbed by the main character in almost every way. So much so, in fact, that I fought with myself. I knew I should put the book down, but I just couldn't make myself. 

I'm not sure I've ever had a reaction to a book like this before. It alternately disgusted, terrified, and attracted me, so, of course, I loved it.  Being inside Nick Ryve's head was one of the most disturbing experiences I've recently had in my frequent forays into YA paranormal fiction. Rees Brennan's choice to use Nick as her protagonist and third-person point of view turns this book from just another teen read into something gut twisting, but in a kind of pleasant way, like feeling slightly sick after too much cotton candy when getting off the roller coaster. 

Something is wrong with Nick, very badly wrong, and it's obvious from the first third of the book in. Two-thirds of the book in, I started to think perhaps he should have been drowned like an unwanted puppy at birth, which says a lot because drowning puppies is about the sickest thing I can think of. But the truly twisted thing is that I found myself falling for this sick, twisted character. Yes, you heard me. Even though some part of me knew there was something bad and evil and wrong with Nick Ryves, I pulled for him and wanted to see him succeed. 

Nick has exactly two speeds: frozen, and kill. The only thing resembling affection is an overwhelming desire to protect his older brother Alan. At all other times, Nick floats through the narrative very much the dispassionate observer. Even when he kills, even when his own mother can't stand to look at him, Nick merely observes, and feels nothing. He feels no fear, and this makes him the Ryves' family's most effective defense against the deadly magicians who hunt them. Through Nick's dispassionate eyes, we see his brother Alan's fierce and very human love for him, and it is this relationship that proves to be Nick's saving grace. 

Enter two other teenagers, a relatively normal brother and sister who show each other the kind of affection that leaves Nick baffled and strangely on edge, and I realized Rees Brennan had created a character who was more comfortable killing people than hugging. This kind of emotional lockdown could only stem from deeply buried trauma, and from then on, I was hooked, eagerly turning pages as I tried to discover what hidden event had so deeply scarred the Ryves boys that they'd rather face scores of evil magicians than their past.

I was not disappointed. The ending, when it came, was unique in teen fiction. Tragic, hopeful, part Neverland, part Sleeping Beauty, with a little of the Matrix thrown in, Rees Brennan's conclusion to The Demon's Lexicon grappled with heavy questions about the nature of love v. duty, the power of language, and whether getting one's heart's desire is ultimately a blessing or a curse.

Along the way, Rees Brennan offers perhaps the most compelling modern interpretation of Christina Rossetti's classic Pre-Raphelite poem "Goblin Market" I've ever encountered. Her magical world centers around this fabled Market. I loved the way she developed Rosetti's original epic poem, which also features siblings and salvation, into a vibrant magical universe operating just on the fringes of our own very mundane world. Anyone delving into her "Demons" series would benefit from reading the original poem, as much of Rees Brennan's trilogy center around the Market. Moreover, the Market highlights Rees Brennan's own strengths as a writer: she is no literary lightweight. She knows magic, she knows literature, and she knows how to skillfully mix the two