by Marjorie M Liu, fantasy (2005)
LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52632-8
It is remarkable how Marjorie M Liu seems to have transformed from an amateur to a polished author between her debut Tiger Eye and her follow-up, the second book in the Crimson City series called A Taste Of Crimson. While Tiger Eye suffers from too much flowery writing and fantastical concepts that are never developed enough, this book is nearly perfect when it comes to pacing, with a very well-done balance between the well-written action-packed scenes and the quiet times of our hero and heroine. I am at the edge of my seat from page one to the last page of this book! For evolving spectacularly in just a matter of two books, Ms Liu deserves at the very least a standing ovation.
I really believe readers new to Crimson City don't have to read the previous book by Liz Maverick, Crimson City, to get a grasp of what is going here because the plot of this story can stand alone. However, readers of the previous book can get a chuckle out of the fact that they know who killed the humans' werewolf informant when the characters in this book don't.
Set in an alternate Earth where werewolves, humans, and vampires are living together in an uneasy truce, centered around the city of Los Angeles, in this book the vampires descend from their lofty penthouses at the top of the skyscrapers to approach the werewolves in their subterranean world for an alliance. With the recent murder of vampires by what seems like werewolves as well as mechanically-enhanced humans, the humans are fearing retribution from the werewolves and vampires and are about to attack the other two species first. The case of the vampire-killing mechs is solved in Crimson City, but the murder of vampires by werewolves is still ongoing. It's confirmed that the murderer(s) is or are werewolves because they have DNA at the body of a victim to back that up.
Which brings us to the vampires' attempts to form an alliance with the werewolves behind the humans' backs. This series of murder on vampires committed by werewolves is just another obstacle in the negotiations. Vampires and werewolves are, it seems, natural enemies with near-infinite distrust for each other. I suppose in a future book the reason for this will be explained because I never know why this is the case and it is never explained in this book or the previous one. Anyway, our hero Michael is a Vendix, a vampire enforcer who will kill rogue vampires that hunt humans and threaten the fragile peace between humans and vampires. Because he knows more about humans and werewolves than many of his own people, he finds himself involved with the negotiation attempts. One day he manages to stop our werewolf heroine Keeli Maddox from losing control and killing some men who are trying to force themselves on a woman. Realizing that this woman is the granddaughter of the Grand Dame Alpha, the leader of the Crimson City werewolf clans, Michael isn't prepared for his attraction to her. Keeli is the typical twit type who must insist that she repay Michael for his help when he keeps telling her that there is no debt, so together they join forces to find this serial-killing werewolf before all hell breaks loose in Crimson City.
While Michael will be a familiar "tortured hero who had done bad things and is now so sad and blue, boo-hoo-hoo, but really, genteel readers, he's a nice guy inside" archetype and his backstory is a little too over-the-top when it comes to being Very Very Tortured, Ms Liu knows how to keep me intrigued by slowly dropping hints on Michael's past so that I learn about him at the same pace as Keeli. But the romance, will adequate, isn't the strongest point of this story, it's the way Ms Liu introduces the themes of redemption for Michael and the elements of tension between the species that make this book a good read. The werewolves' violent pack politics make them a brutal race that are, paradoxically, loyal to each other to point of being a "Xenophobes United" committee against the outside world while at the same time treating viciously their own kin that they perceive as traitorous werewolves that refuse to conform to their rigid code. Keeli starts off as a very naive woman who sees the world in shades of black and white but by the time the story ends, she will have to embrace the darker side of her werewolf nature.
I do have some quibbles about this book. As the story progresses Keeli and Michael stop being characters and morph into symbols instead. By "symbols", I mean that they start taking on messiah-like pretensions. They actually stop talking and start preaching to each other or to every character who crosses their path! Michael starts sprouting inspirational speeches to Keeli about her abilities and the need for her to believe in herself. Keeli starts giving out words of wisdom to Michael about forgiveness and what-not when she's not lecturing her fellow werewolves about how bigotry is a no-no. What happened, Ms Liu? Michael and Keeli have turned into seminar speakers! Ugh!
Because she is now a seminar speaker, Keeli actually crosses the line from being a confused twit to being an outright insufferable and even obnoxious know-it-all creature. A big part of the reason why I am annoyed by the appearance of the All-Knowing Multi-Faceted Lupine Princess of Perfection in the place of Keeli Maddox is because Keeli starts off as a very foolish character. From her obnoxious blind bigotry against humans and vampires to her sweeping judgments of Michael, Keeli comes off as a total idiot because she is blind to the inconsistencies of her beliefs. For example, she, a werewolf, insists that vampires are not people. She calls vampires "fangs" in a belittling manner even after Michae; in bemusement points out that werewolves have fangs too. She calls human barbaric after seeing some thugs brawl in public while at the same time her father was killed in a fight to be the alpha leader of the packs. She is horrified that Michael kills the murderous among his own kind when her own father was killed in a fight to be the alpha leader and her people are not assisting the vampires or the humans in the investigation of the vampire murders.
See what I mean? Keeli is a complete twit with no self-awareness whatsoever. However, judging from the reaction of Michael towards Keeli's more obnoxious blind prejudices, Ms Liu is aware of these inconsistencies. And indeed, I'm right when Ms Liu has Keeli soon experiencing her epiphany around the midpoint of the story. Unfortunately, Keeli then nags and preaches like some overzealous born-again religious folk. Keeli has gone completely from one end of the spectrum as The Miss Who Missed The Short Bus To School straight to the other extreme end as some My Poo Doesn't Stink creature. While Keeli is not an obvious Mary Sue heroine like Dela from Tiger Eye, I have some disturbing post-nymphomaniac era Anita Blake flashbacks when Keeli starts being wise and perfect with little or no outside catalysis for her change of mindset.
There is nothing truly new or groundbreaking about the plot itself. At the end of the day, it is Ms Liu's ability to tell a suspenseful, exciting, and fast-paced story that makes this book a terrific adrenaline joyride. She knows how to come up with fantastical scenes that are sometimes romantic, sometimes brutal, but they are all memorable scenes nonetheless. From the catacombs of the Maddox tunnels to the savage duel of the Grand Dame and the upstart that wants to take her over place, Ms Liu creates a brutal and terrifying race in her werewolves that at the same time oddly enough has me thinking that even if they remind me of a bunch of hooligans going wild after a soccer match, they are actually quite... intriguing.
Oh, and one last thing: thank you, Ms Liu, thank you for not fetishizing the heroine's private parts and for not introducing any Must Have Sex Now Or Die scenes, Psychic Soulmate Crap italicized whinings, We Must Have A Baby NOW nonsense, and Our Magic Baby Is The Hope Of The New Generation thingies. It is wonderful to have the heroine doing what she does because of who she is for a change instead of being held hostage by her reproductive ability.
All in all, I have a fantastic time reading A Taste Of Crimson. Poor Patti O'Shea is going to have a hard time following up this book.
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