Friday, January 20, 2006

Look at Me! I'm a Freakin' Werewolf!

The Silver Wolf
Alice Borchardt
1998, Balantine

Scale (-12:+12)

While the book, to its' credit, never uses the word werewolf to describe the main character, "The Silver Wolf" is indeed the chronicle of a werewolf-noble-young girl trying to deal with the intrigues of Dark Ages Rome and navigate the uncertainties of an arranged marriage all at the same time. While the book is not entirely bad, there are several large problems with it.

When I picked up the book, I had no ideas, preconceptions, whatever. So the first thing I was greeted with on the cover was a blurb by Anne Rice telling me how much I'd like the book. Well, that's fine, I don't like Rice that much anyhow, so that's not going to color my opinion too much.

Problem is, it turns out that Rice is Borchardt's sister.

Riding on your sister's coattails to help get your first book published? Fine. No, really. Fine. I'm okay with that. I can't help but find it disingenuous, however, for the publisher to be putting a blurb by the author's sister on the front cover of the book. I mean, what else is Rice going to say? That the book sucks? Of course not. She's going to say that Borchardt is "A daring and vibrant new voice on the female literary frontier..." etc. (Quote comes from aforementioned front cover.)

So, I can't help feeling manipulated. "The Silver Wolf" had a higher rating--not much, mind you, but it was in the positives--before I started feeling like the publishing company was trying to manipulate me into liking the book.

Since I'm riding on the cover already, I'll keep going: a crappy photomosaic of a VERY modern looking girl (the sculpted eyebrows really threw me for a loop) interposed behind a wolf, all in black and white, except for the yellow eyes on both of them? Please. This is a bad, bad cover, and one which someone should have gotten some shit for. Why is it bad? It's not compelling. It doesn't make me want to pick up the book.

That's enough with the cover, avanti! Onto the book itself! The writing is mostly tight. My main complaints with the writing are the a) overuse of b) overused adjectives. Seriously, can't we describe the sea as something other than wine-dark? I never, ever want any author to use that again. I mean, that particular description was more-or-less overused by Homer, and it hasn't gotten less overused through other authors cribbing it. Plus, hasn't anyone noticed that it isn't all that great a description? The sea is blue down in the south and gray up in the north. If every sea was wine-dark there would be a hell of a lot more sommeliers being fired from French restaurants, let me tell you.

I thouroughly enjoyed the setting of the book. I make no claim to expertise in the Rome of the Dark Ages, but from what I do know Borchardt seems to have done a good job of describing both the physical and social nature of the city.

The characters are mostly well-developed. There's a fair amount of cliche character archetypes used, but while they do develop along lines that are expected character trajectories, they do develop as the story goes along. Most characters don't stay too two-dimensional as the book moves.

But, then, there are the other problems. You want to use the Pope as a character? Fine, do so. But really, make him actually Pope-like. Hell, make him seem like a Christian. Seriously, the Pope is one step removed from walking down to a stone circle and sacrificing a goat to Ares. If you were to give him a knife and pushed him towards a sheep I shudder to think what would have happened.

The poor, poor sheep.

We've also got some problems with character consistency. The first time we see Regeane's future husband, he's a minor lord who worries too much. By the end of the book, not only has he not worried once since the first chapter, but he's also a 900 year old werewolf. Who I would not expect to ever see worrying about the hay harvest, let me tell you. After 900 years, one would expect him to have gotten a little past worrying about one year's hay harvest.

There's also a leetle bit too much coincidence in the book for my taste. The main character is a werewolf? Good. I like it. Let's do it. Her intended husband is also a werewolf? Drop dead. Doesn't stick to the wall, my friends. Just doesn't stick.


Please God, no more fantasy about King Arthur.

Especially not werewolf fantasy about King Arthur. *shudder*

I have three more complaints about the book: one, the pages and pages and pages about what all the food was cooked in and spiced with was more than enough. I'm a cook and I was annoyed by the end of it.

Two, sage flowers are purple, not scarlet, as seen here, here, here, and here, with the exception of some varieties of lemon sage, which are both uncommon and not native to Europe. Now, I have lemon sage in my garden and when I let it bolt, it blooms purple. So there. This wouldn't be so big a deal if there were not two descriptions of sage bushes in the book, one of which had purple flowers and one of which had scarlet flowers. If she'd kept it consistent, that would've been fine, but, well, she didn't.

Finally, a complaint about the ending. There are things that you just do not need to do as an author. A trial-by-champion climax is a fine, fine way to end a book. In fact, it's plenty. You don't need to go any past that, such as having the main character be close to being set on fire. The threat of fire is enough, but having the fire be an actuality is simply unneccessary. I cannot think that one person, while reading the climax, would have thought, "Gee, this is great, but what it really needs is more fire!"

In short: "The Silver Wolf" is one of those rare books that starts off strong and gets progressively worse and worse as it continues. Well, I say rare, even though that pretty much sums up Stephen King's entire bibliography. Anyway, asides aside, as Borchardt raises the stakes of the plot, it gets progressively sillier and sillier. Which is a shame--it could have been a much more interesting book and wound up making me laugh out loud.

It's bad enough when a book is bad to begin with. It's much worse when the author screws it up in the middle.


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