Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Crewe's Cracked

Eliza Crewe's new novel Cracked kicks off a series whose protagonist Meda has an appetite for eating souls. Well, life force, at least.  As one might expect, she promptly meets people not particularly excited about the protagonist roaming free, sating her appetite without oversight.  But the story is not just a getting-away-from-capture tale; it's Meda's journey to discover the world about her and its perils, and to learn what she is and where she came from.

Meda's snark, sass, and disinterest in traditional hero activities make her an entertaining departure from the evil-vanquishing fantasies we grew up expecting.  She's perfectly happy to attack from behind or kill those she's rendered helpless, and she's unafraid to admit these things to the reader even though she's very careful to hide the truth from those she meets.

The book doesn't depend on the novelty of a killer protagonist, though.  The hungry huntress has been long depicted in vampire fiction, after all.  But Cracked doesn't give off a vampire vibe;  there's a much closer parallel to Meda in character feeling. It's not far into the book that one is tempted to think about Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter and its protagonist's similarly insatiable need to murder.  Sure, Meda and Dexter are driven differently.  But how differently, really? Each is subject to an awful compulsion to kill, and neither perceives much of a choice.  Each plans with patience, and takes a certain delight in the work.  Both appeal to the reader in part because they've initially resolved to hunt only confirmed bad-guys. Both confront circumstances in which it'd be terribly convenient to kill a witness for convenience.  And both have a keen interest in avoiding capture because neither has any real expectation of being vindicated if caught.  Both begin basically alone, unaided in the fight to remain alive and free while sating a hunger that inspires vicious crimes.

But Meda and Dexter Morgan have very different journeys.

In Dexter, the humor is largely carried by the narrator's obliviousness to human feelings. Not so Cracked.  Meda, the narrator, is well aware of how humans feel – she feels it all herself.  Instead of inspiring laughs with an oblivious confusion over the meaning of human interactions, she entertains readers with a combination of remorselessness and deep empathy with her victim.  She follows this with shameless readiness to display over-the-top manipulation of musclebound males who want to believe she's "good" inside.  The real good guys, out to destroy soul-eating evildoers everywhere they can be found, end up eating out of her hand.


If this were all Cracked offered, it might end at a fun romp.  But it doesn't.  At seventeen and lonely, Meda ends up genuinely connecting with some of the companions/adversaries/friends she meets.  The complexity of their relationship provides readers good fun.  Meda's desire to learn who she is and what the forces are that seem arrayed against her is a convincing basis for her willing (and overconfident) acceptance of an adventure that turns out to be much more than she expected.  On the way she learns the difference between people who like her and people who understand her;  she grows as she feels for herself how friendship, values, and love make life worth living.  A loner, Meda's sucked into circumstances that require her to trust or die – and to inspire trust or be destroyed.  Meda learns to be the human she pretends.

In that way, Cracked is a supernatural fairy tale about what it's like to be normal, and how magical it is to have a friend.  It's easy to cry reading it.  When the hour ran late, I had a hard time putting it down. I think readers will enjoy it.

[spoiler] Content Warning: Religious Belief
Cracked Cover in IndiaSome fans protest loudly when an urban fantasy author includes elements of mainstream religion without immediately punishing proponents of such beliefs for foolishness or the like.  For example, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files contains a cast of characters that includes Christians whose faith plays a significant role in their lives and their superpowers; the series eventually depicts supernatural beings that are fallen angels, demons, angels in good standing, etc. I kidded in a review of Butcher's work that complaints about religion in urban fantasy were hard to credit in the midst of a story that treated with equal seriousness subjects like the Laws of Magic and the politics among faeries. But, beware: readers who were irritated with Jim Butcher over theological commentary may find themselves extremely exercised as Cracked progresses.  Sure, it opens on an irreligious murderess occupied at the task of luring a victim into her trap, but it's not long until the author begins depicting The Battle Between Good And Evil, complete with demons and holy warriors.  Although this also occurs in The Dresden Files, this development occurs over the course of several novels;  it happens much faster in Cracked – and doesn't have wizards and vampires and faeries to distract people from the religious aspect of the underlying conflict.  The book's cover in India (on right) gives better notice of this.  (Both covers are available on the author's press page.)

I'm not particularly fond of reading material designed primarily to appeal to religious convictions, but I tolerated The Chronicles of Narnia and love The Dresden Fines. I had no trouble enjoying Cracked.  If you gave up on The Dresden Files over religious content, though, Cracked may not be your cup of tea.
[/End Spoiler]

BONUS: Cracked vs. Dexter
It's tempting to say Cracked differs from the Dexter novels in being urban fantasy.  But is it true that Dexter is not urban fantasy? Lindsay's third book [SPOILER for Dexter, not Cracked] Dexter in the Dark outs Dexter Morgan as the vessel of an immortal being related to Moloch, the ancient deity who sacrificially consumed immolated children, and whom the Israelites were eventually barred from propitiating.  So Dexter Morgan is ultimately depicted as possessing supernatural powers on loan from an ancient unkillable psychopathic intelligence to which he plays host – it is this that is his Dark Passenger.  Without his Dark Passenger, Dexter just isn't the cold calculating killer we knew; he's uncertain, lost.  But for the reader of the Dexter novels, this development doesn't result in the feeling of Urban Fantasy; it's a crime thriller.  Only, reversed: the "protagonist" is the serial-murdering psychopath trying to avoid capture by "normals" whose motives and moral decay make them less honest and more offensive than many of the criminals they pursue.

A problem of this nature faces the narrator in Cracked, too. Unlike Dexter Morgan, Meda seems to like having friends – and not just as camouflage. But she's fallen in with a bunch of evildoer-hunters who don't seem likely to embrace an addicted soul-eater with no hope of being reformed … and these new companions include people who'd apparently be perfectly happy to kill her for thrills. (Or misdirected vengeance? Or zealous rage? Meda doesn't review their psychiatric records once she takes their temperature.).  Like Dexter Morgan amongst the Miami P.D., Meda among her new companions seems continuously at risk of discovery and destruction.  The fact that she feels emotions and can have human interactions, like normal humans, makes her more sympathetic than Dexter Morgan, whose support from the reader seems generated largely by a combination of (a) a conviction the other monsters are worse, (b) a hope his hunts will safe the people about whom readers care, and (c) a perverse thrill at rooting for – let's face it – a dyed-in-the wool villain.

Craft Notes
As one who writes (though mostly not fiction), I was interested to see a tale told in present tense.  As I've written short pieces in present tense, I appreciate both its limits and the gymnastics occasionally required to make sure the reader can see everything the author requires to follow the story.  Doing a novel like this, breaking into past only for reflection on the past or where characters would use the past in dialogue, is impressive.  The limits of the first-person voice and present tense are interesting constraints in which to work – and it is work.  I did spot one past-tense verb committed by a late-appearing character during the denouement, but it's not a cheat on the decision to go present tense: it's almost assuredly an error.  Everybody gets a couple.  This is no big deal.  And it's probably easy for the reader to miss entirely.

The front cover of the ARC warned that reviewers should not review on the basis of seeming errors, and should check that text didn't change in final before reviewing on the basis of the ARC text.  Unfortunately I've been unable to get the busy editors to respond to my email.  They are, you know, busy putting out books.  It's not like I can gripe.  So I don't know whether a continuity concern in the first half persists into final.  What I do know is that while it's not unexpected to see some kind of issue to pick at in a first novel, it is unexpected to find myself unable to put down someone's first novel down at 1:38 AM.  So you can see the net effect of my "concern" didn't impact my interest in finishing it. 


Cracked sets up a series about character redeemed by her friendships, and grounded by the people she values rather than by rules (which she doesn't).  It depicts a world in which The Forces of Good depend on teenage reprobates skilled in slipping locks, breaking and entering, and clipping fence-chains on others' property.  God help the people.

Cracked is a fun read.  The sass, the frienemy-ships, Meda's heartless manipulations of others and the ever-present risk of being caught – all fun. The big battle's turning point is foreshadowed hard enough to make it not only easy to believe, but to have readers dying to see the characters put in a position to pull it off.  This prevents it from constituting a surprise twist, but it builds good anticipation for the moment of choice – will the characters trust each other enough to try?  Or will feelings of betrayal poison their prospects? So non-surprise is not a problem: predicting how the tables will turn isn't really what the show is about.  The show is about what choices Meda will make when it really counts, and why.  And whether, in the end, she's learned to be human enough to love.  The consistency concern I have doesn't detract from the climactic choice or how it is made: events leading up to the scene plausibly place all the characters in a plausible position of doubt and desperation so the reader sees the right choice isn't easy (and why the easy choice is useless).  There may be bumps on the road, but the journey is enjoyable.

I'm happy I read Cracked, and look forward to Eliza Crewe's next in her soul-eaters series.

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