Sunday, July 18, 2010

Once Bitten, Twice Shy by Jennifer Rardin

Once Bitten, Twice Shy
Jennifer Rardin
Orbit, 2007
290 pages

This book took me by surprise. I mean, Darla had sold me on the series quite a while ago; I expected to enjoy it. I didn't expect to get sucked in quite as handily as I was. I literally did not want to put this book down, and I haven't experienced that with a book for a while. What kind of astonishes me is that I wasn't even sure how I felt about Rardin's writing. What she really has a knack for, though, is plot and character.

So, Jasmine Parks is a CIA agent -- a super-secret assassin, so secret that maybe five or six people on the planet know what she does and who she is. She arranges for "accidents" to befall the big baddies of the recognizeable but definitely alternate-universe world, from rogue vampires to the political opponents of the US (more on this in a moment) to the leaders of international pedophile rings. And when it's not possible to arrange an accident, she just shoots them. But Jaz is also working through an extremely traumatic incident in her past, one she can only remember pieces of and one that still, almost a year later, causes blackouts, panic attacks, and engenders a definite self-destructive streak. For various reasons she ends up partnered with Vayl, a vampire who is also the CIA's top hitman. She and Vayl are charged at the beginning of the book with taking out a skeevy plastic surgeon with connections to a terrorist group devoted to a goddess of death and destruction. Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan, and the plastic surgeon's plot is a lot more deadly and destructive than anyone realized; not only that, but it appears that one of the five or six people who know about Vayl and Jaz is betraying them and trying put them out of commission permanently.

What blew me away most was that I was really into this story, despite having several intellectual qualms about the thing. Let's see if I can explain in some sort of clear way. First of all, right off the top Jaz makes a throwaway mention of taking out a Castro advisor in Cuba. This gets my back up for several reasons, not the least of which is that I don't think the CIA has a very good track record when meddling in the politics of other countries -- I once wrote an essay on CIA and other American involvement in Chile, for example, and its absolutely disastrous consequences. So having Jaz, a CIA assassin, take out a senior political advisor of another country doesn't put her in my books as one of the good guys. While in a different book this might have been used to show ambiguity of sorts about Jaz or her employers, I didn't get the feeling that was the intention here -- it was nothing so subtle or carefully examined. This isn't a book about ambiguities in international political relations, nor is it trying to be. Jaz and her CIA bosses are the Good Guys. The guys she goes after are the Bad Guys. I thought that particular moment was ill-advised and way out of place, given the story Rardin is telling. If you're going to go there, you have to Go There and not take it for granted that your reader is going to agree automatically on who the Good Guys and who the Bad Guys are, especially in a contemporary political situation. The reason an incongruity sticks out so much is that we're trying to establish the Good Guys here, and I end up completely unconvinced, at least at the very beginning.

Another incongruity, and not one limited to this book by any means: I always find it hard to buy death cults. Period. Actually, what I really want to see is a recognizeable, relatable character who is a member of a fantasy novel death cult (and if anyone has any suggested titles, I'm way open here.) Rardin suggests that members of the Sons of Paradise, the death cult supported by the skeevy plastic surgeon, probably pass for "upstanding citizens by day." And yet they worship a soul-eating, plague-carrying monstrosity by night, apparently. Why? What could they possibly get out of that? What sort of promises would their religion make to them that would outweigh the extremely high odds of getting your soul eaten? I know I'm a relatively well-adjusted, comparatively sane, fairly happy human being, but I have never understood the kick masses of faceless extras in fantasy novels get out of worshiping something that would annihilate them without a thought. Usually in some messy, painful, eternal torment kind of way. Some societies in some fantasy novels (I'm having vague rememberances of Eddings here; it's been a long time) are built around a few perverts and psychopaths holding all the power, and the masses of faceless extras are terror-stricken and don't know that there are any other alternatives to worshiping the evil god(dess); or perhaps the evil god(dess) forces compliance through shows of power and magical compulsion. That I can understand. But knowing all the options and willingly choosing the one where the most likely end is not good, as the Sons of Paradise seemed to do? I don't buy it. It does, however, make for an extremely easy target/obstacle for the Good Guys, so that's why it gets used, I know.

I'm getting away from the book. What I have to say is that, despite the fact that I noticed these things, for some reason they didn't detract from my enjoyment at all. Either of them separately in another book might have cast a pall over the whole thing; in this case, they were footnotes that I decided I wanted to address in my review while I gobbled up the rest. I think there may be a couple reasons I can point to for this: the characters, and the plot.

Plot first -- this is a well-plotted novel. We move from one crisis to another, some seemingly unconnected but all pointing towards the Big One and, secondarily, to the Big Reveal of what exactly it was that happened to Jaz those months previous. Unsurprisingly these two are somewhat connected, but it wasn't in a contrived way. This novel is hard to put down because one is barrelling towards a conclusion and the ride is so exciting and interesting. The payoff is great; the Big One is big and the Big Reveal is wince-worthy and worth waiting for, too.

And because of the characters, we actually care about how the plot turns out. Jaz is just awesome. She is flawed, deeply flawed. She thinks she's insane, and sometimes the reader thinks she might be, too, but we don't blame her. She's engaging and smart, strong and very quick on her (mental and physical) feet. She is wiser than her age would suggest, but she's been through a lot. And she's funny, and self-deprecating, and fiercely loyal. She has a good relationship with her little sister, and tolerates her father, who is a jerk but also has his good points. Jaz is a multi-faceted character and one who is an absolute treat to spend time with, and I think for me was the main driver for me still really enjoying this story despite its flaws. I will happily seek out the rest of this series just to see how she's doing.

Of the other characters, Vayl of course is the most fleshed out; he is Jaz's vampire boss, a long-time CIA agent. He's also growing into a love interest. He's got his own backstory (it's a little stereotypical wounded hero, but not over the top) and what I liked about him the most was that he gave Jaz space. He wasn't all typical romance-hero-Alpha male; he trusted Jaz to do her job, which is necessarily exceedingly dangerous. He freaks out when she gets herself into a series of really bad situations, but not to the point of losing control of himself or sight of the mission. He never demands that she quit or do something less dangerous -- in fact, he's more likely to tell her to smarten up and do her job. They're a team, and a really good one. The only time he gets angry with her is when she does something to compromise their mission, and another time when she lies to him, both of which seem like perfectly reasonable responses. And what I like about them as characters who lean towards romantic partners is that they don't feel completely ill-matched. They are friends, and colleagues; they're comfortable with each other and respectful of each other. I like the hint of romance; I also like that it's not nearly resolved by the end of the book. They don't even kiss. Which makes the payoff, when/if that does happen, that much better down the road. There's more to come and I look forward to seeing how their relationship develops.

So there we go; an exceedingly long review on a book I view as a bit of an escape read. I am so glad I read this book; it really helped me get my reading mojo back, and it was good fun, and also allowed me a chance to think about faulty narrative devices in a way that for whatever reason didn't detract from the story for me. I recommend this for anyone who enjoys a fast summer read with a kick-ass heroine and lots of exciting action.


Little Messy Missy said...

Thanks I will pick this one up!

Unknown said...

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. :)

Phyl said...

This sounds really good. It probably wouldn't have been a book I'd have thought to pick up, just walking past it in a bookstore. But it sounds like an excellent book, the way you describe it.

As to that death cult question, I agree. I think in some religious circumstances, that sort of slavish following comes when people believe they deserve hell (or some other punishment) intrinsically, so that "possibly devour your soul" thing might not be such a deterrent.

Otherwise, I think the only time it really "works" is if the followers somehow think they're going to get something great in the future -- total redemption, rule the world along with the Big Master, or things like that.

Unknown said...

Phyl - It's a lot of fun. I'm hoping to grab the next one soon for a weekend read.

You know, I hadn't really thought about the "I deserve it" angle, but that does make sense. I think I would have to feel a little more convinced than I was of the psychology of the participants, but I could definitely see intrinsic self-loathing/flaggelating adding a really fascinating angle to a story like this.

Jill said...

Wow, what a great and thoughtful review! I think I was so sucked into the book that I barely noticed what you mention, but you have a great point. I am in the middle of Pratchett's Guards Guards right now, so the whole secret society thing does make me giggle a bit, with his ridiculous dark-cowled brotherhood fresh in my mind. I'm so glad you liked this one - and you are in for such a treat with the rest of the series. Wait till you see what happens, teehee - lots of great stuff. I look forward to your future reviews. :-)

Unknown said...

Ha! Yes, I wonder if I was more aware of the ridiculousness of the secret society having just read Guards! Guards!? That is a distinct possibility.

I am really looking forward to the next ones. I'm trying to clear my series queue a bit before I get too deep, but we'll see. I have very little self-control when it comes to books.