~~moved from GR~~
by Faith Hunter
recommended for: readers interested in less PNR-y female-protag UF
recommended by: Well, me, I guess. It was a BOM for a reading group, but I think I voted for it and/or nominated it.
Vampire hunters don't get to pick their employers, but it doesn't get much weirder than being hired by the vampires to hunt down one of their own. When Jane Yellowrock gets a call from one of the top vamps in New Orleans, she isn't sure what to think. Apparently, there's a rogue vampire loose, and Jane's new employer hopes that a human like Jane will somehow succeed where a bunch of bloodsucking superhumans have failed. Fortunately for the vamps, Jane is quite far from human herself: not only is she one of the last skinwalkers still walking around in their skins, but she also gains additional hunter instincts from a predatory spirit who shares her consciousness. Jane speeds down to New Orleans on her motorcycle (its name is "Bitsa," as it is "bits of" various other defunct bikes) only to discover that her job won't be as easy as she first thought: not only does the rogue vamp have powers that she's never seen before, but she quickly finds herself embroiled in the glutinous gumbo of vampire politics.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was the worldbuilding. Hunter creates a magical system that is far from slapdash while deftly avoiding the infamous infodump. She parcels out tiny chunks of information about the rules of the world--always enough that the reader understands what is going on, but never quite so much to stifle curiosity. The vampires have some of the standard sexy/dangerous vibes (what is with the UF obsession with vampire spit, anyway?), but they also have an intriguing and mainly unrevealed mythology--for example, I'm still dying to know why vamps in the world react only to Christian symbols, independent of the user's faith. Other magic rules are equally satisfying; for example, magic obeys the law of conservation of mass, leading to some unexpected consequences. I also enjoyed the way that magic was integrated into the world. About half a century before the story starts, the vampires accidentally outed themselves (it's all Marilyn Monroe's fault) and witches were discovered soon after. While this opened the possibility for other magical creatures, most are still only unproven legend--including skinwalkers like Jane herself. I found laws of the vamp-infiltrated US interesting; apparently, vamps can take "blood-slaves," but killing them is perfectly legal and not considered murder. The narrative is told from Jane's humorous and extremely snarky perspective, with brief interludes provided by "Beast," the animal spirit living inside Jane. Both Jane and Beast tend to talk in short, staccato, and often incomplete sentences; while I had some difficulty reconstructing the often-absent phrasal subjects, I think it did help to give Jane a unique voice. One of the other unexpected pleasures of the book was the mystery itself. Not only is the story internally consistent--a rare enough trait that it deserves special mention--but the mystery is also quite well-imagined. While I did manage to guess eventually, it took me a surprisingly long time, and there were several twists I completely failed to catch.
Yet despite all of these positives, the book didn't really grab me. Jane and the other characters should feel rounded, dimensional, and alive, yet somehow I couldn't connect with them. Maybe it's actually because they are all larger than life: every character is supermodel-beautiful and superhero-strong, and Jane is sure to remind the readers of the general super-ness of all and sundry. Jane Yellowrock has all of the enviable feminine characteristics one could wish for: "exotic" beauty, a gorgeous, athletic body, raven-black hair down past her hips, and an ability to catch and hold the eye of every man who sees her. She's apparently the last of her kind, unique both in her soul-sharing with Beast and with her skinwalker abilities. She is a risk-taker who tends to act first and think never, yet her incredible luck is always there to pull her out of trouble. Jane also has all of the "power chick" characteristics: even as a human, she's incredibly athletic, superhumanly fast, able to take down men larger and tougher than her without breaking a sweat, tends to challenge--and beat--more vampires than a batallion of men can face off, and, to top it all off, she rides a badass motorcycle. (Yep, that got "You Shook Me All Night Long" stuck in my head, but since it's the 2Cellos version, I'm not complaining.)
So, we've established that Jane is a badass who can out-badass all of her badass male counterparts with her generalized badassed badassery. I don't mind a little girl power; I suppose what actually frustrated me was that Jane also surpassed her peers in another traditional characteristic of the male urban fantasy protag (MUF). When I run out of things to complain about in my MUF reviews, I usually fall back on the Male Gaze. In this ubiquitous MUF trope, the narrator's casual descriptions sexualize and objectify all female characters, lingering on every curve and the fit of every piece of clothing before eventually (if ever) drifting up to faces. In my limited experience with FLUF (Female-Lead Urban Fantasy), I've recently discovered that there is indeed a Female Gaze. Jane has the most acute case of Female Gaze that I have yet encountered. She describes the abs, shoulders, and tightness of the pants of each man she meets in the same voyeuristic, predatory manner as her MUF peers. She openly imagines being in bed with at least six of the men that she meets and routinely undresses each one with her eyes. This attitude is fitting for her personality, and Jane's frankness may be appealing to some readers. Personally, however, I found her tendency to work double time on the seduction line as irritating and unappealing as I find it in the MUFS. I think I find Jane problematic because Hunter's efforts to weld Badass and Beauty together creates a host of awkward contradictions. I think Jane (and Hunter) just try too hard to have it both ways. There's too much hypocrisy in spending pages vivaciously detailing party outfits and the male stares received during a seductive dance, then in the next line asserting that she'd rather be swillin' beer with the boys. The plot consists of bouts of actions liberally broken by "feminine" moments such as buying dresses and going to parties. I had trouble reconciling the time-critical life-and-death situations with descriptions of dresses and makeup. I think Hunter tried so hard to force Jane into being an everywoman that she became an implausible nonentity. Despite all this, it was something of a pleasant change to have the female see herself as the assertive, self-confident, dominant one in her relationships. As always in FLUF, we have the dance of dominance and submission.
Even if I don't necessarily agree with her self-assessment, Jane certainly sees herself as independent and in control.
Skinwalker is a creative and imaginative introduction to a well-built world and a spunky protagonist. Although I spent a lot of time in this review [whining and complaining] trying to pin down precisely what bothered me about the book, overall, I really did enjoy the ride. Even with the surfeit of UF out there, it is rare to find a story with some new ideas and new twists. Recommended for anyone interested in a FLUF with an interesting twist.