Seven Kinds of Hell - Dana Cameron

"...it was just my shitty luck that I actually had a secret family full of threatening, dickhead monsters."

 

Zoe Miller's life has never been television sitcom material.  Raised by a single parent, Zoe has been moved from place to place by her anxious mother, never able to settle down, never able to make friends, never able to quell the creeping anxiety that something is hunting her.  Zoe's mother hasn't given her many details about her paternal family, but she knows that they're bad news-- and that they're out to get her.  But Zoe's greatest fear is a betrayal from her own mind.  Since the age of 16, when fearful or threatened, she has experienced a creeping temptation to slip into a personality she calls her Beast: an inhuman, vicious, angry, and clearly insane mentality.  Despite it all, Zoe has just managed to piece together an almost normal life for herself. She's made friends, found and lost love, and graduated with a degree in archaeology. But when her mother dies, it all starts to unravel.  Mysterious men are following her, the Beast's call is becoming even more strident, and one of her best friends is about to be used as the lure in a trap that Zoe can't help but step into.  Since Zoe's only hope is through finding a lost mythological artefact, her archaeological background is about to become unexpectedly relevant.

 

Seven Kinds of Hell isn't a groundbreaking urban fantasy, but it's a pleasant and enjoyable read.  The writing never ascends into lyricism, but it's solid and occasionally sophisticated, and very effective at sucking the reader into the narrative. Zoe is a sympathetic, likeable narrator, and I especially enjoyed the ways in which she brought her knowledge of archaeology into her perspective on the world.  My favourite parts of the book were definitely these historical aspects.  Cameron has a gift for inserting sly little comments and entertaining tidbits about ancient cultures without breaking the narrative flow.  One of my favourites was a description of ancient Greek animal sacrifice: apparently, it was decided that only the bones, hides, and smoke of a sacrifice belonged to the gods, which conveniently left the succulent meat for the hungry worshippers. 

 

The mythology of the world is also tied into the archaeological aspects.  As might be guessed by the genre and series name, vampires and werewolves factor heavily into the mythos, but their origins and appearances are somewhat different than the standard tales.  Some of the supernatural entities that Zoe encounters supposedly "aren't capable of true evil."  As one explains,

"Some call us 'Pandora's Orphans,' the hope that was left in the bottom of the box when the evil was let out.  Whatever story you believe, we're the good guys."

These "good guys" are basically vigilantes, brutally murdering anyone they deem to be evil, but they solve this little contradiction by specifying a rather peculiar definition of "evil":

"We can't confuse political manoeuvring with real evil. [X] can be willful or wrong about many things. We can disagree, we can do stupid things...we don't thrive on the unhappiness of others, we don't murder or torture for pleasure, which is how I define evil."

In my opinion, this is a rather inane definition: every wicked man has a justification for his actions, good intentions are all too easily corrupted, and the worst evils come from those who convince themselves they are doing good.  While Cameron does touch on this issue, I consider the initial premise so farcical that I was irritated rather than mollified by the simplistic debates.  Requiring an entire species to be inherently good also necessitates removing its free will, but that never seems to occur to anyone within the narrative.

 

The basic plot is a race against time to find an ancient artefact before the rival gangs of bad guys get hold of it, plus a bit of the save-the-hostage game.  Through her struggles to save her friends, Zoe is also forced to come to terms with herself.  I'm reasonably fond of Indiana Jones/ Tomb-Raider type plots, and, true to the subgenre, Cameron manages to insert quite a bit of absurdist humour.  One of my favourite quotes:

"I fell asleep to a German werewolf in a Speedo joyfully singing 'Midnight Train to Georgia' as he steered us over the choppy waves of the Aegean."

While I enjoyed quite a bit of it, the plot quickly devolves into an unintentional Wodehousian farce. Almost all of the action hinges upon a vast concatenation of improbable coincidences, many of which require utterly unnatural actions from a whole set of characters as well as an impressive bit of stupidity on the part of the protagonist.  In fact, Zoe is so far past TSTL that I think I'm in need of a new term.*

 

Every plot can be broken down into a set of tropes, and unfortunately, Seven Kinds of Hell used a few of which I'm less than fond.  I'm never big on the "I have your friend"-type situations, because it requires the protagonist to be both incredibly credulous and impressively callous, willing to sacrifice the many for the sake of the one. I can usually tolerate a Hostage-for-McGuffin ploy once in a while, especially if the underlying philosophical conflict is explored, but Cameron actually uses the trope multiple times in one book, mainly as a lazy plot device.  Sadly, the story also requires a Chosen One alert, a Friend-or-Idol Decision warning (although Zoe, remaining in character, never bothers with the thinking part), a Dismantled McGuffin notice, and, of course, a truly impressive amount of Contrived Coincidence, to the point where the characters begin wondering if it is all due to Fate. Last, this book definitely isn't intended as a standalone: in fact, much of the plot is left unresolved, a perfect setup for a sequel.

How did this plot fail me?  Let me count the ways.  First of all, Zoe is impressively careless: she leads the killers to Danny and Sean's doors. She carries around the figurines  around with her so that they can be easily seized by anyone she encounters, and even after her stupidity becomes clear the first time they are seized from her, she just keeps doing it.  No shocker when they're seized again.  Then there's the sim card idiocy.  Zoe carries around a phone given to her by Dmitri, and yet seems surprised whenever he manages to catch her.These days, everyone and their mother should know that you can be traced by your sim card.  (To be fair, Dmitri seemed equally lacking in general tech savviness.) In fact, all of the spy moments in the story were laughably gawdawful.  One of my favourites was her introduction to the oh-so-mysterious Adam:

"Adam Nichols. I'm a government official."

...Could she not even think up a title or position?  After that little introduction, they are immediately on firstname terms, which is even more silly.  Then there's the stupid translation thing: given that she immediately goes on the web after hearing it, why didn't she put the phrase into Google Translate? (I did.) The only reason is to add an added wrinkle to the plot, but I hate plot-driven stupidity even more than the standard kind.  Then there are the obvious twists: I guessed Sean's state right after it happened.  How could Zoe, his close friend, not pick up on it? Oh, yes. Plot-driven stupidity.  Sean's death was also problematic.  Zoe and Will grieve a little, have mad passionate sex, and appear to go on with their lives.  No mention is made of what happens with Sean's family, and there's no concept of extended grief.  The whole incident was superficial and stupid, and highlighted Zoe's idiocy for repeatedly bowing to these blackmailers.  While I can kind of get the keeping-the-loved-one-a-prisoner motivation, I expect to get at least a little angsting over it, because it requires the protagonist to sacrifice the good of the many to save the few she cares about.  Zoe is so egocentric that she never really even thinks about it. 

 

The whole Pandora motivation was rather weak: at first, it's blackmail over Danny, but Dmitri is so incompetent that they would do better just to go after him with the full force of the Fangborn.  Then, everything suddenly becomes apocalyptic and it's a quest to stop Knight, despite the fact that Zoe has the Beacon and Knight wouldn't be able to do anything without her.  Why on earth have the only person who could activate the thing go on the hunt for it if you don't want it to be found? I've never gotten the rationale for the "we must find it first" type plots when the protagonists are the only ones who have the requisite skills to find it at all.  Then Zoe again capitulates to blackmail, even though she could have arranged things to rescue Sean, and even though she knows that giving in is a mistake of apocalyptic proportions.  Still playing off the "I need to get to it first" motivation, which is just as stupid now as it was in the beginning, she finds the thing and puts it together with a whole host of baddies coming down on her.  Why not just wait?  Given that the Fangborn consider themselves (literally) God's gift to humanity, why didn't they try to reason with Knight and put pressure on him?  And how on earth could he be the first corrupt Fangborn in all these millenia? 

 

Then there are the coincidences; everything from Will managing to join TRG--and I have real logistical issues with the whole TRG setup-- to his running into her to Zoe stumbling in on the "guarded" Beacon. The whole thing depends so heavily on coincidence that even the characters appear uncomfortable with it:

"Is it possible that the figurines have been acting on my Fangborn powers and sort of, I don't know, guiding me to bring them all together?"

I really, really hate that sort of lazy plotting.  The whole plot was so frustratingly idiotic that it seriously decreased my enjoyment in the book.

(show spoiler)

 

At the same time, I really appreciate how Cameron manages to avoid some of the most irritatingly ubiquitous tropes in urban fantasy.  First, Zoe is far from isolated: although she starts out as a loner, she quickly develops a large coterie of friends and acquaintances.  Second, the romance aspect is kept relatively low-key, and the love triangle is close to nonexistent--at least in this book.  While I didn't find Zoe's main love interest to have much of a personality and thought he came across as a bit of a controlling asshole, he definitely isn't an alpha male--another big plus from my perspective.  Despite her other forms of idiocy, Zoe is able to keep her mind on her problems rather than her passions, something I really appreciate. Last, for all the many plotholes and coincidences, the book kept me reading. Overall, if you're looking for a lighthearted urban fantasy jaunt with a different slant on the standard supernatural creatures, Seven Kinds of Hell is worth a look.

 

~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, 47North, in exchange for my honest review.~~

 

 

*I was irritated enough while reading to propose TFSTFD in my kindle notes.