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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Caitlín R. Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney: SIOBHAN QUINN TRILOGY

Author:  Kathleen Tierney (pseudonym for Caitlín R. Kiernan)
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3-4; Humor—2 
Publisher:  ROC     
          Blood Oranges (2/2013)
          Red Delicious (2/2014)
          Cherry Bomb (2/2015) (FINAL)

This post begins with an overview of the world-building followed by my reviews of the three novels.

     Kiernan/Tierney has created a fantastically fresh series in which she sets familiar urban fantasy tropes on edge and then slices them up and turns them inside out, sniggering darkly as she does it. She opens each book with a warning to readers: "If your ears, eyes, and sensibilities are easily offended, this book is not for you. If you want a romance novel, this book is not for you. And it if strikes you odd that vampires, werewolves, demons, ghouls, and the people who spend time in their company, would be a foul-mouthed, unpleasant lot, this book is not for you. In fact, if you're the sort who believes books should come with warning labels, this book is not for you. Fair notice." But I would add that if you're the sort who is looking for a nontraditional mythology featuring an intelligent, tough, acerbic, pragmatic heroine (or anti-heroine), this book is for you. But…take note of the author's warning. If the prospect of a gazillion f-bombs turns you off, walk away now unless you can open your mind to an all-new approach to urban fantasy, one that pokes fun at the stereotypes of paranormal romance and takes the reader on a long, dark, journey with a very different kind of urban fantasy heroine.  

     The first two books are set in Providence, Rhode Island, where Siobhan Quinn has lived a hard-scrabble life on the streets since she ran away from her abusive and negligent parents as a twelve-year-old. She prefers (demands, really) to be called Quinn, and swiftly corrects anyone who calls her Siobhan. "Yeah, it sounds like one of those Young Plucky Vampire Hunters, or, worse yet, like the women who write those trashy ParaRom paperbacks you see on the racks at the Stop & Shop." (from Blood OrangesWithin a few years of living hand-to-mouth in squalid squats, Quinn gets turned on to heroin one cold night when her friend/supplier/pusher promises that he can warm her up with his product. Not long after that, while Quinn and her girlfriend are snuggling together in the ruins of a building enjoying their drug buzz, a ghoul grabs Quinn's girlfriend and eats her alive. Days later, a vampire attacks Quinn. In both cases, the supernatural perpetrators wind up dead, mostly due to their own clumsy actions. Quinn, though, gets full credit for the deaths in Providence's supernatural gossip mill, with her part in the deaths being exaggerated more and more as the tales are told and retold on the street. 

     The two deaths lead to Quinn's "adoption" by Mean Mr. B (a Beatles reference), who continually changes his name but always begins it with a "B" (e.g., Barlow, Bayard, Baptiste, Balthazarall having literary or popular culture connections). As Quinn says, Mr. B "is a smooth talker. He could have put the s in suave. Could sell celery to a vampire." (from Red Delicious) He maintains a mysterious aura and is quite secretive about his life, but Quinn knows that he is is heavily involved as a middleman in the supernatural underworld. Soon, Mr. B is paying for her apartment, providing her with heroin, and helping her survive. He also sends her out to assassinate various supernatural monsters, promising his protection in exchange for her servicesin other words, he's a pimp, of sorts. Mr. B explains that Quinn's reputation as a monster killer makes her an asset to him in his dealings with supernatural creatures who tend to strike out in deadly ways when their deals go wrong.

     Nineteen-year-old Quinn looks back over the events of the past few years, telling her story in her cynical, sarcastic, streetwise voice, moving back and forth in time as she goes off on tangents and then abruptly brings us back to the events at hand. She is largely self-educated, having spent a lot of time (in her pre-junkie days) at the public library, soaking up as much knowledge as she could on her own. Sometimes, Quinn's Trebekian tidbits jarred my suspension of disbelief. It is difficult to believe that Quinn read and still remembers so much history and literature that she can pull forth dates, facts, and cultural references with such ease and range. For example, do you know what the word prolegomenon means? Well, Quinn does. Fortunately, Quinn is such a gutsy, confident, well-developed character that I soon stopped worrying about that aspect of her narration.

     The supernatural creatures in this series are not noble or romantic. They are monsters who eat people without a qualm or even a second thought. Quinn describes each individual monster in exquisite detailtheir sizes, their physiques, their sounds, and even their smells. It's a relief to find a series with absolutely no angst-filled, uber-alpha male heroes and no virginal, feisty-but-submissive heroines. Quinn blows every tired vampire/werewolf trope out of the water. It's refreshing!

     One of the best parts of the series is that the author breaks down the fourth wall. Quinn talks directly to the reader. She tells her story as if she were chatting with you over a beer at a local dive bar. Some have criticized the narration as being rambling or misleading, but that's what happens when you tell a long story about yourself. Quinn tells us what happened to her as she remembers itor, sometimes, as she wished it had happened. The author generally throws in one or two deus ex machina plot elements, and she sometimes interrupts her narrative to tell a related anecdote. But she's always up front about her story-telling technique, informing the reader that if you don't like her style, she could care less. "Those of you who find this annoying, go read another book, instead. I won't mind." (from Red Delicious)

               NOVEL 1:  Blood Oranges               
     Early in the book, Mean Mr. B sends Quinn out into the woods one night to track down a werewolf, but when she finds no trace of the beast, she decides to shoot some smack and is in the midst of an opiate rush when the werewolf attacks her. Just after the beast sinks his teeth in her butt, a "hissing thing"a vampireleaps on him and kills him. When Quinn awakens in the vampire's lair, she learns that the bite has turned her into a werewolf. But that's not the worst part of her night. The vampire, who is known as the Bride of Quiet, bites Quinn on the neck, turning her into the world's first werepire (werewolf-vampire hybrid), an abomination to everyone in the supernatural world. As Quinn's frenemy Aloysius, the candy-bar-loving troll, exclaims, " gone and got yourself twofold plugged."

     Two years have passed since the attack, and now Quinn is taking us back in time to explain how she attempted to make sense of what happened to her by figuring out who was behind the attacks and why they targeted her. On her journey to the truth, Quinn meets up with many quirky characterssome human and some supernatural, but all dangerous and deceitful. Most of their names are cultural references (for example, Jack Doyle, Boston Harry). A major problem for Quinn is that she keeps unpredictably changing into her werewolf form, which leads to her chowing down on whichever bad guy she's interviewing at the moment. As the attacks on Quinn escalate, Mr. B drops out of sight and Quinn realizes that she is on her own. As Quinn narrates her adventures, she speaks directly to the reader, describing events chronologically, but circling back in time again and again to fill us in on relevant past events and to add sidebars of historical and cultural interest. Her narration is a sardonic monologue that feels like a naturally unfolding story. 

     Much of the humor comes from Quinn's constant puncturing of the enduring tropes of paranormal fiction. Her lampoons include many funny references to Buffy and many jabs at Twilight. "Take it from me, vampires sure as hell don't sparkle…or glitter...or twinkle, no matter what that silly…twit may have written, no matter how many books she's sold, and no matter how many celibate high school girls have signed themselves up for Team Edward." Quinn debunks the myths that vamps are night creatures and that they cast no reflections. When she discovers that the myths about vampire beauty, strength, and teleportation are untrue, she is truly bummed out. These send-ups provide welcome comic relief from the dark events that make up Quinn's life. 

     Early on, Quinn warns the reader that she is an unreliable narrator: "Junkies lie. No exceptions…Well, truth be told, I've been stretching the truth like it was a big handful of raspberry-flavored saltwater taffy." Then, she retells parts of her story, supposedly telling us the truth this time. But with Quinn, truth is relative, not absolute. All through the book, Quinn keeps reminding the reader that "I am most emphatically not a writer." She is quite self-deprecating, admitting that a real writer wouldn't make "all these stupid mistakes right and left, the omissions and continuity errors and whatnot." Late in the book she muses, "Back at the start of this mess, I sat down to write a story, knowing parts of it would be true and other parts of it would surely be b***sh**. Some would be actual recollection, and some would be me making up whatever was required to fill in the gaps in my memory…Instead the...pages have become…this. Whatever this is. It feels more and more like a confession….A confession of my crimes and acts of criminal stupidity, and of my arrogance." Speaking of lies and b***sh**, if you are looking for a factual biography of this author, you should read Kiernan's Wikipedia entry rather than the nonsensically nutty bio at the back of this book. 

     The primary problem I had with the book is that Quinn is essentially a pawn in the hands of some powerful monsters. No matter what decision she makes, someone is always a step ahead of hersomeone always knows exactly what she has done and said and what she is going to do next. My unease with Quinn's being an object of constant manipulation began early in the book and then grew stronger as Quinn's situation became more and more dire. Quinn is such a strong character that I just wish she could have outwitted the bad guys a few times. 

     Beyond this quibble, though, I loved the book, particularly the narrative style, the sense of place, and Quinn's cynical, abrasive personality. She is what she is, and you either accept that or walk away. After reading so many urban fantasies featuring noble, altruistic heroes/heroines, Quinn is a breath of fresh air. If you enjoy the heroine's adventures in Chuck Wendig's MIRIAM BLACK series, you'll probably enjoy reading Quinn's dark and dangerous life story. In an on-line essay, Kiernan says, "Atmosphere, mood, language, character, theme, etc., that's the stuff that fascinates me." In Blood Oranges, she succeeds mightily with all of those elements.

               NOVEL 2:  Red Delicious               
     "Red delicious" is what Quinn calls her blood fixes. In this novel, Kiernan/Tierney's presents her fresh and inventive version of the old familiar ancient-lost-artifact plot line, but as you might expect, the story doesn't play out in the usual manner. Quinn's narration picks up in the cold, dark depths of February, six months after the events of Blood Oranges. Quinn has begun to come to terms with her new three-natured condition (human, vampire, werewolf), but she is lonely and she is sick of doing Mean Mr. B's dirty work. Speaking of Mr. B, he has a job for her. One of the daughters of a powerful necromancer has asked for Mr. B's help in locating her missing sister. Unfortunately, this is just a scam to draw Mr. B into the search for that previously mentioned artifact, which happens to be a dildo fashioned from the horn of a unicorn. Go figure.

     In a run-of-the-mill urban fantasy, this plot would play out in a relatively straightforward manner: good guys and bad guys searching for and fighting over the object, ending with a huge battle in which the good guys trounce the baddies and walk off with the artifact. But not this time, mainly because there are no good guys in this seriesonly very, very bad monsters. As Quinn works on the case, she must also contend with a fellow monster huntera defrocked, child-abusing priest who considers her to be a monster that must be destroyed.

     The novel is constructed mostly in the same manner as the first, with Quinn looking back on her adventures in hindsight, narrating her story in her unreliable, sarcastic, cynical voice. But then, on page 100, the author inserts a 43-page short story entitled "The Maltese Unicorn" (supposedly from a 1935 issue of Weird Tales) that explains the history of the artifact and introduces two of the rival monsters who claim ownership of said object. (The "author" of the story is Mona Mars, who in the real world happens to be a character in both the noir novel and film The Big Sleep.) Quinn deals with complaints about her book-within-a-book device by opening the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader: "Now, there will, of course, be those readers who complain that by sticking Ms. Mars' story in here, I'm yanking them out of the book. 'A short story in a novel? What!'…Yeah, yeah. I know. I'm a bad girl…I even violate readers' lazy expectations." 

     By the end of the story, no less than seven vicious entities (plus Quinn) are trying to find the unicorn horn, but not one of them knows where it is. Here is the cast of villains: 
    > Amity and Berenice Maidstonethe mob boss's necromancing daughters 
    Drusneth: a powerful succubus demon; a whorehouse madam whom we met in book one
    Yeksabet Harpootliana more powerful demon who lives in another realm 
    Magdalena Szabóan even more powerful demon who lives in yet another realm
    Samuel (aka Salem Sam)a bogle, brother of Jack Doyle, who was eaten by Quinn's werewolf self in book 1
    Mean Mr. Dwho has allied himself with Drusneth

     Just as in book 1, Quinn becomes a pawn when each villain tries to force her into finding the horn and turning against the others. The explosiveness of the ending put me in mind of the final scene in Quentin Tarantino's movie Reservoir Dogs when the bad guys simultaneously murder one another, with just one battered survivor walking off with the prize.

     This second book continues to add depth to Quinn's character, particularly her feelings of loneliness and her relief at finding a friend she thought was dead. That scene is a stand-outthe first time we have seen deep into Quinn's emotional heart, which she always keeps well hidden from everyone, including the reader. Quinn's relationship with Mr. B continues to deteriorate, resulting in Quinn's making a scary decision at the end of the book. In fact, Quinn makes several scary decisions as she resolves the conflict, putting herself and her soul in danger time and time again.

     The advantage Quinn has in telling her story in hindsight is that she spots her mistakesthe holes in her plotjust as soon as we do. She never apologizes, just admits that she blew it, wonders how she could have made such a stupid mistake, and moves on. 

     The novel contains two girl-on-girl erotic scenes: a scene in "The Maltese Unicorn" involving erotic ritual sex using the unicorn horn dildo and a scene near the end of the book in which Quinn has off-the-page sex with Amity Maidstone.

     Although I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as Blood Oranges, it was still a great read that I couldn't put down. I love Quinn as a character and as a narrator, and I appreciate Kiernan/Tierney's confident fourth-wall bravado as she does things her way, take it or leave it. 

     One nitpick: This book contains a number of copy-proofing errors that wouldn't have shown up on spell-check but should have been picked up in the final read-through (two examples: 1. "the downstairs neighbors were out of down"—"down" should have been "town" 2. "you have a stubborn habit of habit of seeking…"—one "habit of" should have been deleted).

               NOVEL 3:  Cherry Bomb               
     The time frame for this book is fuzzy, based on the very first sentence: "I met Selwyn Throckmorton five years after I'd left Mean Mr B and Providence behind me and arrived in Manhattan, three years after that whole mess with the Maidstone sisters…" Quinn's break with Mr. B occurred immediately following the Maidstone incident, so I'm not sure why she refers to the "five years after" and the "three years after" as if the two events took place two years apart. Of course, we always have to keep in mind Quinn's constant warnings that she is a consummate liar, so the truth of the time line is unknowable.

     As the story begins, Quinn is living in Manhattan with Barbara, a wealthy, thrill-seeking human woman who gets off on up-close-and-personal vampire action. Before coming to Manhattan, Quinn roamed the country, always getting herself into so much trouble that she had to leave town. At this point, Quinn is bored with her life with Barbara, so she's ready for some excitement when she meets Selwyn (aka Annie Smithfield) at a BDSM party. It's a case of insta-lust between Quinn and Selwyn (yet another paranormal romance trope for the author to eviscerate) so Quinn sucks poor Barbara dry, leaves the corpse behind, and heads merrily off with Selwyn into an extremely uncertain future. 

     Almost immediately, things begin to go wrong. Selwyn earns her living by dealing in black-market supernatural antiquities, and she has double-crossed one of her clientsa high-ranking ghoul named Isaac Snowby selling some objects she promised to him to other clients. Then, unbeknownst to Quinn, Selwyn imbibes some wolfbane, supposedly to protect herself from Quinn's werewolf nibbling during their love-making. When Quinn bites Selwyn, the wolfbane activates Quinn's wolfy self, and her beast sets off on a deadly, incredibly messy rampage across New York City. This violent incident is widely publicized, thus alerting the entire worldhuman and supernaturalto Quinn's location. It also forces Quinn and Selwyn to go on the run (another paranormal romance trope). 

     At this point, the plot sinks into a mythological quagmire that includes several more paranormal tropes: a powerful ancient artifact, lucid dreams, an ancient prophecy, misguided supernatural entities who believe they are the "chosen ones," and an underworld uprising. Info dumps abound, each one announced and justified by our narrator, Quinnlike this one: "Warning: Next info dump ahead. If that sort of thing annoys you, might want to skip a few pages ahead. Of course, then you'll have no idea what's going on later. I know. Decisions, decisions. Whee." In the first two books, the author's send-ups of paranormal fiction tropes were mostly humorous and witty, but not this time. The artifact/prophecy/uprising story line is dense and, at times, painfully convoluted. Just as in the previous book, we have a story within a storyspecifically a lengthy prophecy that is crammed with obscure references, a morass of mysticism, and way too much abstruse mumbo jumbo. What these plot elements lack is excitement, humor, and satirical touches (although the requisite seagull scene is pretty funny).

     Here is an excerpt from the 12-page, nearly unreadable prophecy: "When humanity had yet to move beyond their australopithecine progenitors, already did the ghouls worship their pantheon of Fifty, the Qqi. Ages before their fateful war with the Djinn, they had come to know the Hands of the Five, the Ten Hands, the fifty fingers. They weren't about to cast aside their veneration of Great Amylostereum or Mother Paecilomyces, Camponotus the Tireless Maw or eyeless, all seeing Claviceps, in exchange for one god who'd not even seen fit to send his martyr down to the Lower Dream Lands." This is probably supposed to be a take-off on some of the obscure mythologies that run rampant in paranormal romance series, but it's not at all funny or witty. It's just long and boring.

     The most distressing story line for me is the romance between Quinn and Selwyn, which is not remotely believable. The relationship actually weakens Quinn's character because she lets lust take control of her emotions the moment she meets Selwyn, allowing it to overcome what little common sense she possesses. Selwyn comes across as a selfish, TSTL user who doesn't deserve self-sacrificing devotion from anyone, especially not from our intrepid, but vulnerable, heroine. This treatment of lustful, insta-matic romance is no doubt meant to puncture a paranormal trope; instead, it feels like a poorly executed imitation. This book, by the way, is the most erotic of the three, with several moderately detailed scenes of lesbian sex and incestuous hetero sex, respectively.

     In her author's note at the end of the book, Kiernan/Tierney states that this series "has been an experiment, and, admittedly, not one I can declare a success." She goes on to explain that she wrote the first chapter of Blood Oranges "as a lark, as a joke, a protest against what 'paranormal romance' has done to the once respectable genre of urban fantasy." At the beginning, she never expected that one chapter would grow into a trilogy. That explains why Blood Oranges is, by far, the strongest of the three books and why Cherry Bomb is the weakest. If the trilogy were a dinner, Blood Oranges would be the spicy, succulent entree; Red Delicious would be the milder, but still tasty, side dish; and Cherry Bomb would be the cold, foil-wrapped left-overs. No dessert. 

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