Monday, September 12, 2011

Mad Alchemists, Complicated BFs and Fangs: My Review of Rachel Caine's "Midnight Alley"

Myrnin rattled the bars of his cage, and even though they were solid iron, she heard them rattle. “It’s my door! My escape! Come here and release me! Now!”
Midnight Alley, Rachel Caine
A truce between the living and the dead isn't enough to keep Claire Danvers out of danger in this third entry in the Morganville Vampires series.
                The third story in the Morganville Vampires universe opens up after Claire signs her allegiance away to The Founder, Amelie – the oldest vampire who seems part guardian of those in the Glass House, and part harsh mistress who you know you can never trust. The other  residents of the Glass House are not aware of the sacrifice Claire has made for their protection, but Amelie would change that by forcing Claire to wear a gold bracelet she can never take off. The aftermath of the second book is still reverberating in the town – Shane is still looked at suspiciously by Vampires, Eve and Michael are navigating the troubled waters of his new immortality, and Eve’s homicidal brother is still out for revenge.

                With that as a backdrop, Amelie asserts her new authority over Claire by having her sent to an eerie lab, chaperoned by Sam, to meet and be apprenticed to Myrnin. Myrnin is an old alchemist who is slowly losing his mind – and becoming more and more dangerous as he descends into madness. But his work is important – to the vampires, at least, and so Claire must learn from him – or find herself in such a peril that she is unlikely to survive.

                Added to this there’s been an attack on a vampire – Sam.

                And the Vampires are up in arms.

                I liked this novel a lot – even if it was a lot slower than the previous two installments, and a lot more frustrating – tempers are running really high in the Glass House – Shane and Michael are still tense and untrusting, Eve is almost always close to hysterics, Monica and her posse keep running hot and cold, confusing Claire, and the suspicion for the attack falls on the Glass house like a brick. 
                The same things I liked about book one and book two are present in book three though – Claire is a scared girl but bold – her curiosity drives her towards answers, pushing past all the sanctions that she and others impose on her. Her relationship with Myrnin – though sometimes volatile and scary – is also almost warm. When he is lucid, he sees her as she is – wants to protect her from himself, impart his knowledge on her and share everything. But when he starts to slip he becomes the most eerie creature – slippery with intelligence and inky with past crimes. He is the most interesting character – he has eons of experience and doesn’t seem to appreciate the rigidity of the Vampire-Human relations in  Morganville – he shares knowledge with Claire, knowing she shouldn’t have access to some things, and  entrusts her with the future of his own species. He is a mix of mad scientist, doting grandfather, strict teacher and insane psychopath.


              And of course, the perfect counterpart to Amelie herself: the Founder who observes the rules with an almost dogmatic religious devotion, but so calm and cool and knowledgeable. In this one we finally get to see behind the veneer of her stoic face – even if it is just a little bit. She cracks for a second, the desperation of her situation suddenly evident, for a moment on her face and in her tone and in her actions towards Claire – and it’s riveting. Amelie is the meta character who runs everything – like the Wizard of Oz, and when you get a peek behind the curtains, you’re struck with how human her reasons are for the feats of godliness she seems to perform.
                Now, like in Book 2, I do have a little discomfort with some scenes in this book. The one that sticks out is a steam scene, when Shane and Claire are getting hot and heavy and Claire decides to put herself out on a limb and suggest they have sex. It’s such a scary and empowering thing – to own your own sexuality on one hand, but hold it out hesitantly, self-doubt at your attractiveness and appeal curbing your confidence. Claire strips off some clothing and smacks her lips and looks at Shane and says she’s ready – and in her mind, she is – she loves Shane – despite his general bitchiness (Oh yes, Readers, Shane gets really bitchy in this one), and the fact that he thinks she’s too young – she decides she’s ready.

                I applauded. Well, on the inside. Finally! Teenage girls taking ownership of their own sexuality and pursuing and exploring the results of this – like Morgan in Cate Tiernan’s Sweep series, and Buffy. It is such a rare thing – I mean, I grew up pouring over V.C. Andrews books – and granted, the sexuality is there, but it is usually tempered with rage, rape, anxiety, death and family secrets. Though in Andrews’ case, this serves as the tension in the whole book, in most books … it’s not. Not really. Especially not here – which is why I was fist pumping (on the inside) when Claire took that plunge.

And then Shane shuts her down.

Now, I guess there would be reasons I would find this okay – if he felt he wasn’t ready for example. But instead, when pressed for an answer he says he promised her father he wouldn’t.

Yeah, I was all rageful – this time, not so much on the inside (I am pretty sure my facial expression scared the guy across from me on the subway as I listened to the audiobook and seethed). A promise to her father? Holy Purity Balls, Batman! I cannot believe you said that – what would ever possess a person to think that making a promise to some girl’s father to ignore her wishes and stay celibate, qualifies as anything except being a chauvinistic and patronizing person who didn’t really think through that answer much.

I was so severely disappointed, I bitched about it to the Boy (who wiggled his eyebrows and said truly inappropriate things that make no sense – then or now), the Amigas and in general to anyone who asked. And I thought about it more and tried to justify it somehow (I really do like the series – all these little discomforting portions of the books are bothersome, and they seem strange set into the narrative) and came up with two possible explanations: either, (a), Rachel Caine is one of those people born and raised in a certain narrative that can’t break through it (On good days, I imagine I broke through – on bad days, I insist I did, while throwing pillows at the Boy and his sarcasm) and that is reflected in her writing; or, (b) She’s using this delay as a way of keeping the hook of Shane and Claire’s potential sexual relationship deep into the backs of her readers.

I am not sure which I like more: delayed gratification is all well and good (sometimes), but I don’t think that the buildup and delay of sexual gratifications in teenagers in literature serves anything but the idea of less-promiscuous “experimenting” that has a core of fear of sexuality. I would welcome other opinion, of course – but I can’t seem to get into this without seeing a bright neon sign in my head that blinks out a huge warning: Warning! Morality will be Shoved Down your Throat!


The Feminist in me is never sleeping.