Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Title: Scarlet
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Rating: worthy

I review the first volume in this quadrilogy, Cinder and also the third volume, Cress. And you know what? If you like Scarlet, maybe you'll like Ruby Red?! Hey! it's worth a thought!

It was sooo good to get back into Meyer's Cinder-world (aka The Lunar Chronicles - not that any of this takes place on the Moon - at least not so far; let’s just call it Cinderama!). I don’t know what it is about this series, but I was definitely hooked after Cinder. Unfortunately, Scarlet left a few things to be desired. I am still on-board with this series, but not quite as enthused as I was after I'd read the original volume. There were a few rough bumps in the reading, and I only partly warmed to Scarlet the novel. I was willing to ride out the rough parts for the good parts, but I did not take to the Scarlet the character at all! She ain't no Cinder!

Scarlet Benoit lives in a small village in France, near Toulouse. Benoit is a name related to the religious order of the Benedictines. It appears that (as least from reading this volume) Meyer didn't choose this name because of that connection, but she does wear a hooded garment - although it’s bright red in color. I'm rather picky about my character names, so it was of interest to me to see if this choice went anywhere. It didn't; it was just a name pulled out of a hat, apparently. I mean, why a French last name, Benoit, but an English first name, Scarlet? Why wasn't it Écarlate?!

The real Toulouse, in the south of France, is the birthplace of Henry Russell, the explorer, and is currently a center of aerospace technology so it’s kind of appropriate to the story. Scarlet lives on a farm owned by her grandmother. Michelle Benoit, and she was extremely happy there, but this is no longer the case, since her grandmother was kidnapped. The police have given up on the case, considering her grandmother to be a crazy old lady who has simply wandered off. This infuriates Scarlet, who is as feisty as her red hair would suggest (if this were a cliché-ridden tale...but it's not, right? Uh-huh!).

Scarlet's father shows up at the farm unexpectedly, and is evidently searching for something. Upon questioning, Scarlet discovers that he was captured and tortured by the same people who kidnapped her grandmother. He complains that his mother - Scarlet's grandmother - let him be tortured rather than tell the thugs what they wanted to know. Evidently this secret is so big that grandmother is not going to reveal it even to save her son (and especially not since he abandoned Scarlet and her mom some time ago). Why Scarlet doesn't simply take her dad directly to the police at this point is one of many unexplained mysteries we will encounter in this novel. Why he was sent to do the search, rather than the wolves do it is another mystery.

The only thing her dad can tell her about his captivity is that one guy had, on his forearm, a tattooed alphanumeric sequence, which she'd seen that same day on a street fighter. When her dad passes out drunk, she tracks down this street fighter at a nearby illegal fight and confronts him. He says it wasn't him, promptly beats the crap out of an undefeated monster of a man who was hitherto undefeated, and then flees undefeated into the night. Scarlet hears a wolf howling, which is curious, since this guy's name is Wolf....

The next morning, the guy shows up at Scarlet's farm. She doesn't trust him, and at first he refuses to help her, telling her this is far too unsafe for her, but he does reveal who these people are with the tattoos: a dangerous Paris gang. Later, he agrees to help her, but rather than head off to their Paris HQ in her ship, they inexplicably take the train because it’s...faster? Another abrupt ejection from my tenuous suspension of reality. Clearly they took the train so they could have an adventure on it which is fine, but couldn't Meyer have written a better excuse for it?

Meanwhile, let us not forget Cinder; yes, she's in this novel, too! She's a prisoner in a Chinese prison awaiting the evil Lunar queen's disposal, but she uses her Lunar glimmer ability to persuade the guards to move her to a cell from which she figures she can escape. Why she simply doesn't glimmer them to escort her directly from the prison is unexplained mystery #3. Why she was left with her cyborg technology intact is unexplained mystery #4; the French evidently detest cyborgs just as much as the Chinese in this series, which is why that's an unexplained mystery. Hopefully this novel won't be a sad litany of such plot holes - or at least the story in general will outweigh these things.

Using her nifty cyber-parts given to her by Dr Erland, she drills down through the floor into a cell below hers, thinking it’s empty, but it’s occupied by a new character in this series, a roguish, self-obsessed captain Carswell Thorne, who conveniently has at his disposal a stolen US military spacecraft. Have you noticed how all these para military rogues are captains? They're never a private, or a colonel, or a major, are they? Having said that, if it were not for Thorne, I think I might have truly despaired about Scarlet (the novel, not the character, although Scarlet's account is definitely in the red at this point..). Once she learns he has this craft, Cinder takes him along with her and we follow the inevitably disgusting escape through the sewers into the ship and into orbit. So what are the odds that Cinder is going to end up in Paris, too?

Well it soon becomes apparent why Scarlet and Wolf take the train: it’s so they can get some quality bonding time together, which couldn't really have happened had they taken Scarlet's ship, but the bonding doesn’t really happen on the train either! Scarlet seems a bit slow on the uptake as an obvious bad guy takes the train with them; then next thing they know (no, it’s not the bad guy - at least not directly) is that some robot is knocking on their door wanting to re-scan their wrist chips; then it wants a blood sample!

I guess this is the norm for life in their century, because neither refuses or is even really outraged by it, but the odd thing is that none of this is ever explained in the story. We have no idea why this blood sampling happened - so we're forced to conclude that the sole purpose of it was a ham-fisted ruse to get Scarlet and Wolf off the train and into the forest; however, since there's no evident purpose for that either, this is yet another in an increasingly long line of mysteries.

When Wolf decides it’s time to get off the train, they jump through a window. Why maglev bullet trains would have opening windows is a complete and utter mystery, but there you go - or rather there they go. Remember how it's a bullet train? Meyer didn't. I'm not sure she even fully grasps the maglev concept, either, but we'll let that slide.

Meanwhile, Cinder installs her robot Iko's chip in Carswell's space craft, and decides they need to find Michelle Benoit.... They track her down to the farm outside Toulouse (where Thorne swoops up a girl who has fainted - not scoops her up. but swoops her up!), and they run into a wolf uprising while trying to get a replacement fuel cell for Thorne's ship. Cinder, who was a stalwart of capability in volume one, is also turning into a bit of an airhead, unfortunately because even though, on the ship on the trip down there, she had learned how to transform her appearance to look like any other human by sheer willpower using Queen Levana's trick, this trick somehow fails to intrude on her consciousness when she goes into town with Thorne, so she's instantly recognized and attracts the police. Why she has to go instead of letting Thorne's less identifiable face go alone is yet another unexplained mystery in a growing pile.

So Scarlet and Wolf jump onto the next bullet train which is running through the forest, and find their way inside - why nothing is locked and sealed on these trains is yet another mystery. And how, exactly, does one jump onto a bullet train? Did Meyer forget the bit about bullet again? The current speed record for a maglev, and this was set in 2003, was midway between 300 and 400 miles per hour! So they dropped onto a 300mph train? If we assume, just a for a quick calculation, a train length of about 500 feet (give or take, based very roughly on the dimensions of China's up and running maglev), this means at 300mph, the entire length of the train has gone past you in little more than 10 seconds. My math sucks, so I may have that wrong, but if not, then ten seconds is an abysmally short time to get two people successfully onto a train, who have never done this before.

Anyway, they get to Paris and find their way to the wolves' HQ, only for Scarlet to discover that she's inevitably betrayed (but not really) by this hunky white guy who has his hair tumbling into his eyes. Trope much? I'm sorry, but at this point I have not still warmed to Scarlet, who started out being strong and feisty, but became a complete limp rag as soon as a guy showed up in her life. I find Wolf as laughable as I found that worthless non-entity who is destined to be Cinder's boyfriend from the first novel. It's really sad that in an entire four-book series supposedly devoted to strong women, the women turn out to be such a bunch of plastic Barbies.

Wolf inevitably doesn't betray her but slips her a chip which enables her to escape from her cell, and find her grandmother, but this girl who routinely and easily hauls heavy crates of vegetables around in her day job is too weak now to haul her featherweight grandmother out of the cell? Seriously? So because this weak, limp woman (Scarlet, not her g-mom) can't free her g-mom, her g-mom is inevitably dispatched, and all this without telling Scarlet, inevitably, a single useful thing about what's really going on! And Scarlet is supposed to be some sort of hero? Not even close. Hopefully she'll redeem herself in the remaining two volumes.

The biggest problem with these scenes of the wolfish battles are that these wolves were born and raised on the Moon, where gravity is one sixth that of Earth. Meyer consistently forgets this, or isn't smart enough to consider it in her writing, or she thinks that her readers are so stupid they won't notice it. None of those options speaks well of her. No matter how dangerous, powerful and forbidding the wolves were on the Moon, here on Earth, effectively carrying six times their weight, they would be poor and sluggish, but we never see this reality depicted at all.

As I reached the end of this tome, I had to say that I was disappointed. After Cinder took off like a rocket, I found this one to be a rather damp squib. Precisely because it didn't engage me like the first one did, my mind dwelt far more on plot holes and poor planning than it ever had interest in pondering with the first novel in this series. The story moved along at a good pace but a lot of it seemed pointless, and I was reading it only for the Cinder/Thorne parts. Thorne was limited and cliched; in contrast with the rest of the story, he was definitely a highlight, but he had far too little 'screen time' in comparison with the sadly vapid scenes featuring Scarlet and Wolf. He was the real 'hero' in this volume even though he was far from a hero, and much more like light relief. I found myself wondering who Meyer will pair him of with - Rapunzel maybe? She is up next, although neither she nor Snow got a mention on volume two.

It was nice that it was set outside the USA (yes, Virginia, there is a rest of the world), but when you got right down to it, there was nothing in the story which made this a necessity. Both volumes one and two could have been set in the USA or anywhere else in the world and it wouldn't have made an ounce of difference to the outcome. That lack of engagement with the surroundings was far more noticeable in Scarlet because of the story's failure to immerse me whole-heartedly, so the setting was really irrelevant from that perspective.

The Scarlet/Wolf story held very little interest. It was the standard failure of this kind of story, whereby we're presented with a strong female lead, but she becomes a complete dishcloth as soon as a manly man steps into the picture, and from that point onwards she's nothing more than an appendage to him instead of being the girl we loved and rooted for when we first met her. To paraphrase the words of Obi-wan Kenobi: "This is not the hero you're looking for. Move along."

Cinder was still engaging, and we see her at the end finally embrace her destiny as the four of them (Cinder, Thorne, Wolf, and Scarlet) escape in Thorne's spacecraft, but even Cinder failed to move me like she did in the first novel. Now I'm left hoping that Rapunzel and Snow White are going to step up to the plate and not fall flat like Scarlet did.

Oh yeah, apparently there was a wet blanket by the name of Emperor Kai somewhere in this story. I must not have noticed him. For that (lack of the detestable Kai), and for Thorne, I'll rate this as a very conservative worthy!

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