Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Immortal Crown by Richelle Mead

Title: The Immortal Crown
Author: Richelle Mead
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: worthy

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

p31 "…dropping and rolling to the ground…" should be "…dropping, and rolling on the ground…"

p98 Mead uses the word 'frequented' when she really appears to mean 'visited'.
p101 "Mae shook her head wonderingly"? Better: "Mae shook her head in wonder"
p193 "When he'd stopping their escalations before..." should be "When he'd stopped their escalation before..."

This is book 2 in Richelle Mead's Age of X series. I reviewed book one, Gameboard of the Gods a while ago, and despite finding well over a dozen errors in the advance review copy, I really enjoyed it, so I've been looking forward to reading the next installment.

I have to say that while I definitely don't think anyone will ever laud Richelle Mead of being a great literary writer (she could use a crash course in the difference between 'less' and 'fewer' for example), she does a pretty decent job in general; however, there are some fingernails-on-chalkboard moments in her writing, where she employs bastard 'words' such as, for example: 'politician-y' and 'orangey-red'. Any writer can do better than that. Note that these things appear not in a character's speech, which would have been perfectly fine because people do speak like that, but in her own narrative, which is a bit too much, since she's not telling this in first person as though she's a character herself.

This novel continues the story of Mae Koskinen, a soldier in the so-called 'Praetorian' guard - some sort of super-soldier outfit in Canada/the USA (known as the RUNA - the Republic of United North America). Mae is Finnish by descent, and a genetically healthy woman in a world where a plague has struck down much of humanity and disfigured many of the survivors. Mae is assigned as bodyguard to Justin March, a religious investigator for the RUNA government. The RUNA doesn't like religion, because in this world, there really are gods vying for a following amongst the humans, and in this volume, they appear to be gearing up for a war.

After receiving a vision via a special knife which was an anonymous gift which Mae received, she comes to believe that her niece, an eight-year-old who was lost to her family and whom Mae has long sought, is being held in Arcadia, a nation not known for it's generosity of spirit towards the female half of the population. Coincidentally, Mae has the chance to go there on official business.

This story, I should forewarn you, is over 400 pages long and it moves with a proportionately sluggish pace, which I found annoying. In addition to a decidedly more lively narrative, something else I would like to see in this series is the termination of this non-existent relationship between Mae and Justin. Not only does it not exist, it doesn't work. There's no basis for it and it's neither appealing nor realistic, so at the risk of giving away spoilers, I was rather thrilled with the ending of this volume, although I am sure it's not any kind of an ending in the long run. Going there, would take a writer with some real guts!

Perhaps I should explain. Volume one featured a quickie between these two characters before Mae knew that he was the guy she was supposed to be body-guarding (he knew who she was, but he never let on). Justin, who is being sought as a devotee by the god Odin, had a revelation that if he started getting it on with Mae, he would simultaneously be selling-out to Odin, and becoming the god's priest (read: pawn). He doesn't want that, so he rejected Mae in a rather callous way. She does not know his motivation, and simply accepts that he's that kind of a guy, but unrealistically, this does not prevent her from obsessing over him unhealthily. This causes me to seriously question Mae's smarts!

So, end of story, right? Naw! For reasons beyond human understanding (which is sadly all I'm equipped with), the two are still attracted to one another. I can see why he would be still hot for Mae - he's a lech and a womanizer and she's attractive (not that that's a requirement given the premises), but there's no reason why she should be, especially not after his behavior towards her. The problem with this relationship is not only that it doesn't exist in any romantic sense, it's that even in a romantic sense, it's non-existent.

It didn't work in volume one, but there was enough going on to render that a minor matter. Now that the pace is reduced to a limp in volume two, the interaction between the two really stands out as a pairing which needs paring. There is no chemistry; there's no tension, sexual or otherwise, and there's no reason at all why the two should be so focused upon one another in any way other than purely professional.

The first mistake Mead makes I think, in this novel (other than including the first hundred pages, that is) is after there's a attack on Tessa, Justin's young, female ward. Because of the assault, which was actually aimed (so we're told) at Justin, Mae and some of her friends at the Praetorian volunteer to watch the house. Mae also hires a dedicated, retired soldier named Rufus as a more permanent guard, and here's where the problem lies.

We're given to understand that both Justin and Mae are really shaken-up by what happened to Tessa, yet Mae hires this guy, a stranger, at his first interview, and with zero background checks! This is a guy whom she quite literally just met. That struck me as gullible at best, and stupid at worst, neither of which traits Mae has exhibited before. Just saying! It felt like bad writing to me, and I never trusted Rufus.

It was only when we got past page 100 (that is, some 25% the way in) that the story got to where I felt I could become honestly interested in it. That first 100 pages could be completely skipped and the story would not suffer for it. Also, the sections in which Tessa appears could be skipped. I liked her in the first novel. She contributes nothing in this one. If this had been a first time novel by a newbie, any competent editor would have advocated this, but once you're established, it seems that no one dare say boo to you. Go figure!

In chapter nine, they've finally arrived in Arcadia (read Alabama) and their military escort is deprived of its weaponry, yet not a single one of them raises any sort of protest. This struck me as being really dumb and unrealistic. Why did they even take their weapons with them if they were going to be robbed of them anyway? It made no sense. To me, this was poorly written. Think about it in a modern context. If the President was going to Iran, and the Iranians wanted the Secret Service guards to be robbed of their weapons, would this be acceptable? No! Then why is it here?

Worse than this was the the way the females in the party were treated. They were forced to be silent, to cover up, and to undertake menial household chores! Seriously? Could you see that happening in the real USA? No one would stand for it, least of all the women. This was entirely unrealistic and it really degraded the quality of the novel for me. Fortunately, it was right after this that things improved dramatically and turned it around for me, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to rate this novel favorably, which would have saddened me, being a fan of Mead's (at least of her Vampire Academy series!).

Mead also missed a great opportunity with Mae's magic knife. It's discovered in her possession, but instead of having her say that it's a religious artifact and daring this highly religious nation to confiscate it as such, Justin steps in and says it's his, and he's allowed to keep it. I found that completely irrational given that they'd just confiscated weapons from the military for goodness sakes! It made no sense and could have been written much better. I've seen several reviews on this novel which compliment Mead for her writing, but I don't see it as anything special. Her writing isn't outright bad per se, and she delivers on so great ideas, but there are some serious flaws in it as I've pointed out in the errata and throughout this review.

The reason I mentioned Iran above is that some reviewers also commented on the Islamophobic aspect of this depiction of the Arcadian nation - that Arcadia is nothing more than a surrogate for a slam at Islam, but while Islam does merit being pilloried for its appalling devaluation and marginalization of women, such reviewers appear to be blind to the problems of religion in general. It's not only the Muslim religion which is abusive of women: each of big three monotheistic religions, all of which share the same root - Judaism - are misogynistic and the root cause of that lies in the story of Adam and Eve.

People dishonestly pretend that Christianity is not as bad, but it is, and some sects of Christianity such as Mormonism and the bizarre Amish-style cults are worse. The more orthodox Judaist sects also repress women. Religion in general is very bad for women, so this isn't what those reviewers think it is; it's much broader than that narrow view and I appreciated Mead's tackling of this important topic.

Having said that, I also have to register some disappointment with Mead's own writing about women. It seems that all she can talk about as the women are introduced to Arcadia is how "beautiful" or ugly they are. She tries to hide this by depicting it as Justin's thoughts, but this actually makes it worse because from her PoV of developing him as a character, it makes Justin nothing but a shallow jerk, and yet we're somehow expected to root for him as Mae's beau? I don't think so! I for one am not on-board with him!

It's like even Mead thinks that women have no (or at best, limited) value unless they're beautiful, the hell with how their minds are, the hell with whether they're strong, emotionally stable, good providers, hard workers, reliable, have integrity, and so on. There are scores of criteria by which to appreciate them, yet Mead's sole criterion for which women are to be valued is skin deep, and that's it. I find it hard to believe that Mead writes like this, but let's face it, she does foreshadow this in her Vampire Academy series which is the only other series of hers that I've read, and which I actually - for the most part - like. Let me just say that I am very disappointed in her at this point in reading around page 114...!

Those problems aside, the interest for me definitely ramped-up as Mae was turned loose (figuratively speaking, that is - she was in fact extremely restricted) amongst the Arcadians. She didn't, unfortunately, "go all kamikaze on their asses" as one reviewer amusingly had hoped, but she did cut loose at one point and I appreciated that.

You can see that here, she proved herself to be strong, independent, aggressive when necessary, effective, capable, and resourceful, yet never is she appreciated for any of that - only for how beautiful she is. It's sad. Hopefully, from the way this novel ended, we'll see much more of that side of her and much less of the limp, uninteresting and let's face it for all intents and purposes other than as a love interest for Mae, completely pointless Justin in volume three.

Prior to this point, I had seriously been wondering if I wanted to finish this novel, let alone go on to read another in this series, but from that point onwards, it really turned around and became very readable. If Mead had started this novel chapter nine, and had excluded all the chapters where Tessa was involved, and excluded the pointless scenes of flirtation between Mae and Justin, this novel would have been perfect. As it was, it seemed to take forever to get through this, which isn't a good sign! However, it was worth reading in my opinion, but it's certainly not my favorite novel of Mead's.