YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
Number One Katie,
Yeah, I'd promised to read a self-published book in honor of NaNoWriMo. Didn't happen. Instead, I finally got around to reading Wild, that lesbian paranormal/thriller/romance I had high hopes for.
Let me start by saying I appreciate that this book is written for a criminally underrepresented and underserved audience. We need more books like this one.
But not too much like this one.
Its intentions are good, and it likely serves its purpose for most readers—assuming its purpose is to be a fluffy romantic fantasy/masturbatory aid rather than the plot-driven novel I'd expected it to be. Which is just fine! There's a huge market for fluffy romantic fantasies/masturbatory aids, and it's great to see so many LGBTQ+ offerings in that area. But that's not the kind of book I personally enjoy, and because my expectations for Wild were unmet, my reading experience was pretty painful.
I'll be critiquing this book as the paranormal/thriller I thought it'd be, not the romance/erotica that maybe it's supposed to be. This might be unfair to the book, but Wild provides some excellent examples of weak writing that I and every other aspiring writer can learn from, so why not talk about them?
The only thing that frightens shapeshifter Selene Rhodes more than the full moon is the idea of falling in love.
Selene Rhodes has lived her whole life with a terrible secret: not only can she take the form of any animal at will, but once a month the full moon transforms her into a fierce wolf-creature without a human conscience. Managing her condition means living by a strict routine, and more importantly, abstaining from intimate relationships with human beings. Selene is convinced that love and friendship can only bring her pain.
Forensic pathologist Eve Thomas is well-acquainted with the pain of romantic love. Swearing off relationships after having her heart broken by a cheating ex, Eve throws herself into her work: catching murderers. When Selene comes to her aid after an attack by a masked man in Golden Gate Park, Eve is shocked by how powerfully she is drawn to her mysterious savior.
Shaken by her own feelings for Eve, Selene is even more terrified to realize she isn’t even close to being the scariest monster stalking San Francisco. There is someone out in the city who is killing for pleasure, and his next target is the one woman he thinks might be able to stop him: Eve.
This letter'll be a lot more intelligible if I give you a run-down of the plot first.
Selene (regular shapeshifter all the time, out-of-control werewolf on full moons) finds a woman's body in the park and calls in an anonymous tip to the cops. After hanging up, she feels/hears—in a magical, empathic way—a woman (Eve) screaming for help. She runs to the rescue in wolf form, chases the ski-mask-wearing attacker off, and returns as a human to help Eve. Thus begins their love.
We then switch to murderer Kevin's point of view, and learn Kevin's obsessed with proving that Super Famous Criminal Pathologist Eve isn't as smart as his aspiring-serial-murderer self.
Eve and cheating-ex-girlfriend-who-wants-Eve-back, Detective Jac Battle, investigate each of Kevin's subsequent kills. They know the murderer's interested in Eve (so Jac insists on having a 24/7 protective detail guard her), but can't figure out why, nor who he is.
After plenty of sex for Selene and Eve, there's some relationship angst when (a) Jac tries to make Eve suspicious of Selene's motives, and (b) Eve finds Selene with another woman. (Selene's not cheating, just having werewolf problems.) They break up, but Selene guards Eve from the shadows and manages to follow Kevin to his apartment, thus discovering his name and address. Selene then reveals her shapeshifterliness to Eve and tells her who the murderer is, and they're once again Very Much In Love.
They then make an infuriatingly dumb decision that involves Eve slipping away from her protective detail on the night of the full moon, so of course (a) Kevin attacks them and (b) the werewolfed-out Selene kills him.
On to the critique!
The First Issue: Sense of Place
Wild is set in modern-day San Francisco—a city with such a distinct personality, its name conjures vivid images even though I've never visited it (unlike, say, Dallas, which I have spent time in. Sorry, Dallas). I'd expected Wild to give me a more complete and realistic view of the city, as it's told from the perspective of residents.
But nope. Wild's focus is so tight on its main characters that it ignores every opportunity to bring San Francisco to life. And I'm not talking about wasting paragraphs describing every building and landmark; I just want the little passing details—sights, smells, sounds, sensations, tastes—that would help ground me in the physical world of the story.
Take, for example, when Selene convinces Eve to go for an pre-dawn walk together from Selene's house to the coffee shop two and a half blocks away. Eve used to love morning walks, but gave up that ritual after Serial Murderer Kevin attacked her in the park. Selene wants to give Eve the strength to start taking walks again.
Eve's observing her surroundings while Selene (whose POV we're temporarily in) is so focused on Eve that she's oblivious to everything else. They discuss Eve's emotional state as they walk, but not a single detail is offered about the setting. As a result, I'm imagining the characters walking down a sidewalk in a predawn-blue void.
When they arrive at the coffee shop, Selene does take a moment to point out to Eve that they'd survived the brief walk:
"The streets were kind of busy and some people were wandering around" is not a compelling image. And that word choice! Writing that "a jogger moved" and "older women waited" is so dull. Sure, it gives the reader a vague idea of what's happening around the protagonists, but vague will set me either yawning or weeping. Possibly both.
Equally frustrating was the absence of seasonal descriptions. Wild's plot covers a period of two months, and I have no idea which two months those are. Autumn? Spring leading into summer? Dead of winter? Couldn't tell you.
The Second Issue: Characters
Don't read Wild expecting to find strong, distinct protagonists.
Mary Sues (generic protagonists with few to no distinct personality traits) certainly serve a function: they allow readers to insert themselves into that character's place, so reading can become more a guided fantasy featuring the reader, and less a story about the protagonist.
I enjoy my share of Mary Sue stories, but I generally prefer to read about characters who are real people. People with their own distinct hopes, anxieties, goals, flaws, habits, motivations, hobbies, strengths, preferences. The more real a character is, the more immersed I can be in their story.
What do we know about Selene as a person?
That's about it. Does she so much as touch a camera or refer to her photography hobby again over the course of the story? No. Does her job as a graphic designer ever come up again? No. Well, except for this, which actually takes place a few pages before the excerpt above:
Selene drops everything and devotes herself entirely to Eve; they go on dates, they have a lot of sex, and Selene follows Eve around in animal form just about 24/7. How on earth does Selene pay her bills?
Eve is even more of a blank slate than Selene. We're told she's a workaholic and a Super Famous Forensic Pathologist, but we only see her working a couple times, and we never get the sense that she's devoted to or remarkable at her job. We're told she hates liars. Oh, and of course she likes her predawn walks in the park.
No, I'm not counting that as character development.
As well as lacking personalities, Eve and Selene are aggravatingly inconsistent in their thoughts and behaviors. Inconsistency is an expected outcome of lacking a personality, but I suspect these inconsistencies would've existed even if they were better-developed characters. Why? Because those inconsistencies push the plot from one point to the next.
I've already ranted about characters acting out-of-character for the sake of plot/romance, but it bears repeating: writers, don't do this.
Eve's concern about her personal safety fluctuates throughout the story, but not in response to Serial Killer Kevin's actions. Nope. Her concern waxes and wanes depending on what the next sexy scene or plot point requires of her.
Halfway through the novel, Eve's as safe as she possibly can be from Kevin: she spends every night with Selene, and two detectives (not officers, detectives; I'm frowning in disapproval so hard right now) have been assigned as her 24/7 protection detail. But Selene's going to be werewolfing it up on the full moon, so she insists that Eve spend the night at Jac's place. Eve agrees, because she's in fear for her life:
If she wasn't fearing for her life at this point, she wouldn't have agreed to spend the night at Jac's place—which means Jac wouldn't have had the opportunity to wine, dine, and kiss Eve in an attempt to win her back. If Jac didn't kiss Eve, Eve wouldn't immediately go running back to Selene and witness a call girl arriving at Selene's house, thus ending Eve and Selene's relationship with a terrible misunderstanding. (The call girl's only there to tie Selene to a steel table before she turns into a werewolf and murders everything in sight, FYI. No, I won't explain why this is ridiculous.)
(Actually, yes, I will, and I'll italicize everything to relay the depth of my aggravation: no sex worker, especially one who works for what's described as a reputable agency, would put a client in restraints and leave them unattended—especially not overnight. Especially when the client wants the sex worker to tie the restraints so tightly they restrict breathing and circulation, as Selene requires. Aaaargh.)
Eve's fear for her life is totally acceptable, except that the very next day, Eve sneers at Jac's concern about her safety:
The whole "I'm too afraid to sleep alone at night because I'm marked for death" thing from the night before is conveniently forgotten, because it served its purpose: got Jac to kiss Eve, and Eve to break up with Selene. The next phase of the plot requires Eve to push her protectors as far away as possible, so Eve's fear is tossed out the window.
This isn't the only, or even the most infuriating, example of characters being dumb for the sake of the plot, but I won't describe the others because I have better things to do with my time.
Like complain about magical empathic bonds.
The Third Issue: Magical Empathic Bonds
What is the foundation of a strong, healthy relationship? A wealth of shared experiences? Honesty? Established trust? Respect for yourself and each other?
No? Then how about an inexplicable empathic bond that allows you and your partner to sense each other's emotions, and also causes you to orgasm when you so much as touch their hand? Sounds legit to me!
Selene and Eve's "romance" took all of two seconds to reach maturity, and was the least romantic thing I've read in a while—yes, in spite of their gushing emotions and soul-shattering need for each other.
That should actually be need in italics, need with a capital N. They Need each other, and that Need is established even before Eve works up the courage to ask Selene on a date.
But what fuels that NEED? Certainly not any sense of mutual affection or trust or respect, or whatever. Nope, it's that sparkly magic ability to sense each other's emotions:
Healthy! But wait, it gets better:
That's right. Eve is the only thing keeping Selene human. Never mind that Selene's been a fully functional (if self-isolated) human for the past thirty-plus years; without Eve, her life is over.
I. I just don't have the words for how damaging, insulting, and infuriating this view of love is. It is absolute bullshit and I hate seeing it paraded around as a romantic ideal.
I'd intended to explain how being able to sense each other's emotions reduces the tension during their interactions, but I think it's time to move on.
The Fourth Issue: Serial Killer Kevin's POV
Some stories benefit from a few (or many!) scenes told from the antagonist's perspective. Not this one.
We're treated to five scenes from Kevin's perspective. Each averages two pages long, and they pop up every sixty or so pages. Their purpose is threefold:
Here's a tiny sample:
That excerpt is actually a little deceiving, because in it Kevin spends almost as much time physically doing something (picking up the book) as he does Villainous Monologue-ing. In reality, scenes written from Kevin's point of view consist almost entirely of his (third-person) obsessing over Eve and pride of his own evil genius.
So why is this a problem?
First: farewell, mystery
We meet Kevin on page 38, mere pages after he kills one woman and attacks Eve. I'd expected this to be a murder mystery, where I'm as in the dark as the protagonists. Nope. No mystery here. He's an open book from the start.
Second: farewell, tension
The thrilling part of thrillers is usually the great unknown: who is this person, what's driving them, what are they capable of, what will they do next, will they succeed? If the bad guy's explaining to the reader in advance what his next move is—especially when the bad guy's an overconfident idiot like Kevin, and we know he's going to fail—where's the tension? Nowhere.
Third: ahaha, "Kevin"
Okay, so this ties into both the mystery and the tension thing, but: knowing the murderer's name from the get-go reduces him from the Big Scary Monster Guy to Some Obsessed Murderer Dude Named Kevin.
In short: the murder/thriller aspect of the story was poorly handled, and not particularly thrilling.
There's more I could say (flawed logic, factual errors, no likable characters), but I'll end this letter with this:
Someone please tell me (a) what cleaning products Selene uses and (b) how she was cutting that cake, because wow.
Wild wasn't very good, but I know you and I both thought Battle Scars was decent. This author's capable of writing better stories, and I'm sure her work will improve. In the meantime, I'll look for my supernatural lesbian thrillers elsewhere.