YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
Several years ago I confessed to you that I’d started a pre-dawn jogging routine because Anita Blake was amazing and I totally agreed with her on the whole You Need To Be Able To Outrun Bad Guys idea. And how did you respond? By admitting you wanted to do that too, and for the exact same reason. (Truly our friendship was destined!)
I’m always on the lookout for another series as enjoyable as the first several Anita Blake books were, but the paranormal shelves at bookstores and libraries are collapsing under their own weight, and it’s difficult to find something genuinely good amid the mess. (Have you read the Kara Gillian series yet? Do it. Do it now.)
So I go into a new paranormal series half cautious, half hopeful–ready to be disappointed, but eager to be pleased. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much to be pleased about with Jeaniene Frost‘s Halfway to the Grave.
Are you ready for me to spoil absolutely everything about this book?
Flirting with the grave . . .
Half-vampire Catherine Crawfield is going after the undead with a vengeance, hoping that one of these deadbeats is her father - the one responsible for ruining her mother's life. Then she's captured by Bones, a vampire bounty hunter, and is forced into an unholy partnership.
In exchange for finding her father, Cat agrees to train with the sexy night stalker until her battle reflexes are as sharp as his fangs. She's amazed she doesn't end up as his dinner - are there actually good vampires? Pretty soon Bones will have her convinced that being half-dead doesn't have to be all bad. But before she can enjoy her newfound status as kick-ass demon hunter, Cat and Bones are pursued by a group of killers. Now Cat will have to choose a side . . . and Bones is turning out to be as tempting as any man with a heartbeat.
For ease of reading, I’m going to list my complaints before explaining them. I, uh, have a feeling this will be a somewhat long letter.
Our Heroine, Cat
Our heroine is a twenty-two-year old from small-town Ohio, born to a girl who had been raped by a vampire. The trauma of the rape and the shame of having a child out of wedlock had driven Cat’s mother into seclusion, and Cat was raised by her emotionally-damaged mother and conservative Christian grandparents. With her mother’s enthusiastic blessing, Cat’s on a mission to rid the world of vampires by luring vampires into secluded places with offers of sexy times and offing them, one by one.
This sounds like a really neat premise for a character, right? And it is!
Except Cat doesn’t go beyond that premise at all. Her character displays the stereotypical Bad Ass Woman With Self-Esteem Issues attitude (you know the one–that flips between annoying bravado and moroseness). Well, she describes herself well enough, so I’ll leave her to it:
Other than that, her only real characteristic is her repressed sexuality. We never learn what kind of music she listens to, what movie genre she’s obsessed with, if she’d rather spend her weekends reading or backpacking. I have no idea what she fears most, or what she wants to do with her life. She’s apparently a junior in college, but we’re never even told what her major is. *Shakes a fist.*
Seriously, this character is just a name with an “attitude” and some issues about sex. Oh, and she kills vampires. (But even her motivation for killing vampires, which sounds promising in summary, is flimsy at best in the book. But I’ll go into that later.)
So what does this mean for her character arc? Nothing good, really. I mean, stereotypical paranormal heroines are by and large Bad Ass Women With Issues, so we can’t reasonably expect her to be less Bad Ass or less Issued by the end of the book. So that leaves only her repressed sexuality as the thing that can be changed. And change it does! Behold Cat as we first meet her, attempting to lure her vampire prey into a secluded area for some killing:
Keep in mind, by the time the book opens, Cat’s been luring vampires to their deaths by offering sex for six years. Six. And she’s still unable to control her awkwardness or blushing. Bones, the “sexy” vampire bounty hunter who forces Cat to become his partner (supposedly because he wants to hone her, uh, natural gift of luring vampires to their deaths), is not too pleased with this tendency of hers:
But don’t worry, he has a plan to wipe that blush right off her face: dirty-talk lessons.
That’s right. In order to become the ultimate vampire hunter, Cat undergoes four weeks of intense physical training, and then a week of beautifying, clothes-shopping, and dirty-talk lessons.
I. I just.
The lessons are a success, and the very first time they go hunting together, she puts her newfound ability to not blush to good use. And then, uh, she falls into lust with Bones, they have sex, she’s squeamish afterward because Issues, she realizes she loves him unto madness, and all her issues with sex disappear.
And why do her Issues disappear? Because they were neither big nor important to begin with.
So, yes. Her only character “arc” is that she stops being embarrassed about sex and sexuality. She doesn’t learn an important life lesson, she’s not significantly changed after facing down her greatest fear. She falls in love and has sex.
If we were Skyping right now, you would’ve just witnessed the longest sigh.
Oh–and if you are wondering if Cat comes to terms with herself being half-vampire, or decides to stop worrying so much about what her mother thinks about her intimacy with a vampire, and if those count as significant character arcs, let me shake my head at you. Because no. There’s some feinting in those directions, sure, but they’re not fleshed out enough to count.
Our Love Interest,
Our love interest is a two-hundred-plus year old Englishman with super-sculpted cheek bones, a slender build, a wardrobe of dark clothing, and the attitude of…well, I’ll show you.
Bones is Spike from Buffy, all the way down to his dark eyebrows and bleach-blond hair.
Now, to be totally honest with you, I’m all over Spike. Angel just never did it for me. What bothers me about Bones is that in order for me to like him, I have to pretend he actually is Spike, with Spike’s awesome backstory and complex personality and motivations and character arc and so forth. Bones himself is just, like Cat, a name attached to a stereotype (Bad Boy With Good Intentions), with some attitude and some vampire-killing thrown in. No real personality traits, no apparent hopes or fears or goals, no depth.
Unlike Cat, he doesn’t have any Issues to resolve, so he just kind of…exists in the story. No revelations, no life-altering decisions, no change. Static beginning to end.
He’s so boring.
And when he’s not being boring…wait. I need to rephrase that. And on top of being boring, he’s also really, really creepy.
This is a book overflowing with men who objectify and sexually abuse women–but our love interest can’t be one of them, right? Let’s see what he tells Cat on the subject:
That’s a relief! But his gentlemanly attitude is to be expected, right? He is, after all, our love interest!
Tell us again your stance on the subject, Bones.
How does he respond when Cat tells him she regrets having kissed him and doesn’t want to do it again?
That’s right. He goes all enraged and tells her if she doesn’t leave immediately, he’s going to force her to kiss him.
Not exactly living up to your insistence that you’re a good guy there, pal.
Later on, when Cat realizes that their make-out session is taking a turn towards cunnilingus, this happens:
That’s right. She told him she didn’t want him to go down on her, and he was all like, “Your desires aren’t as important as mine,” and did it anyway. The fact that she ends up liking it is supposed to make this okay.
It is not okay.
And it gets even better (and by “better” I do mean “worse”). You remember how both I and the synopsis mentioned that she’s forced to become his bounty-hunting partner? Yeah. When he captured her, he chained her up in a cave, threatened her with torture, then discovered she’s half-vampire (and full of bravado). He then told her she had two options: be his partner or be killed. He later reveals that he gave her these options because:
He was attracted to her attitude, so he decided to kill her if she didn’t agree spend time with him. His thought process was quite literally, “This lady is swell, but she’s prejudiced against me. How should I buy time to prove to her that I’m a neat guy? How about I tell her I’ll kill her if she doesn’t obey my every command? Perfect! She’ll be swooning in my arms in no time!”
Ashers, quite honestly, I took multiple breaks from this book to wash the rage from my mouth. (Clearly I was not this book’s intended audience.)
Of course, it’s not a surprise when he warns her against trying to run away from him once she finally enters into a physical relationship with him:
Because a physical relationship automatically makes her his property, you see! And should she want to end the relationship and move on with her life–well, too bad. Bones is the only one who can make decisions about her life, and he won’t allow her to exist independently of him.
(Excuse me while I go get some lemonade; my mouth is tasting ragey again.)
And because this is supposed to have been a really sexy and romantic thing for him to say, it has to be brought back up later on. The book actually ends with Cat running away from Bones to prevent him from being killed by some government agency. The last page reads:
Oh, yeah. Knowing this creep is going to hunt me down and never let me go just fills me with all the warm tingly feelings.
You just missed another really big sigh over here.
The Romance, As It Were
What I love so much about the early Anita Blake novels and the Kara Gillian series is that they aren’t about women falling in love. These are stories about women being dragged into situations where they’re out of their depth, and how they struggle to gain control (much less survive) and come to terms with the resulting change in themselves/their world. Oh, and they fall in love (or, at least, sexy, complicated interpersonal relationships) along the way.
In Halfway to the Grave, the falling in love part takes precedence over the plot. It’s falling in love that changes Cat (by making her comfortable with sex), not any revelation about herself or life or whatever. Even the placement of events in the book are telling: the first-quarter point is marked by Bones and Cat killing their first joint bounty together (which is awesome), but the halfway point is the first time they have sex, and three-quarters point is the first time Cat tells Bones she loves him, and lets him drink her blood. Instead of, you know, a halfway point and three-quarters point that are plot-relevant.
Now, I’m not looking down on stories that focus on romantic relationships. I may not be a heavy romance reader, but I’m an obsessive Jane Austen fan, I’m passingly fluent in Georgette Heyer, and (secretly) believe that fantasy novels feel a bit empty without a solid romance element. My to-read shelves are fairly well populated with romance novels.
What I look down on are novels that present themselves as having a romance plot and a non-romance plot, yet fail to make either aspect compelling.
Yes, this book’s romance plot failed for me primarily because Bones is such a disgusting excuse for a love interest, but that wasn’t the only reason.
Let’s take, for example, the first turning point in their relationship, when Cat admits to herself that she kind of wants a relationship.
“But Liam,” you say, “that looks quite acceptable.”
Yes, in excerpt form it does. The problem here is that she’s not for the first time allowing herself to notice how beautiful he is; she’s been aware of how beautiful he was from the very beginning. She’s even told him how beautiful he is. It’s not some great revelation or admission. It’s old news.
For the first step on the path toward love, this was underwhelming.
On top of that, the romance just wasn’t very…romantic. It’s hard to believe two characters are falling in love when I view them as stereotypes rather than real people, first of all. It’s hard to be excited about two characters falling in love when one of them is super creepy and abusive, second of all. And third, neither of them is changed by their relationship at all–except for Cat deciding she’s cool with nudity and the f-word around strangers.
The Plot, As It Were
For a story like this to be really gripping, its heroes (and readers) need to believe that there is a possibility that the good guys will fail, and the villain will have his evil way with the world. That tension (will they succeed or won’t they?) is not present in this story.
Cat is just too much of a bad ass for the story’s own good. She’s already a seasoned vampire hunter by the time she teams up with Bones, and once she undergoes his physical- and dirty-talk-training, she’s unstoppable. (Well, stoppable by roofies in her drink, but that’s why she has a partner to back her up?)
They never face an enemy they can’t take down easily–and by the time final battles roll around, they’re basically mowing vampires down in their sleep.
If they can sleep through these battles, I might as well do the same.
(Actually, I didn’t sleep through these battles. I giggled in disbelief and delight at how absurd they were. I’m still giggling.)
Not only are they unstoppable to the point of boring, the stakes–if the do somehow fail–are really low. (But they can’t possibly fail, so the stakes are moot.)
The villain, a vampire named Hennessey, has a sex- and blood-slavery ring that kidnaps human girls and sells them to wealthy vampires. Bones has been trying to bring Hennessey down for years, and Cat is determined to help him. If they fail, an unknown number of girls will continue to disappear and die. This is horrifying, but in my opinion, neither Cat nor Bones express an adequate amount of horror over it.
At one point (and, yes, I’m using the most heinous example of this) Cat and Bones do save a girl from the ring, and immediately take her to Tara, a friend of Bones’s who helps rape survivors. Neat, right? But the focus of that scene is on Cat’s jealousy and suspicion of Tara’s possible sexual interest in Bones, and Tara’s reassurance that Bones is totally into Cat. The victim is actually removed from the scene to be taken care of, while the reader stays in the room with Tara and Cat as they deal with Cat’s roiling Bones-related emotions. The victim is just an excuse to introduce Tara to Cat.
For another example of victims who could’ve been portrayed in a more powerful and meaningful way, let’s go with Cat’s grandparents. Toward the end of the book, Cat and Bones discover that her grandparents have been murdered and her mother kidnapped:
(The sniffing, by the way, is Bones using his mighty vampire nose to glean information about the killers.)
It could be a really powerful scene, right? Except that we’ve never seen even a hint of emotional connection between Cat and her grandparents, much less affection or love. They’ve existed in the story only as the Uptight Elderly Christians Who Frown At Their Granddaughter. Cat’s emotional response to them is essentially indifference. Why does Cat care that they died? Why should I?
The same stands for her mother: there’s no meaningful emotional connection, so why should anyone care if she was kidnapped?
This isn’t a difficult problem to solve; just a handful of lines describing, say, positive aspects of her relationships with these people scattered throughout the book would’ve helped.
Though I will say that despite not caring about Cat’s mom, I was genuinely horrified by the way Cat treated her at the end of the book. Cat saves her from the vampires, and vows to protect her from further harm–a vow that winds up with the two of them hiding in the home of Bone’s friend, a flesh-eating ghoul named Rodney. Once there, Cat shoves her mom in Rodney’s basement and locks her in:
Do I like Cat’s mother? No. Does that excuse Cat’s behavior? No.
This woman, who was so traumatized by her rape that she rarely left her house again, who was kidnapped from her house by vampires and held by them with a group of girls being sold into slavery, who witnessed her daughter slaughter countless vampires to free her, and so on–this woman is shoved into a basement and threatened by her own daughter with death-by-ghoul. And the situation is written as if it’s funny, something for the reader to chuckle over.
I’m making rage-hands right now, just so you know.
Cat clearly has very little regard for her mother, which makes the whole kidnapped/rescued situation even less meaningful than it was before.
A lack of tension and low/non-existent stakes are major flaws in a book; plot contrivances are minor in comparison. But they’re still annoying, and this book has them, so I’m going to mention them. Well, I’ll mention one, to save space.
The reason Cat is so uncomfortable about sex-stuff is because when she was sixteen, she slept with the guy she liked and he dumped her immediately afterward. Actually, she saw Danny making out with another girl in a club, and when she confronted him he told it’d been fun but he’d moved on (my words, not Danny’s). She was so furious that she found a vampire in the club and lured him out to his death–her very first vampire slaying.
Now, six years later, Danny sees Cat in a bar and comes over to say hi and remark on how she’s changed (she’s in her super-sexy vampire-hunting getup). Bones is displeased:
Needless to say, Danny runs off and files a police report about some dude crushing his hand.
(I’m resisting writing a paragraph on my response to Bones’s behavior here. Be proud.)
Meanwhile, the police find a car rusting away in the local lake, and on the shore nearby excavate the decapitated body of a man who appears to have been dead for twenty years, but is wearing modern clothing. The car, it turns out, was that of a woman who’d been kidnapped from Indiana six years ago. (Keep in mind, this is small-town Ohio we’re in now.) The detectives link the car (dumped in the lake six years ago) and the decapitated body (which looks like it’s been dead for twenty years, but is wearing modern clothes) to each other because…reasons?
(Spoiler: the decapitated body is that of the vampire who’d kidnapped and murdered that woman in Indiana. He’s the vampire Cat chose for her first slaying, when she was all raged-up about Danny’s betrayal, thus beginning her life of body- and vehicle-dumping.)
For some reason, the detectives on the decapitated-body-and-dumped-car case call Danny after seeing his report about his hand being crushed, and for some reason Danny says, “Oh, by the way, six years ago I saw Cat leave a club with a guy who looks like that kidnapper from Indiana who hasn’t been seen since.”
The detectives then tie Cat to the dead kidnapper/vampire, which Evil Vampire Hennessey finds out about because he has connections to the police. So now Hennessey knows Cat’s identity, and he has her grandparents killed and her mother kidnapped.
All because the guy who did her and dropped her has a memory like a steel trap.
Sure, this is possible. But is it plausible? No. I can only suspend my disbelief so far–and while I could forgive it if the story had, you know, compelling characters, a vivid romance, and lots of tension and high stakes, I can’t forgive it when every other aspect of the story is a mess.
Cat’s High Rank In The Government Agency Thing
In the end, Cat has the honor of meeting Mr. Tate, head of the super-secret Paranormal Behavior Division, a unit made up of men from the FBI, CIA, and armed forces. Mr. Tate comes to her with an offer not unlike Bones’s original offer (but with better motives):
In exchange for a job vampire-hunting for the government, the murder charges she’s facing will be dropped (by the way, she killed the governor of Ohio) and her mother will be protected from any vampires seeking retribution for all the slaying Cat’s been up to. If she agrees, cool. If not, Mr. Tate implies, Cat will spend her life in jail and her mother will die.
Cat agrees, but with some conditions. Including this one:
That’s right. Our twenty-two year old heroine, who has no tactical experience, no team-combat experience, no command experience, no clue about how to hunt vampires except to either seduce them into a forest and stake them when their pants are down or break down walls and slaughter everything in sight, insists that she’s superior to everyone ever and is the person most qualified to lead a military troop on vampire-hunting missions.
And the head of the Paranormal Behavior Division nods in agreement.
Ashers, I’m just…I’m overwhelmed by how dumb this is. I have no words. It is so dumb.
The Writing Style
I’m sure you know this, but just in case: words mean things. Usually very specific things. Sometimes a group of words are interchangeable (sure, I’ll let you swap ball and orb and sphere), but often a group of similar words are not interchangeable. It’s important to use the correct word. Like, really important.
Take this scene, where Cat is fighting a vampire on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion, while the governor’s guards (vampires and humans, burly and well-armed), watch from a safe distance:
It’s unspeakably hilarious that the guards are screaming at the sight of a fight. Needless to say, I laughed out loud, reading it–and then realized that perhaps the correct word should have been “shouting” or “yelling,” and stopped laughing. Because, you know, word choice. Super important.
Bullets don’t usually land on people, you know? It’s not like they were gently tossed onto the tops of his shoulders. They penetrated his body and flew out the other side. That’s not landing on.
And finally (because I guess I should start winding this review up):
I don’t know how Cat bowls, but I don’t think you’re supposed to hurl the bowling ball through the air at mid-back height. Pretty sure it’s supposed to roll along the ground, closer to foot-height. Perhaps she should’ve used a slow-pitch analogy instead.
I don’t think you need me to summarize my opinion of this book for you.
And no, I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the series, no matter how good the reviews are on Booklikes.
But seriously, read the Kara Gillian series already. You’ll love it.