Monday, June 3, 2013

Olson's Guided Tour of Haunted Hollywood Hotspots

Melissa F. Olson, Trail of Dead: Scarlett Bernard, Book 2
This review follows Olson's Practical Primer in Ordinary Human Magic
Why do soap opera characters talk about dead enemies? Surely they’d learn that talking about them conjures them back to life. Scarlett Bernard, whose mere presence negates all magic, spent so much time in the prior book invoking her dead mentor Olivia that she almost had no right to act surprised when Olivia showed up, transformed into a vampire. Now it seems Olivia has one more lesson to teach Scarlett.

Melissa Olson’s first novel broke new ground in the overworked urban fantasy genre by shifting focus off the wizardry, onto human relationships. Scarlett, who makes her living keeping Los Angeles’ volatile supernatural community off the living world’s radar, overturned expectations by relying on her ability to love and form bonds, which the undead around her don’t share. This book doesn’t break the same ground, coasting on momentum, while remaining enjoyable.

Olivia, like Scarlett, was a “null” when she was alive: magic failed in her proximity, witches couldn’t penetrate her sphere, werewolves and vampires turned human when she passed. So how could she now be a vampire? The Count should have been rendered powerless by her presence. Scarlett must figure how how Olivia accomplished the impossible, while Olivia’s body count moves ever nearer, threatening everything and everybody Scarlett holds dear.

Detective Jesse Cruz stumbled into Scarlett’s world in the last book; now he finds himself serving as the Old World’s reluctant LAPD liaison. Los Angeles has built a strange truce among witches, werewolves, and vampires, a peaceable kingdom virtually unique in a world noted for medieval blood feuds. When vampire Dashiell, LA’s Old World capo, dragoons Jesse to stop Olivia’s bloodbath, he already knows he’s out of his depth.

The Godfather-esque implications Olson packed into her first book become amplified here, as Scarlett pushes the ethical envelope, and Jesse recognizes himself for a made man. But they rationalize (barely) their compromises as necessary when confronted by superhumans who fear revivals of feudal inquisitions. Moral squishiness is necessary when the pretty bad have to stand guard against the truly awful.

In such a milieu, leadership takes on new implications. Vampire Dashiell doesn’t so much lead, as play the part of leader, while everyone else plays followers to stave off anarchy. Witch princess Kirsten, who doubles as a suburban soccer mom, governs her people through a mix of politics and being stronger than anyone else. Werewolf alpha Will is prepared to kill anyone who strays. Power is playacting; civilization is a role.

Olson, a film industry veteran, does a good job embodying what it means to keep secrets in a city built on illusion. Scarlett and Jesse, the youngest and least adept members of LA’s Old World, find themselves fumbling through a succession of snafus because they haven’t yet learned to play their roles. Every encounter becomes a balancing act between saying what needs said, and maintaining necessary public façades.

Behind the pomp, Olivia knows her lines better than anyone. Unlike her naïve former apprentice, Scarlett, Olivia is a master manipulator, keeping the diverse communities chasing each other when they should unite against her. Scarlett and Jesse, the only players free to speak the truth, stand uniquely positioned to stop her onslaught. But they only get one bite of the apple.

In her ruthlessness and delusion, Olivia invites obvious comparisons to Hannibal Lecter. Yet on second thought, perhaps her mix of charm and sociopathy more closely resembles Chelsea Cain’s villainess, Gretchen Lowell. Both Olivia and Lowell share the ability to convince rational people that their moral qualms don’t matter. They both exude a twisted perversion of love. And they both brook no impediment to reach the people they consider “theirs.”

This volume does feel somewhat more predictable, proceeding as it does from the story Olson initiated in her first novel. Whether this means Olson has a distinctive voice that we can follow, or that Olson doesn’t blaze new trails this time out, only individual readers can decide. There’s a fine line between “comfortable” and “formula.” While I liked this book, and look forward to the next one, not everyone will agree. Individual taste matters.

If this book isn’t as innovative as the prior, if it doesn’t subvert genre archetypes with the same graceful aplomb, that doesn’t make it any less fun. Olson maintains the rocketing pace that she set, pushing LA’s notorious “live fast, die young” ethos onto characters who have already died, though that hasn’t slowed them down. While first-timers may prefer to start with the prior volume, this is a more-than-adequate sequel.

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