Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fear and Loathing On Mount Olympus

Barbra Annino, Sin City Goddess

Late in his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that human brains seek out patterns and familiarity because, without it, we couldn’t perceive anything over the mass-media clutter of modern life. Duhigg referred specifically to the essential conformity of Top-40 pop songs, but his science explains the proliferation of movie sequels and syndicated Breaking Bad ripoffs. It also explains this perfectly pleasant but deeply risk-averse panto play.

The Olympian Gods have retreated from daily life, spending eternity playing poker and taking earthside holidays. When the Fury Alecto vanishes from her Vegas vacation, Olympus musters Tisiphone, who avenges murders, from self-imposed exile. But fearing her violent history, Hades deputizes deceased human FBI agent Archer Mays. The gorgeous goddess and her hunky human sidekick must upend Sin City, before some human jeopardizes the old gods’ authority.

Annino culls her favorite bits from Rick Riordan, Elmore Leonard, and Hunter S. Thompson to craft a meringue of paperback conventions so familiar, you could wear it like a Snuggie. Name your favorite boilerplate, Annino probably uses it. How audiences receive this venerability will depend on what expectations they bring to the reading experience. Do readers want stories that repeat recognizable standards? If that’s you, here’s your book.

Urban fantasy audiences expect a female protagonist, Harry Dresden notwithstanding, and they expect her to be “strong,” which usually means angry and man-free. Annino gives them that. But audiences also expect strong romantic undertones, and at least one sexual encounter. So somehow, Tisiphone, who has existed for millennia, falls for Archer Mays, whose gay porn-ready name reflects his aggressive masculinity. (The sex borders on rape, but Tisiphone apparently approves.)

Audiences likewise expect mythical conflicts in outsized settings, so Annino cues up Vegas. Our heroes’ investigation caroms between Caesar’s Palace and the slums decaying in the Strip’s long shadow. I’d almost like this choice if Vicki Pettersson hadn’t chosen similar settings. Pettersson, a former showgirl, infuses her Vegas with vigor and violence. Annino’s Vegas is decent but underexplored, and feels lower-stakes than a typical CSI episode.

Annino’s one unexpected choice is her choice of villain. Where Rick Riordan would revive some mythological savage, Annino reduces that to a MacGuffin, choosing instead an aptly frightening human antagonist. No spoilers here, but Annino selects a prime example of gnarled human depravity. If she doesn’t plumb her villain’s depths fully, it’s only because she’s selected a villain so vile, readers couldn’t share that journey without getting stained.

Scenes click by hastily. Chapters run short, averaging under five pages, and weave between first-person narrator Tisiphone and her human villain. This creates a Silence of the Lambs-ish cinematic texture that readers will either love or hate. Her short chapters mean expository conversations can take four or five chapters to complete; but once the action gets rolling, such rapid-cutting narrative ensures an urgency, propelling characters between intense beat breaks.

It’s tough to review books like this. Annino unequivocally doesn’t write for audiences like me, audiences who read to go on journeys and encounter something innovative. I expect books to do violence to my comfy presuppositions; I want to finish reading, in some way, changed. Predictable situations and neat endings leave me cold. Annino writes for readers who hope to encounter what’s already familiar, to nestle into a book like a hammock.

I expect, for instance, that an author incorporating Greek mythology will treat the Olympian gods as greater beings, somewhat like humans but much, much vaster. Rick Riordan does this. But Annino’s Olympus is a high-tech headquarters, her gods primarily strategists, and their abilities primarily dedicated to communicator rings, escape portals, and other spy-movie workarounds. This Olympus suspiciously resembles MI6, less Rick Riordan and more Ian Fleming.

I expect urban fantasy to represent a breach between mythology and modernity. I expect self-assured humanism to confront forces humans cannot possibly explain. Annino instead reduces gods and demons to human scale. Marilyn Monroe was secretly Aphrodite, or vice versa. Olympian gods aspire to vacation on the Strip. This makes everything easy to grasp, requiring minimal investment of thought, but also not generating a Tolkien-ish sense of wonder.

But again, Annino doesn’t write for me. She writes for people who read to be comforted, soothed, dare I say anesthetized. Her prose has the comforting predictability and moderate stakes of prime-time TV. Perhaps people who want books to take them away for two hours and redeposit them safely will enjoy this big-hearted but harmless confection. Readers like me, who prefer slightly dangerous books, will feel largely underwhelmed.

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