Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Black Dog Blues

Black Dog Blues, The Kai Gracen Series, Book 1 by Rhys Ford


I was a long time getting through this book because, for various reasons I will explain, I took it in bits and chunks.  Did I like it?  I guess I did, although reluctantly.  Will I follow the series?  Possibly.  I'm not really sure.  I am trying to winnow out what exactly my reading experience was like, and why I feel ambivalent and even a touch embarrassed about this book.

First, of course, I must talk about the reader, Greg Tremblay, since the reader shapes the experience in audiobookland.  He was excellent.  In fact, I think it was his voice and his various accents that kept pulling me back.  I wish he would work more, as the greater part of his available narrations are not books that interest me much.  Really, it was fun listening to him.

As for the book itself, there's nothing obviously wrong with Ford's writing. She's competent, even accomplished, with plot and dialogue, setting and characters.  However, she's more of a romance writer who's dipping into urban fantasy.  Without knowing diddly squat, I suspect she came to writing through fan fiction because she juggles familiar tropes throughout the story.  The biggest one, and one that is very common to slash fiction , is hurt/comfort. [Warning!  Clicking on that link can lead to places you might not want to go.  Be prepared to bail if your eyes start rolling.]  It's a handy way to get around the usual barriers our culture has built in to male characters and develop an intimate relationship between them.

So, we have Kai Gracen.  If you go down the list of sets up on the tropes page, you can practically make a check list for this character.  Torture, abandonment, freakiness, rape/mind rape, orphaned -- you get the idea.  While Kai is still a good point of view character and has a lot of fun little quirks and quips, he fills and overfills the requirements for the Urban Fantasy hero.  In fact, it got a little difficult for me to keep him in my mind as a character and not just a list.  In the depiction of Kai's life,  Ford exhibits what struck me as a pain fetish.  Kai hurts in oh so many ways, and oh so much of the time, and here he goes hurting again because he's tough, tough! dammit! but he's all squishy and soft and hurt inside.

Then we have the sidhe lord Ryder, who is the point of sexual and romantic tension, the one who has to break down Kai's defenses, who gets Kai tangled up in events, and who -- inevitably -- is the one to comfort Kai's pains.  Luckily, Ford is clever enough not to fulfill this part of the trope in this book.  It's as delicate a dance as ever happend since Moonlighting had Maddie and David doing it.  Ryder is a bit less well developed, but he has a role and he fills it well.  He even surprised me a bit a few times, which I welcomed.  Tropes have their uses -- it's why they exist, a code for readers/watchers to speed the story along -- but a good writer can take a trope and tip it just a little, quirk it some, and give it a fresh face.  This ability of Ford's also helped me keep going with the story.  The plot twisted nicely, and while the world was a little out of focus overall, several settings were solid.

My biggest complaint was with Ford's action sequences, of which there are many. It's not the sequences themselves -- she has a deft hand -- but it seemed like every single one was interrupted, usually several times, with long passages about Kai's fear and pain, his flashbacks, his determination, his bleeding and ouching got a little tiresome.  It slowed the action down to a crawl many times.  To me, so much description felt as if the author didn't think the reader would get the idea of how very, very, very, VERY bad Kai's past had been.  Rather than building up suspense and sympathy, for me it dulled things down.  I starting tuning out and checking back in to see if anything had moved along.  The ending, however, did surprise me just a bit, and pleased me because she left plenty of story for a second book and possibly a third.

Now, that embarrassment I experienced.  Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was all about fanfiction. I had particular fandoms I enjoyed, but I read a lot of stuff, especially the slash.  Oh yes, I came upon this before there was an internet, when it was rare and strange and the tropes were not yet established.  Later, I tried my hand at it a few times, mostly as experiments in erotic writing.  Those tropes let me skip a lot of work, just as having an existing world and characters helped me skip stuff and concentrate on what I liked.  And, I admit right here and now, hurt/comfort was my favorite trope.  I used it a lot.

And then, one day, my viewpoint changed.  The fanfic and slashfic didn't read the same.  Instead, I saw repetition.  I saw stories straining to  get what the writer wanted from the story until the story itself just snapped apart.  In short, I didn't like it anymore.  I stopped writing it and deleted all but a couple of pieces I'd written.  I started seeing the damn tropes all over my own work and that was embarrassing because it felt shoddy.  Now, I'll stand up and say some fanfic is excellent writing, but -- let's be honest -- the larger part is written for particular audiences and particular fantasy fulfillment.  That's fine and there is nothing wrong with that.  I just don't enjoy reading it so much.  I rarely like it these days, and I try to stay aware of what is a shortcut for the writer and what is shorthand code for the reader.

So, with all that said, chances are that I will pick up the next book in this series, but I'm not really waiting anxiously for it.   It's junk food, tasty, but too full of salt and sugar and grease. It isn't healthy to eat it every day, but it's still delicious on occasion.

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