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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review: Tarnished by Rhiannon Held

(You can see my review of the previous novel, Silver, here.  I've also conducted an interview with Rhiannon about Tarnished.)

Back in 2012, I interviewed then-debut novelist Rhiannon Held about Silver, a new urban fantasy novel involving werewolves (oh noes).  In truth, I was skeptical at the time; I didn't think much of urban fantasy when I started conducting podcast interviews, and so I thought to myself that this book would confirm everything I thought about the genre.  It didn't.  While it wasn't the strongest novel of its kind, Silver provided enough compelling material to keep me riveted until the end.  In particular, I loved Held's anthropological view of the werewolves, taking what could have been another cliche and giving it the kind of rigor one might expect of a secondary world fantasy -- a short one, of course.  Tarnished continues the Held tradition, adding depth to an already compelling and complex world.  If this trend continues, I expect Reflected, which is set to drop soon, will keep me riveted as much as this one.

Set immediately after the events of Silver, Held's second novel follows Dare and Silver as they decide the next course of action:  keep control of the Seattle pack (werewolf alphas assume the name of their pack) or find a new home elsewhere.  But being alphas means eventually having to face your past, and both Dare and Silver are haunted by where they've been and what it might mean for the future.  Now, it's Dare's turn for his past to bubble up and make a mess of things:  Sacramento still holds a grudge due to the death of his son, John, the former Seattle alpha, has sired a child with Susan, a human, and Roanoke, who Dare believes is unfit for leadership, may have dragged something else from Dare's past into the mix, making a challenge for control of Roanoke more difficult indeed.  Handling the complicated social politics of werewolves is no easy task, but together, Dare and Silver hope they'll be able to pull it off...

Overall, I enjoyed Tarnished, in no small part because I got a lot of more of the things I loved about Silver.  Held's characters remain compelling, especially Dare and Silver, who continue to grow into themselves and their relationship to one another -- yes, I'm a sucker for a well-written romantic entanglement.  Tarnished seems to put a great amount of attention on Silver here, though I'm not sure if that's actually true, since I haven't read Silver in quite some time (I'll talk about this more below).  Likewise, the novel is mostly paced well, with a simple, though efficient style that doesn't get bogged down in description while losing none of the necessary characterization.  Essentially, this is exactly what I want to see happen with a formerly-debut author:  improvement, growth, and efficiency.

Tarnished is, as such, strongest when it focuses on the complexity of werewolf society.  This is particularly true in the last third of the novel, where Held presents us an event called the Convocation, in which werewolf packs meet to discuss and debate werewolf issues on neutral ground.  These were by far my favorite points in the novel, primarily because it served as the perfect space for every major character to come to terms with their position in this "hidden" underworld.  Susan, for example, struggles with what it means to be the only human in a sea of werewolves, and here must contend with worries not only for herself, but also her child and the man she loves, John.  Held uses Susan as a vehicle to show how complicated werewolf social politics can become, particularly if you don't have the enhanced senses of a werewolf -- the senses, in effect, play a crucial role in the werewolf hierarchy.  Though this novel isn't really about Susan, I appreciated the attempts to give her agency in a situation where she might not have had it because she's human.  Likewise, the Convocation serves as a developmental tool for Silver, who is the only other character beyond Susan who is disadvantaged because of her body -- in this case, because Silver's wild self has been lost due to silver poisoning.  To read about Silver using her cunning and facial expressions to manipulate those who underestimate her was a thrill, particularly since she is the one character in this whole series who remains at the greatest disadvantage.

And it's that last point that I think is worth exploring further here.  In the first novel, Silver is portrayed as potentially mad, and most certainly unstable.  That her madness is justified by what happened to her is beside the point:  what matters is the fact that Silver's mental state and her physical limitations are a major source of Silver's frustration and conflict throughout both novels because other werewolves routinely mistake her limited physical abilities and mental quirks as weakness.  Held continues this theme in Tarnished, giving a fuller sense of Silver's formidable qualities and establishing her as the one person you really don't want to cross, even if you have the physical advantage -- even Dare realizes this.  It's not that she's ruthless, but rather that her physical limitations and perceived mental state make her a target for ridicule and dismissal, which invariably ends up being a mistake, as Silver knows (or learns) how to use her strengths and her disadvantages to benefit herself and the people she cares about.  She's not always successful, of course, but she is smart.  I applaud Held for including this aspect of Silver's story in her novels, as it would be too easy to leave behind these developmental elements, but also strangely expected.  Instead, Silver's character grows -- and all for the better.  It feels like Silver is a more secure character -- in the sense that Held, as a writer, seems more comfortable writing as Silver.  In fact, this novel seems like a more character driven one than the book that precedes it, giving depth to folks who previously had been primarily trapped in the background, and I know from reading the first 70 pages of Reflected, this trend continues.

Having written all of this tells me something important about why I liked Tarnished:  my focus is almost exclusively on the characters, their motivations, their interests, etc.  Tarnished succeeds because it is about people who aren't cut out of a magazine and pasted on the wall.  They're people I can like.  People who go through horrible things, but come out on the other ends having learned something (or, sometimes, not making it out at all).  People who may be werewolves, but are also "real" in the sense that they have a culture that is neither alien nor wholly human.  Whatever flaws the novel has, it still kept me engaged on what mattered:  characters.

Regardless, a review isn't really a review if it doesn't at least mention the flaws.  The novel's major issue, in my opinion, is structural.  The plot appears to contain two climaxes:  one centered on Dare's conflict with Sacramento, and the other on his conflict with Roanoke.  While this isn't necessarily a bad thing in principle, I do think having these two plots working at opposite ends of the novel takes some of the impact away from the climaxes.  It also draws some of the energy away from what could be a solid second novel, particularly since the latter half concerns Susan, the lone human in the novel, who must face the consequences of her actions in the first half.  Held does, at least, try to offset this divide by making the climax to the second narrative more intense, but I still think this novel would have benefited from splitting.  This likewise means that certain aspects of the latter half feel rushed, particularly in regards to Dare's relationship to his daughter.  Given the politics surrounding Dare's exile from Europe, the attempt to reconcile Dare's past with the present deserves a more intense examination.

Overall, Tarnished is an improvement over the previous book, despite its imperfections.  Held continues to handle her characters and her world like a major league pitcher handles a slider:  with a now-practiced hand.  Tarnished is the kind of urban fantasy book I want to read:  its characters are nuanced, its world deceptively complex, and its handling of its fantastic elements refreshing.  

Keep it up, Held!

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