14 June, 2013

Fade to Black (Rojan Dizon #1) by Francis Knight

Holy funemployment, Batman, two in one week! 

So I hope that whoever wrote the jacket copy for Fade to Black has their own publishing deal, because they did a great job. Based on a quick scan, the book sounded edgy, dangerous and exciting. It was featured on bn.com the week I bought my new nook, and I was SO close to paying for it... But, luckily for me, I borrowed it from a friend first. It turns out I would've been pretty mad had I shelled out money for it. 

The book isn't terrible, and there are some aspects of it that are great-- okay, actually, I take that back, there is one aspect of it that is great, and that is the worldbuilding. The city felt real, the descriptions vivid even when they weren't overly verbose, and the atmosphere thick enough to taste. It's clear that Francis Knight put a lot of thought into her world, that she knows it well down to the small details. But it's useless to have a great world if you don't populate it with great characters, and in that Knight failed pretty spectacularly.

There are three main characters in the book-- the protagonist, bounty hunter and pain mage Rojan; the girl swordfighter Jake; and her best friend / would-be lover Pasha. Pasha is easily the most interesting of the three. He's a pain mage like Rojan, with a painful past-- he was sold into slavery to be used as fodder for another pain mage's power and endured years of constant abuse, all when he was mostly a kid. He's in love with Jake, but she's got the same past trauma that manifests in a deep aversion to being touched, therefore taking intimacy of any kind off the table. He sticks by her because it's their secret mission to find other people who've been sold to the mages (like Rojan's niece, which is what crosses his path with theirs) and get them to freedom. He's pretty badass and bold when it comes to acting on behalf of others, but emotionally passive when it comes to himself; a nice duality. He got flatter and more predictable as the book went on, but he was the only one who made me feel any real sympathy.

Jake has all the trappings of an interesting powerful female, but unfortunately she isn't any of those things. She's a statue on a pedestal to Rojan, not a person. Some reviewers have compared this construct to the archetypes found in classic noir, but that's not a comparison I can get behind. She's certainly no femme fatale, and while it seems Knight intended for her to play the part of the elusive ice queen who gets under the private eye's skin, she misses the mark. She doesn't need Rojan's help, so there's no give and take in their relationship, and she's so closed off emotionally that most of Rojan's response to her seemed to be based on physical attraction-- which is fine, but isn't a carrier for the intrigue and emotional desire Rojan claimed to feel for her.

But my real problem with Jake is that Knight had a great opportunity to paint the picture of a strong, independent woman who had overcome adversity to take control over her life, and didn't. Jake is a pit fighter, really strong and agile, and she's a subversive freedom fighter working behind the scenes to go against the rule of law. But in the moments I most wanted her to shine, she caved. Pasha kills a man so Jake doesn't have to (she's very proud of her no-kill record in the pits) and she drives him away, a disproportionate response that's clearly a device to get her and Rojan alone, and one that makes her look unreasonable and unstable. 

Then, in spite of her explicitly stated aversion to touch, Rojan kisses her and she doesn't even fight back. Instead it's like an eye-opener-- oh, I really was fine with making out all this time, who knew? Probably pretty disturbing to read if you're a survivor of that kind of abuse. And the icing on the disappointment cake was that she never overcame her fear and got back at the man who enslaved her. Instead, another clumsy plot device had Rojan step in to do it for her. I liked Jake alright, but she didn't grab me either as a heroine or as a love interest, and in terms of the power and agency of women in the book she left a lot to be desired.

She got a really kick-ass entrance, though, I'll say that much.

And Rojan. Oh, Rojan. I can't decide if this is how the author thinks jaded and world-weary men actually think and talk, or if she personally knows someone who's simultaneously this misogynistic and this boring, but either way, he doesn't play well. He hovers in this limbo between actually being a womanizing sleazebag and only pretending to be one-- it's like the author wanted to make him unlikable and have a bad attitude towards women, but didn't have the stomach to take it all the way. He isn't like Barney Stinson or Han Solo-- I never once bought the image of Rojan as a cad who treats women like they're disposable because he's afraid of emotional intimacy. The book opens with him getting notes from the three women he's seeing who've all just found out about each other and trash his apartment for it, and he talks a lot-- incessantly-- about how bad he is at relationships, how much of a womanizer he is, etc. But we never meet any of the girlfriends, or even see first-hand what they do to his apartment, so there are no consequences for his jerk behavior. There's never even a hint of the fact that he might want something more out of relationships, just more casual contempt for the idea of them.

All this means that when Jake finally appears on the scene and Rojan suddenly starts spouting off about how much he likes her and how she makes him want to be a better man, the intended revelation falls extremely flat. Because Jake isn't as well rounded as I'd like, and certainly neither is Rojan, I didn't feel the supposed connection between them at all. The author kept talking about it, but it never grabbed me in the gut. Especially when contrasted with Mikani and Ritsuko in Bronze Gods (which I'll be reviewing next), who had chemistry and tension enough to drive me to drink, I felt like both Rojan and the author were just going through the motions of the typical transformative falling-in-love experience, rather than actually... well... experiencing it.

I didn't completely hate this book. It was a quick read and it wasn't the worst urban fantasy I've ever read. But it disappointed me so much in relation to my expectations that it left a sour taste in my mouth. Ultimately I wanted the author to delve into Rojan's actual weaknesses-- his fears, his self doubts, his shitty relationship with his brother (which is the only arena in which I really felt sympathy with him), his dead mother-- instead of having them all glossed over and then neatly tied up at the end. I'm not even sure how the author plans to make a sequel happen, since so many of the problems were resolved by the end of the book. Hopefully the next one won't give such token nods to Rojan's issues, and will have a supporting cast that's a lot more fleshed out. Unfortunately, unless it's recommended to me by someone I trust, I won't be taking the time to find out.

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