Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kelley Armstrong's Men of the Otherworld - review

Kelley Armstrong has a strong imagination and is good at storytelling - when she has the patience for it. When she shows what happens by painting a scene and letting things unfold with interaction and dialogue, she is at her best. Unfortunately for large chunks of Men of the Otherworld, she tells the story and it reads like an abbreviated journal, giving few details and compressing time. Telling things in this way is not storytelling -ironically enough.

Storytelling is showing not telling what happens. Its the difference between being there and hearing or reading an account. Storytelling is painting pictures, giving the very complete script for a film that the reader can imaginatively unroll in their heads - complete with setting, character descriptors, thoughts, but most importantly dialogue and action in such a way that the reader is a fly on the wall. For the first half of Men of the Otherworld, the story is shown in this way and it is easy to imagine both Malcolm and Jeremy Danvers and the child werewolf, Clayton.

In the second half, the story is often told in abbreviated simple this happened, then this, then this form. It is an outline for a story rather than a story and as such it is boring. The question is whether Armstrong ran out of patience or out of imagination for the details of her story or maybe she couldn't be bothered. She shies away from Clayton's darker talents for torture and killing. They are explained but not shown. Yes, it would be macabre to show them but it would make for a better story. Abbreviated recounting just doesn't do the trick.

It may also be that Armstrong's writing fails despite the good material because she does not distinguish between her main character's needs and desires. That's problematic. What I mean is first that while Jeremy and Clayton have needs, they are more psychological weaknesses rather than moral ones, i.e. it's a matter of individual development rather than social weaknesses. The result is that the stakes never seem particularly high. Nor is Jeremy or Clayton given strong objectives (desires), i.e. goals that they want to achieve. The novel is rather a story of their lives and day to day struggles - but by telling rather than showing, we finally don't even get that in a satisfactory way.

You would think in Clayton's case his needs would be social, but Armstrong never raises the stakes for Clayton's need to pass as a human in the world of humans. It's all accomplished with relative ease. Very little human interaction with Clayton is shown aside from one event in school when he dissects a guinea pig, and the party he attends where he is contemptuous of everyone. He literally doesn't need humans in the novel which defeats the whole idea of passing. In addition, everyone in the Pack who doesn't immediately take to Clayton is demonized or severely marginalized.

What is Clayton's objective in life aside from protecting Jeremy? We are told that he wants a mate but nothing is made of this. So what does he want?

The same is true for Jeremy. The reader finds out that he has visions and is far from comfortable with them, but his discomfort never seriously threatens either his sense of self or anyone's safety so it's not a real weakness in terms of a good story. The reader learns that he doodles mystical runes but unfortunately even though the end makes it clear that these runes have protective powers this connection is not foreshadowed. This is a missed opportunity.

Jeremy has a social goal that is eventually revealed - to become Alpha of the Pack. The problem is that his desire to become Alpha is not motivated except maybe as a desire to protect Clayton - but this protective instinct is not made much of in relation to the struggle to become Alpha. His protective instinct thus reads as paternal love but not as a broader social need. He becomes Alpha as the most suitable werewolf for the job but it is neither portrayed as his quest nor as a motivated struggle. His succession of Dominic is shown in terms of violence but it is not motivated at the social level since his efforts for the Pack are never shown - only his efforts for Clayton (who is a young mutt) and Peter who leaves the Pack. This means that the reader never gains a strong feeling that Jeremy cares about the Pack members.

The plot pulls in two directions which may be why it is called Men of the Otherworld but because Armstrong has a series called Women of the Otherworld where each individual book has a title, a title seems amiss for the men. And who is the focus, Jeremy or Clayton or both? The story is not balanced enough for the latter in terms of space. Clayton's story is told from the first person so it isn't possible to argue that their stories are parallel either. The conclusion, it isn't both. So who is the focus?

The novel begins and ends as the story of Jeremy. Jeremy's story has real promise, but neither his desires nor his needs are made the focus of this novel. What there is is really good storytelling but any reader who is drawn in would want a story of how the visions affect his life and his feelings about the runes he doodles to be more elaborated, and for the story of how Jeremy and Jaime meet to be shown not told, and the story of the Kitsune shown at some length rather than everything being told so quickly. It is ultimately unsatisfactory, which is a shame since Armstrong has a good imagination for original combinations of romance and myth.

Men of the Otherworld is set up as if for a sequel so perhaps there will be one about the Kitsune but for this novel which seems to focus on Clayton you would figure that we would get the story of Clayton meeting Elena since we are told that he wants to mate. Armstrong sets the reader up to anticipate reading about his meeting Elena and their relationship up until the point where he bites her - since the aftermath of the bite is in Bitten - but no. This makes the novel ultimately unsatisfactory in this respect too.

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