As I spent most of January reading the works of Lisa Shearin I wanted to give a little more space and thought to reviewing these books than my normal “what I’ve been reading” posts. Then I realized that this post was getting too long itself and split it into three separate posts. So expect more on these books later this week.
I started off January with the SPI Files Series [“Lucky Charms” (short in Night Shift), The Grendel Affair, The Dragon Conspiracy, The Brimstone Deception, The Ghoul Vendetta, and The Myth Manifestation] which is a nice, upbeat urban fantasy series featuring Makenna Fraser, a Seer for the Supernatural Protection and Investigations agency (SPI) who’s only magical talent is that she can see through veils. This makes her a target for anyone who doesn’t want to be seen and provides plenty of action and comedy for the series. Makenna is extremely upbeat for an urban fantasy main character, which is not a bad thing, and manages to both get herself into and out of plenty of trouble. I had read the first four books in the past and reread them just before Myth Manifestation came out on January 15th. Myth was the book that most clearly connected the two series, and got me interested enough to look into Shearin’s other works.
So that meant starting the Raine Benares series [Magic Lost, Trouble Found; Armed and Magical; The Trouble with Demons; Bewitched and Bedeviled; Con and Conjure; All Spell Breaks Loose; Wedding Bells, Magic Spells] which was a little more problematic. These cover the story of Raine Benares, originally a Seeker who can tell who has touched an object and then track them, she picks up a magical amulet which turns out to be a world-ending level magical item and now everyone and their brother are after it – and her. She gets help from a Paladin and a Goblin Dark Mage “Tam” (More on him in a second), both of whom like-like her but only one of whom can have her because despite being a fantasy world we are adhering to a Judeo-Christian normative romantic thread. Kinda. More on this too after the spoilers break.
Treasure and Treason and Ruins and Revenge are listed as the last two books in the Raine Benares series, but they actually feature Tamnais Nathrach – Raine’s aforementioned Goblin Dark Mage beau – and his adventures to a new continent with a new magical rock. I have a lot of problems with these two books, despite enjoying them. But to tell you more I need to do this:
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
Ok, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the juicy stuff. And we should probably start with Raine’s love triangle and it’s web of awfulness.
First, I want to reiterate that overall I like the stories in these books a lot. That said, the plots are a mess, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the fallout of Raine’s love life. In the first book; Magic Lost, Trouble Found; Raine picks up her magic stone of doom and immediately ends up in a world of trouble. One of the first people she looks for help from is hottie Goblin “Bad boy” Tam who runs a night club and is a “recovering dark magic user” and former royal mage. The other person who shows up is Paladin Mychael I-forget-his-last-name who is a spellsinger/healer and also a hottie. Both men are interested and Raine is torn between the two when she’s not battling baddies and/or dealing with the repercussions of being bonded to a soul-sucking magical armageddon rock.
So in the second book things get weird. She develops a mental “umi’atsu” bond to Tam – which the goblins regard as being equivalent to being married. This allows them to speak mind-to-mind and use each other’s powers which is a bad thing because it gives Tam access to the rock’s powers. Mychael somehow manages to insert himself into this bond to prevent Tam’s use of Raine’s powers ending with all three of them mentally connected for a good part of two books.
On the side Mychael and Raine are developing a secondary bond which no one knows what to call but sounds like basically your average “we’re so connected” and ends up being Shearin’s way out of the mess she’s written herself into. That and the fact that she ends up **major spoiler** killing Tam to break the bond. (He gets better).
Ok. Stop for a second. Now on the one hand, this works to set up a fairly tension-filled moment in the series which involves Tam sacrificing himself for the good of the world, killing a bad-guy in the process and mentally scarring Raine for all of ten minutes. So it’s a completely valid way to solve the problem. My problem is with the way its set up.
First, we are operating in a Fantasy world. What exactly was keeping Raine from shrugging her shoulders and going “I guess I’ll keep both”? It sure as hell wasn’t the barely established cultures of either the elves or the goblins. Heck, I got the impression that the goblins would be up for it. Raine sure seems to like and be attracted to both guys fairly well, and they both seem to have a whole “brotherhood” thing going on. Later on in the series it is heavily implied that elves, especially high elves, are mostly monogamous and more staid about these things.
What a missed opportunity to subvert the reader’s expectations.
We all know how a love triangle “has to” end, right? With one guy getting the girl and living HEA and the other guy wandering off because he didn’t. This is a well established romance trope which plays into our Judeo-Christian construction of romantic love as a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. It’s so established that the option for Raine to “keep both” might not have occurred to you at all.
That’s because tropes make us happy. They put the story on a known path and the pleasure is watching the characters work their way to the end of that path. The variations are the entertainment and we get a solid emotional payoff when the end is reached. There is no genre for which this is more true than romance.
That said, there can also be value in subverting those tropes, even temporarily. By challenging the reader’s expectation of how the story will progress, you insert uncertainty and create the opportunity for an even bigger emotional payoff. M. C. A. Hogarth is a master at this. Her books have a massive emotional payoff due to subverting common romance tropes.
Aside from subverting the reader’s expectations, Raine’s love triangle is also missing the chance to add some much-needed depth to the world. We don’t get the impression that elves and goblins are culturally distinct from one another – more than goblins like having complicated back-stabby politics and are nocturnal. Actually that’s more development than the elven culture gets, as they are basically indistinct from humans except for their pointy ears.
Cultures clashing would have added another, more subtle level of conflict between the characters, even if the main love triangle trope was maintained. There’s the opportunity for internal conflict as new opportunities meet old prejudices. There’s the opportunity for interpersonal conflict (and a ton of humor) as character’s conflicting expectations interact. Seriously, there’s nothing like the comedy of errors that can result from characters working from different cultural scripts (see Lee and Miller’s Conflict of Honors for a great example of two characters working from different cultural scripts in a fantastic subversion of the “she secretly had his baby” romance trope).
A difference in romantic expectations between the two (or even three) cultures might have catapulted this series from merely pleasant to genuinely great. Even if all the outcomes had been the same in the end.
Thanks for sticking around this long. We will get to the SPI Files another post, probably next week. I also have somthing to say on the Tamnais books, but can’t quite articulate it yet. I seem to have a lot to say about these books. I’m also going to work hard to post more regularly. Discipline and all that.
I would love to hear your thoughts on subverting reader expectations or clashing cultures in fantasy romance. Leave me a message in the comments below.