Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sweetly: The sympathetic villains

There's something to be said about Jackson Pearce's Fairy Tale retellings - parts of the book make me want to stand and fist-bump the nearest person around (in this case, my plush turtle.) (or at least I would have, if it were not for the splintering headache I  was sporting at the time. Not the book's fault, I promise.) 

Other parts just make me want to slam my head against the book. I might have done that a few times, actually. In fact, much of the reasons why it took a sequels-and-prequels challenge for me to pick "Sweetly" up was because of some of the major problems I had with its predecessor. To put it bluntly, there was more things  I didn't like about "Sisters Red" than I did.

That said, "Sweetly" definitely makes it on the "Better-than-the-first-one" sequels list, (which is an admittedly short selection.) The stakes are higher even if the plot is not as tight, the characters felt real, and the romance, which is usually the most boring thing about paranormal YA for me, I didn't really mind here. (Nothing wrong with romance, mind you, but after reading the same descriptions of zings and butterflies in the stomach and guys looking hot without their shirts on, it gets old.)

Ansel and Gretchen Kessel got thrown out by their evil stepmother and take a cross-country trip to escape the bad memories of their home town - the sister who disappeared in the woods, the parents who died of grief, and being those  weird kids at school. Their car breaks down near Live Oak, Carolina (was it?) and they take up jobs at Sophia Kelly's sweet shop to pay for tow. While there, Gretchen learns that a lot of girls have disappeared after Sophia's annual chocolate soiree (I refuse to call it a festival, even if the book obstinately tries to do it.) She also learns that her sister disappeared because she was eaten by a werewolf, so she enlists the help of local huntsman Samuel Reynolds to... learn how to hunt them. Well, mostly how to shoot a rifle. 

You can probably see some of my problems with the book from this bit.

Spoilers to follow.

While the use of guns is kind of required by the plot (I mean, monsters are trying to kill you, you need to defend yourself, right?) I'm a bit uncomfortable with how quickly Gretchen becomes adept at shooting. Mind you, it's not like in Divergent - there is a learning curve, and Samuel is kind enough to give her some safety instruction before he lets her go loose on the target (yey for the little things,) but still. She takes what? Two weeks or so before she's good with it? Enough to go hunting for werewolves at night?

My disbelief is really, really suspended right now.

Also, there are some parallels drawn between Getchen going on a hunt and her transformation from a victim to a fighter, which... I'm not sure I like. 

Here's the thing about these fairy tale retellings - they never really picture characters going through some life-altering  experience as anything BUT victims and fighters. You either succumb completely to grief and sorrow or you go out and you kill the monster that scares you. And while you can say something about fighting back, I'd argue there's a lot of value to being able to move on with your life and building an identity that's not all about this one thing that's happened to you. Gretchen turning into a hunter can be an emancipation, yes, but it can just as easily be another coping mechanism (not too dissimilar to Scarlett March's, actually.)

This leads me to another major problem I had with this book, namely the antagonist, Sophia Kelly (come on, with that cover, what did you expect?) Sophia is a quintessentially nice lady. She's pretty (in a NATURAL way, Gretchen assures us, no trace of make-up there, no siree Bob!) she's kind, she seems to genuinely enjoy Gretchen and Ansel's company...

She also works with werewolves, luring girls out for them to eat. She ostensibly does this because the wolves hold her sister Naida hostage, and ends up telling Gretchen to shoot her when the main baddie uses her as a human shield.

Yeah....

I'm torn on Sophia. On one hand, she's a genuinely sympathetic antagonist. I could believe her motivation and her distress - the book does a good job at portraying her own mental anguish. And I could believe the conflict Gretchen has - how can this genuinely nice lady, who opened her home and her heart to Ansel and Gretchen, be a baddie? The book does have some high emotional stakes and I like that it's more complicated than the usual hunters vs werewolves dynamic.

However... the book goes to such lengths to paint Sophia as a sympathetic antagonist, at places it goes just a wee bit overboard. Like... when Sophia gets seashells from the wolves (proof that her sister's alive, but also the required number of girls she needs to "provide") she's terribly distraught and scared of what might happen if she can't provide them. When she gets the RSVPs for her soiree, she's positively ecstatic, all bubbly and happy and relieved.... 

She's relieved because she duped some girls to become wolf chow.

And that would have been a pretty nice piece of characterization, really. It shows that, despite all the empathy Sophia tries to show, deep down she doesn't truly care for anyone. It would have been perfect, if the book hadn't tried to make her last act of self-sacrifice look like some huge redeeming statement.

Or at least that's how it looked like to me - with Sophia begging  for forgiveness with her last breath and our heroes giving it reluctantly, it felt like we were supposed to see Sophia as some sort of tragic figure that was just killed by bad  choice and circumstance... but she wasn't. She was responsible for the deaths of several girls, and even after three years, she didn't plan to stop. She was going to sacrifice Gretchen, the girl she supposedly loved as a sister, her boyfriend's sister, for crying out loud, and she was begging the wolves for another chance right till the end, I'm not going to sit here and feel sorry for her!

Like I said, these books have a lot to recommend them... but more often than not, they're miss rather than hit.

Note: Image via BookLikes.

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