Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Marjorie M. Liu - The Iron Hunt

It is of us, I read, this wild raging hunt that takes upon itself the nature of an age, and destroys to that others may be reborn. It is why, I think, the leader of the hunt must so frequently change, because Ages change, and what defines on era cannot be relied upon to characterize the next . A new voice is required, a new heart.

The hunt is defined by hearts, for good or ill. We have learned that lesson in the most brutal ways imaginable, and we will learn it once more. We have no choice. This fearful omen, so deep in our memory it has become sunk in human blood, has opened and closed, again and again. Faster now, like the hum of wings. And when it stops, we shall fall.
(p. 303)

The Iron Hunt is the first novel in Marjorie M. Liu’s urban fantasy series. The world building is standard enough that even an Urban Fantasy outsider should be able to recognize most elements, but Liu attempts to breathe new life into the archetypes with original and well drawn characters and her prose.

The characters, for the most part, are developed. The main source of that comes from their maturity; these are not characters that feel like they were first brought to life on page one and will die on page three hundred and five. Instead, we are shown people shaped by circumstances and relationships. Liu never feels the need to tell us Maxine’s feelings for Grant in laborious detail, because the two have known each other for so long that their trust is solid and obvious from every one of their interactions.

Maxine is defined by the supernatural, both when it comes to her drive and her body. The demons that tattoo her flesh are as integral a part of the story as any of the characters and, though I wish we’d gotten a few more tastes of their prowess, they become such a part of the narrative that, when Liu is separated from them, the reader feels naked and vulnerable alongside the character.

And yet, it’s hard to reconcile the demon-bearing hunter of the night with the personality that Maxine exhibits throughout the narrative. We are told that this woman was trained to be, that she is, a hardened warrior. Some parts of this characterization are powerful and cutting. Ever since Maxine’s mother was killed with a firearm, Maxine has refused to use a gun, even though she knows that it makes her less effective. The little failings, the ways she believes she isn’t living up to her mother’s legacy, are the time’s when the character truly shines. In fact, the absolute strongest section of the novel occurs when Maxine is cut off from everything but her and her demons and is forced to try and survive, to try and escape, on her own resources. The changes that come over the character here bring her struggle to life and affect the reader just as much as they do the character.

But then there is Byron, an orphaned boy who is caught in the crossfire, so to speak, of her confrontation with a zombie towards the book’s beginning. Maxine feels guilty, which is understandable, but her constant obsession with protecting and helping him seems odd when compared with the rest of the narrative and, at times, feels blatantly manipulative. It’s hard to swallow that a woman who must have, if she’s survived for this long, encountered similar situations countless of times is so entangled in this one life that she simply can’t see past it, hard to believe that a guardian this sentimental could have possibly survived for this long.

The external supernatural elements come off as well as Maxine. Though individual possessors never really come to feel like a threat, Liu’s description of larger demons is vivid and disquieting:

Concrete cracked. Like a thousand spines behind me, and I looked down and saw feet shaped like knives; literally, blades; or claws that might have been blades, long and straight, shining quicksilver. The demon stood on those feet like a dancer ,en pointe, and took a step. His toes clicked as they cut the sidewalk. His head remained bowed, cloak shimmering like dark water. (p. 68)

Still, the mythology of the book is where the majority of The Iron Hunt’s problems stem from. Meeting a ten thousand year old being in human skin would, undoubtedly, be an incredible experience, and Liu’s right to make it feel as such, but the sheer profusion of these mythical beings combine to render any one of them, no matter how otherwise jaw dropping, mundane. By the end of the book, it’s honestly difficult to think of a single properly human character with a speaking part. Along the same lines, it makes sense for such a cosmic being to be mysterious, for their purposes to be hard to fathom, etc. I’m fine with magic having a bit of uncertainty. Its gets annoying, however, when your entire cast is busy being mysterious. There are so many people talking in riddles here that it’s almost impossible to know the book’s main plot until said plot is halfway through its conclusion and you can finally look back and decipher who was doing what and why. Or, at least, try to.

Liu raises several questions through the course of the story. Is it right for Maxine to lash out at the possessors when they had little alternative for what they did? Is it right to punish someone if they might have been rehabilitated? Can you build something good out of something terrible? Unfortunately, none of these questions are never really explored. Grant is attempting to save the demon’s morality, while Maxine is trying to stamp them out, and the tension that the two viewpoints bring up is interesting, but it’s a question that never gets an answer. Still, this is only the first book of many, so I’ll forgive that and assume that Liu goes into the issues in more depth later.

The best word for Liu’s prose is deliberate. At times, the writing will be declarative and interrupted by fragments, leading to a broken, gritty feel; at others, Liu’s prose is elaborate and decorative, sometimes even poetic. The contrast between the two fuels the story’s pacing, determining every aspect of how you process the story without ever being artificial enough to draw undue attention to itself, both sides contributing equally to the jagged atmosphere of the tale:

Hurt like it should. Skin tearing. Flayed by smoke and shadows. I swallowed bad noises, throat aching, and tore off my gloves. Shook so hard my teeth chattered. Minutes ago, tattoos would have covered my hands – fingers, palms, even my nails – black and etched with lines. But now bodies writhed, silver skin dissolving into a mist that poured from beneath my clothes, and I felt hearts pound that were not my own. Slender, muscled limbs slid hot and heavy through my hair. Small fingers caressed my cheeks. Melodic whispers mated with the patter of the rain (p. 35).

The story being told in The Iron Hunt is interesting, but ultimately too familiar and externally driven to be gripping. Still, the book is powerful due to the well established atmosphere, the characters, and, most of all, the prose. Liu is clearly a talented author, but The Iron Hunt doesn’t fire on all cylinders.

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