Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series is regarded as one of the better urban fantasy series; it doesn't break new ground - vampires and werewolves, in rivalry, underground but starting to enter mainstream conciousness, in a manner recognisable from anything from The Dresden Files through Blade and Underworld.  Vaughn's novel sticks closely to the conventions of the genre, and it is clear why Kitty and the Midnight Hour picked up an award from Romantic Times rather than anything in SFF circles; what is less clear is why it won any awards...

The first thing to note is the blandness of the plot.  Despite the apparent violence and horror elements of Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Vaughn really hasn't put much of a plot into this novel; we're given a serial-killing werewolf partway through the novel who appears to be intended to be a main element, but really so little is made of him for the majority of the time that he simply doesn't matter; we're given Kitty's radio show and the conflict it induces between the vampires and werewolves, which again has very little made of it and appears to simply peter off without resolution and rapidly; we have Pack dynamics, of which more later because of disturbing implications, which again are made very little of for the majority of the novel.  Even with its shortness, Kitty and the Midnight Hour spends an awful lot of time doing absolutely nothing with its plot, and that really is quite disappointing; there are plots there to be advanced, but Vaughn simply doesn't, in part because of the nature of Kitty's character.

Because Kitty is, essentially, passive.  There are one or two moments when she takes initiative - in changing the format of her show and demanding that she be allowed to keep it, despite her alpha telling her to stop (an argument she wins by bribing him); and at the end of the novel, she suddenly takes the initiative completely.  But for most of the novel, Kitty, our title character, remember, is simply buffetted by external forces, not even reacting but simply accepting what comes to her; the moments when she does take the initiative therefore actually feel out of character, and that despite being some of the best moments in the novel.  As opposed to Anita Blake or Jayné Heller, Vaughn doesn't give us a strong female lead character, and not only is it a loss, it's a real problem, because the only other female character we ever see is a manipulative, behind-the-scenes powergrabber; that is, Vaughn presents women as either passive or evil.  Her portrayal of men is much more nuanced, but also problematic: T.J., a gay werewolf and the Pack's beta, is completely desexualised throughout the novel, and one of three characters to die (the only one who dies not attacking Kitty); Cormac is a strong and powerful character, who Kitty first meets because he's trying to kill her, something which apparently makes him attractive to her; and Carl, the Pack alpha, is an abusive and manipulative man who she can't resist and feels, again, deeply attracted to.  What we're getting here is something really disfunctional.

That's only heightened by one of the revelations in chapter 9, and it's one of the real low points of Kitty and the Midnight Hour.  Vaughn gives us Kitty's backstory - how she became a werewolf; and it starts not only with her boyfriend being abusive and neglectful, but then raping her.  We're not shown the rape, but we're told in no uncertain terms that it happens.  Kitty is then attacked and escapes, becoming a werewolf.  Neither of these events leaves any trauma.  The morning after, Kitty's shaken, but otherwise basically fine.  This is, remember, in the wake of being raped by her boyfriend.  This is followed up by, throughout the book, Kitty justifying actions by Carl that she explicitly notes would be abuse if between humans because they're both werewolves; it's not a matter of saying they're not abuse because they're werewolves, but rather that the abuse is acceptable.  The novel also infantilises Kitty, and says she infantilises herself; this in a scene where Carl is about to assert dominance by having sex with her.  The sexual politics in this novel are not only extremely disturbing, they're inescapable; you can't read it without being slapped in the face with some really deeply problematic conceptions of gender and sexuality.

In the end, Kitty and the Midnight Hour is a novel without enough plot, with a main character who doesn't drive the novel or assert independence until too late, and with so many problematic gender issues that it actually hurts to read it.  That it is the first novel in an extremely successful UF series can only be another nail in the coffin for most UF to my eyes, because this really is a disturbing and appalling book.

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February 2012

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