Review of Autumn Bones by Jacqueline Carey
by Jacqueline Carey
Both perverse pleasures and particular perils accompany the act of reading, for the first time, two consecutive books in a series back to back. The pleasures are obvious: having devoured that first morsel, you eagerly consume all else within reach. Sometimes years pass between my readings of books in a series, and by then I’ve forgotten all the characters, and the nods to previous books are much less satisfying. The perils are not necessarily universal. For me, because of the way I write reviews, I almost never have the review for my previous book written by the time I start the next one. So my reading of the sequel can influence my review of the first book, adjusting my perspective and biasing my initial opinions. I already knew, before I started Autumn Bones, that Dark Currents was good but not great. Its lustre has only dimmed further in comparsion to this second novel—still no gem, but undeniably an improvement of the already entertaining first book of Jacqueline Carey’s Agent of Hel series.
I’ll skip the summaries. Either you’ve read the first book, or you’ve at least read my review for Dark Currents, so you know the score. This book picks up a month or so after the first one. Daisy and Sinclair are not-quite-but-almost an item, and after an unfortunate encounter with a satyr in rut, a booty call quickly complicates their relationship. The romance and sex in Autumn Bones is a lot more overt and a lot more mature. But it’s also handled better than many comparable series I’ve read. The central conflict is more intense than the dull mystery of the first book: Sinclair, although he grew up in Kalamazoo, is originally from Jamaica and descended from a line of obeah men and women (basically Jamaican witches), and his family wants him back home—even if it means unleashing a spirit to haunt him and the town until he comes back. As the situation becomes more and more tense, Carey explores just how far Daisy might be willing to go, both to enforce Hel’s order and to help out friends like Sinclair.
It’s worth pointing out that Daisy is, what, 21, 22 years old? That wasn’t so long ago for me, and I don’t have the baggage of being half-hellspawn. So before we go judging Daisy, let’s keep in mind that it’s difficult to get everything right at that age. Carey does a good job portraying a young woman who, despite maturity probably beyond her years, makes some stupid mistakes that add up. It’s really nice that she gives us a strong woman protagonist who isn’t all that badass. I love badass women characters; don’t get me wrong—but badass should not be the only flavour of strong/complex women. Daisy is badass-in-training, but her fallibility and flaws make her a far more appealing and sympathetic character.
The situation with Sinclair, Cody, and Stefan is a good example. I could take the easy route here and just criticize the sheer number of men expressing interest in Daisy. Then again, this is her story; she is the main character, so I mean … yeah. If this were Jen’s story, we’d hear all about her love life (and even though it isn’t, we still hear a little about her love life—because Carey cares about developing the supporting cast too!). No, I really want to examine how Carey handles romance, sexual attraction, and Daisy’s role as Hel’s liaison.
In those urban fantasy novels that verge upon being just paranormal romance, it’s not only common but almost required that the female protagonist be the love interest of at least two male suitors, preferably of differing supernatural lineages. Carey seems to be checking that box here with Cody, a werewolf, and Stefan, a ghoul. One is powerful and full of raw sexual attraction; the other is the brooding and mysterious stand-in for vampires, because Carey already established that vampires here suck (both literally and figuratively). And then you’ve got Sinclair, pretty much human but capable of seeing auras and on the verge of being drawn back into the world of witchcraft and ceremony to defend himself from his family.
Laudably, Carey eschews easy, contrived drama through romantic squabbles and misunderstandings. Daisy and Sinclair argue about Sinclair’s reluctance to talk about his past and how this ultimately comes to bite them all in the ass—but it doesn’t blow up nearly to the proportions that would be required if this were a Hollywood supernatural rom-com. No, Daisy, shockingly, deals with it like an adult, by talking first to her friends, then calming down, then talking to Sinclair and explaining her feelings. It’s almost as if communicating with people helps to avoid misunderstandings and mistrust! Similarly, despite mixed feelings about Stefan, Daisy largely keeps her cool—important around a ghoul—and talks things out with him.
Cody is a slightly different story. All I’ll say is that Carey deftly distinguishes between romantic and sexual attraction, while at the same time pointing out how easy it is to conflate the two.
Carey avoids problematizing Daisy’s attraction, which seems to happen all too frequently in other romance novels. The problem is not, “Oh, woe is me, so many attractive but dark and brooding supernatural men want to jump my bones.” Daisy’s attractiveness as a person and her availability are not problems. Rather, the correct locus for this internal conflict is the fact that Daisy is young, inexperienced, and not quite sure what she wants. Even better, Carey is articulate enough to explain this to the reader, whereas authors often characterize the heroine so poorly that we are left with little understanding of her desires and motivations beyond a generalized need for a romance, if not a specific one.
I’m going to keep coming back to Daisy’s youth, because this was a defining part of Autumn Bones for me, and I’m starting to embrace it as a defining aspect of the entire series. See, Daisy is young, but she’s not Buffy-in-high-school young. This isn’t a young adult series; she isn’t off at a supernatural school or in college or anything like that. But she isn’t quite at the “been there, seen that, done this” stage of early thirties onwards like many of the most capable characters (women and men) in other urban fantasy novels. So Daisy is quite a nice character for people like—well, for people like me, people in their mid-twenties who are still trying to make sense of life after formal education. This is the decade where we begin to understand what it means that the world has been around for a long time before us and will continue (hopefully) a long time after us—even if we realized this in our teens, the tunnel-vision hubris of hormones means it is difficult for us to internalize it. But the harsh and unforgiving world after formal education means we can’t help but confront the essential truth that we are fundamentally insignificant to the grand events of human existence—even if, through some combination of incredible luck and skill, we manage to find ourselves in a position to influence events on a global scale, we cannot ever truly claim to grasp the full ramifications of our deeds.
This understanding is present at the existential level in Agent of Hel as well: Daisy, quite literally, can bring about Armageddon by petitioning her demonic father for her birthright, an act that will allow him to leapfrog the Inviolable Wall and unleash hell on Earth. Carey complicates matters by introducing another half-breed hellspawn like her who has apparently claimed his birthright. Daisy is just as confused as we are about why this hasn’t ended the world, and Carey smugly stays silent on the matter. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if people have been lying to Daisy all this time, “for her own good”? I’m not optimistic enough to believe that’s the reason, but it would make for such a nice, dramatic twist.) More widely, though, Daisy is a great and identifiable character because she just feels like a real person. Her relationship with Sinclair is not stereotypical; it is not perfect, but it also isn’t the trainwreck so often seen in books and movies for the sake of drama. But I’ll stop talking about romance and relationships here, because that’s not the highlight of this book.
No, Autumn Bones works because it gives us a lot more to enjoy about Daisy’s official position. In Dark Currents, she was little more than yet-another-supernatural-style-cop. She played detective, interrogated and found clues, and then was around for the bust-em-up finale. Yawn. Here, though, we see Daisy become much more comfortable in her role as Hel’s liaison. It would be inaccurate for me to say she begins to take it as more of a responsibility, because that is how she has always regarded it … let’s just say she becomes much more proactive. There are numerous episodes throughout the story—most notably, at the House of Shadows with Jen’s sister Bethany—where Daisy has to assert her authority. And, of course, the heaviest moment happens when Hel summons Daisy for an audience and expresses her disappointment that Daisy let Sinclair’s mom run roughshod over Daisy and the Pemkowet coven and Heĺ’s order. Receiving the “I am not angry; I am very disappointed in you,” talk from the Norse goddess of the dead must not be any fun. At all. But Daisy bears it well, and she bucks up, and she resolves to do better.
I’d like to talk about what doesn’t work in this book—because it is far from perfect—but to be honest, what doesn’t work just isn’t interesting enough to discuss at length. I don’t care for Lee—but that’s a personal impression, not a problem with the way Carey writes him. The climax and denouement are not nearly as satisfying as the first two thirds of this book. Rather unusually, I saw the identity of the antagonist of the last act coming from fifty pages away, so I was underwhelmed by the big reveal. Carey’s strengths definitely lie in her characterization and the wonderful setting she has created in Pemkowet. Her plots continue to satisfy me only so much as they require Daisy and other characters to grow and react to their many tendrils.
But the bottom line can only be that, having turned the last page on Autumn Bones, I really wished I had Poison Fruit on deck. I don’t—but my library has two copies on order as of December, and I just placed a hold for one of them.