Friday, May 10, 2013

Nikki, the Avenger

This review is for those who have read or are familiar with the previous books, Halflings and Guardian, or don't mind knowing some major spoilers for them. Avenger, however, will remain spoiler-free.

Book 3

By Heather Burch
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Sometimes the Truth Comes with a Price

Nikki knew Damon Vessler would not let his prized creation go easily — she simply never imagined the lengths he'd go to get her back into his clutches, and turn Nikki's heart toward darkness. A Seeker at her heels, trained on her blood, Nikki flees with Raven alongside her for protection, while Mace and the other Halflings fight the battle that has erupted on earth.

But even as the two boys she loves fight for her, she knows the battle will be hers to win. Determined to uncover the secrets of her past, and exactly how she fits into Vessler's twisted plans, Nikki sets off on her own, and soon discovers facing hellacious beasts is nothing compared to the decision she will need to make. One that could change not only the war, and her relationship with Mace and Raven, but her future with the Throne.
I was already at least half-way over the fence after the first two books, Halflings and Guardian, with little hope going into the third installment, Avenger. After the major rants I'd already given, by all rights I should have called it quits on this series and gone on with my life. Alas, despite my warnings to myself, I trudged my way through another of Burch's books, and woo-boy, have I got some more ranting to do.

But first, let me cover the things I enjoyed. Don't worry, there were only two of them.

First off, I was glad to see Nikki finally grow a pair. Granted, at the end of the last book she did manage to shoot Vessler twice. But after everyone tried to downplay it as "not her fault" because she was being drugged, I can't really give her that. This time, she's not only trying to show some spice in hand-to-hand combat, but she actually intentionally takes on a hellbeast one-on-one. Slight docking of points due to the foresight and lame battle mechanics, but hey, at least she got her hands dirty!

I also enjoyed the (very few) scenes with Zero. Another case of characters being wasted in the background, Zero is a hidden gem in this series. Kind of a Dr. House type personality—brilliant, but not usually good with people. I always loved his witty dialogue and snarky personality. But best of all were his POV sections at the end. He goes through some really intense stuff and yet refuses to give in, even going so far as to destroy means of calling help so no one else would get hurt on his account. Love ya, Zero.

And that's it. That's all the good I can say about this book. Unfortunately my dislike-to-hate list is much, much longer.

I touched on it a little in the first two books, but book three really intensified the random POV shifts. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind flashing between the main three characters (Nikki, Mace & Raven) since we are supposed to be invested in their stories and triangle of emotions. I didn't even mind the switch to Zero because it showed us important plot-worthy information that no other character could have given. But WHY does Ms. Burch insist on giving us Vine's POV in every single book?! He's standing right freaking next to Mace, why do we have to read him munching on or thinking about candy?! There are a couple other characters who also steal the narration for short patches, but while kinda pointless, they weren't nearly as annoying as popping over to Vine.

Another strange writing choice came in the first section of the book where there were three separate instances of eye-centric over-dramatized description. I don't know if it ramped down later on, or if I stopped noticing due to other rage-inducing passages, but I found these instances of what I can only describe as eye-fetishism hilarious:
There was no seduction in his midnight eyes. They simply sparkled as if a thousand diamonds danced beneath their glasslike surface. There was no hint of flirtation. Just a solid, convincing look he forced her to take in. [page 67]
Anger bubbled beneath the blue of his eyes, causing them to look like glass under pressure. They might shatter at any moment. [page 73]
And then there were these two gems found a little later on. The first is what first clued me in to the fetish angle—before, I'd just been marking over-the-top passages—but the second is what sealed the deal for me:
Something about the look in his eyes made her happy inside. His eyes. Those round lakes of fervency and fire that could turn velvet soft in an instant. So many emotions could traipse across their diameter, it seemed wrong not to give them a few moments attention.

The light in the hallway was dim, only adding to his persistence. Yes, that was the other thing about his eyes. Whether they were studying the terrain for escape, sorting details necessary for conquest, or stopping her heartbeat with their softness, those eyes held more persistence than some armies.
His eyes closed, shutting off that well of optic emotion. [page 87]
Seriously? Glass-covered diamonds, glass that could shatter (shattered eyes, wouldn't that be something to see?), lakes of fire, and wells of optic emotion... I think after that she just ran out of things to compare them to.

My other random WTF moment came towards the end of the book. After something major happens to Zero, all the other Halflings are alerted and show up on the main cast's doorstep. Yeah, 20 new characters (of which we officially meet 4) are thrown in 60 pages from the end of book three to engage in a battle of epic proportions...which is pretty much glossed over because we're in one of the captives' POV. But regardless of the lame battle, why were any of these characters necessary? We didn't meet the majority of them, and the few we did meet didn't get any fleshing out because it was the end of the book! If they're important for the next book, then introduce them in the next book, don't pointlessly throw them in to a half-assed battle just to establish their presence before they're really needed.

But on to the real meat of the rage: the constant women-bashing.

Not only is Nikki completely self-deprecating about all her decisions, feelings, thoughts and actions (which is consistent, at least), but her main love interests help her, too. Mace fluctuates between trying to protect her from everything and keep her from fighting at all, to expecting her to do better. I kid you not, he is justified as a match for her because he will 'challenge her', when not 100 pages earlier he was reprimanding her for fighting at all.

Raven, my heretofore favorite character, is relegated to being as douchey as possible. He constantly chides Nikki for being stubborn, for not seeing that they are meant to be together, for not trusting his judgement. Yes, because women should bow down to their man's every whim. And yet Nikki/the author describes him as 'accepting her as she is'. Really? So the constant teasing and dismissing of her every complaint as silly is acceptance, huh? I don't know if his character changed because he was focused, if he was always this bad and I didn't see it because he wasn't as central, or if the writing of him changed so that we would be more sympathetic toward Mace.

But don't worry, our leads aren't alone in degrading women, let's get the entire cast in on this.
Deux was shaking his hand, massaging it, trying to encourage fresh blood flow. [to Nikki] "You are waiting for Mace to return and rescue you, no?" [...] "You are good, Cherie. In a few years, you might even be a real opponent." He yawned. [page 9]
[Nikki has just been called to fight a guy, him not knowing she was a girl]
More laughter. Ugh, when this was over, she was going to kill them all. One by one. Then she'd dress them in evening gowns and hang them from the Eiffel tower. Where'd that come from? [yeah, wtf?]

"A girl?" Skinny said with a thick French accent as he lumbered nonchalantly toward the center. "Please, Skully. You insult me." [page 52]
Nikki dropped her gaze. But then [Raven] was there, at her feet, his motorcycle boots kicking the toes of hers. "Too bad you aren't a guy," he said. [page 186]
"Nikki," Zero whispered. [...] "You're okay for a girl." [page 270]
"I'm just saying that male Halflings are stronger than females. That's all." Vine shrugged and took another bite of a hot dog.
Will chuckled and turned the meat on the backyard grill. "Vine, I'm going to give you a piece of advice. Having lived for thousands of years, I've learned one universal rule that has transcended eras and ethnicities. Never tell a female she's weaker." [page 217]
Yeah, Will, you semi-omnipotent Angel and father-figure, don't tell him that females can be just as strong as males. That would just be silly, and a lie. Oh, but don't worry, guys, cause the conversation continues!
Vine shrugged. "It's obvious males are stronger."
"I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that —" [...] "Well, males were originally angels. And the females were human. So, I mean, it makes sense. Angels are stronger than humans." [page 218]
See? GOD, who created only male angels, says so, so stop getting mad when we say it. Geez, girls, just live with it. You will never, ever be a match for the stronger-in-every-way-shape-and-form MEN of the world. The "debate" does continue on for another couple pages, but the girls never gain any ground and the skirmish that ensues is interrupted before it ever starts.

But that's not all, folks. As if being inferior in every way wasn't enough, a girl's entire happiness must stem solely from her relationship with her man. Yeah, I'm still not joking. There is a point where Nikki gets infected with this Faith-sapping poison and unless she can find a reason to live, to fight off the infection, she'll turn evil. So Raven is there trying to console her, give her something to think about so she'll fight to live.

Artwork and drawing? Nope, it predicts bad events, it hurts people. Her motorcycle? Nope, Vessler took it from her. Her dog, Bo? Nope, he died. Family, friends? Not even mentioned. Yes, you guessed it, the only thing she can think of that makes her happy is every single moment she spent with Mace. Of course, the scene is stolen by the fact that no Raven moments make her happy, but back up a second. We are supposed to believe that no happiness or joy in her life can compare to this boy she has known for maybe a year? This boy who won't let her do anything, yet expects her to grow? Well, at least you're happy.

I can see how this scene was supposed to be super romantic, but the omission of such important elements of her life made it disgusting to me. Oh, and speaking of failed romance, remember how I ranted about the Halfling/human stigma in my review of book one?
According to the mythology, Halflings are forbidden from perpetuating the tainting of the human bloodline through mating. What this says to me is in this world, Love automatically equals having offspring. Not having babies? You're not in love. No same-sex couples, no impotent couples, no couples using birth control. Love equals babies, no ifs ands or buts.
Well, forget all that because now that Nikki is a Halfling and is allowed to be with Mace, it's okay not to have a baby. I repeat, whereas before Mace and Nikki couldn't be together because THEIR KIDS would be thinning out humanity's bloodlines, now a baby would be welcomed but,
"We don't need to have kids." [page 166]
This was supposed to be a super-romantic gesture from Mace to Nikki, saying they could drop out of the fight and be together because GOD acknowledges love and happiness. But only if it's the natural kind of love. Between a male and female of the same race. Cause, you know, being able to have kids—even if you don't want them—is key to any good relationship. And those kids had better not be halfbreed abominations or it's damnation for you!

In case you hadn't caught on, the religious matter has jumped to the forefront of this one. I'll grant you, this is a series about angels, so it's bound to have some religious messages, but there are much more tactful and subtle ways to handle them. I didn't mind the emphasis on Faith, even when it turned into a super-power, but, man, that ending was downright preachy.

Believe it or not, I was raised Christian, but among the many denominations, I'm in one of the very lax in terms of acceptance and sacrifice and all that jazz. So most of what was beaten to death here didn't speak to me or move me. It didn't enrage me (as much as the above issues), but it didn't really engage me either. And the way it was done was extremely cut and dry - either you connected to it, or you didn't. There really isn't any grey area on this one, which I think is kind of a mistake.

You know what else was a mistake? Giving us an intriguing mystery about Nikki's real backstory, who her parents were, if she was experimented on, etcetera, etcetera, and then making it so she doesn't care about it. Yeah, one of the other female Halflings convinces her that she doesn't need to know her origins, that it would just be too painful to care about. So when Vessler asks her if she wants to know his entire scheme and what all he's done throughout her life, she simply says, "I don't care." Um, yeah, I CARE! TELL ME, PLEASE?! Nope, no information, explanation, or resolution for us. Because Nikki is living in the present now. So just be happy about it, like she is.

What could possibly be worse?

How about the fact that the ending isn't an ending? Unless I'm sorely mistaken, this didn't end up being a trilogy. There's more to discover, more to fight, more women to demoralize. And I have a sneaking suspicion that our main cast isn't done either. No, this isn't a Star Wars scenario where the second set of books focuses on other people in the same universe, I think book four will contain more of the same lovely faces in new skull-bashingly infuriating adventures. I can't wait.

Overall, I can't think of a moment when I wasn't enraged or apathetic with Avenger. These books have a very narrow religious view, which only narrows as the series progresses, so if you were a fan of Halflings, you might continue enjoying the series, but some may be turned off by this book. Based on the violence, I'd normally recommend it for high school and above, but I cannot in good conscience recommend this book for anyone, least of all young women. It constantly degrades women with religion as an excuse and offers relationships that are shaky at best. Avenger, for all its emphasis on faith and hope, has destroyed any that I might have had for the series as a whole.

Approximate Reading Time: 6.5 Hours