Thursday, August 16, 2012

Carnival of Souls

By the title Carnival of Souls, you can imagine that this young adult novel, by popular author Melissa Marr, is a bit gritty, indulging in sensationalism and sensuality. But it could have been much worse. For a novel with a carnival where you can buy and sell murder or pleasure, this story is not as graphic as it could be. The main characters do not have sex within this particular story, though they have before, and we're not talking about sex strictly between lovers but also about sex for money. The violence is slightly more graphic with fights to the death.

As far as I know, Carnival of Souls is the beginning of a new series and is not part of the Wicked Lovely books or any other series of Marr's. It tells the intertwining stories of several characters on the cusp of adulthood. Mallory is a 17-year-old, raised by her adoptive witch father in the human world and trained to fight an evil she barely understands to protect something the witch once stole. Aya is a ruling-class daimon, so she could have an easy life, if she wishes, as long as she is willing to breed. But Aya's most terrible secret would be revealed in her child; therefore, the only option left open to her is entering the fights in the hopes she can win a place in The City's governing body. Kaleb is a cur, almost the lowest caste of daimon, forced to hire himself out as assassin or lover just to feed himself and his pack. In the fights, he has a chance to raise his station in life or at least die on his own terms. He's also falling in love with the girl he's been contracted to kill. Daimons rule The City. Witches have been exiled to the human world, where their power remains strong. And these three characters, among others, have been raised on one side or the other to fight a war begun long before their time.

Melissa Marr is quite the storyteller. Her stories are rich in detail and full of life. She mixes fantasy with the real world in a way that fits more into contemporary fantasy than the trendy paranormal genre. But this particular story was, for me at least, a little over-the-top. It's hard to root for a character who kills for hire and prostitutes himself, even if the world is such that he has no other choice. (I think there's always a choice. Isn't death better than selling your soul that way?)

Part of it comes down to there being not enough internal struggle over these big moral questions. It bothers me when so many young adult books are full of questions but no solid answers or no strong delineation between right and wrong. The gray area is dangerous because there are clearly things that are wrong in the real world that may or may not be wrong in fiction, but then there are things that might be wrong in both but that are portrayed in such a way as to be appealing to readers. I'm not saying books make people evil. I think, rather, that our books reflect and support our culture. If sex outside of marriage is okay in our culture, no one thinks twice about it in a book. But reading about it in a book reinforces the idea that it's okay. (Have you read other reviews by me? Big soapbox.) Anyway, I can't recommend a book, even if it is well-written and I enjoyed parts of it, if there's too much moral gray area. If this book were a movie, I'd probably have to give it an R rating.

Moving you know, if you've read past reviews, I'm not a fan of witches. I tolerate them better in fantasy because there, a witch is just another creature of the world. In some cases, though, the use of witches toes the line between fantastical creature and something out of the real world. Again, I don't like the moral gray area. This book is more fantastical than not, but some elements are borderline. If that was the only thing I didn't like about the book, though, it wouldn't keep me from recommending it.

By the way, it seems to be a trend lately for fantastical beings to take credit for real historical events, for instance, the Salem witches. The first time I read something like that, it was kind of cool, smudging the line between fiction and that which we can't explain in the real world. But it's been used enough (say, in the last three books that I've read) that it's not clever anymore.

One last issue I had with the book has to do with the romance, but I don't want to spoil too much. I think it will get better as the series progresses, but at this point, it's a love based on deception and animal attraction. There's also an annoying sexism in The City, where females are viewed as property for breeding. I'm certain the author will have more to say on this subject, as she already has, but readers will have to wait for future books to get any satisfying resolution there.

So, I don't recommend this book for the average young adult fiction reader. But, having given you fair warning, if none of the above bothers you in fiction, I'll just say Melissa Marr knows how to hook a reader. Though I likely won't get a chance to read the rest of this series, I'm still interested in knowing how it turns out.

This first installment is available in September.

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