Cast in Moonlight by Michelle Sagara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was never able to make a dent in the first "Cast" (Chronicles of Elantra) novel; the wild variety of races defeated me, I recall, and I wasn't grabbed thoroughly enough to care enough to try to figure out who was what and what that meant. (Also, the fact that there is an avian race and also a law enforcement group called the Hawks, but the avians (Aerians) aren't necessarily Hawks and the Hawks aren't necessarily Aerians. That took adjustment.
A sort of similar hurdle in this audiobook (audio novella) is a very odd decision to show the main character, Kaylin, taken under the wing (though not literally) of an administrative assistant of the Hawks: Caitlin. (At least I don't think it's literal; I don't remember it being specified that Caitlin is human. Which is interesting considering that the others' races are talked about frequently.) On paper, that might be all right given different first initials. Orally, they're – obviously – almost identical, and if it wasn't for the very different character voices used it would be a mess. And this was, as far as I can find, exclusively released as audio. I think the characters were established already, but it's still very odd.
Because this was an audio, and I admit to not researching too deeply, my character name and race spellings may be wildly erratic.
The voices … Caitlin sounds prissy, which is not how the character is described. Kaylin sounds petulant at times when it's extremely inappropriate. I have a problem with the Leontine, Marcus, being Jamaican. Or maybe it's Bahamian…. I can almost understand the extraordinary accent, so completely different from the others': the voice being shaped by the muzzle… I think it would actually be kind of fun to listen to, under other circumstances – in a Terran setting, say, when the character would actually be from some tropical isle. But it dredges up a mental image from somewhere of a cartoon lion wearing flip-flops, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. I don't mind the character; I mind having that picture in my head. Almost as bad is when the Wolf Captain Neal shows up; he's a Cockney (and I keep picturing him as lyncanthropic with perhaps a soft plaid cap). I think Marcus's accent is supposed to relate to his race; I don't know what the deal is with a sudden Londoner in the midst of all Midwest US accents, but it was bizarre enough that I have no idea what the character said for quite a while, as I was been too distracted by the pronunciation.
I honestly don't know whether I like this story or not. There are some interesting ideas; the world seems interesting, if under-explained in some aspects. There are three basic ways to introduce a reader to a new world. There's the Malazan Method, in which the hapless reader is given a shove off the ship of reality into deep water, no lifeboat, no flotation device, to try to kick off her shoes and tread water and not drown or succumb to hypothermia. Nothing is explained, no allowances are made for the fact that the reader is not in fact living in the writer's head and can't know more than she's told. Then there's the opposite, for which I'm sure I'll think of an example later: not only is there a lifeboat and a Mae West, the reader is gently assisted into the lifeboat while it's still on deck (where it remains), and provided with further inflatables from water wings to a rubber ducky, and handed a lovely box lunch. The reader is assured that the sky is blue and the grass is green, and if there are new races or concepts no detail is too small to be included to make sure that the reader's image is precisely what the author sees in his head. The happy medium is a rare and wonderful thing, allowing the reader to find her own lifeboat and put together her own survival pack, and learn her way around the oars and whatnot naturally.
"Cast in Moonlight" leans toward the Malazan Method, though with maybe a pair of flippers and a small can of shark repellent thrown in. The races are introduced one by one, but either Sagara is more interested in the Leontines or she felt they warranted more detail: the sergeant is one of the only ones I have any real clear image of (though it is unfortunately Dreamworks). I don't know if the Aerians have other bird-like attributes. I have no idea what the Barrani are supposed to look like – neo-traditional elves? – or the Fa-alani (Tha-alani? Can't find it, even on Michelle West's blog), apart from some kind of mind-reading stalks on their foreheads. And why are the Barrani specifically so hateful to Kaylin? It's mentioned many times that in the fiefs where she has always lived, if you saw a Barrani you ran for it, but it's never explained what would happen if you didn't. Are there more races? What does it mean that someone is a Dragonlord – is it the head of some group like the Hawks and the Wolves, or … a dragon?
The language throws me a little. This is obviously somewhere else entirely, with both magic and technology and with at least four other races besides humans. But the narrative and dialogue are laced with very 20th - 21st century-US colloquialisms ("pissed off"; "I'll bet"; "who was that guy"; "big sucker"; "crappy" weather). And in several places the narrator makes a little editorial remark – along the lines of buildings being described as "too damn tall". If it's supposed to be Kaylin's point of view, that's the only really personal touch to it; otherwise the narrative voice is neutral. It's frequent, and it's odd, especially for a 13-year-old girl, even one from the streets. A related issue: there are a couple of occasions where characters engage in little side chats while something major is going on in the foreground, which annoyed me in two ways: I wanted to return to what was important, and also I was irritated with the characters for being distracted (and distracting me) from what was important.
Kaylin smacks a bit of Mary Sue in that she is adopted immediately by the Hawks, despite frequent protests that they have no use for a young girl, and she more than holds her own and evinces some unexpected and very useful talents along the way. People listen to her who shouldn't listen to her. In fact, it seemed like the text would just finish describing a character who would never in a millennium listen to a barely-teenaged girl, and then suddenly a few minutes later all is going just as Kaylin suggested. On the one hand, it is drummed into the reader's brain that she is only a 13-year-old stranger, known for mere hours: a completely unknown quantity – but on the other she is treated consistently as if she has been a member of the team, the "family", for a long time. (This is even glancingly addressed, as a couple of other characters express astonishment that she has only been with them a day. She is not an endearing child, and this instantaneous glomming-on is not quite believable.) In the end, the way in which the story is – somewhat – resolved is jarring, and I thought not properly dealt with; without spoilering, Kaylin goes through something she should not bounce back from immediately, but seems to do just that. And, in the end, I'm really not sure I like her, or the world she moves through, enough to hurry into the books.
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