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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vampires & Shapeshifters, Served up Chicago-Style

There’s plenty of uncertainty in this thing we can “life”, but there's one thing we can always count on: time is gonna keep right on doin’ its thing, marching along at its own pace. No matter how much we might want to stop it, or at least to slow it down a bit, that’s just not gonna happen.
It’s not always bad, that passage of time; some things actually improve with it. Wines and whiskies become smoother and mellower. A favorite t-shirt or pair of jeans grows softer and more comfortable. Trees stretch taller and fill out to provide more shade and beauty. (Okay, I'm sure there's more, but that's all that springs to mind.)   
Most things don't have such a positive relationship with time, of course. The cycle of life as we know it is such that, after a particular point, all living things cease growing or regenerating and begin the gradual process of decline, leading, inexorably, to... well, a last hurrah, if you will.
Generally speaking, animals (including humans) go through a predictable range of growth within a finite period of time, from birth to adulthood to old age, peaking somewhere between early adulthood and midlife. Humans don’t, however, completely relinquish the ability to grow once we’ve reached maturity; as long as we’re alive, we can always learn new things and attain greater levels of understanding. 
But, what of immortal--or just incredibly long-lived--beings? They don’t experience the same cycles; they don’t grow or decline in the same ways that we do... yet time still manages to be cruel to them, as well. Immortals run the risk of stagnation--of becoming so very set in their ways, habits, and lifestyles, that they cease worrying about trying to change, learn, or grow. They stop feeling, or experiencing, life.
That idea is sort of an undercurrent which runs throughout Chloe Neill’s Twice Bitten, the third entry in her popular “Chicagoland Vampires” series.   
Such a serious concept is a little unexpected, given her earlier books, although--for the most part--Neill still has quite a light touch, what with her grad-student-turned-vamp-against-her-will-heroine Merit’s snarky attitude and smart mouth, and all the will-they-or-won’t-they teasing between Merit and her maker, Ethan Sullivan. The other characters filling out the “cast” are likewise edgy, odd, and/or lighthearted... Mallory, Merit’s mouthy, blue-haired, on-again/off-again BFF and newbie-sorceress; Catcher Bell, the shaved-and-tattooed full-fledged sorcerer with a chip on his shoulder; Jeff, the adorable shapeshifter with the puppydog hots for Merit; Luc, one of Merit’s co-workers, who fancies himself an urban (vampire) cowboy; Lindsey, Merit’s flirtatious (and silly) new vampire-BFF; and Ethan, the four-centuries-old maker, impossibly hunky (and incredibly stuck on himself), who leads the vampires of Chicago’s Cadogan House with little more than a certain look from his piercing green eyes or the crook of an imperious blond eyebrow. (And that’s just for starters; there are several other semi-major and minor characters having an impact on the storyline, too.)
This time out, Ethan has agreed to lend his and Merit’s services--security support as well as gesture of goodwill--to the leader of the North American Central shapeshifter collective, Gabriel Keene. Keene and the leaders of the other three shapeshifter groups--along with contingencies from each--are convening in Chicago to determine their fate: will they remain spread out across the U.S.--where they constantly run the risk of being “outed” to the human population (as the vampires had been until fairly recently), and likely subject to human hysteria and enforced testing, in the event of such an “outing”--or will they remove en masse to a remote region in Alaska--where they would be able to live in less danger, in seclusion?
Ethan jumps at the chance he’s offered--both to be the only one of the three Chicago vampire houses to be present at the big shapeshifter meeting, and for the chance to potentially change millennia of distrust and hatred between vamps and shifters by showing solidarity and perhaps, even, beginning to forge an alliance between the races.
Things don’t go quite as planned, of course. At the very first meeting--an intimate little pre-convention get-together of the group leaders (the “Apexes”)--violence breaks out and shots (many shots, resulting in bloodshed) are fired. Clearly someone isn’t happy about the upcoming vote... but is the unhappy party to be found among the vampires, the shifters, or the human population? Merit and Ethan don’t know, but they vow to continue providing backup for the shifters, in a show of hope and trust, since Gabriel is determined that the show must go on.
Meanwhile, Merit has her hands full of plenty of other (non-life-threatening) concerns. She receives a surprise job offer, which begs thinking about. She and Mallory are still not on speaking terms, and it’s eating away at Merit to not have her best friend in her life. Ethan continues to be a major factor; he clearly wants Merit... but in what capacity does he want her? (And does he even know the answer to that, himself?) Her ex-not-quite-ever-a-boyfriend-even, the petulant Morgan (now master of Navarre House), will have to be dealt with eventually. Navarre’s ex-master Celina (who was behind Merit’s turning and who subsequently tried to kill her) is out there, somewhere, no doubt plotting some new evil against her arch-enemy Merit. (Okay, that last one actually falls under the heading of another one of Merit’s life-threatening concerns. Maybe. Probably. Someday.) Finally, Merit’s collection of bad karma is complete when someone unexpected--and most unwelcome--comes to town.
It’s rewarding to see many things resolved in this book, including some actual relationship growth involving several of the major players. Merit and Ethan, ehem, figure some stuff out. (Not everything, mind you, but some stuff. And it works--and that’s all I’m sayin’ ‘bout that.) Merit and Mallory work on patching up their friendship, as well, in a few really well-played scenes. (Their tiffs may have come across a bit juvenile in the previous book, but the resolution to their problems and disagreements, here, is believable.) Merit also has a couple of other crucial discussions with characters of varying degrees of importance and influence... but it’s best if you find out about those when you read the book.
I mentioned earlier the difficulties which both the immortals (vampires) and the very long-lived (shifters) have in regards to maintaining positive attitudes about the future and about change. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the 394-yr-old Ethan, who readily acknowledges how much of his humanity he’s lost over the centuries... and who cautions Merit to guard against losing her own. (The inclusion of some of Ethan’s long-ago history further builds on this concept.) There’s also an obvious sense of conflict regarding change among the shifters, as they argue and fight about whether to cling tenaciously to the ways of their past or to look to a different sort of future. All of these questions feel "real", considering what we know of the characters.
There are no quick, easy answers here--not to the bigger questions--and that’s a good thing; simple resolutions would lessen the impact of such interesting quandaries on the overall storyline. This series is still primarily a light and amusing, sometimes exciting, look at being a vampire, to be sure... but it has just enough bite to make you feel something, too. 
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 3.75 out of 5 mousies