Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"The Wild Road," by Marjorie Liu

The Chick: "The woman," a.k.a. "Lethe," a.k.a. Alice Hardon. When she wakes up covered in blood, surrounded by corpses, and emptied of memories, the only thing she can think to do is run.
The Rub: By purest luck, she runs into a strange man who agrees to help her, but without memories, who can she trust? What if her memory doesn't return - and does she really want it to?
Dream Casting: Yvonne Strahovski.

The Dude:
Lannes Hannelore. A gargoyle who hides his true appearance underneath a human illusion, he cannot disguise his instinct to guard and protect people - especially a blood-soaked woman whose mind has been magically altered.
The Rub: Without any identifiable memories, the woman could be anyone, and she clearly isn't wholly human. Lannes has been hurt before - is he putting more than simply himself in danger by protecting her?
Dream Casting: Tom Hardy.

The Plot:
Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: You're stealing my car, apparently.

Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: You're murdering an old man while under someone else's power!

Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: You're really pretty. And nice. And soft. Did I mention pretty?

Woman: Who am I?

Lannes: ... ... ... loved.

Woman: ...

Lannes: Who am I?

Woman: A hot piece of gargoyle ass!

Lannes: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Virgin Bookworm Hero

1 Damaged Heroine

1 Case of Amnesia

2 Magical Detectives

1 Evil Children's Pact

1 Vengeful Spirit

1 Horny Fairy Queen

The Word:
Oh my word. I need to start this review off with a big, GIANT THANK YOU to the Booksmugglers, from whom I won this book. As other writers such as Meljean Brook have demonstrated, I might have declared myself over and done with paranormals a mite prematurely. Having a fantasy setting and otherworldly obstacles does not necessarily mean that the characters' internal development will be neglected (although in wretched paranormals that tends to be precisely the case). Reading The Wild Road, I was just as captivated by the characters' personal weaknesses and struggles as I was by the very real and very dangerous external conflicts they have to confront.

In one is one of the best openings I have ever read in a romance, well, ever, our heroine (who for a large chunk of the novel is just referred to as "the woman") wakes up in a hotel room. She's drenched in blood. She's sharing the room with a bunch of dead guys riddled with bullet holes, and she's holding a gun. She has absolutely no memory of who she is. None. Nada. The only clue she has is a slip of paper pinned to her shirt that says, RUN.

Oh, did I mention the hotel room was on fire?

Our hero, Lannes, a creature his elderly friend Frederick describes as a "creature of books and tea"(*le sigh*) discovers the bedraggled, hysterical, and injured woman trying to break into his car and his protective instincts flare up. It's a good thing too, because Lannes' in a better position to help the woman than the police: he's actually a gargoyle, and possesses natural powers of telepathy and empathy. He quickly detects that someone deliberately cut the woman's memories out of her mind in a brutal and permanent fashion.

When someone leaves the woman a clue in the form of a name, Lannes accompanies her to the old man's house only to watch in horror as a foreign power invades the woman's mind and forces her to kill the old man in a particularly gruesome manner. As they soon discover, someone is intent on using the woman as a tool of revenge - and someone else, just as powerful, is equally determined to kill the woman before that can happen. Together, Lannes, the woman, and two members of the paranormal Dirk & Steele detective agency have to solve the mystery of who's using the woman as a weapon, who the woman actually is, and how they can set her free.

First things first - it came as a pretty large surprise to me when I looked up this book of Marjorie Liu's website only to find out that The Wild Road is actually book eight in the Dirk & Steele series, because this book worked excellently as a standalone. There are some references to Lannes' brother Charlie, and to some nasty things that happened to Lannes in a previous installment (more on that later), but the author skillfully weaves them into the backstory, informing the reader without intruding on the present story. I never felt lost or like I was missing something terribly crucial by not reading the other seven (now nine) books in the series.

As I mentioned in my introduction, The Wild Road does a marvelous job of keeping the external suspense/mystery/fantasy plot fresh, entertaining and interesting, without sacrificing the characterization in the process. I'm usually turned off by what my blogger friend Kmont describes as "everything but the kitchen sink" fantasy - the kind of setting common to Urban Fantasies where every other character is a dragon or a witch or a vampire or a half-vampire-half-golem-accountant in a freakin' United Nations of Weird kind of way, but I never got that vibe from The Wild Road.

Marjorie Liu handles the magic in her book with a delicate balance between the fascinating and the mundane - where the supernatural is everywhere, but isn't normalized in an I'm-Pre-Ordering-My-Demonic-Grimoire-From-Amazon way that sucks all the wonder and discovery out of it. Part of this is also thanks to her gorgeous writing style, particularly with description, that maintains the beauty and poetry both of the supernatural and of the perfectly ordinary joys and despairs our characters undergo.

And, oh boy, our characters. Our heroine, in particular - even though she spends nearly half the novel without even a name (she eventually settles on Lethe, after the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology), she manages to keep her wits together as best she can. She's an intriguing character study because she's basically had every memory that's shaped who she is stolen from her forever - she's a blank slate. School, friends, how she was raised - it's all gone, so what kind of person is left? In this sense, both she and the reader discover who she is at the core of herself, once all the trappings of upbringing and education are stripped away, and we discover she's whip-smart, goodhearted, and determined to survive and fight what's been done to her.

However, the question of identity continues to plague her throughout the novel. We get hints and glimpses at who she was, who she used to be, but what Lethe has to struggle with is whether she wants to return to the person she was, or remain what magic and necessity have made of her. As pieces of the puzzle start clicking into place, she starts to wonder if she's better off as she is, and that maybe her past life isn't worth remembering. Yeah, if you're expecting a big info-dumpy explanation of who she was, this book doesn't give it. Why? Because the novel eloquently points out how little it really manners.

As awesome as Lethe is on her own, she hits the Ultimate Hero Jackpot with Lannes. Lannes! I want to write him a theme song. I want to knit him a sweater. I want to buy him a kitten. Already he's up there on the Best Heroes Cloud drinking Orange Pekoe with Adam and S.T. and Kel-Paten. Lannes is a shy, bookish fellow who restores ancient tomes for a living and likes jazz music, but he's trapped in the seven-foot-tall, lavender-skinned, huge-ass winged body of a gargoyle. He rarely leaves his isolated home in Maine, but whenever he does, he hides his craggy appearance underneath an illusion of a human male, and binds his wings to his body with a belt in order to keep from frightening people.

When he first meets Lethe, he wants to help her but he's wary. Years ago (apparently the plot of an earlier story), Lannes and his gargoyle brothers were tortured by a witch who turned them to stone. On top of leaving Lannes terrified of small spaces (and, conversely, of leaving his protected home for unfamiliar places), he's wary of revealing the truth about gargoyles to strangers for fear he'll make his dwindling species a target for magical exploitation again. As he gets to know Lethe, however, his fears deepen to the very personal terror that she'll find his true appearance repulsive.

I adored Lannes, the best part of an already stupendous novel. I love how despite the fact that he has the larger-than-life, feet-the-size-of-baby-dolphins body of a typical Alpha Male, he's such a sweet teddy bear on the inside. Because of what happened to him, he's afraid of stepping beyond his comfort zone and he doesn't want to assume the role of the hero - but he can't help it. There's an excellent dichotomy demonstrated between the Hero and the Villain(s) that deftly explains why Lannes is the perfect companion for Lethe. Lethe is tormented by people who are evil, vengeful or manipulative - but physically weakened or absent, and she finds salvation with a man who is physically ginormous with claws, wings and teeth - who is, nevertheless, a gentle, tender, and incredibly lonely soul.

Lethe, in turn, is a perfect fit for Lannes and I loved reading their tender, slow, and mostly non-physical romance develop (although it does get physical eventually). Lethe, without memory, has no frame of reference. Incapable of recognizing anyone, even family, she has to trust people based on their actions, rather than their words or appearance. While she soon figures out about Lannes' illusion (although not what lies underneath it), she trusts how he's treated her up until that point, and as they eventually form a psychic bond, she learns even more about how awesome he is on the inside.

I'll definitely be reading more Marjorie Liu, for this book satisfied on all counts - it had a great fantasy setting, beautiful writing, an engaging mystery, exciting suspense and wonderful, flawed, tender characters.


  1. Great review!!! This one is my favourite of all the Dirk and Steel books next to Shadow Touch!

    I would also like to knit Lannes a sweater...

    And curl up with him in it!

  2. Yes to everything you said! Wonderful book!!! I loved the beginning of the novel as well, stupendous and so different! I really need to catch up on the other Dirk and Steele novels!

  3. A great review! I'll have to hunt down this book now!

  4. Anonymous3:56 PM

    I've been reading you for awhile now and we seem to have similar tastes, so I'm going to take a chance on this one. Can't resist a virgin bookworm hero! -- willaful

  5. Holly Storm --> Hee hee. Now I want to get all of her books. I juts got "The Fire King" today, actually, with a birthday giftcard.

    Ana --> Thanks again for the book! I never would have tried her if not for the Smugglers!

    Snazel --> DO IT! Do it for LANNES!

    Anonymous --> I have to say, I love virgin heroes more often than not. :P

  6. Aww I love Marjorie Lui but stalled at The Last Twilight.

    However, I am going to pick this up again as I had no idea Lannes was a VIRGIN HERO. My favourite type.....YAY!

  7. I gave up on D&S books a while ago, but your review has captured my interest. I think I'll give this one a shot.

  8. Why you... *shakes fist* I'm going to end up reading a romance or two this year and it'll be all. your. fault.

  9. Vorkosigrrl12:02 PM

    Possibly my favorite romance EVER EVER EVER is "A Dream of Stone and Shadow," the novella in the book Dark Dreamers, which is about Charlies, Lannes' brother. YOU'LL LOVE IT. I'm guaranteein' ya. (The Christine Feehan accompanying it I could have done without, but there ya go.)

    Liu is a beautiful writer. My faves of hers are the aforementioned novella, Tiger Eye, Shadow Touch, and Red Heart of Jade. Those are the first 3 books of the D&S serires. After that, to tell the truth, they started wearing a little thin for me. Red Heart of Jade was so over the top (not that there's anything wrong with that -- it was amazing), everything after that seems a bit anticlimactic.

    I also loved her introductory novella in the Maxine Kiss series, named "Hunter's Kiss." In fact, I liked it a lot better than the follow-up novel, The Iron Hunt, which I found just about incomprehensible.

    But no doubt about it, Marjorie is a force to reckon with (and recommend).

  10. Vorkosigrrl12:04 PM

    To clarify my earlier comment, The Iron Hunt was only incomprehensible at the climax.

  11. Sayuri -->Lannes is adorable. This novel was full of good things but he was the best.

    KatiD --> I'm eager to try out other books in the series. I don't read series concurrently anymore (probably for the reason many commenters have said - exhaustion), so it'll take a while. *LOL*

    Raych --> Yes! Read some romance! It's not just about heaving bosoms and inconvenient boners!

    Vorkosigrrl --> Well, I just bought The Fire King so I'll see how that goes, and then I'll try other books in the series. :)

  12. Estelle2:27 PM

    If the hero is up there with Kel Paten, this book is for me. *wants*

    I read one book a while ago by Liu but couldn't get into the story. This book sounds like a good one to try to give her a second chance.

  13. AnimeJune, I am so glad to see you review and ENJOY and Liu novel. She isn't at the top of the paranormal food chain, but she is damn good and her praises ought to be sung!

    My personal favorite is Shadow Touch and I think the weakest book is Tiger Eye, the first in the series. I do hope you read more by her. You are in for a treat!