Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mercy Thompson Series

The Unapologetic Use of Fantastic & Magical Elements in the Mercedes Thompson Series
February 13, 2011

Books: First five books in the series. 
  • Moon Called (2006)
  • Blood Bound (2007)
  • Iron Kissed (2008)
  • Bone Crossed (2009)
  • Silver Borne (2010)
  • The sixth book in the series, River Marked, is slated for release in March of 2011. 
Author:   Patricia Briggs
Narrator:   Lorelei King  
Summary:  Mercy Thompson is a late-twenties, single, half-Native American VW mechanic, who lives in an old trailer in the Washington State Tri-Cities area.  She's a tough, tattooed chick with a purple belt in an obscure form of Japanese martial arts and a “walker” – a natural-borne coyote shapeshifter who can talk to the dead.  She appears to be the last of her kind, destroyed by the vampires who fear walkers.  Mercy Thompson also has a strong connection to the werewolves, who raised her after her human mother placed her in the care of their leader.

In her world, the fae, who revealed their existence to the public, mostly live in ghetto-like reservations for their own protection.  The werewolves are considering coming out as well due to advances in forensics and medicine which make their existence a secret increasingly impossible to keep. Vampires and witches exist in secrecy.  Also kept secret is the true nature of most of the fae and the existence of their Greylords.

In Moon Called, the first book of the series, Mercy's world turns upside down by the kidnapping of the 15-year-old human daughter of her friend, a werewolf alpha, by an unknown group who appear to be turning kids into werewolves and using them as guinea pigs in experiments for unknown purposes. 

Comments:   In her best-selling Kitty Norville series, Carrie Vaughn doesn’t alter the mass of her werewolves.  When they shift, large men make larger wolves and small women make smaller wolves, all bigger than your average wolf.  The laws of physics are not to be violated.  Faith Hunter, on the other hand, provides a rational explanation for how her skinwalker, Jane Yellowrock, can turn into larger or smaller animals by giving to and taking mass from a specific sort of stone, thereby not violating the Conservation of Mass or Matter. This is generally how urban fantasy authors explain the fantasy elements in their fiction.

Not Patricia Briggs. In her world, Mercy Thompson turns into a 30 lb coyote. How?  It’s magic.  But what about the laws of physics?  Patricia Briggs is unapologetic.  In her world, a 180 lb man turns into a 250 lb wolf.  That is, bigger than a regular wolf and bigger than the actual man.  Why? Magic. This is a good example of the fantastic, illogical, and irrational elements common in the Mercy Thompson books - elements that in most urban fantasy novels breed doubt, the kind we see in young adult fiction that most adult fantasy books simply lose or explain away.  Here, that is not so.  The unexplained is satisfying and imaginative, written in a way so delightful that the reader overlooks the lack of logic and loses himself in the fiction.

For example, in Iron Kissed, the third book, a fae walking stick acquires an affinity for Mercy. It’s only known ability is to allow it's human owner’s ewe to give consistent births to healthy twin sheep.  Mercy, a VW mechanic, owns no sheep and has no desire to start farming sheep. The only sheep Mercy likes is the silver necklace she wears as a lamb, to symbolize Christ.  Why does the walking stick like Mercy?  It's old and has a mind of its own.  How does it keep showing up? Magic. What good is this walking stick? Who knows! The practical application of the walking stick is to randomly pop in and out of Mercury’s life, usually causing her to trip over it unexpectedly.  It’s small, it’s simple, and it makes you smile.  As a reader, you start to look forward to it, to predict it, to wonder when that walking stick will show up again.

Also, throughout the books, we find a plethora of strange fae, from water fae, snow fae, green men, tree men, swamp fae, trolls, and even a fae queen.  In Bone Crossed, the fourth book, Baba Yaga makes an appearance.  As a kid who was born in the Soviet Union, you should have seen the look on my face when the old fabled witch shows up. Being re-introduced to a legend from your childhood in an urban fantasy novel goes beyond unexpected. It's like believing in Santa Claus all over again.

In sum, Patricia Briggs doesn’t attempt to logically explain away the magical elements in her books like so many other successful adult urban fantasy authors. And, surprisingly, it works. Perhaps it's the amount of research into folktales or the sheer imagination used to create these elements, but the reader doesn't get hung up on the mechanics. The lack of a rational explanation produces an unintended result:  instead of making the story unbelievable, it encourages the reader to surrender to the magical world that is still urban and not high fantasy. It works surprisingly well but, from my own experience, only in the Mercy Thompson series.

Other Comments: 
The series focuses almost exclusively on action and mystery.  There is romance, including a very interesting love triangle in the beginning.  However, sex scenes are limited to thirty seconds of reading tops which, like the magical elements discussed above, is very different from most urban fantasy novels.  Patricia Briggs does not shy away from sex, which she makes obvious.  Rather, there is no delving into long, gratuitous, unnecessary, and painfully lame descriptions.  At no point is sex or even love used as a crutch for the plot which, quite frankly, is refreshing. 

The narrator, Lorelei King, is spectacular.  Patricia Briggs produces over fifteen reoccurring and important characters throughout the series and Lorelei King has distinct and consistent voices for each and every one of them.  She even gives distinction between Mercy’s voice and the narrative voice, which is pretty important when you are listening to a first-person narration rather than reading a book.

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