By Kelley Armstrong
(interesting how the cover design of this 2009 trade paperback reprint has the same blood-red monochromatic look of the mega successful Twilight books)
So this next installment continues with Elena, our very special female werewolf, resuming her Pack duties by sniffing out misbehaving mutts and researching the internet to see if anyone’s got any dirt on werewolf activity. The Pack must protect their secret identify at all cost!
Elena follows a lead and encounters an elder witch and her young apprentice, who seem to know everything about Elena and her Pack. Once upon a time, reps of various supernatural races would gather together to share info and discuss issues about potential exposure – like a “Supernatural United Nations”. This is no longer the case, which is a bit odd considering how easy it'd be for undercover supernaturals to exploit today’s technology in order to communicate with each other, so you’d think the situation would be the reverse. Anyway, the witches warn Elena that human bad guys are kidnapping shamans and half-demons for nefarious purposes. And witches, vampires and werewolves are next. What’s more, the whole operation is funded by an evil Bill Gates-type billionaire named Ty Winsloe!
Soon enough, Elena gets caught in a trap and spends the bulk of the novel imprisoned inside a high security underground research facility along with other fascinating nonhumans. Sound familiar? Buffy fans will recognize this premise from Season 4 which aired in 1999 (Stolen was published in 2003). Vampires and demons were captured by a secret military project called "The Initiative" and imprisoned in cells within a high tech underground complex. In good form, Armstrong meta-references this fact but she also makes a cheap diss: her heroine blithely quips about how subpar that season was and how she fell asleep for half the episodes.
Ok, I understand that Season 4 was voted least favourite by a number of Buffy fans, but when it’s so obvious that you’re basing an entire storyline on a season’s premise from a well-regarded TV series, wouldn’t you want, at the very least, to pay it some respect? Especially how even the worst S4 episodes have been funnier and more entertaining than any passage I’ve read in Bitten and Stolen so far.
So that confirms it for me: Kelley Armstrong is a misguided snob who’s really a square. I understand not everyone can be Anne Rice or Stephen King in terms of writing quality genre fiction, but if you can’t reference pop culture properly, then don’t do it. At their best, Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi have taken the horror/sci-fi genres to new levels while at the same time giving respect where its due. Armstrong, at best, merely recycles already tried and true tropes, and worse, seems ignorant of the influences she’s drawing from (at least this provides unintentional meaning to the title Stolen). With this in mind, I can see how Armstrong wants to model Elena as a smart-talking Buffy-esque heroine (Elena the Mutt-Slayer doesn’t quite have the same ring), but lacks the referential know-how and finesse to make her novel truly playful and clever.
On a more positive note, I did enjoy the setup and pacing of Stolen much better than the previous Bitten. Perhaps this was due to there being less romantic Elena/Clay time (sadly they had to have corny reunion sex like multiple times for what seemed like pages and pages; there was even a scene where Clay feeds Elena ham and pancakes as he’s penetrating her, I kid you not). And this time, there were some interesting (mainly supernatural) characters introduced during Elena’s imprisonment at the nefarious research facility. Armstrong does a competent job in weaving together the various character dynamics and motivations. But again she doesn’t explore her universe deeply enough and focuses her attention on action and plot.
For one thing, almost every human portrayed in Stolen is basically bad, since they are all involved in the nefarious research project, with the exception of one resesarch assistant, who gets killed anyway. The three or four dozen human stormtroopers, I mean, guards employed at the nefarious facility are basically faceless entities, like the Mutts. And if they do have a bit of characterization, they are violent would-be rapists in the guise of military men. In Stolen, Elena is just starting to feel like she belongs to her werewolf pack, but you’re not sure if she still considers herself part human, since she already killed a couple of guards without any remorse. When the baddest military dudes, under Winsloe’s command, cruelly kill a Mutt (even though this Mutt tried to rape her too), Elena draws the line between us (the supernaturals) and them (human baddies who try to mess with supernaturals).
Eventually, Elena escapes (I don’t think I’m giving too much away) and subsequently returns with the Pack and some supernatural friends to infiltrate the nefarious compound and a bloodbath ensues. After a particularly violent confrontation, she thinks about all the stormtroop— I mean, guards she has killed and wonders “if they had wives, girlfriends, children”. But then she justifies it by telling herself: “They had to die to protect our secrets. They’d understood the danger when they signed on to this project… there was no other way. Everyone had to die.”
So Elena has a pang of conscience for a few sentences, and then she promptly moves on, taking disappointing revenge on the billionaire Ty Winslow . So a potentially complex moral grey area is conveniently left unexplored, given over by the need to deliver mediocre action and drama. It also makes for boring reading.
Stolen was interesting enough to pass the time, but it also relieved me of any remaining interest in pursuing the next Otherworld installment. I’m glad because there are way better books out there to explore. In fact, after reading Bitten and Stolen almost back-to-back, I really need to immerse myself in some high-caliber writing again - a tautly structured thriller by a writer who can really delve into the complex psychological examination of a character's amoral universe - Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley!