Monday, June 7, 2010

Moonshine by Alaya Johnson

Everything about Moonshine hits my personal likes--the 1920s and an exploration of otherness and social stratification, in particular--so I'm not sure why I didn't like the book as a whole. It wasn't terrible, but it felt unfocused, with so many themes and subthemes that the book wallowed along instead of moving at the brisk pace that's really needed.

Zephyr Hollis is the suffragette main character, and I think she's a big part of why I didn't like the book very much. I found her weak and bland. She teaches night school to immigrants in New York City, which seems to take her about an hour or two a week; certainly it gives her lots of free time to join every cause going (except the prohibitionists, and good thing too since she manages to get drunk every time she's given access to booze). Oh, and she also sings in a nightclub, because it's the 1920s so you have to include jazz and gin joints. (Not that I'm complaining, mind.)

Zephyr has Issues. Her daddy is a famous demon-hunter in Montana and trained her to follow in his footsteps, but instead she's helping vampires and fighting for Other rights. She doesn't eat meat (or much else) for reasons that change from the start of the book to the last--first she seems to be atoning for past sins, but then later she just says she's seen inside slaughterhouses. And she's so ready to help others (and Others) that she neglects herself in a way that seems frankly over the top, like giving away all her money in response to a sob story and then having no way to pay the rent. Dumbass. I wanted to smack Zephyr constantly.

Her love interest, Amir, is just as vapid. I never found him very attractive, and certainly never felt much of a spark between him and Zephyr, even when they were breathlessly tumbling into bed--although they always manage to get interrupted before anything happens anyway.

The plot is pretty simple. Amir asks Zephyr for help finding out information about a notorious mob boss named Rinaldo, a vampire. Since Zephyr has just given away all her money (not for the last time) and Amir is offering to pay her for her help, she agrees. Then she proceeds to careen from coincidence to coincidence while picking up clues. The book would be half as long if only characters would stop being coy with information for the sake of prolonging the suspense.

I don't want to come down too hard on the book, because it has a lot going for it too. It's solidly written. While the plot relies heavily on coincidence, it held my interest. I picked up on more clues than Zephyr did and had most of the big reveal sussed out ahead of time, but I didn't figure it all out. And the historical details felt natural and never jarred, which is a real trick when an author has done as much research as Johnson must have--it's always a temptation to keep infodumping, but she's a light touch with the facts. The slang felt right, too.

But...the vampires. The vampires are way too powerful, particularly since it only takes the merest nip for a vampire to turn humans into more vampires. There shouldn't be any humans left. And although Zephyr kept going on about how vampires are just regular people with jobs and families, the action shows a very different story. Even vampires who were meant to be sympathetic acted like monsters. I frankly thought Zephyr's dad had the right idea about what vampires actually are; he shows up partway through the book to call Amir a wog (repeatedly) and sneer at Zephyr, but he by God gets out there and kicks vampire butt when it counts. I would much rather read about him than his pasty wimp of a daughter.

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