Reviews in Brief: The Darkest Part of the Wood, The Spanish Gatekeeper, Kim Oh

Ramsey Campbell’s Cthulhu horror The Darkest Part of the Woods inspires a lingering fear of the dark, combining a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family with the haunting of the woods. Basically, the Prices moved to the Goodmanswood back in the 60s, when Dr. Lennox Price wanted to do research on the constant aura of mass hysteria and ghosty badness surrounding the woods. He eventually tracks its source to a mysterious lichen, gets contaminated, and goes insane. His wife and older daughter, Heather, stay near the wood and the hospital he’s assigned to. Because Heather is stolid and reliable, Sylvia, the younger daughter, is free to leave Brichester, wandering the world researching her books. When Sylvia suddenly returns, strangely pregnant, Heather is forced to confront her resentment over her family’s constant suckitude (they constantly comment on her lack of imagination, they impose on her house, etc) and the secret at the center of the woods. Honestly, the prose is simply too delicious to spoil with many more details than that.

The Spanish Gatekeeper Book I – Empire of the Ulfair is a bit less exciting. An intriguing premise — the Lopez women are known for being wolf-like and now Bonifacia and her cousin Peter have been transported to a world where there’s a wolf-queen and their grandfather was a prominent political figure — is undermined by a narrative overly committed stylistically to CS Lewis. Plus, Peter’s boring, and Bonnie’s most consistent characterization is that she’s small but has a lot of pluck. Still, this has series has the potential to become a YA favorite once the entire trilogy is out: I strongly suspect that the majority of the problems I have with it (the iffy characterization and the prose style being the most prominent) are the type to get resolved by series’ end. This would be a good gift/recommendation for the teen/tween/young reader in your life who enjoyed Madeline L’Engle, CS Lewis, and Half Magic. Overall, the world itself is intriguing enough that I just ordered the sequel for my Kindle.

I was originally really jazzed about the Kim Oh series. I still mostly am. Basically, Kim Oh is a former foster kid who’s working as an unlicensed accountant for a mobster. When he decides to go legitimate, he fires her, because he wants someone to match the new “face” of his operation. Kim contacts one of his old hitmen, now a paraplegic after his boss’ earlier betrayal, and has Cole train her in the arts of badass. Kim’s a believable, snarky narrator, with a great younger brother, and the novels are filled with an interesting cast of characters. However! There are VERY few female characters, and what few there are Kim generally doesn’t like. In fact, Kim doesn’t like other women; she spends a good chunk of the first novel complaining about how, unlike pretty women, she has to get by on her brains, and can’t engage in sex work or stripping to make ends meet. Then, after she kinda moves beyond that, she complains about men getting in touch with their “feminine side,” acting like “old women” “yakking it up,” etc. I’d be more okay with it if Kim wasn’t presented as such a sympathetic narrator. Originally, I thought her dislike of pretty women had more to do with her being a hater — it’d make sense given her age and her seeming isolation from other same-age peers. However, the shortage of other female characters, and the constant reminder that they’re washed up, inexplicable, weak/weak-minded, or incompetent began to really bother me.  I’m going to keep with the series, and do recommend it, particularly for fans of early Anita Blake, but hope that as Kim herself grows up, the narrative voice begins to at least acknowledge that being a woman (or hell, being a pretty woman) doesn’t mean you suck.

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