[Book Review] Urban fantasy, race politics, and werewolves

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Let’s talk urban fantasy.

“Too often in UF we get lip service to the idea of discrimination (or racism or sexism). If you look at the popular series, however, there is no in-depth analysis of it. Anita Blake, Elena, and Kitty are all non-human and are segregated out of the human society because of what they are, yet in their books we mostly see them functioning in a society where they are not the minority. Anita has (or had) one strict human friend, Elena had one human boyfriend, who she dumped, and Kitty has her family, but the werewolves and vampires get more play. The characters who are supposedly outsiders are actually part of the in-group of the novel. In those novels, in terms of characters, strict humans are the minority, and very rarely do central characters behave as if they have been effected by an -ism; they might have to hide, but outright discrimination doesn’t really seem to occur or should it, like in Kitty Takes a Holiday, it lacks depth.” (Chris from Goodreads)

I couldn’t have laid it out better myself, so I didn’t try. Chris was the Goodreads review angel who said Benighted by Kit Whitfield was different in its representation of “otherness.” I was convinced me to give the book a chance – and man, am I glad I did.

Since I finished it, it has skyrocketed to my short list of top reads, and is one of the few books I’ve reread. But before I get more into that, the plot:

In Benighted, being wholly human is a recessive gene. When the full moon rises, ninety-nine percent of the human population humans transform into lunes (werewolves), mindless, ferocious animals, wrecking havoc if left to their own devices. Those few born unable to change are the minority – often viewed with disgust and hostility for their disability.

Lola Galley is a veteran of the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activities, an organization staffed by non-lunes that monitors the city during the full moon and is tasked with keeping order and capturing the lunes who break the law to roam free on full-moon nights. When Lola’s friend is attacked by a lune, and then murdered before the attacker can be brought to justice, Lola finds herself on the trail of a deadly conspiracy.

There’s a lot I loved about this book. The murder mystery is different. The world concept is unique. The writing style is different. But more than that, Benighted doesn’t shy away from tackling issues of social and racial prejudice and its effect. For that, this book wins both my respect and a place on my all-time favorite urban fantasy books list.

This is not a light or fun read, nor the average high drama urban fantasy fare. It is bleak, sometimes beautiful, and definitely disquieting for the questions it raises. In its ambition, it comes closer to literature than genre fiction.

Benighted gives us Lola, who is part of a feared minority. It affects her entire life – her relationships, her job, her role in her family, the way she perceives her worth and her appearance. There is no easy answer or revelatory celebration of self-love at the end of this book.

Equally fascinating, Whitfield’s world setup puts non-lunes (“barebacks” as they are called) both into the role of oppressed minority, and into the role of a special police force, tasked with keeping order on the streets when lunes transform into wolves, and granted gestapo-level powers and almost no funding.

Lola, as part of the bareback-only Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activities is both oppressed minority to be viewed with pity and disgust for her disability…and the police force, facing both that monthly threat of deadly violence on the city streets, and regular charges of police brutality. Prejudice, fear-of-life, public scrutiny, and life-and-death situations intersect in fascinating, bleak ways. In Lola’s interactions with her world, you see childhood trauma meet PTSD meet the soul-devouring effects reality of being different and ostracized.

This book is not simple. The murder mystery resolution goes into a direction I hadn’t seen before. Lola’s attempt to face a traumatic incident from her past ends in sad ambiguity. Love doesn’t conquer all, though perhaps a ray of light does slip through the cracks of Lola’s romantic subplot.

It is not an easy read but it’s a memorable one.

There are genre books. And then there are books like this one.

Canary verdict:

 

More posts from the feathery roost:

 

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