Thoughts: Kitty Steals the Show, by Carrie Vaughn

Yes, it’s that time again. More Kitty! We will make it through. I hope you enjoy me taking worldbuilding too seriously because that’s literally all this is.

OK. Lots of meat to talk about.

I think the wheels are starting to fall off this series for me a bit. It’s still light and fun, but my fingertips are really holding onto the cracks in our foundations now.

The premise here is that there’s a scientific conference on the supernatural in London, and Kitty is the keynote speaker for it. This leads me nicely into one of the things I still really appreciate about the series, which is that Vaughn has all these different things going on: Kitty’s growing fame and responsibility to her pack (and, increasingly, to the wider supernatural community), the balance between her wolf and human sides, and the slowest burner through the series, the recognition of the supernatural as… natural. The world reacting to werewolves and vampires being real.

That’s really the focus here, and I sort of wish Kitty had gone to more lectures and given the reader some more nuggets of info, like some little bits and pieces of new knowledge discovered by scientists. Just to show that scientists are doing things.

…Which leads me into one of my bigger problems with the series as a whole. Vaughn’s ability to write tight plotlines, wasting no detail and in general following the murder mystery rules of having the reader be able to work it out alongside the protagonist, doesn’t work well with these wider plotlines. Her writing is too urban, not enough fantasy, if you know what I mean. What we need – and, I’d argue, what the story needs – is some real worldbuilding chops to convince us that there is a big, big world out there. Instead, everything really revolves around Kitty.

Paradoxically, the higher the stakes get, the smaller they feel.

Take the vampire Long Game. Take vampires in general. There’s no feeling that political machinations are being carried out halfway across the world, that Kitty is a small piece on a big board. There’s no feeling that she’s making deals with vampires who aren’t necessarily what they seem. If her gut instinct is to trust a vampire, that vampire will be a good guy (with the exception of Mercedes Cook, but that experience hasn’t affected Kitty’s approach to vampires at all). Coming to London (oh yeah, we’re going to get to the Brit thing later, trust me), she was warned by another vampire Master not to let herself be charmed by her London host. Kitty, as always, was charmed immediately, and absolutely nothing came of it. The vampires all play by the rules, and they’re the same rules as everyone else lives by, which doesn’t ring true to me.

And that leads me on to the European vampires.

Because the European vampires are soooo above little mortal nonsense. They don’t want to bother themselves playing nice with them, so they have horrific orgies of feasting on naked mortals and dress outlandishly and every werewolf in all of Europe is under their thumb.

But don’t worry, the good and evil still telegraph themselves pretty obviously, and there are only a handful of major players out of every Master in the continent, covering all the major cities.

I was vaguely annoyed at the sheer unity of mind of the European vampires (I freely admit this was compounded by my being on holiday in Slovenia and then Italy at the time!) as if they’d all be the same. I tried to reconcile it with the book’s world, where these vampires are so above everything that they don’t have the same political struggles as the mortals beneath them, but there’s a problem. Vampires are classic parasites. Everything about them is totally parasitic. They can’t be that above mortals, because they need mortals to live, to provide everything from their home to their food. They need to live among as many mortals as possible to camouflage themselves (there are of course lone travelling vampires in Vaughn’s world too, but these are treated as very much not the norm). So the vampire Master of Kosovo and the vampire Master of Sarajevo, for instance, are probably going to be affected by the things that go on in the mortal sphere. I mean, fudging history to revolve around vampire politics is fine, but the fact remains that a lot of the rises and falls and shifts of cities can be traced too easily to mortal movements, especially as you get into more recent history.

And maybe that’s part of the problem? Vaughn shows her opinion a bit too easily, that Europe is Old and has History. That’s the direction she’s taking. And ignoring the fact that Europe isn’t a museum piece, it’s alive and it’s moving. Look closer into the coral reef and see all the little creatures that make it up. Some of them may be bigger than others. And there’s Russia. OK, forget the coral thing. But you see what I mean, right?

It doesn’t stop with the monolithic opinions of the vampires either. Contrary to the US vampires’ tendency to treat the werewolves in their cities as equals or at least independent allies, every single werewolf in the continent of Europe is under the thumb of a vampire. And not just under the thumb, but in most cases actually some kind of human slave, complete with collars and sometimes even nudity. Every single one.

Again, this is probably because I was travelling through bits of Europe (on trains too, for maximum scenery value) but it didn’t sit right. I started thinking about the sort of duality of vampire and werewolf existence. If vampires need to live in densely populated areas, then werewolves need the opposite. Vampires need humans for food, but werewolves can live entirely independently of human contact, if they want to (and most of them don’t, but the fact remains that they have the ability to, and that they regularly need to be in human-free areas). This duality, contrasting nature stuff, whatever you want to call it, isn’t really explored. Like, at all.

The generically Scandi vampire Master and his benevolently treated (though naked!!!) slave wolves… Seriously, Scandinavian wolves feel the need to live under some rando vampire? Sure, the northern parts of Scandinavia have the sunless winter months for vampire convenience, but it has these huge stretches of uninhabited, uninhabitable, lonely land that would be 100% unwelcome to a vampire because there is no food there. They wouldn’t be bothered by the weather, but humans’ being bothered by the weather would affect them directly. Whereas these wild places are perfect werewolf territory, because though werewolves pass on their condition through humans, they don’t need to do that to live. And there are perfect (were)wolf territories all over Europe – the Black Forest, the Alps, the Scottish Highlands. All away from dense human settlements, and therefore away from vampire influence. These places would not be part of the Long Game because there is nothing to win there.

But none of this is touched upon, none of this finds its way into the worldbuilding, and that’s sort of unconscionable (in a very literary sense) to me.

Which brings me to my last point. The Brit thing.

The werewolves in the British Isles are different to the continental werewolves, because they are left alone by the vampires, as far as we can tell (only the London Master is mentioned but The Rest Of Us are used to these snubs). This seems like a little bit of a cop-out to make Kitty’s life easier, but as the alternative makes no sense (as I’ve argued above) anyway, I’m OK with that choice. The thing is, the werewolves of the Atlantic Archipelago make even less sense.

They are a single pack. They have a single alpha, and because this is not irritating enough, his name is Caleb, even though he’s a middle-aged Londoner and Caleb is not a realistic name for this demographic at all. (Pro-tip for writers – write about far away lands as much as you want, but always keep in mind that for some of your readers Far Away Land is home, and they can tell when you don’t put in the graft.) I used “Atlantic Archipelago” deliberately, by the way, because yes, this includes Ireland. This includes every little rock of the isles, in fact, because you know, it’s a small place, and one werewolf pack covers it, right?

I have a few problems with this.

  1. Physical geography. I refuse to believe that it makes any sense to have one wolf pack over however many islands we lay claim to. How can you have a stable community spread so far, especially when the community leader is based right at the south east edge?! How can he lead with any kind of authority over the wolves whose lives he knows nothing about? How on earth can he quell rebellion or leadership grabs from there?!
  2. Politics! Vampires pretend to be above mortal affairs based on their long lifespan. Werewolves don’t have this luxury. Werewolves live (as I recall) lengthened but still relatively normal lifespans, and despite their physical toughness require things like shelter and regular meals. This ties them to the places where they live, whether densely populated or otherwise. Their territorialness would totally compound this. A Dublin werewolf is not going to accept any authority from a London werewolf. A werewolf in the Hebrides is not going to give a damn what a London werewolf thinks. A northern English werewolf is not going to be pleased with a London-centric wolf pack. A Welsh werewolf is going to be too busy with the sheep to care about any of it. (Cheap joke. Sorry.)

I get that there isn’t enough space in a single Kitty-perspective novel to go into these things, but what good worldbuilding would do is to incorporate these issues in from the ground up, so that the superficially-glimpsed finished world works according to logical rules. There isn’t any sign of this. I suppose this is where the fantasy is really spreading out and requiring worldbuilding for the first time, whereas the earlier books were the supernatural on the fringes of the mundane. Now we’re looking at the supernatural on its own terms, and I’m not convinced Vaughn can pull it off.

But we’ll see in the next book.

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