Thoughts: Kitty in the Underworld, by Carrie Vaughn

I’m at peace with the fact that the last three of the Kitty Norville opinion pieces (I don’t think I’m knowledgeable, interesting or authoritative enough to say I “review” books particularly) are probably going to be me trying to analyse what isn’t quite working with me about this series. But that’s OK! You can’t win ’em all, and I enjoy analysing books and stories.

Kitty in the Underworld at least has a title that’s easily mapped onto the story. Kitty gets kidnapped and kept in an old silver mine – it’s pretty underworldy. And more, Vaughn tries to go a little bit further. Kitty’s struggle for identity, and more recently her search for werewolves throughout history, is still one of the strongest elements of the series, and at the beginning of Underworld she’s putting together a book on these stories and rumours she’s picked up over time.

While she’s languishing in her werewolf-proof cell, Vaughn interjects stories of mythology and ancient history, stories of goddesses’ trials in their underworlds and animal deities’ ordeals. It’s a nice touch, but I don’t think she went far enough. I wanted to see more of it. I wanted it to be more deeply embedded a theme – and I think it had to be, if any of this is going to work. Kitty’s no longer just Regina Luporum (queen of the wolves) but she’s the avatar of the Capitoline Wolf herself by the end of this story (or is she? It’s unclear whether it’s something specifically about Kitty or whether any mouthy enough werewolf girl would be an appropriate vessel) and it feels a bit like it’s come out of nowhere. “Regina Luporum” just felt like the vampires were teasing her (and says a lot about cowering werewolves through history if none of them for years have been cheekier than Kitty) and though there were always the winks to the reader saying “Yes but we know it’s true,” I was never really convinced. Piling more on top of that really could have used some preparation.

I get that Kitty was an English major and it makes sense for her to spot these themes, but the storytelling parts were very short and divided from her own story. When not telling the reader stories, she wasn’t contemplating them herself. Her own trial didn’t have many parallels with any of the myths she retold, and I feel like it could have. It would have given a really cool effect. Not a one-to-one retelling or anything, but following the main theme, the giving things up, following those harsh rules. Vaughn touched on it once (offer blood if you want to ask questions) and then never returned to it again. Maybe I’m trying to add too much mysticism into a quite grounded series, but mysticism is what Vaughn is dabbling in at this point, what with the weird god-avatar cult thing, and you can’t half-arse mysticism. It’s very much a zero-sum game.

And really? This is urban fantasy. This is a world of werewolves and vampires. Can you blame a girl for wanting a little magic?

I found the inherent goodness-but-slightly-misguidedness of the cult a little bit of a cop-out. Everything is far too cosy – yes, even with kidnapping! – for this point in an epic series. The conflict should be more aggressive. The lows should be lower, the losses sharper. I’ve noticed that the only real casualties of the “war” so far are either acquaintances or vampires, who are either not much of a loss because they were technically dead anyway or else a horrible loss because of all the experience, thought, knowledge that they’ve accumulated over centuries. When a centuries-old vampire dies, that sort of loss is never really mentioned. When Antony dies off-screen – both acquaintance and vampire – Kitty is sad because he was cool for a vampire and because you are sad when someone dies. When Kumarbis, possibly the most ancient vampire she’s ever met and creator of Roman, dies, there’s not much of a sense of the things he’s seen, the things he knows, the things he never talked about, all gone.

The mysterious figure behind Roman is no closer to being revealed. With two books to go and still not a single iota of progress on how to defeat Roman.

The kidnapping part of this book also undermines a lot of the things that happened in the last book. Kitty promises to be there for her wolf and human families, and then is immediately kidnapped. It feels like there really are too many balls in the air now, and even the other characters know it. They keep airing their grievances, and Kitty keeps making what turn out to be empty promises, and the save-the-world thing always comes first.

I think Vaughn is best at the domestic side of things. That’s not meant in a derogatory way at all. Urban fantasy is full of save-the-world stories. Any idiot can whack out a mediocre save-the-world urban fantasy. The inward-turned side, this identity-searching, living with a chronic condition, human-wolf balancing act is much more interesting to me. It’s new, fresh and frankly says a lot more about the world I see outside. It’s a shame to see Vaughn neglecting it on a wild demon chase.

The next book is centred on Cormac and Amelia, so that’ll be an interesting change at least.

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