Thoughts: Covet, by J. R. Ward

This is the second of the books that Spuggy brought back from the free bookshelves, and somehow turned out to be even worse than Heart of the Dragon. I know. I hardly thought it possible myself.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The premise of Covet and this whole sorry series, is laid out in the first couple of pages as a sort of prologue. The whole of human existence has been a battle of good versus evil, but actually not a battle, more like an American football game in which demons are quarterbacks or something. This is fine, except now the Creator (heavily implied to be the Christian God), who is sitting in the audience, is getting bored and wants them to wrap the game up, and so they are wrapping the game up. Wrapping the game up means ending all of Creation, by the way.

So the conceit is this – they pick a guy and he has to turn seven people, each conveniently beset by a single deadly sin, to either good or evil, and the side with the most points wins the whole game. Just like in American football, I guess.

If evil wins, then everything is simply unmade.

If good wins, then… it’s actually not clear what happens. Everything is not simply unmade, one presumes, but if the Creator is tired of the game then things can’t just keep on going, right? Does the series end in the Rapture? Does everyone just go to heaven? I’m not reading another five of these to find out, anyway.

Our erstwhile hero (equal parts hero and anti-hero, natch) is a gruff ex-super-special-forces assassin and current-construction worker who doesn’t suffer fools and is anti-social but dependable, called Jim Heron. His target is Vin diPietro (that’s a lie, his first target is himself, but also turning himself to good doesn’t count…?), professional rich man with a real estate business and no emotions. Vin diPietro accidentally made a deal with a demon as a teen when he went to that demon in the guise of a fortune-teller (see the Christian overtones here?) who told him to jizz into a candle in a weird ritual to get whatever he wanted. His signature sin is greed, which is the covetousness of the title. The demon is a sexy lady called Devina. The salvation is reluctant Catholic prostitute called Marie-Terese. All these characters are introduced in their own chapters that have nothing to do with each other, and the plot doesn’t actually start happening until page 350. No, really, once the plot started happening I checked the page number.

Until then it’s just Jim Heron bumbling around and swearing at things and slowly meeting the cast. His so-called allies (a quartet of posh English* angels with names like “Colin” and “Quentin” because this book might be stealthily religious but the author didn’t do that much research) tell him nothing useful for no good reason. His friends on earth (a big gruff magical Native American, a weaselly little guy and a tragic limping dog) are fallen angels but seem to be good, though the weaselly one gets Jim in trouble with Devina out of pure malice. Also, they’re fallen angels who like sex and beer; they’re not regular angels, they’re cool angels. They still keep things from him, despite the fact that Jim Heron obviously doesn’t like not knowing things, and he’s not particularly smart. They aren’t the only fallen angels around, either – Marie-Terese’s pimp with a heart of gold is one too. You can’t move for secret angels in this book.

Most of the plot threads seem to serve no purpose but to drag out the story – decoys and dead ends abound, including a particularly egregious red herring involving Marie-Terese’s stalker. You think it’s her abusive Mafia ex-husband, but then at the last minute it turns out to be a guy from her prayer group we’ve literally never met before. I mean, we’ve never met the ex-husband either outside flashbacks, so this switch is less a dramatic reveal than a pointless twist that barely elicits a shrug.

Why is Jim Heron an ex-military assassin in the first place? He does very little with the knowledge, because he’s not really meant to be killing people (one assumes…) when winning souls for the lord or whatever. Again, it’s just an artificial source of drama. It’s the sort of job one isn’t supposed to leave, and Jim puts himself back on his obnoxious boss’s radar by phoning him up to ask for a favour. The problem is, it’s not the sort of favour where you’d think the only way to accomplish it is to phone the tech genius with access to the US president. It’s a background check and a car registration lookup, and that is all. Oh no, now the boss wants him to go back to assassining! Whatever will he do?

He certainly won’t fake his own death, even though he totally dies right after the boss sends him an ominous assassin package. Nope, Jim Heron takes on the job anyway when he comes back to life. Oh man, the package. So the boss has sent him a self-destructing email and stuff about the guy Jim Heron has to murder, and the email is uncopyable and unprintable and deletes itself, but no one thinks of taking a photo of the computer screen with all the info on it. Ugh, anyway. We hear nothing else about the boss or the assassination or Jim’s job in the whole rest of the book.

I know what happened here. J. R. Ward thinks she was being very clever and planting a hook for the next book, which apparently revolves around this assassination target. But no, that’s not how subplots work. You have to resolve them, or it looks like you forgot about them, which is what I thought until I looked up the other books on Goodreads out of morbid curiosity.

Just reading this book at all is quite the effort. Remember our old friend Cassandra Clare, who happily ruins her own intricate atmospheres and flows for the sake of a Whedonesque quip? Well, come back, Clare, all** is forgiven. J. R. Ward sacrifices basic comprehensibility for the sake of her weird tortured metaphors. Vin diPietro’s evil mother is described as wearing a housecoat (a sort of slovenly dressing gown, for the non-Americans) that gets washed “as often as the Clairol bottle made it home”. For a few words of confusing namedropping, I had no idea what this was about without asking some American friends what Clairol was. Let’s unpack this, in the hope that some aspiring writer out there will learn what not to do.

Context implies that the frequency is low, because Vin’s mother is gross. But the other half of the comparison must balance like an equation – it must tell us something about Vin’s mother as well or else what’s the point? I had to guess what Clairol was from the context. As we have learned by now that Vin’s mother is both unhygienic and an alcoholic, I guessed that it was some kind of cleaning product, maybe with alcohol in it, that really desperate alcoholics might turn to in a pinch. This was reinforced by the words “made it (home)”, which implies a journey begun but not ended. Because words mean things. My hypothesis was totally off – Clairol is hair dye.

Here’s why the comparison doesn’t work, quite apart from the clunkiness of the sentence: who cares how often Mrs diPietro dyes her hair? Infrequent hair dyeing is not a traditional hallmark of disgusting squalor, and though it’s a decent supporting detail in our impression of her as a slovenly, neglected woman, it’s an anticlimax besides the grossness of unwashed clothes.

And Ward did this all the time. This double whammy of naming obscure brands (or not even naming them – she talks about an “umbrella girl” to mean salt for crying out loud) and then slightly misusing words often enough that I started to doubt my own proficiency in English.

This is why it’s so valuable to read terrible books as well as good ones, if you want to improve at writing. So much of good writing is invisible that it sometimes takes someone doing it magnificently wrong to show you what’s being done in the first place.

I’m aware I’m being a lot harsher on Covet than I was on Heart of the Dragon, and I think partly that’s because Heart of the Dragon was full of ridiculousness, but Covet is full of deeply unlikeable, obnoxious characters as well as the “one of the boys” tough guy writing style and the relentless dated Americanisms.

The more I say I don’t mind unlikeable characters, the more it looks like I’m trying to convince myself, but in this case I remain convinced that it’s not me, it’s J. R. Ward. Jim Heron, for instance, is our main viewpoint character who’s meant to carry us through six books (I know, there are seven deadly sins, and yet). I get that he’s meant to be a bit bad, because otherwise the demons wouldn’t use him as their mystical quarterback or whatever, but surely we’re meant to enjoy spending time in his head. And… for a romantic lead (not in this book but eventually, according to the Goodreads summaries), he certainly doesn’t like women.

And he’s not the only one. Vin diPietro scorns female company until he is saved, after which he considers Marie-Terese “his woman” (is this something that’s just normal in romance now? Can it not be, please?). The fallen angel companions like sex, which is something that they get from generic interchangeable women. Marie-Terese’s ex-husband is an abuser and her prayer group companion wants to possess and murder her. So, you know, no one’s exactly pleasant.

Oh, but what about the female characters?

If the categorising of the female characters as Sexy Literal Demoness and Sad Catholic Reluctant Prostitute didn’t tip you off, then here: this book is weird about female sexuality and morality. Actually no, it’s deeply, deeply traditional. Vin has issues about Marie-Terese being a prostitute (despite his own colourful sexual past) but it’s OK because she didn’t enjoy it. Because a woman who enjoyed it would be unworthy of his love. And honestly, for someone with a well-developed sense of guilt, who feels like she defiles polite society, Marie-Terese is a snob about her colleagues. She holds herself aloof, knowing she’s Not Like Them, and scorns the girls who look too comfortable in heavy make-up and skimpy clothes, even when they seem willing to be friends with her.

Vin and Jim are the same – Marie-Terese looks like a certain statue of Mary Magdalene (OF COURSE) in the cathedral, and she resembles a prayer card of the Virgin Mary that Vin kept in his childhood bedroom (OF COURSE) so she’s a rare and precious beauty, but her colleagues are considered cheap. And sure, the prostitutes here are ethically farmed, with their fallen angel pimp with his heart of gold, but the weight of every character’s judgement on them is uncomfortably telling.

I haven’t even told you how I knew Devina would be evil. So at the beginning of the book, Jim is badgered by one of his terrible fallen angel friends (who should know better) into sleeping with Devina. she makes a lot of noise about how innocent she is and how heartless her boyfriend is, which matches up with the robotic engagement ring purchase we see him on, and says that Vin wanted her to get breast implants but she didn’t want to. Jim is immediately filled with murderous feelings towards this would-be despoiler of bosoms, because her breasts are perfect (not because it shows a dangerous level of control freakery). Then they make innocent, tender, adulterous love.

But wait!

The next time we’re in Vin’s head, he obligingly thinks about what an absolute sex beast Devina is, and that one time she begged him for breast implants but he said no because her breasts are already perfect. So in one fell swoop, we know that Jim and Vin will bond over their taste in basoomas and become allies at some point, and Devina is an evil liar.

It’s fair to say that the whole thing is quite bad, but the final majestic badness is that Vin, who is saved from the deadly sin of greed, never has to change at all. I mean, yes, he ends it with Devina and undoes his candle jizz spell, and he learns how to love by seeing Marie-Terese across a crowded goth bar (don’t even get me started on how clever Jim thinks he’s being by wearing jeans and a T-shirt to a goth club, how transgressive) but he never has to choose between her and his greed. At the end he gets to keep all his stuff and his money and his predatory business destroying wetlands to make real-estate (no really, that is his actual job) and his reputation. He has learned nothing at all. His personality doesn’t change at all; his sin is a woman and his salvation is just a different woman.

Which is how I felt after finishing the book. And probably how you feel after reading my thoughts on it!

*and no, by the way, J. R. Ward does not write a good English dialect.

**except the plagiarism.

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