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Book cover art by Daniel Dos Santos (left).
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Uh-oh. Things take a very ugly turn in the third Mercy Thompson novel. I know that I mentioned I like my horror to be extremely nasty. But Jesus, that doesn't mean I want my heroine to get raped. There, I've spoiled it. Don't be angry. I just saved you a distinctly unpleasant and unenjoyable reading experience.

Violence, even sexual violence, works appropriately in a story when it serves some valid thematic purpose. The trouble is, I'm not only not certain what that is here, but I resented the way Briggs springs the whole thing on her readers at the tail end of a story that we've been led to think all along is just a deft little murder mystery in more or less a routine paranormal investigator vein. What begins as a whodunnit involving the murders of several fae in the reservation near Mercy's eastern Washington home in the Tri-Cities, followed by the subsequent killing of the human suspect and a deliberate attempt by the Great Lords of the fae to have Mercy's friend Zee take the rap although he's entirely innocent, morphs in its final three chapters into a message novel about being a rape survivor. And what's grisly about it isn't so much the act, which is bad enough but mostly offstage, as the way it all seems to tie into a portrayal of male sexuality that has been bugging me to one degree or another all throughout the series. In Iron Kissed it comes to the fore in such a way that it's easier to articulate what's so objectionable about it.

The Mercy Thompson novels all take place in a world in which straight male sexuality is inextricably linked to dominance, control, aggressiveness and violence. Fans of the series may offer the defense that the men here are mostly werewolves, and therefore prone to violence by their supernatural duality. But what is a werewolf but a narrative metaphor for the beast within, that inner violence that we supposedly work so hard to hide beneath our civilized facade?

Even though the first two novels had Mercy rescuing him twice, werewolf alpha male Adam is the love of Mercy's life whether she likes it or not, and very much Mercy's master. She is his because he claimed her, period. Even though Adam restrains himself from erupting in anger whenever Mercy so much as says hello to another male, the point is he has to restrain himself. Especially when the other male is fellow dominant werewolf Samuel, who himself staked a claim on Mercy in her teens. Samuel has since realized that he and Mercy aren't meant to be, and they have a heart-to-heart in an early scene that resolves the Samuel/Adam rivalry by letting Samuel take himself out of the running. His confession to Mercy that his wolf persona was exercising too much influence on his human persona is easily read as a discussion of the inner conflict between a young man's lust and his reason.

That would be all well and good, but the message I ended up getting from the book is that aggressive and domineering male sexuality is not only not aberrant but natural, and what makes it good or bad is simply in how it's expressed and who's expressing it. The villain who forces himself on Mercy is a bad guy because he's such a loser he has to wield a stolen fae mind-control artifact in order to get laid. Our heroes, on the other hand, are possessive in a good way. They know what's best for a woman, and it isn't being mistress of your own destiny. I don't see how this passage could fail to leave readers, particularly those in Briggs' largely female target audience, with a distinctly queasy feeling.

[Adam's] arms pulled me tightly against him as he said in a quiet voice, "It's only fair to warn you that you sealed your fate tonight. When you knew you were in trouble, you came to me. That makes twice, Mercy, and twice is almost as good as a declaration. You are mine now.... Ben says you might run. If you do, I will find you and bring you back. Every time you run, Mercy. I won't force you [a thoughtful thing to say to a woman who's just been violated], but...I won't leave or let you leave either [so you'll neither force her nor let her have her own choice? nice].... No more excuses, Mercy. You are mine, and I am keeping you."

My independent nature, which would doubtless reassert itself soon, would be outraged by this possessive, arrogant, medieval concept. But... Tim's wish that I would always be alone had hit me particularly hard, because it was something I already knew. Nothing like being a coyote raised among werewolves to understand that different means not belonging....

Under the weight of the unvarnished, possessive intent that began in Adam's words and carried through to his body, my whole world shook on its axis.

So basically, a woman is perfectly free to be as independent and free-spirited as she likes, as long as she realizes that she'll end up a lonely spinster cat lady. After all, the most important thing when you get right down to it is belonging. Or is that being a belonging?

I'll allow that I may be wildly misreading all of this, but I don't think so. Briggs really does appear to be portraying these highly radioactive gender politics as a natural order to which we might as well resign ourselves. There's a lot here similar to the ending of Briggs' earlier novel Steal the Dragon, where the heroine, barely a page after declaring that she'll never again be a slave as long as she lives, reacts with delight to hear her love interest sheepishly confess that he had earlier worked a spell that enslaved her to him. Being treated by a man as property is just fine if you've already decided you love him. It's only when you don't that it's called rape.

There just seems something righteously screwed up about that, but dominant males are pretty much a mainstay of romance fiction, especially para-romance. I haven't read (nor do I intend to read) Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, but some of the women I know who've read them and hated them have complained that they're all about a young girl surrendering herself to a possessive and controlling boyfriend, which is not a message any mother should be keen on having her daughter internalize. But are these books simply grokking a very real desire on the part of their readers for just such a surrender? Is it the case that — despite all the efforts of feminism to advance womanhood beyond traditional gender roles over the last century — deep within a lot of women is a little red riding hood, waiting for her big bad wolf?

Followed by Bone Crossed.