Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Trad Book Review: Glass Houses: The Morganville Vampires 1

So let's talk a little about young adult paranormal fiction.  Let's talk a little about suspension of disbelief.

For the fantasy writer, suspension of disbelief is your best friend.  Your job as an author is to do such a good job creating your world so your reader thinks, "Vampires, werewolves, things that go bump in the night, sure, I buy it!"

There are lots of ways to go about doing this, but part of the bedrock of a good set up is that it's completely believable.  Part of what makes good horror, good fantasy so compelling is that the non-fantastic parts feel real.

So, the introduction to your world has to have an internal and consistent logic.  It has to make sense.  If you toss the reader out of the reality of your world before you even get to the fantastic/spooky stuff, you've achieved EPIC FAIL.

For example: try to imagine the first episode of the X-files with a twenty-two-year-old, gum snapping, blonde in five inch heels and a tiny tank top instead of the lovely Gillian Anderson in the role of Scully.  Most of us would stop watching there, because we can't suspend our disbelief far enough to wrap our minds around the idea of that woman as a doctor/FBI agent.

And now to tie this to Glass Houses.  Claire, our main character, is a sixteen-year-old wunderkind, who whipped through high school in two years (Although she tells us she got there a year early and ended a year soon, which adds up to three years of high school and two years of middle school, but hey, who's counting?  Oh yeah, Claire, who told us she did it in two years... how smart is this girl again?) and is now in college.

Alas, because her parents are criminally stupid (and apparently enjoy setting fire to money) they sent her to Texas Prairie University, after allowing her to apply to MIT, Yale, Harvard, (and a slew of other high power schools) and getting her acceptance letters to said schools.  Apparently they want to keep their sixteen-year-old baby close to home, but living in the dorm of a notorious party school. 

See at this point I'm already out of the story.  I did finish high school a year early.  Guess what, you can't do that without mommy and daddy's help, which means mom and dad have to be on board with this whole getting a good education thing.  Here's another thing, mom and dad are not going to pay the money ($75 for an application to Harvard alone) to apply to all those schools if they have no intention of letting their little girl attend those schools.  And lets wrap this up with this idea: if you want your baby to be close because you're feeling protective of her, you are not going to send her to live in a creepy party dorm!

In the modern world, if mom and dad want you close after you've graduated high school, they can do this wonderful thing known as let you live at home and take courses online.  The entire MIT catalog is available online.  If mom and dad think you're too young for college, Harvard has this wonderful program that lets you get accepted to school and then defer your attendance for a year.  Schools will work with prodigies and their parents to make life easier for them.  The thing that doesn't happen in the real world these days is mom and dad decide to send their precious little genius to Party U for a few years because it's close to home.

Here's where the discussion of YA fiction comes into play.  There's a problem almost all YA books have to deal with: how to get a young person into situations of danger and adventure without mom and dad jumping into play to keep them safe.  In real life, most kids have the sort of parents who are actually trying to do well by them.  In the YA world there are gobs of orphans, boarding schools, and criminally absent parents because they're needed to make the plot work. 

So, the author wants a plot where Claire has to deal with human adversaries and supernatural ones.  For whatever reason the author wants Claire to be sixteen.  Sending her off to college early was an interesting twist on boarding school, and opens the potential for living off campus and getting into more contact with the supernatural baddies.  She made Claire super smart because that increases friction with the human baddies.

This book was written around 2008.  It appears to be set around 2008 as well.  The level of bullying Claire takes at both high school and college would easily get both institutions sued into bankruptcy.  And in the post Columbine/Virginia Tech world, one might think that possibly, if you are being assaulted by the other students, the kind of violence that involves being tossed down a flight of stairs and left unconscious, that possibly someone would call the cops.  Just maybe.  

But of course, no one does anything like that, giving Claire the motivation to move out of the dorm, and into her new home with her new roommates. 

We didn't even get to the vampires, and I already don't believe this story.  In fact, unless they're pink and sparkly (which I've heard isn't true about this book) I believe the vampires more than I do the set up for this book.  The entire set up is a series of glowing neon plot devices for the purpose of putting the main character into the situation author wants her in.  There is nothing subtle or elegant about the first few chapters of this book.  Nothing that shows any real desire to engage in serious world building on the part of the author.  In short, it's lazy, and has done nothing to make me want to learn more about what comes next.

And so, Congratulations Glass House!  Welcome to your shiny new spot on my Did Not Finish List.


  1. Hi!

    Thanks for this review, seriously. I'd perused the Morganville books without reading them, so I don't have anything to add, but I can say you've addressed some very important issues of YA (and fantasy, and paranormal, and horror, and...) that a lot of authors can't or won't solve, and your tone certainly put a smile in my face! Giggles, even.

    I think it is bothersome how out of their way some authors might go in order to get their kid characters into all kinds of adult situations, when, if they really want to write a 16-year-old in a paranormal book, there's already plenty of drama in place if only they bothered to get into the mindset and circumstances.

    But that's what sells, isn't it? And that's kind of sad.

  2. Well, it's been a while since I was sixteen, but if memory serves all of my buddies and I lived the sorts of lives where everything was pretty dull. Our parents made sure of that.

    But, in general yes, it does seem like trying to run a paranormal YA book realistically is beyond most authors.

    I think that's the reason why Buffy sold so well, most kids could relate to how it worked. Buffy still had homework. Her mom kept grounding her. Granted, Joss does fantasy better than most people have ever dreamed of doing it, but he got the balance right.

  3. The setup of the story may not be that believable, however it is set in a town run by vampires so the rules of such a place were supposed to be absurd when compared real life.If vampires are in charge- laws were bound to be strange (paying tax in blood?) But more importantly people protected by vampire authorities (like monica) are bound to get away with murder. If a book is to include supernatural,ficticious creatures then ridiculous scenarios are bound to take place,it's the basis of the story!!!

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    That's the point of suspension of disbelief, the author has to do a great job of setting up the main story so I'm willing to say, "Town run by Vampires, okay, I buy it!

    And from everything I read, the Vampires were the most believable part of the story. I didn't have any problem believing in them. But I couldn't swallow the idiot parents. I didn't buy the backstory for why Claire was in the town in the first place, which made me hypercritical of everything that came later.

    Look, if she had been the smart-slacker kid who hated high school and barely scraped by with a C- average and ended up at TPU, I would have bought it. If she had been in high school and her parents moved to Morganville for a job transfer or something, I would have bought it.

    But to me it looked like lazy writing. The author had a character she liked. She had a setting she liked. She didn't bother to do a good job matching the two to each other.