The Maeve’ra Trilogy by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

The Maeve'ra series I’ve been waffling about whether or not to do a review of these books, because right up until the last one, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. They’ve been the literary equivalent of those Silence aliens from Doctor Who for me – the moment I take my eyes off a page, I completely forget what happened on it. I came out of the first two books with no particular feels one way or the other, except for a general impression of pointlessness.

It wasn’t until I started Bloodtraitor that I found anything to hook on to, and with that as a reference point, it’s easier to get a grasp on what, exactly, makes this series simultaneously totally forgettable and a complete mess. So here we are! Lumped-into-one trilogy review, let’s do this!

The Maeve’ra is meant to chronicle the fall of Midnight, a vampire-run slave-trading empire that some Atwater-Rhodes fans might recall being introduced in the fourth Den of Shadows book, Midnight Predator. It’s also a sequel of sorts to the Kiesha’ra, Atwater-Rhodes’ shapeshifter pentalogy, and is the first of her books to blend the cultures and characters featured in both of those series into one functionally intermingled world.

As someone who grew up an avid reader of Atwater-Rhodes’ books, I admit, it was kind of a thrilling novelty to see the Serpiente and Avian shapeshifters I liked so much interacting with established DOS vampires, like a big summer-event comics crossover. Miles Morales is finally meeting 616 Peter Parker, Ma! So cool!

BUT the novelty took a pretty steep nosedive for me once it became clear exactly how they’re interacting.

WE’RE GONNA HAVE TRILOGY-WIDE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
CONTENT WARNING: DISCUSSION OF RAPE, ABUSE, SLAVERY

The idea is that when the ambiguously European shapeshifters fled their homelands to live in America, they all ended up settling within like a five-mile radius of the already-established Midnight. In exchange for things like food and freedom and being allowed to live, the immigrant and native-but-not-that-way-I-don’t-think shifters – Shantel cougars, Azteka quetzal and jaguars, Avian birds, and Serpiente snakes – agreed to abide by Midnight’s laws. They submit to its rule, tolerating and even occasionally participating in its flesh trade.

This is how by book three, both Serpiente and Avian princesses have been sold into what is essentially sexual slavery.

ugh
Talk about a buzzkill. I really liked the Kiesha’ra series, you know? I remember the culture and the characters fondly, so to finally be reintroduced to this part of Atwater-Rhodes’ world only to find that LOL, the descendants of all those characters you liked as a kid are some monstrous vampire’s sex slaves is the grimmest of nostalgic face-slaps. Add that to the list of things I never needed, ever.

It’s also a bit of a bummer to see no remnant or mentions of the previous series come up in this one, aside from the shapeshifters’ presence. I mean, I get that those books were set literally a thousand years before this, so obviously none of the same characters are going to appear, but this trilogy reads like the Kiesha’ra never even happened in the first place. The Avian and Serpiente are still completely segregated, nobody ever brings up Wyvern’s Court, and there doesn’t seem to be any particular cultural relationship between the two. The only real difference between then and now is that the snakes and birds aren’t at war with or actively hostile towards one another.

I know, I know, the Kiesha’ra was like a millennia ago and only lasted for one generation, ~the blink of an eye~ in the context of time, so it’s not unreasonable that this shared history might not have made that big of an impact. I just feel like from a meta perspective, there should be some sort of acknowledgement, you know? Something to make the previous five-goddamn-book-long series feel like it mattered. I mean, it’s called the Maeve’ra, that kind of makes it sound like a sequel, right?

It should’ve just be called the Midnight series, imo, since that’s what it’s all about. Midnight, the vampires, and goddamn slavery.

I’ve got such complicated feelings about this slavery, I didn’t initially even want to try and talk about it, because it feels like it’s opening a big can of worms that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around. There’s so much baggage when you center a world around fictional slavery – especially when your fantasy trade is run by at least 50% brown men – but the Maeve’ra never really engages with slavery on any real historical level. I mean, it’s set in a time and place when slavery was a Thing in the real world, and yet nobody ever brings that up.

What happens in Midnight feels very disconnected from any kind of reality, which I guess is just what you do when you just don’t want to engage with that cultural baggage, huh? It’s weird fantasy slavery where skin color doesn’t matter, and people can reliably be permanently turned into will-less automatons in a matter of days.

Yeah, Midnight slavery hinges on this idea that the “trainers” who run it are adept at “breaking” people with a combination of physical beatings, probably rape, and psychological torture, and that to spend any amount of time in the “care” of one of these trainers means that you have been emotionally and mentally damaged beyond all repair. It’s a really gross idea with icky implications that rears its head hardcore in Bloodtraitor, and it’s the primary reason we’re even talking about this series today.

Bloodtraitor revolves around a falcon/white viper hybrid named Malachai who, as a child, prophesied that his sister would become queen of the Serpiente, and that while she was queen, Midnight would fall. He and his found family, a band of exiles who call themselves “Obsidian”, have spend their lives working to make this prophecy a reality. But in the midst of their planning, this prophesied sister, Misha, was sold to Midnight and spent some weeks there living as a slave. So in accordance with the World Laws of Slavery, when they get her back, she’s ~*~*unhinged*~*~, ~*~*irreparably damaged*~*~, and eventually becomes an antagonist.

I have sooooooooooooo many problems with the way this series treats Misha, and the way it portrays trauma and trauma recovery in general. Malachai wanks on and on about how his real sister ~died~ at Midnight and how the woman who came back was broken, hollow, empty, “shattered and put [back] together in a new and vicious form”, how he had to sit back after she returned from Midnight and “watch her mind rot”, and like a bajillion other gross things that make it sound like someone who survived weeks of sexual, emotional, and physical violence isn’t even a person anymore.

I mean obviously there is going to be lingering mental and emotional trauma. Obviously Misha is going to have some form of PTSD, obviously Misha would act differently from the way she did before she went in to Midnight. I’m not saying she should come back acting like nothing ever happened.

But the moment Misha makes the decision to pursue a course of action that Malachai doesn’t agree with – doing something he’s already done, himself, mind you – he declares that Misha’s ~not his sister anymore~, she’s ~hollow~, as though she were a fucking gourde, driven only by ~madness and rage~.

Narrative decisions reinforce Malachai’s assertion of Misha. She gets no control over her white viper magic, using it ~unconsciously~ to ensnare people and bending them to her will, most notably the Serpiente prince. The two of them sell his sister, princess Hara, into slavery to get her out of the way, and then take the throne, immediately becoming (incompetent) despots under the guise of “severing ties with Midnight”.

Most of that – most of it – would be fine if Misha and/or Aaron had ANY AGENCY WHATSOEVER in their villainy. But they don’t. Malachai makes it clear that Aaron would be a fine prince if he weren’t under Misha’s influence, and as we’ve already established, Misha is being driven by her ~crazy~.

The sad part is, I think that the book heaps Misha’s villainy on her trauma to try and make her more complex and sympathetic, but the execution here is terrible. Even putting aside the agency issue, the book makes no effort to empathize with or develop Misha AT ALL. In fact, she’s barely even IN this series. Despite ending up a major antagonist, Misha has only a handful of lines, and ONE perspective sequence in which she pulls a Shevaun-eats-puppies.

That would be bad enough if Misha were an anomaly in our trauma = irrevocably broken data set, but she’s not, she’s just the most “active” example of it. There’s actually a discussion about how the hundreds of men, women, and children in Midnight are unsalvageable because they’re slaves. When the supernatural coalition rides into town to burn Midnight to the ground, they decide that the slaves have to burn too, because they’re incapable of functioning in the outside world. Because trauma. Because broken. Because unfixable. Because not people anymore.

It’s just like…you know people can learn to cope after experiencing things like this, right? It’s hard, and maybe not everyone succeeds, but it is possible. They’re not lame animals, you don’t have to fucking put them down.

Ugh, I don’t know, it just struck me as insulting and cynical and really, really gross.

Another thing that’s pretty gross? None of the bad guys pay for any of this.

Yeah, we get a three-book trilogy about slavers, abusers, and rapists, and the only characters who die at the end are a couple of good guys, and the slaves. Every single fucking one of the trainers escapes to cameo and/or BE LOVE INTERESTS in books set after Midnight’s fall. And I mean, okay, that is INCREDIBLY unsatisfying, but you might call it, I don’t know, some sort of grey morality tale (~BAD GUYS AREN’T ALWAYS PUNISHED IN REAL LIFE, OKAY??~), and I might be forced to swallow that explanation, if, IF, this series didn’t just reek of not knowing how to BOOK. Like at all.

Setting aside the unsatisfying resolution and the gross treatment of rape/abuse survivors, this series is still a technical mess, starting with the fact that none of our protagonists are relevant to the story being told. Like at all. They contribute almost nothing to any of their individual books, and even less to the overall chronicle of Midnight’s fall. They’re essentially cameras given sentience so that they can be in the room while all the important stuff happens, but never affect any of it.

Would Bloodwitch‘s plot have worked without our perspective character Vance? Well, that would require Bloodwitch to actually have a plot that affects anything. But it doesn’t. Vance introduces us to Midnight, spends an entire book getting woke, and then in the last ten minutes is the oblivious carrier of a vampire-killing disease. Now, if that disease brought down Midnight, sure, it might be understandable to follow the Trojan horse used to penetrate its walls, but the disease comes to nothing. Deus ex Azteka shows up, goes “Nah, this is a trilogy, bro”, hits the abort button, and NOBODY DIES.

Bloodkin would be affected not at all by Kadee’s absence. She stands there while the Shantel argue about selling their prince into slavery, stands there while Vance negotiates with the vampires, and I’m pretty sure that’s about it.

And HOLY CHRIST MALACHAI. Malachai’s SOLE JOB in Bloodtraitor is to run from important scene to important scene and STAND THERE while they play out. Malachai is such a living framing device that every chapter opens with a dream or vision featuring either a flashback or an important scene happening SOMEWHERE ELSE. Malachai is so useless that about halfway through, these scenes start focusing on the Avian princess Alasdair and by the end, the book acts like it was meant to be about her all along. Malachai is SO USELESS that he is goddamn fucking ASLEEP during the book’s climax.

I shit you not. The protagonist is ASLEEP during the climax that this trilogy has built up for two and a half books so that his psychic power of being a living TV can allow the narrative to focus on where the REAL action ostensibly is.

This is just, like, astounding incompetence. If Malachai is so useless to the story that he has to be asleep for the climax so that we can see the important shit, WHY IS HE THE NARRATOR?????????????????? If all of the little alternate-perspective chapter openers are SO IMPORTANT to the plot, why are we not just doing a third-person omnipotent, multi-character perspective??????

There is SO MUCH SHIT that comes in out of nowhere in this last book, and it ends with SO MANY DANGLING PLOT THREADS, I don’t know what to make of any of it. The scenes with Alasdair, the randomly appearing falcons and falcon treason????, Nathaniel’s tangential love story with anonymous slave girl???, the pointedly articulated witch drama, the disappearing Avian queen????, the trainers that are allowed to flee Midnight unpunished, fucking MISHA AND AARON, who we leave running the Serpiente kingdom into the ground.

All of that is left up in the air, and like one last boot to the stomach of proper resolution, the last couple of chapters have Malachai renouncing what seemed like a core-to-his-character vow to never serve a monarch ever, and pledging himself to Alasdair with the promise that he’ll put her and Hara on their respective thrones. The epilogue doubles down on this bullshit sequel hook, with a brief journal entry from Alasdair talking about her feelings and speculating about the future, AS THOUGH THE BOOK WERE ABOUT HER ALL ALONG, WHICH IT WASN’T.

Then it’s over, and I’m just sitting there like what am I supposed to do with any of this? This is the last book in this trilogy. Ain’t no more coming. The next thing Atwater-Rhodes has in the pipelines is the first book in a new series set in a completely different world. SO WHY ARE THE LAST THREE CHAPTERS OF THIS BOOK SET-UP???

This thing is a mess. But the worst part is, putting even that aside, this series still fails in the same way the last bajillion Den of Shadows have failed for me:

EVERYTHING FEELS THE SAME

These characters all sound the same. Vance, a fourteen-year-old quetzal boy who’s lived his life in a glass cage sounds exactly the same as Kadee, a fifteen-year-old-girl whose life has been divided among four vastly different cultures, and they both sound the same as Malachai, a nearly thirty-year-old man.

Despite being set in 1780-I-don’t-remember, there’s no sense of that in the characters or setting. We get some token mention of the Revolutionary War, but aside from that, everyone speaks and acts the way they do in the set-during-present-day Den books, or the set-a-thousand-years-ago Kiesha’ra books. Culturally, it doesn’t seem like the Serpiente or Avian have evolved or changed at all.

Characters still get stock descriptions: hair, eyes, skin, boom we done. SO MANY PALE CHICKS WITH BLACK HAIR. The effect is that every Amelia Atwater-Rhodes character who has not been featured on a cover exists in my head as a hazy collection of hair and skin color without facial features, like I’m looking at them through frosted glass.

So yeah man this was just a clusterfuck. I wish it wasn’t. I’ve got real nostalgic attachment to this world, I like the shapeshifters, and Vance’s story is actually a reasonably good allegory for someone coming to terms with their privilege. But the narrators are just SO BLAND. The story structure is a mess, the handling of trauma is gross af, EVERYONE IS USELESS, NOBODY GETS PUNISHED FOR THE TERRIBLE THINGS WE’RE TOLD THEY’VE DONE, and THERE’S NO ENDING!

Two Stars

 

One Response

  1. Strontium

    February 21, 2017 1:55 am, Reply

    The Kiesha’ra series is my favorite series from my childhood (I reread them in college, still good still cried during Wolfcry). I read the first two of this series and never read the third one. Based on your review I probably won’t, haha. It’s a shame really! I love shapeshifters and magic. In the first two books, I felt like there was a dearth of either. Someday I’ll write a shapeshifter book but I’m too busy doing magical neurotypes in space. Fun review to read!

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