040 – Wildefire by Karsten Knight

Wildefire coverAshline Wilde is having a rough sophomore year. She’s struggling to find her place as the only Polynesian girl in school, her boyfriend just cheated on her, and now her runaway sister, Eve, has decided to barge back into her life. When Eve’s violent behavior escalates and she does the unthinkable, Ash transfers to a remote private school nestled in California’s redwoods, hoping to put the tragedy behind her. But her fresh start at Blackwood Academy doesn’t go as planned. Just as Ash is beginning to enjoy the perks of her new school — being captain of the tennis team, a steamy romance with a hot, local park ranger — Ash discovers that a group of gods and goddesses have mysteriously enrolled at Blackwood…and she’s one of them. To make matters worse, Eve has resurfaced to haunt Ash, and she’s got some strange abilities of her own. With a war between the gods looming over campus, Ash must master the new fire smoldering within before she clashes with her sister one more time… And when warm and cold fronts collide, there’s guaranteed to be a storm.
Wildefire was a book of hits and misses for me – on one hand, I can appreciate what it tries to do, and when I turn my critiquing brain off, I can enjoy its enthusiastic action, its endless supply of snappy come-backs, its premise, and its heroine, a girl who isn’t afraid of kicking some ass and getting her hands dirty. Seriously, after reading Fallen, a book made of none of those things – in fact, a book that was made of the exact opposite of those things – I was primed to love something like as active as Wildefire. The trouble is, having finished it, the more I sit back and think about Wildefire, the more fail begins to show through.

It’s all in a strange balance though – for everything I liked about Wildefire, there’s a related bone I have to pick. So for the sake of my getting my shit in order, we’re gonna tackle these issues in pairs.

What I Liked: the plot
So, yeah, five very special teenagers coming together to fulfill their destiny and save the world, not exactly a new concept, but Knight took a handful of cliches and gave them a slick and shiny new paint job. We’ve got a story teeming with drama, with reincarnated gods and goddesses from around the world, sibling rivalries as old as time, and a loose-canon heroine with a psychotic older sister who may or may not genuinely give a shit about her. We’ve got a blind siren with the ability to call gods and goddesses together, who comes bearing scrolls with cryptic, destiny-outlining instructions for each of them (I don’t know why I love that trope, but for some reason the “what does this mean, and what did everyone else’s say?” tension gets me every time).

We’ve got a shady mercenary force in pursuit of the gods on behalf of an eccentric billionaire who wants revenge, and finally, we’ve got omnipresent gelatinous hive-minded supernatural creatures that may or may not be killing off gods little by little – permanently. I mean really, what good action cliche doesn’t this book have?

What I Didn’t: the execution
The trouble is, while all these ideas were presented – and many set up to be series-long recurring subplots – very little of it was developed. I’ll get more into the specifics as we go along, but for now, let’s just say it all felt very…shallow. The further I got along into the book, the more it reminded me of a high-budget Hollywood popcorn action movie – one designed to show an audience a good time and let them feel like they’re experiencing something more complex and thoughtful and unique than they actually are.

There is something inherently unrealistic and off-putting about the story that unfolds, and the characters that populate it; their lives, their actions, and their reactions only work in the fairy-tale world they inhabit, where school principals impotently watch fights between students in the parking lot, loving parents let their kids go to a boarding school across the country by themselves on a whim, and bartenders are friendly with the groups of underaged kids that drink in their facilities. It’s a world where complex, multifunctional mythological figures can be distilled into one distinguishing trait and recognizable power, and where “officially” learning that you’re a god makes you instantly capable of skillfully wielding said power.

And that’s all fine for a two-hour-long movie, I guess, but when I read a book, I want something with more complexity and depth. I want characters with flaws that aren’t supposed to be charming or enviable. I want more than a token gesture here and there at moral ambiguity and character development. I want a book, not a screenplay-in-the-making.

What I Liked: the snappy comebacks
I’ve bitched a lot before about how much it brings a book down for me when the one-liners and banter are terrible. Wildfire does not have that issue. The comebacks and quips are pretty damn good, and plentiful. Almost every character is naturally capable of the sort of back-and-forth exchanges that take comedy teams months of rehearsal to perfect, and they can instantly come up with a retort most people would think of the moment they walked away, or hours later as they replayed the conversation in their head. Nothing made me guffaw or choke on my drink the way Mogworld or A Brush of Darkness did, but I smiled often, and very rarely winced. Knight has a pretty sharp sense of humor.

What I Didn’t: the dialog
…but it’s a little too movie-perfect. Like I said, every character is capable of this sarcasm, and none of them have a distinct style of humor or turn of phrase that would differentiate them from anyone else – in short, it’s very obvious that these conversations are all coming from the head of one person. It’s not just the humor that’s like that though, it’s the dialog in general. Everyone speaks…well, strangely. Like characters, not people. I mean, I defy you to find a sixteen-year-old girl who would say something like this to her principal:

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t screwed up a lot in my life. I’d be lying if I said I don’t see Lizzie Jacobs in my dreams. […] But some things you have to face alone, so I’ll explain last night to you in the most honest way I can right now. I woke up. I followed my past onto that roof. I confronted Lizzie Jacobs’s killer. And then I came down with the prayer that my sleep would be dreamless. End of story.
The characters in Wildefire say things like that all the time, and they all do it, no matter what differences in age, upbringing, and maturity level they’re supposed to have. It’s just…not realistic.

What I Liked: the action
I’m all for books with a little ass-kicking, and Wildefire opened with ass-kicking, so I was like “Fuck yeah, people who can handle their shit!” In that department, Wildefire didn’t disappoint – there were spiffy powers like fire-blasting and weather-wielding and accelerated aging, and these characters were not afraid to use them.

What I Didn’t: the character’s reactions
However, not only were they not afraid to kill people, the gods and goddesses in Wildefire did so without any sort of remorse and/or emotional reaction. And I’m not even talking about the “bad” ones here, either. The good guys callously used their powers, first to assault people, then later on to kill for the first time ever, without so much as a sob, gasp, or, y’know, any emotional response whatsoever. Even the heroine, upon witnessing her sister murder a girl for petty teenage shit, was more upset at the fact that she went way overboard than with the fact that she just killed a girl with lightning, kthnx. What the Hell, man? It’s another instance of action-movie logic, where the good guys can just let the deaths of human beings roll off their backs because they were the “bad guys”, and we’re supposed to go along with it because it was “retribution” or “justified”. Hi, yeah, it doesn’t work that way in real life unless you’re a sociopath, and that is not the best way to make your characters seem sympathetic.

I’ve read some of the arguments that this is a more accurate portrayal of the mindset of the mythological gods, who viewed humans as little more than playthings, and I might buy that for Eve, because she’s had time to adjust to who and what she is, and has obviously chosen to view the world that way. Also, she’s a SOCIOPATH. But that just doesn’t fly for our heroes. They’re supposed to be the good guys, and the good guys are supposed to have a goddamn conscience.

What I Liked: the multi-cultural cast
Racial diversity is something that’s sorely lacking in YA/paranormal romance, so it was a nice change to see not only a Polynesian heroine, but a group of gods that originate from somewhere other than Greece. In Wildefire, we get a veritable ethnic rainbow of Egyptian, Japanese, Norse, African, and Hopi gods and goddesses.

Not gonna lie, this was the first thing I thought of.

And now that theme song will be stuck in your head all day.

What I Didn’t: the lack of multi-cultural development
Unfortunately, everyone looked, spoke, and acted exactly the same. They might as well have all been upper middle-class white kids, for all the good their varied origins and backgrounds did in differentiating their characters. And you know what? This is a book about gods and goddesses, a book that makes a point of being inclusive, of utilizing some fresh new material we Americans might not be readily familiar with. So where is the mythology?

When we’re told that our heroes are reincarnations of Baldur, Konohana, Shango, Isis, and Pele, I want to know more about them than the ridiculously simplified version of what they’re supposedly the “god/goddess of”. I want to see glimpses of the god in these character’s personalities, I want to know bits and pieces of what they’ve done, of who these gods are, because I can guarantee that they are at least ten times more interesting than the shallow teenage caricatures Knight has created to represent them. But do we get that? No. We get the action-movie version, where the characters’ mythological counterparts are only good for deciding which corresponding superpower to alot them, and the character’s races are only relevant in assigning their names and physical descriptions. Nice job there, by the way, Knight. Raja Neferet? Yeah, that sounds like a name an Egyptian person would actually have. And I loved it when the “hard Egyptian lines” of her face “drew taut in rage”. This actually happened more than once, what do hard Egyptian lines look like, anyway?

Oh, and if we’re going to talk offensive use of race, let’s also mention how the one and only reason Ashline’s athletic rival was also a “Polynesian” girl was so that Ashline’s sister could take her place in their final match and nobody would notice. Because really, all Polynesian girls look alike, right?

So yeah, those would be the fruits of Knight’s foray into diversity.

I’m also sorely tempted to call Did Not Do the Research on Knight as well, especially in regards to Pele. I lived in Hawaii for a few years as a kid, and the only significant sister goddess I remember her having is the sea goddess Na-mako-o-Kaha’i, and while those two seem to have a relationship reflective of Ashline and Eve’s (see, told you the myths were more interesting), she was, again, a sea goddess. The best my internet searches for a Hawaiian/Polynesian storm goddess could turn up was Poliahu, the goddess of snow, but that seems like a bit of a stretch, and mythologically speaking, they weren’t related. And I have no clue who their other little sister could possibly be. I suppose only time sequels will tell.

Unrelated Bones: (beware of spoilers)
– The writing, while serviceable, was more than a little awkward in places, with strange wording and similes. The entire prologue-esque intro was difficult to read for just that reason, but it’s something I got used to as the book progressed.

– I was split on Ashline as a character. While it was nice having an active, participating, and not defenseless heroine for once, she could also be a mightily moody, angry bitch. I lost a lot of sympathy for her when she expelled her boyfriend from her bed by chucking an alarm clock at him (wouldn’t yelling have sufficed?), and then a lot more when she refused to have anything to do with the little sister she knew not only existed, but was having trouble controlling her powers. But while we weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, I didn’t hate her either – mostly because she never felt anything like a real character.

– While Eve started out as a potentially interesting and morally ambiguous villain, by the time she (ultimately pointlessly) enrolled herself into Ashline’s boarding school, she had pretty much become a cartoon. Her stunts became increasingly ridiculous (see Polynesian girl switch-a-roo above), and she was given to more and more campy villain-esque rants and taunts. By the time she had fully come into her role as the primary villain of the story, she was spouting lines like “Catch me if you can. Your [kidnapped] boyfriend’s waiting on the beach for his lady in red,” and “Doesn’t he look handsome? He saved his last dance for you.” By the time they tried to bring her back around to “psychotically obsessed sister driven by her desire to be loved”, I wasn’t buying it anymore. I’m on to you, Knight, and your last-ditch efforts aren’t going to make me care when she inevitably dies.

– I do not understand how anyone could have found the romantic aspect of this book not creepy. Ashline is sixteen. Her love interest is an adult park ranger, at least three or four years older than her. He first latches on to her when he encounters her in a bar (as the companion of another gorgeous underage girl), then shows up uninvited to her school to chat, maneuvers himself under false pretenses into the position of being able to chaperone her detention, and for their first date, blindfolds her and takes her out into the woods. And she lets him. The stalking makes more sense – though the creepiness remains – when you take the final twist into account, but that whole subplot had a huge squick factor for me.

– Also, big obvious final-act twist hint? The boyfriend being Hopi. When the one and only reason your characters are multi-cultural is because they represent different gods, odds are the Hopi guy is gonna be one, too.

– Wtf was up with Lily? Her face-heel turn came way out of left field, and it was a pretty damn extreme turn, at that. And no, Ashline, “I guess it is always the quiet ones” is not an adequate excuse for shoddy characterization.

– Actually, the sheer number of plot twists in the final act made it seem like Knight was taking the throw-it-all-and-see-what-sticks approach. Trilogy Syndrome, I suppose. What a big, unresolved mess.

All in all, I’m not sure what to make of Wildefire. On the surface it was pretty entertaining, and not gonna lie, I tore through it in two sittings. But there were so many things wrong, some fail-tastically so. I guess I’ll have to stick with my initial assessment – if popcorn action movies are your thing, then you’ll like Wildefire. If you’re looking for something with a little more mythology, characterization, complexity, and depth, then you’d probably best be served going elsewhere. I probably will.

two stars


4 Responses

  1. LupLun

    June 23, 2011 11:04 pm, Reply

    Hmm… this is marketed as YA? Because a number of the problems you’re describing — characters hanging out in bars, relationship with an older man, etc. — makes perfect sense for adult characters.

    Theory: this was written with adult characters, and then hastily rewritten for teens so as to appeal to the YA market. Possible?

    Lupines and Lunatics

  2. Kayla + Cyna

    June 24, 2011 2:53 am, Reply

    Yep, it’s marketed as YA. And it’s possible, but I doubt it, unless perhaps in the original draft they were all in some exclusive college. Which might make sense, but….IDK it really has the YA flavor to me.

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