Demon Underground Series Review: Bite Me

Bite Me cover Eighteen-year-old Valentine Shapiro got a raw deal in the parent lottery. Her father was part incubus demon, and her mother’s never forgiven her for that. Thrown out of the house by her mother, Val does the only thing that seems to make any sense – she takes aim at the town vampires. A stake a day keeps the demon at bay. Soon enough, she finds herself deep in the underbelly of the city, discovering the secrets of the Demon Underground with the help of her faithful hellhound, Fang, and fighting to save those she loves. Whether they love her back or not.
Bite Me is one of those books I feel kind of bad bashing on. It has a good concept, a promising world, and characters that could be awesome. You can see what the author was going for, and there’s a good book in here, somewhere. Unfortunately, Bite Me also turned out to be one of those novels that is done in by bad writing.

To be fair, it’s not, say, rage-inducing, how-did-this-shit-get-published, Once in a Full Moon-bad writing. It’s better than that. But Parker Blue suffers badly from an inability to – all together no-oh, fuck it, you know what’s coming, and we’ve been able to use that joke too many times. Show, not tell: writing rule number one and Blue fails miserably, especially in communicating her character’s feelings, backgrounds, and defining issues. For example:

“Yeah, well, we can’t all be big, strong vampire slayers,” [her sister] said. She tried to make it sound sarcastic, but it came out sounding more wistful than anything.

I sighed, recognizing jealousy when I saw it. I knew Jen envied my abilities — my specialness — with all the longing of a girl who wanted to be something extraordinary herself, never once thinking of the cost. Of course, it was Lola, the demon inside me, that gave me advantages she didn’t have. All of my senses were enhanced far beyond normal, including strength, speed, agility, rapid healing, and the ability to read vamps’ minds when they tried to control me. Unfortunately, my little sister had no clue as to the price I paid for those advantages.

And she also had no idea how much I envied her. Fully human, with All-American blond good looks and plenty of friends, she had everything I had always wanted and could never have—true normalcy, not just the appearance of it. With my Jewish-Catholic, demon-human background and the melting pot that went into my heritage, I felt like a mongrel next to a show dog. My lucky half-sister had managed to avoid the bulk of my confusing heritage since we shared only a mother.
That’s in the first chapter, maybe two pages in, and I mean, really? That’s a lot of important character-building information, and we get it in a two-paragraph expository dump? What ever happened to letting your character’s actions, words, and interactions give the reader insight into their innermost feelings? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

But this is Bite Me‘s biggest problem – no single emotion, nuance, or character trait goes (loudly) unannounced, the moment it becomes relevant. I don’t know if it’s because Blue doesn’t trust her readers to catch on, or because she doesn’t realize that this is bad writing, but seriously, somebody needs to introduce her to the concept of subtlety. Oh, and emotional range – literally the only time I felt any sort of emotional anything towards Val was when someone was being cruel to her, and I can’t help but wonder if Blue wasn’t victimizing Val to compensate for her lack of depth.

Anyway, the excerpt above actually speaks to two of Bite Me‘s vital flaws. Not only is the writing sketchy, but, well, a book about a small, wise-cracking, super-strong, super-fast, super-powerful vampire slayer whose only desire is to be normal, with a younger sister who envies her abilities and uniqueness? Where have we heard that before?

Blue realizes it, too, though, and tries to lampshade the Buffy-similarities with cracks like this:

“What are you?” he demanded. “A slayer?” I rolled my eyes. “The name’s Val, not Buffy. Do I look like a blond cheerleader with questionable taste in men?
Ahahaha, that’s not really that funny, but at least she acknowledges it, right? And it’s not like we haven’t seen a million other Buffy-inspired heroines before, and it’s not even that they can’t be done well. The trouble is that while yes, Val is very obviously a Buffy knock-off, all Blue does with this similarity is make a running, unfunny joke of it. I mean, by the end of the book, Val is known to the entire vampire population as the fucking Slayer. It’s probably supposed to be ironic, but it comes off more like Blue just thought “the Slayer” sounded cool, and didn’t care enough about originality to change it. And that’s the crux of it – rather than trying to make Val more than a Buffy clone by giving her unique quirks and characteristics, Blue settles for lampshading the issue and calling it done.

Sure, her powers may come from a succubus, which adds a few complications, and her parents may be terrible instead of supportive, but in her defining traits, Val, with her sarcasm and chosen-ness and desire to be normal, is just a stripped-down Buffy without the wit and charm. There’s a lot of potential for more, but Blue doesn’t go anywhere with it, which ends up making Val a really bland, stock character.

Unfortunately, most of the characters come off that way – bland and stock. Val’s love interest, Dan, is the generic “hero-cop” character (as Val so kindly labels him, for fear that we might come to our own, different conclusion), who doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot to endear himself to us once he discovers that Val is a part-demon. I’m currently halfway in to the second book, and I’m honestly not sure if we’re supposed to root for Val and Dan or not. But he’s such a dickwad that I have a hard time doing so, anyway. I mean, really, how are we supposed to like a twenty-five-year-old guy who is perfectly comfortable seducing a vulnerable eighteen-year-old virgin, then treating her like a leper whore the moment he discovers her true nature? I don’t find either attitude all that attractive.

Val’s sister is blandly stupid, perpetually in need of rescue (must be a Tuesday), Dan’s sister/Val’s roommate is blandly domestic and supportive, the vampire bossman Alejandro is your typical smooth operator, Val’s fellow demon Micah is the generic mentor/brother figure with whom Val forms an instant, baseless familial attachment the moment she meets him (so much for relationship development), and Val’s mother is a one-dimensional bitch (although that’s kind of the point, and kudos to Parker Blue for giving her heroine incredibly hate-able parents).

These characters are so utterly flavorless that Blue can’t even bring herself to give them interesting or unique physical descriptions. Val’s sister is an “All-American blond”, Val has “blah brown hair and blah brown eyes”, Dan has “short brown hair, a commanding nose, and a hot bod” and SNORE BORED NOW.

Even the most outlandish, over-the-top character in the book, Val’s part-demon dog Fang, is shallow and undeveloped. Hurhurhur, he’s a tiny Terrier named Fang and he can talk and makes obvious observations that are supposed to be funny. HILARITY.

Which brings us to strike number three against Bite Me: it’s completely unfunny. I hope you liked that Buffy quip, because that’s the pinnacle of humor here. Val is supposed to be this wise-cracking smart-ass, but all of her one-liners are either unoriginal or just not funny. Fang is supposed to be this snarky little mutt who tells it like it is, but all of his quips and bad puns fall flat. The two together are obviously supposed to have this hilarious rapport, and god help her, you can see that Blue was trying, and obviously found it funny herself (the tone was very self-satisfied), but I just got nothing from it. This entire book was a monumental swing and miss for me, humor-wise.

The plot, while not terrible, suffered from the same lack of originality as the rest of the book. Vampires are organized and trying to come out a’la True Blood by setting up blood banks for willing donors and painting themselves as harmless, but someone inside the organization is undermining the boss and wants to take control for themselves to lead a revolution, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, Val is kicked out by her shitty parents for being a “bad influence” on her sister, and joins an officially-unofficial division of the police force dedicated to policing vampires, the generically named “Special Crimes Unit”, and she and the department and her family get mixed up in the vampire’s politics. It works well enough to set up the series premise, world, and conflicts, but like I said, the core mystery is one we’ve seen many times before.

I should probably also mention that Val’s personal journey in Bite Me coming to terms with her inner succubus is pretty obviously a metaphor for teenage sexuality. Her powers manifest during puberty, cause members of the opposite sex to lose their heads and get all hot and bothered when in close proximity to her, terrify her parents, and alternately scare and thrill Val herself. Through the course of the book she learns that, despite a bad first time nearly killing the first boy she ever kissed, denying her succubus desires is not the way to go (fuck abstinence), and only increases the risk of Val losing control and hurting herself or someone else (emotionless sex and STDs are bad!). But she also decides that Micah’s method of indiscriminately feeding them with whoever is near- and horniest isn’t the best course of action, either (you definitely don’t want to be a slut). She’s ultimately told that to have what she wants (a meaningful relationship) she has to stop being such a prude fighting her demon, and decides to begin experimenting learning how to control it. It’s a good enough message, and I agree in theory, but again, it’s handled with all the subtlety of a brick to the face.

There’s a lot of potential in Blue’s world for expansion and interesting development, what with the maybe-good, maybe-bad vampires and the titular Demon Underground, a loose affiliation of all the demons in the San Antonio area. There’s no set limit on the number or types of demons, so the possibility for some unique powers and characters are there.

There was, though, one aspect of Blue’s world rules that really bugged me. Val’s power as a succubus allows her to inspire lust in people and then feed from their sexual energy. However, in Blue’s world, even when her succubus power is on full-blast, Val only inspires lust in men. In fact, the climactic battle actually hinges on her inability to arouse women. Because women lusting after women, well, that never happens, right?

Admittedly, I haven’t read that many books with succubus or incubus characters, and none where they were the protagonist, so I don’t know if this how things usually work, but it seems kinda homophobic. I mean, it’s explicitly stated that the incu/sucubbi supernatural horniness powers only work on members of the opposite sex, but why? Is the alternative ~unnatural~? What about with men or women who are already gay? Would they not be affected by the incu/succubi powers, despite their natural inclination? I mean hell, at least in Haven they had the presence of mind to lampshade a similarly homophobic world rule. Here, Blue never acknowledges any possible deviation from the heterosexual norm. It’s a pretty big oversight for such an important rule.

Possible homophobia aside, this book has potential. The characters, world, and stories could be developed into something very unique and engaging, and despite how much I ragged on Val’s generic character, I appreciated her active role in the plot and her ability to stand up for herself to everyone, even the love interest, which is where a lot of heroines these days seem to draw a line.

Unfortunately, this book reads like a first draft – the building blocks are there, but they need some work to be fashioned into something good. Demon Underground came to us in a three-book bind-up from NetGalley, so we’re stuck with it til the end, and hopefully Blue will make some progress over the course of the series. As an introduction though, Bite Me failed to impress.

two stars


 

4 Responses

  1. LupLun

    May 16, 2011 5:30 am, Reply

    Hmm. Well, I’m not an expert on demonology, but in the real world, or rather real-world folklore, the purpose of incubi and succubi is to produce children with humans. (Children of incubi become witches and wizards, children of succubi… erm, get born in hell, I guess. I dunno LOL ¯\(°_o)/¯ )

    So, that *could* justify that. It’s nothing personal, strictly business.

  2. Kayla + Cyna

    May 16, 2011 8:24 am, Reply

    Hm, I figured it would be something like that in folklore, but here, there isn’t really an agenda on the part of the incu/succubi. They just feed. IDK, i just wondered why Blue went out of her way to make it opposite-gender specific. That doesn’t seem the norm for urban fantasy nowadays, where it seems like most supernatural creatures swing both ways xD

  3. Gwen Lightburn

    May 18, 2011 6:36 pm, Reply

    “my Jewish-Catholic, demon-human background and the melting pot that went into my heritage, I felt like a mongrel next to a show dog.”

    Some Catholics I know would say that “Jewish-Catholic, demon-human” is redundant. Har har.

    I like the idea of a hell-terrier almost as much as I like the idea of a vampire eating one.

    I get really annoyed with the whole homophobia thing in certain books. I imagine it’s an extension of the author’s moral intent. Like I’ve said before, I imagine P.C. and Kristen think that they have a “ton of gay friends,” so writing their bigoted bullshit’s okay. That being said, I’m ready for an out protag. Or at least bi. Maybe my protag will be.

    I sometimes feel like I was born in hell. I’m going to add “incubus” to my resume.

  4. Kayla + Cyna

    May 19, 2011 8:51 pm, Reply

    I would enjoy the book a lot more if this one were eaten.

    Right? I wasn’t sure how to take it, but in book two she flat-out says it and I think you’re right about it being an extension of her own beliefs or intent, like “MY DEMONS AREN’T GAY DAMMIT.” Nice.

    UGHHH CASTS. I think the part that annoyed me most about that whole thing was that they gave the gay character the name Jack Twist. SO FUCKING TRANSPARENT, like it was the only hot gay character they could think of who was well known enough to inspire the name but obscure enough that not everyone would get it, so they could have the fun of explaining it! But more than that, it was like they basically named him “Gay Guy”, and that’s all you need to know about him.

    Also, maybe it’s just me, but following the theory that Jack chose his own name, why the hell would anyone choose that particular character as a role model? Because he was played by Jack Gyllenhaal?

    Oh House of Night. I could complain about it all day.

    But yeah, a bi protagonist would be cool. YOU SHOULD DO THAT!

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