Review: Through Violet Eyes

ThroughVioletEyes

Synopsis

In a world where the dead can testify against the living, someone is getting away with murder. Because to every generation are born a select few souls with violet-colored eyes, and the ability to channel the dead. Both rare and precious—and rigidly controlled by a society that craves their services—these Violets perform a number of different duties. The most fortunate increase the world’s cultural heritage by channeling the still-creative spirits of famous dead artists and musicians. The least fortunate aid the police and the law courts, catching criminals by interviewing the deceased victims of violent crime.

But now the Violets themselves have become the target of a brutal serial murderer—a murderer who had learned how to mask his or her identity even from the victims. Can the FBI, aided by a Violet so scared of death that she is afraid to live, uncover the criminal in time? Or must more of her race be dispatched to the realm that has haunted them all since childhood?

Review

Ah, quarantine, you have brought me to some new stories, and Through Violet Eyes was one of them.

It wasn’t a good story. Fair warning: This book was dreadful and I’m hoping to spare you the misery of reading it, so this review is brimming with spoilers. If you actually want to read Through Violet Eyes yourself and be surprised, turn back now!

Through Violet Eyes portrays itself as a mystery tinged with a sci-fi/fantasy element: In this universe, there are people whose eyes are – you guessed it! – violet, and these folks can communicate with the souls of the deceased. This has potential to be interesting if combined with strong characters, a decently planned plot, and solid, creative execution of the premise. Woodworth just doesn’t deliver.

For one thing, there’s little that’s remarkable about the main characters beyond just straight-up weirdness or lameness. Although each undergo some level of character growth, those developments are so predictably induced and so shallowly conveyed that the reader reaps little satisfaction and enjoys scant emotional connection with the characters in question. Natalie Lindstrom is a young Violet who works for the government like just about every other Violet does for at least some portion of their life. At the moment, the suits are using her amazing powers to channel dead witnesses for jury trials. Her frequent contact with the deceased has caused Natalie to lead a restrained, overly cautious (read: paranoid) life in the interest of postponing death as long as possible.  Dan Atwater is an FBI agent who basically committed manslaughter on a person of color but is now back on duty. So logically, after such a massive blunder, Dan is assigned to guard an extremely valuable lead, Natalie, in a serial killer case in which the victims are all people who can talk to the dead.

The progression of Dan and Natalie’s romance is completely calculable. Although Natalie begins the book pining over her childhood sweetheart, Evan, whom she has not spoken to in eight years, she quickly falls in love with Dan in a matter of weeks. Dan, too, feels the love in that same time span. And when I say “weeks”, I mean less than a month – or at least, that’s what I’m assuming because Woodworth is really unclear about the passage of time. Let’s ignore the time span, though, because time is sometimes inconsequential. The real issue is that, from the beginning, everyone can guess that Dan and Natalie are going to end up together, and there’s little to the story of how that happens. It’s the kind of love story you’d expect from mediocre fanfiction. Their romance consists of fluffy carnival rides, climbing stairs, and flying. (Like, a lot of flying. Seriously, Dan’s superiors have no idea how to coordinate their agents to save some fucking taxpayer money and fuel.)  Dan learns to love again after his divorce, and Natalie learns to live a little and not be terrified of the carousel. It’s a win-win for both of them.

Secondary characters are not bestowed with the attention they deserve either. Those who are important enough to warrant a number of dimensions greater than two are deprived. Too often, characters aren’t fleshed out. Most of the supporting characters are already dead or are on their way there. The rest are just there to help without being characters in their own right, often while serving as diversity tokens. Sid Preston, the obnoxious reporter who’s been stalking Dan and Natalie as he researches the case of the Violet killer and whose only contribution to the case is a license plate number, arguably receives as much or possibly even more attention than Serena. For playing such an important role in the story – saving Natalie’s life, assisting Dan with contacting Sondra, and ultimately killing Dan while possessed – she’s just there to help and be a friend to the deuteragonists. That’s all. Oh wait, and she’s black – a fact that Woodworth feels the need to point out every third sentence when she’s on the page. Don’t get me wrong: Serena’s blackness is not the issue, nor is acknowledgement of her blackness. The problem is that she is repeatedly described as “the black woman” or “the black man” (the latter in reference to her appearance in a disguise) at a frequency that borders on annoying while little else is established about her character. It’s one thing to illustrate a character; it’s entirely another to continuously reiterate their race while also saying nothing about their race. What else would readers need to know about her? Who she is as a person? How her blackness is a part of her identity? Her motives for doing things, for joining Simon’s group? Nah. What relevance do those things have to the white people in the story? Serena, a former CIA associate and now a member of a cryptic group known to some as a cult, has the capacity to be one of the most intriguing characters of the story, but Woodworth suppresses that potential by pigeonholing her into the dreaded “magical negro” trope.

Compounding Woodworth’s fumbling of Serena’s character with regards to race is Dan’s spotty past. Prior to the events of the story, Dan shot an unarmed person of color in a case of mistaken identity, believing he was the suspect that had killed a couple of other police officers that night. He and the remaining two officers were charged and subsequently acquitted of murder. Dan was then somehow reinstated as an officer of the law and released back into the wild with a badge and a firearm in tow. No anti-bias training, no anything – just a trial, an acquittal, and a divorce. Look, I understand that the issue of racially-charged police brutality wasn’t as prominent in the media back in 2004 (then again, I was seven, so maybe I just wasn’t paying attention), but the way Woodworth handles the matter seems… insensitive. The whole matter is resolved with a fuzzy, feel-good moment of forgiveness when Dan’s and Allen’s spirits collide and they each understand the other’s perspective of the fatal incident. I mean, yeah, on one hand, forgiveness and empathy are often good things. Yet, the way Woodworth settles this conflict sugarcoats the awfulness underlying the event: a (white) law enforcement officer is not held to higher ethical standards for his occupation, his remorse is used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and the victim is a person of color who was basically assumed to be the bad guy because he “looked like the suspect”. Big yikes. Call me a nitpicker, but one heartfelt moment doesn’t really make up for all of that shit and the systemic racism seething just behind the curtain. At this point, it’s quite fair to say that Woodworth is ignorant on matters of race – and this is coming from a white girl.

Woodworth manages to pound out a mystery plotline – albeit a lackluster one – but overall, his writing style is rankling and often straight-up odd. No, I don’t mean “odd” in either the whimsically charming or the rivetingly bizarre senses, but rather in the “cringe” context. Let’s start with the sex. For one thing, there is a scene in which Dan, upon witnessing Natalie doing yoga in the morning, gets an erection. When she steps out of the room to take a shower, he actually fucking talks to his penis aloud. Guys, do you really do this? Is this a thing that I’m just not privy to? Because I’m trying to imagine talking to my nether regions and it’s just… weird. Also, I don’t know what planet Woodworth lives on, but here on Earth, pubic hair is rarely “downy.” Yet for all his explicit descriptions of breasts, pubic hair, and erections, Woodworth shies away from a detailed sex scene when our two heroes finally succumb to their attractions and begin their relationship with a night of lovemaking. Given how awkward Woodworth generally is on matters of sex, though, it’s probably best that he spared readers the details. Woodworth also has no idea how to write about gay characters. The only non-heterosexual is a dead fifty-something guy who’s described as “squirrelly-looking” and who inhabits Natalie’s body without her consent to attempt to rape Dan. This incident is used as a plot device to demonstrate how Violets can be inhabited against their will, particularly when sleeping, and to further Dan and Natalie’s blooming romance by letting Russell Travers spill the beans about Natalie’s sexual feelings for Dan. There are literally a million different ways that Woodworth could have accomplished this goal without painting the only homosexual character in the book as a perverted rapist. Additionally, Woodworth turns to disabilities for adjectives, which he uses pejoratively or flippantly. Natalie is described as repeating a mantra “like an autistic eulogist”. Dan, at one point, attempts to cry Natalie’s name in “a Down’s syndrome slur”. Is it really that difficult for Woodworth to   crack a thesaurus and pick some words that aren’t insulting? He totally could’ve gone with “a drunken slur” and just left out the “autistic eulogist” part. Those faux pas are totally avoidable, and yet Woodworth careens head-on into them with zero regrets.

The bottom line is that Through Violet Eyes simply is a bad book. A hackneyed plot, feeble characterization, and some seriously gauche handling of basic social issues bury anything positive about this story. Hopefully, this review has spared you all from wasting precious reading time on such an unworthy piece. Countless other books are calling your names!

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Cover image and synopsis are from BarnesandNoble.com.

Book Review: Grace and Fury

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The Blurb

Serina Tessaro has been groomed her whole life to become a Grace–someone to stand by the Heir to the throne as a shining, subjugated example of the perfect woman. It’s her chance to secure a better life for her family, and to keep her headstrong and rebellious younger sister, Nomi, out of trouble. But when Nomi catches the Heir’s eye instead, Serina is the one who takes the fall for the dangerous secret her sister has been hiding.

Trapped in a life she never wanted, Nomi has only one option: surrender to her role as a Grace until she can use her position to save Serina. But this is easier said than done…. A traitor walks the halls of the palazzo, and deception lurks in every corner.

Meanwhile, Serina is running out of time. Imprisoned on an island where she must fight to the death to survive, surrounded by women stronger than she is, one wrong move could cost her everything. There is no room for weakness on Mount Ruin, especially weaknesses of the heart.

Thrilling and captivating, Grace and Fury is a story of fierce sisterhood, and of survival in a world that’s determined to break you.

Review

Read: April 2019

Rating: 2.75 stars out of 5

*Spoiler warning!*

Without a doubt, Grace and Fury is feminist. Not only does it focus on sexism perpetrated by men against women, but it also, through the training and lives of Graces, explicitly spotlights the intra-gender competition that exists between women.

But being “feminist” doesn’t automatically net a rave review for a book. While Banghart’s point is exceedingly perspicuous, her execution is pretty humdrum.

The writing style leaves something to be desired. Banghart spends way too much time discussing sartorial choices. Such a decision might have been made to underscore the role that vanity plays in this society. Unfortunately, describing characters’ apparel at points where doing so adds nothing to the story is more disruptive than effective when it comes to driving such a point home. A thesaurus might also have been helpful, since the word “fury” appears about a million times. Banghart’s repetition of the word “fury” lends the impression that she’s trying too hard to explain her title when no explanation is really needed.

This story just doesn’t stand out creatively. The general plotline of “women are oppressed/get sexist bullshit and decide to fight back” can be a very compelling one, but Banghart fails to explore a truly unique iteration of that. Viridia does not distinguish itself as a noteworthy setting. Basically it’s just a super sexist version of Italy, I guess. Furthermore, its history is purposely hazy, but this hinders rather than assists the revelation of the true past, which is anticlimactically presented in the form of an infodump. With little known about Viridia aside from its enforcement of rigid gender roles, the divulgence of the country’s revised history just doesn’t pack the punch that it ought to.

The prosaic characterization drains life out of the story. Nomi is painfully gullible, Asa is an obsequious scum weasel, and Malachi is only slightly livelier than a yardstick. Though I appreciated Val, Renzo, and Maris, their characters are not fully explored (perhaps because Banghart is saving that for the sequel to Grace and Fury). Nomi’s character arc stands in stark juxtaposition next to Serina’s much sturdier one – a weakness that drags down the story, since half of the book is about Nomi’s experiences.

As is often true, flat characters make for dull romances. Val and Serina are a cute couple, but their affair isn’t exactly the most gripping I’ve ever read. Nomi’s romances, on the other hand, are just tedious. Long before Banghart revealed Asa’s perfidy I disliked him because he’s so patently untrustworthy, and although Malachi is more pleasant company, he’s insufferably stodgy. Even though I’m almost positive that Nomi will end up with Malachi, I don’t care much beyond being bored with Malachi and Nomi, whether they’re alone or together.

Overall, this book was shallowly entertaining. I liked Serina’s character and am curious enough about Ines’s position that I’ll probably read the sequel, but I’m not exactly on the edge of my chair in anticipation or ready to fork over money to read it immediately upon its release. Hopefully Banghart will seize upon the vast room for improvement and the next book will be more than just mediocre.

Cover image is from BarnesandNoble.com.