Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora Pierce

Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3 by Tamora PierceMastiff by Tamora Pierce
Narrator: Susan Denaker
Series: The Legend of Beka Cooper #3
Published by Listening Library on 10/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: B+
Narration: A

In the final installment of Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper trilogy, Beka (a member of the Provost’s Guard who are colloquially and collectively known as Dogs) is summoned from her bed in the middle of the night by Lord Gershom and sent on a secret mission. She finds herself crossing the kingdom with her partner Tunstall, the scent hound Achoo, the lady knight Sabine, the Provost’s mage Master Farmer, and of course the cat (who is really a constellation) Pounce. The four year-old Tortallan prince has been kidnapped and as Beka and her group follow the trail of a slaver’s caravan, they discover enemies who will stop at nothing in their attempt to take control of the throne. There are physical travails along the path in addition to the concerted attempts by the mages involved in the kidnapping to bring magical weapons to bear on the team.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a young adult sensibility but this series of books has a lot of the aspects I like to see in novels intended for that demographic. A strong (and in this case female) protagonist who has a discernible arc of character growth, friendships that run the gamut from supportive to combative, a splash of romance with no fated insta-love, an exciting storyline that doesn’t stint on recognizing bad things happen but doesn’t spend too much time describing every gory detail, a core world where gender equality is shown as a given (and so has even more contrast when we encounter a splinter group with the opposite opinion) and lots of adventure to keep a reader interested. Tamora Pierce has created an engaging world with a protagonist whose daily job has the feel of a medieval police station but with magic involved. There are well-developed characters who even speak with their own cant, although it’s easily understandable in context (the downside of which might be, say, your thirteen year-old wandering around the house calling the dog a “craven canker-licking sarden arseworm.”)

As an adult reader of books that fall in the Young Adult category, I found this to be a fun story. All three audiobooks in this series have been great listens and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch Beka’s character mature from a painfully shy and earnest “puppy” in the Provost’s Guard who learned the ropes with the help of two great partners, to a “bloodhound” who was given a chance to work an investigation into counterfeit money, and now to a mature young woman who lives by a code of honor that sometimes requires she make difficult choices. I was initially thrown off at the start of the story because there is a two or three year gap in story-time since the end of book two but I quickly settled in and was swept into the fast-paced investigation. In addition to the great characters, there is tremendous texture to the world Pierce has created (the downside of which might be, say, when I find myself forgetting that calling someone a “cracknob looby” only has meaning if you’ve read the book.)

To add the icing on top of this literary cake, Susan Denaker’s narration is perfect. She utterly embodies the various people in the story, becoming transparent to the listener and allowing them to simply engage with the characters. Her use of varied regional dialects and accents (many with a Nordic sound) combined with the vocal characteristics she uses to differentiate class helps create that immersive experience for the listener. Excellent pacing, the appropriate emotional delivery choice for every scene, and just lovely character voices make this a book I consider enhanced significantly by listening rather than reading.

Infinite Days – Rebecca Maizel

Infinite Days – Rebecca MaizelInfinite Days by Rebecca Maizel
Narrator: Justine Eyre
Series: Vampire Queen #1
Published by Tantor Media on 8/25/10
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult

Book: C+
Narration: B-

I found the premise of this novel to be an interesting take (as over-used a phrase as that is) on vampire mythology and the YA paranormal genre and I wanted to like this book but in the end, I didn’t so much dislike it as it simply left me indifferent. It was a unique premise that ultimately failed me in the execution.

Lenah Beaudonte has been a vampire for just under 600 years and is the queen of the most powerful vampire coven in existence. In Maizel’s mythology, the vampire is a soulless being whose body has been sealed by black magic into an unchanging state. Emotions and senses for a vampire have narrowed down to acute vision, an enhanced sense of smell, and a sort of E.S.P. – all of which aid the vampire in hunting down prey. Their sense of touch is almost non-existent and a vampire’s emotional palette is limited to pain and suffering on a seemingly constant basis. After tiring of a life of endless pain and increasingly reckless behavior, Lenah learns her creator (a vampire named Rhode) has discovered the secret ritual for removing the vampire curse. She coerces him into performing the ritual for her and after a 100-year hibernation Lenah wakes up as a 16 year-old human. Rhode advises her to immerse herself in her reborn human existence and avoid anything that might bring her to the notice of her coven. Thus begins her life as a student at Wickham Boarding School with the requisite boyfriend, best friend, and mean girls included.

My primary frustration with this audiobook was that I didn’t feel enough narrative tension. Although the threat of discovery by Lenah’s coven is a thread introduced early on, it never becomes more than a vague possibility until about two hours before the end. Lenah herself has some interesting characteristics but only in an objective sense. I admired the creepiness factor of Lenah habitually identifying the location and quality of the veins in the people she first meets as a human but only in a . o 0(that was a nice perspective for the author to include) manner rather than being actually creeped out. With little in the way of the vampire mythology or world-building revealed until the end, I had to rely solely on engaging with the characters in the story and I had a distinct lack of empathy, sympathy or connection of any kind with them because with the exception of Lenah, they are almost all cardboard cut-outs with little to no background information or insight into their thoughts or daily life. The only other character with a somewhat fleshed-out background turned out not to be the love interest and faded away for the middle of the story.

Lenah’s relationship with Justin, the hunky and wealthy LaCrosse player that every girl on campus admires, didn’t give me a warm romantic glow or even a hot sexy blaze.  Other than his having three brothers, nice parents, and love of adrenaline, I know nothing about him. I didn’t get any real idea as to what draws him so strongly to Lenah or why a girl/woman with 592 years of life experience is so entranced by this young man/boy.  I know the intent was to make the attraction on Lenah’s part tied in to how Justin has the ability to bring out her human side and the reduction of Lenah’s vampire senses as her humanity asserted itself made for a nice plot construct but the descriptions of the events that trigger these changes (bungee jumping and the single sex scene in the book) didn’t convey a sense of excitement, wonder, or life-changing drama.

I should reiterate that although I mostly have complaints about this book, it isn’t a bad book: It just didn’t reach me on anything other than an analytical level which is not what I look for in my entertainment listening. I did find that the last two hours of the story really picked up the pace and held my interest. Danger, a new location, a bit more emotional insight into Lenah and a greater knowledge of her coven helped engage me but by then it was too late to save my overall impression of the book.

I’ve experienced Justine Eyre’s narration skills previously with Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series and enjoyed it immensely. I initially thought this an odd match between narrator and genre/book and I still feel it was not the ideal casting choice. I’ve always felt that the tenor of Ms. Eyre’s  voice is more suited to mature characters and in one respect that worked surprisingly well for Lenah, given her 500+ years of existence and experience. Where it didn’t succeed for me was in the moments of Lenah’s great life-changing events. The vocal inflections she gives Lenah at each one was more “how odd that happened” rather than conveying any real sense of awe or transformation.  In addition, I often heard a tone of ennui in Lenah’s voice which again, was appropriate for the character given her history but which also aggravated my sense of disconnection with the character. Lenah’s English accent worked well for me although I had an unintentional moment of amusement when Lenah was describing light emanating from her palms. She described it as shining from her very pores which, with the English accent, sounded like “paws” and I found myself wondering when we had switched from vampires to werewolves. Not a bad narration but, to my mind, miscasting.