Martin Millar's new novel, Lonely Werewolf Girl, is a puzzlement to me. A puzzlement because I kept being annoyed with it, and came close to shutting it and giving up more than once, and yet I keep thinking about it now that I'm done reading it. I got my copy from Colleen Mondor (thanks, Colleen!) at Chasing Ray, whose opinion I trust, and she liked it a lot; Gail Gauthier, over at Original Content, who's also pretty sharp, liked it as well. I'm no expert on werewolf novels, or urban fantasy, and I've never read anything by Millar before, and somehow I felt that maybe if I had that background I'd be in on something that otherwise kept eluding me.
So why did I keep being annoyed with it? Well, for starters, it's a novel that does a whole lot more telling than showing. All kinds of back story--told. All kinds of details about the characters--told. So we hear, for example, that Kalix (our heroine) hates her brothers, and later we even get a few details of a fight she had with one of them, but we see so little of them together that I never felt as if I understood their hatred. (It's true, later they both try to kill her, one way or another, but she hates them long before that.) We hear at least three times in the first hundred pages that Sarapen and Dominil have some sort of history--and later we learn that she wants to kill him--but again, this is all simply told, not shown, so we don't feel fully involved. Or I didn't.
I was also put off by the names, though this may be a genre thing for me. There are way too many female characters with Xs in their names, for example: Thrix, Kalix, Butix, Delix, Talixia--they're just a little too similar, and though I was able to keep the characters straight I still found their names annoying. This seems petty, maybe, but if you're going to spend over 500 pages with a group of characters I think you want to believe in their names, and understand their naming conventions. I never quite did. (The werewolves are Scottish--are there lots of Xs in Scottish names?)
I also found the book badly copyedited, with more typos and repeated or missing words than I like to see in a published book. But if I'd been less annoyed with the foregoing I don't think that would have bothered me as much.
So why did I finish reading it? Because it's hilarious. The lonely werewolf girl herself, Kalix, is a laudanum-swilling, tranquilizer-popping, self-mutilating, bulimic werewolf who is nonetheless irresistible to almost everyone who meets her (outside her own family). OK, maybe that doesn't sound hilarious, but trust me: it is. Her great physical strength combined with her emotional weakness makes her an interesting character, especially when she ensnares two human college students, Daniel and Moonglow, into her troubles. The Fire Queen, Malveria, enters the novel with an over-the-top flourish--"Prepare to die, cursed Enchantress!"--but we find out that she's anguished over her shoes, and she fails to follow through on this threat (or many others). Kalix's older sister is a fashion designer, and one of her brothers wears his girlfriend's blouses. The machinations of the werewolf clan, and particularly the ways in which they interact (or don't) with the human world, make for a great story.
I think what works best about the novel is the way it mixes things up: most of the characters are werewolves, and others have interesting magical powers, but they are all very human in their rivalries, their passions, their weaknesses. Millar mixes up fashion design with ancient myth, low-rent rock bands with high fashion, an obsession with Sabrina the Teenage Witch with battles to the death. The various alliances and allegiances are convoluted but fascinating. And for me, at least, the central trio--Kalix, Daniel, and Moonglow--anchor the book. They're who I cared about, their connection energized the novel, and when they were offstage my attention occasionally flagged.
In the end, I wanted to know what happened to everyone, I just wasn't sure I wanted to read it all--I kept feeling as if I were reading a great treatment for a screenplay rather than a novel. Would I recommend it? To a diehard Buffy fan, maybe, or to a fan of gritty urban fantasy for whom narrative tug is more important than literary technique. But I'm still puzzled about it, so maybe its fans can enlighten me further.