Details: (c) 2006 Melanie Rawn; Pub 2007 Tor; ISBN 0-7653-5436-5
Verdict: Spellbinder is a bizarre mixture of eye-bleedingly bad with quite decent.
Reasons for reading it: I love Melanie Rawn, and she's keeping everyone on tenterhooks waiting for the third of her really amazing Exiles trilogy, so I was happy to read a new standalone by her while I'm waiting for that.
How it came into my hands: Bought new on Amazon, based purely on my enthusiasm for Rawn.
Oh good gracious, this book! It's not even unremittingly dire, it has its moments. But it also has a lot of utterly sporktastic elements. I don't want to make jokes about the brain eater getting Rawn, because that's almost literally true: according to the author's note, she wrote it as a way to fight back against depression, and hoped that writing something utterly different from her fantasy stuff would help with getting back into writing again. This sort of explains why the book feels like the product of some struggling, moderately talented writer trying to get SF published, who gets frustrated at formulaic romance novels and decides, hey, I can do better than that. Except that Rawn is not a struggling rookie writer, she's a well respected fantasy author.
So, Spellbinder is a kind of paranormal romance. It is packed full with the the sort of secondary cliches that seem to come from reaction against the most hackneyed cliches of the genre. Like, stereotypical romance novels make the heroine really wet and the hero a brute, so we need a strong! feisty! heroine and a macho – yet sensitive! hero. There were some points where I was almost convinced I was reading a parody, but mostly it seems to take itself deadly seriously.
One thing Rawn can do like almost no other author I've ever read is keep me utterly hooked, even while I'm aware that the plot is ludicrous and the over the top romance is way beyond merely soppy. I almost missed watching dolphins once because I was so engrossed in something of hers. It was the same with Spellbinder; I just couldn't put it down, even though there is such a lot wrong with it. And in spite of the cliches and use of ethnic stereotypes where characterization should be, I believed in and cared about the characters.
The worst of all the terrible things about Spellbinder is definitely the cheesy romantic Irish-American bits. There just aren't words for how teeth-grindingly awful the Irish theme is. The book even seems slightly self-aware, because there are jokes about people who associate Ireland with leprechauns and shamrocks, and yet the view of Irish culture here is only one step less tacky than that. Rawn seems to be trying far too hard to be politically correct, with a carefully multi-cultural cast, but it just ends up seeming like tokenism and sometimes even dips into a rather unfortunate cavalier treatment of various minority cultures to provide background colour and exoticism. I dread to think how this book would read to an actual Wiccan; the (fairly minor) Jewish elements are patronizing and inaccurate, and the "Romany" stuff just made me cringe. (The setup is surprisingly fair to Christianity, even including nasty American Evangelical Christianity as well as the more romantic Catholicism, considering that it's such a fluffy-bunny Pagan context and especially considering a subplot about a sex-pervert priest.) Oh, and the self-righteous look at me I'm so tolerant I included gay characters bit is, well, not as bad as homophobia would be but pretty awful. It even goes as far as having Holly remark that Alec and Nick are the perfect couple, and never mind their gender, along with a lot of other references to how they are just like a real straight couple, really!
The central relationship is actually surprisingly good, in spite of the romance novel cliches. Yes, it's soppy, and it's predicated on the idea of mystical True Love, but if you can live with that it's not at all a bad example of the type. One aspect that really appealed was that the jeopardy of the boy-loses-girl phase doesn't come from the protagonists being idiots and failing to communicate, but from a genuine and partially external problem. (Though I really don't understand why Evan didn't just say that his apparent attack on the minister was actually saving him from being shot.) There is miscommunication, but they confront it and deal with it, and that makes me believe in them as a couple. I'm not generally impressed by couples who fight a lot and we're asked to believe that it's a sign of their true love, but I could almost believe it with Holly and Evan. It's quite common for writers to attempt a Beatrice and Benedict kind of interaction, but it's extremely easy for that to come out as more like Kate and Petruccio. Rawn sort of gets round that by giving Holly a lot of power on the level of being extremely rich and successful whereas Evan is from a much less privileged background, but it's still a bit uncomfortable.
That lack of evidence of real respect between the couple is probably a big reason why I didn't enjoy the sex scenes very much. Modern romances seem to expect quite a lot of explicit sex, and the sex scenes in Spellbinder are certainly competently written, if implausibly perfect. But they're not to my taste at all; the whole thing of a woman trying to assert her opinion and the man winning arguments by sheer force of sexiness is rather off-putting. And a large volume of descriptions of sex that is supposed to be mindblowingly wonderful gets boring when it's not your kink.
The rest of the plot is rather stupid, though mostly not egregiously so, and it does provide interludes of action to dilute the effect of all the true love bits. The climax is almost literally melodramatic, with a Satanic ritual to kill the hero and enslave the heroine, interrupted by rescuers because the villain wastes a load of time being all Satanic and villainous. But never mind, as I said it's fairly gripping and that makes up for the way it's a bit rambling and a bit cliched.