Written by Faith Hunter, Skinwalker is the first in the Jane Yellowrock series, an urban fantasy following the adventures of its titular character, a Cherokee skinwalker, as she hunts unruly vampires, and other creatures of the night, in New Orleans.
When I first sampled the beginning of this novel, it reminded be a little of another urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher, following the exploits of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire. As such, I can’t help but compare the two, and this might be an unfair comparison. I beg your pardons.
As a skinwalker, Jane is able to shape-shift into animals, as long as she has the genetic material available to copycat. She uses necklaces made from their bones to accomplish this. She keeps her abilities a tightly (though not really carefully) guarded secret. The world at large knows of vampires and witches, but there are indications that they do not know about a number of other creatures, and so far as Jane knows, she’s the only one of her kind. Also, she knows on some subconscious level that, even if there were more of her kind still around, she’d still be unusual, because she is not the only soul in her body. Beast, Jane as calls her, is the soul of a large feline, and how they came to reside in the same body is a mystery even to Jane, as are all of her early years.
No one outside her immediate circle knows her secrets, and even she does not know them all, and that gives her a certain edge in her occupation, namely vampire hunting.
She doesn’t hunt all vampires though. There are “civilized” vampires who rule their nocturnal communities in councils. This is Jane’s first time working for one such council, but they have a “rogue” vampire causing mayhem and leaving a trail of bodies, including civilians, law enforcement officers, and even vampires start falling prey to it. As a professional freelance vamp-hunter, with a not-unimpressive resume, Jane gets the job. Her usual plan with a job like this is to shape-shift into a feline akin to Beast, find the rogue’s lair, then come back as a human with stakes, holy water, silver crosses, and a shotgun.
Naturally, nothing goes according to plan.
Also naturally, in the course of her vamp-hunting duties, Jane manages to find some answers about herself.
…aaaaaand it matters jack-diddly-squat.
The book had a moderately-good beginning, and I can appreciate all the attention to details to make the setting seem vivid, even if they are often repeated, including the smells of sex and dog urine everywhere, and so many references to “vamp speed.” But as I approached the end of the novel, I realized a few things.
This is where we have the comparisons to Harry Dresden.
Harry is an intelligent investigator and detective, while Jane is just a hunter. She puts nothing together to discern hidden truths, just follows trails and finally learns the rogue’s identity via interrogation. Which makes everything that happens… just stuff that happens.
Harry is very much sought after by a number of greater powers because of his magic, his potential, his usefulness, and indications that he has a vital role to play in things to come. By contrast, Jane is much sought after… because she’s hot. There’s a good-looking “Joe” named Rick, an elder on the vampire council named Leo (apparently, when a civilized vamp feeds on you, it’s neither painful nor deadly, just an erotic rush), there’s Leo’s chief blood-servant, and a few more, including some women. And with every single one of them, it’s a dance of electric attraction where they want to have her, and she wants to be had but she says no. Honestly, by the end of the novel, I was going, “All right! We get it! She’s a hot, mysterious, exotic, dangerous, sexy woman! Can we move on already?!”
Somewhat related to that: Harry does get help from his friends, but he usually overcomes obstacles and saves lives with his own power. There had to be at least three times where Jane had to call Leo for help, and he saved the day. It got rather monotonous.
As Harry has his journeys of self-discovery, learning about his family and himself, it plays a part in the plot. Jane, on the other hand, gets nothing from what she serendipitously learns, not even when her past, or, more accurately, Beast’s past, include an encounter with a creature highly similar to the “rogue vamp” she’s hunting. Heck, she even meets two elderly Cherokee women who offer to help her undergo a Cherokee ritual to cleanse herself, but she refuses. Twice. I was certain that she’d go back a third time and be strengthened enough to face her foe, but that was a disappointment.
I think this one is the biggest difference between Harry Dresden and Jane Yellowrock: Harry is very much aware of other people, and he cares for them, dwells on them, protects them, and feels great pain when he fails to do so, while Jane… doesn’t. There is no such thing as a “red shirt” in Harry’s book, but Jane doesn’t seem to care one bit about her fellow man. There was a young lady she’d met a couple times who was attacked and nearly killed in her presence. Though Jane saved her life, it took her a couple days to even think about her again, and then only because someone else mentioned she was recovering well.
Another example: a pair of witches who lurk in the background, barely remarked upon, until they come in at the climax to paralyze and kill the rogue, but they also paralyzed Jane as well and paid her no mind at all – gee, apathy seems to be a running trait with these heroic types – forcing Jane to use a talisman she got from a witch friend of hers, ending the paralysis spell and freeing the rogue as well, leading directly to the deaths of the two witches who had come busting in to “save the day.”
Another example: she felt some mild anxiety when she had very good reason to believe people were being murdered, but she was helpless to help them at the time (changed into an owl, not a mountain lion), but then, later, when she sees their remains, she has to pretend to be shocked by the savage mutilation she beholds. She doesn’t think of them as people anymore, which Harry would never forget.
Heck, I forget if we ever heard the fate of a woman who was a romantic rival for Jane (though she wasn’t interested in being a notch on the guy’s belt). Speaking of, there was a moment where Jane was hunting, and saw her potential boyfriend with this woman, who she knew carried the scent of the rogue on her. When they part, instead of following the woman, she follows the man. Stupidly jealous, much?
Which reminds me: for being a hunter, on an urgent hunt, there are several nights when Jane does no such hunting. For one of them, she goes dancing. Instead of hunting. In an outfit we saw her buy in great detail (as that is clearly every bit as important to a woman as hunting for a serial killer) and in the company of that guy she’s attracted to but not interested in. And that sound you hear right now is me, groaning.
Oh, I amend: she does care about some people’s welfare, provided she’s attracted to them.
No, wait, sorry, she does also care about her good friends, including a witch and her daughter, the latter of which constantly “melts her heart.” I know our offspring tend to have that effect, but could she please think of it with some different phrasing if she’s going to mention it every time?
I will say this on behalf of Jane Yellowrock… or rather about the world her story is set in: there are clearly some mysteries surrounding all of the “non-human” folk. While I don’t know if they ever play a role in the plot, there are indications that there may be an intriguing story behind the vampires and such. There’s a reference to a curse or curses which created the supernatural folk, cast on them because of some terrible ancestral sin.
Personal theory: I’m guessing Judas Iscariot was the first vampire, and this is why vampires fear and are burned by the symbols of Christianity, the messiah he betrayed.
Another theory: I’m also guessing not all such creatures were created by curses. Skinwalkers, for instance, were apparently once the protectors of their people, until they began to fall into sin, trying to take the skins of humans. For their practice of eating the livers of their victims, these fallen skinwalkers became called liver-eaters. If the original skinwalker was blessed instead of cursed, then all the more reason why the liver-eaters are so depraved, for abusing their gift.
That theorizing aside, and my inquisitive nature about the mysteries aside, there are still a number of smaller problems with this novel. Jane was invited to hide and witness a vampire ritual, yet the master that supposedly invited her seemed to know nothing of it, so I thought that was an indication of duplicity on the servant’s part… but nothing came of it. Then there’s how a pair of law enforcement officers received commendations and favors from the vamp council for their help… when they contributed absolutely nothing. Little things like that.
There were good things, yes, but there’s no way Skinwalker is scoring very high in my book.
Rating: 7… no, 6… no… yes… there was effort in writing, and distant background, and I liked Beast’s perspective… so 6… hmmm… 5? I’ll go with 6 stars out of 10.
There was some effort put into it, and I may become monumentally bored someday and peruse through the succeeding novels. It’s possible. But not likely.