I post reviews of things I have something to say about, which mostly means sharing books that I enjoyed. Here, for a change, is a book that drove me crazy. This is a paranormal romance with an intriguing premise: a romance between an American teen and an Indian prince who’s been enchanted to be a white tiger for the last 300 years. Naturally, the story must also involve their quest to release Dhiren from the power of the evil wizard who enchanted him. However, the reality fell so far short of its promise that it wound up feeling like a parody of itself. I chose this one because it was recommended in a webinar on best YA audiobooks by the publisher. Lesson learned: do not trust the publisher.
Imagine you are a teen fresh out of high school, with two weeks of experience as an assistant helping the circus cat master take care of his tiger. Which is more shocking: that your habit of reading Shakespeare to the white, blue-eyed tiger gets you hired to be his sole caretaker for his travels back to India? Or that he turns out to be a handsome prince under a curse? Kelsey, our heroine, is only shocked at the second of these developments. And even more shocked when, after days of him sitting with her at twilight kissing her fingers and brushing your hair, he confesses that he is interested in her romantically. Once she’s accepted that he’s really a man and moves on to trying to rescue him, they must go on a pre-quest to find the prophecy that will tell them what to do to actually break the curse. Prophecies are tricky things in the first place – here, as is the danger, the prophecy serves as a plot outline for the rest of the book. Finding it the first place involves going through an ancient temple booby-trapped in classic Indiana Jones style. But since what’s being hidden is an encrypted prophecy that will only make sense to the two people it’s relevant to, this level of effort to protect it made no sense and brought to mind this scene from the movie Galaxy Quest
Which brings me on to the writing. I’m a little torn here with my choice of formats. On the one hand, the plus of listening to this in audio form was Annika Boras’s stellar narration, switching perfectly between naïve teen girl, sexy Indian prince, and older Indian butler-character. Her voice characterizations made each person distinct and believable, her Dhiren especially someone to fall for, while several Amazon reviewers complained that they often couldn’t tell who was talking because the characters as Houck wrote them sounded all the same in print. On the other hand, I found Houck’s writing painfully clunky. This started out as a self-published e-book, and apparently, it didn’t get the editing it so badly needed when it got picked up by Splinter. There are grammar mistakes and places where it feels like she used the thesaurus without understanding the shades of meaning of the words. Kelsey’s morning and evening routines are described in detail daily, including her trips to the bathroom and what color ribbon she chooses to braid in her hair. Houck mostly transitions only when Kelsey is asleep, so that we have to suffer through boring car rides on the way home from quests until the car lulls both Kelsey and the reader to sleep. However, the author seems to be a fan of luxury porn: the fittings of Dhiren’s private jet and the furnishings of his mansion in India are all described in great detail, down to the towel bars in the bathroom. All of this chasing and detail-describing left very little time for the parts of the story that I found interesting, and left me wishing I were reading the print book so I could skim over the many boring bits. Even with all the descriptions, Houck seems to have been lax in her research – a room in India, the land of bright colors and wild patterns, is described as having a solid white carpet. Kelsey describes Dhiren as looking “like James Bond, Antonio Banderas, and Brad Pitt all rolled into one” – because every modern teen girl is crushing on actors in their 50s.
Interesting parts include the magic. Well, it could have been an interesting part. Houck doesn’t put enough time into the magic for it to feel like a real, viable system, even though the premise was an interesting one. That leaves us with the romance. I’ll be a the first to admit that I’m a sucker for romance, and am willing to put up with some flaws in other areas of the book if there’s a good believable romance to hold on to. Unfortunately, this was neither. Now, I was not asked on a single date in high school, so I really get Kelsey’s reluctance to believe that anyone could find her attractive. She still made me want to smack her. Diren demonstrates over and over to her that he cares for her, but even when she sees him sobbing because he believed her dead, she won’t believe him. Then, Diren is one of the most gentlemanly characters I’ve ever seen in this genre, deliberately taking things slowly with Kelsey, and even asking for permission to kiss her. Kelsey, though, has set herself up with a nice old-fashioned sexuality complex: she can’t feel right about doing anything but admiring Diren’s good looks (and possessions), and thinks that he isn’t really a man unless he takes what he wants from her without asking. Gah! I was really torn between wanting to tell her to get over herself already and go for Diren, and thinking that she has no business dating anyone until she’s able to accept that she is a sexual being, and that consent is a good things. She’s able to do this for only a couple of scenes before she gets uncomfortable with her own feelings and calls it off again, deciding that he’s so addictive he must be a drug and Drugs are Bad. Then we’re introduced to Diren’s younger brother, the black tiger. He’s the handsome bad boy, and even though Kelsey first finds him more comfortable to hang out with because she’s not as distracted by attraction, it turns into the Dreaded Love Triangle. Really, I’m not opposed to a love triangle if they’re well done, but this felt extraneous.
India is a rich culture full of mythology ripe for fantasy stories that is rarely used. I was interested enough to stick through all the way to the end of the book. But Houck needed some serious editing work and better character development. I liked the brothers Ren and Kishan, but Kelsey was infuriatingly whiny and lacking in badly-needed personal growth. I really wanted this to be a better book. I want to know what happens to Dhiren in the end, but so far, I can’t put myself through the torture of reading more of Houck’s writing (maybe it will improve, now that she’s had more practice?) However, while I’m not alone in my feelings, there are also many who disagree with me, as this series has been at the top of teen charts for months.