Anyone who follows the column will know by now that I am a huge fan of urban fantasy, and in particular, werewolves. The combination of my favourite animals with my favourite genre and some really badass characters is too much for me to ignore. So when I say I devour werewolf focused urban fantasy novels like a starving alpha on a full moon, I’m not exaggerating.
Years ago (far more years than I care to consider) I discovered Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series and the fabulous Elena Michaels. While there are a lot of very strong characters in the series, Elena, the female werewolf, remains my favourite.
This wasn’t the first time I’d read urban fantasy (that credit goes to L.J. Smith’s Forbidden Game series when I was still in primary school). A healthy obsession with Buffy, Angel and other shows of that ilk throughout my teens had already nurtured my love of the genre. But it’s the first time I remember reading a series in which the protagonist was simultaneously a woman, and a werewolf. Witches, faeries, slayers, elves, sure, but never a werewolf.
And so began my lifelong quest for other awesome werewolf books featuring strong female characters.
At some point, I branched out very slightly to include other ‘were’ forms in that quest, and was quite content with books that featured strong leads and secondary werewolf characters. Last year I discovered Ilona Andrews and devoured every book. To date I’ve read them all at least 7 times.
So when a friend recommended Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series I was insanely excited. A female lead who was also a were and intricately tangled with werewolves?
I tore through the first two books fully expecting to have to go back out and buy all the rest. But the strangest thing happened.
I hate Mercy Thompson.
This got me thinking about what makes a good urban fantasy novel, and more specifically what makes a good female lead in an urban fantasy novel. So this week I’d like to present the first in a series of article exploring that question, which I have oh-so-imaginatively dubbed ‘Alpha Women’.
Why Is Mercy Thompson So Unbelievably Annoying?
There are a few issues I have with the character but I think the crux of the problem is her heavily religious slant, with a secondary (but equally frustrating) issue being the rampant anti-feminism, masquerading as feminism, displayed throughout the books. I’ll get to the latter in a minute, let’s deal with the former first.
In case it isn’t obvious, spoilers ahead…
I have no issue with characters who have religious beliefs provided they do not prove to be irrelevant to the plot and/or sanctimonious preaching.
Mercy fails on both counts.
In Moon Called (book 1), Mercy’s Christianity is understated and only briefly mentioned. It serviced to round out her character a little, as well as highlight the tension between some humans and the newly-outed fae. My only gripe with it at this point in the series was that it was completely irrelevant to the plot. It was especially irritating as it came in the midst of a seemingly endless chunk of exposition that had already told us, plainly, what the scene demonstrated.
The only thing worse than exposition is exposition that’s unnecessary because the author has successfully shown it.
It’s ‘show don’t tell’, not ‘show and tell’.
I was already pissed off by the amount of exposition in the story when we came to a church scene that compounded my frustration. But still, the only issue I had with it at this stage was that it served no function. The scene didn’t bother me because it was a ‘church scene’ but because it was a pointless scene.
By Blood Bound (book 2) it’s a very different situation. There are several random references to Mercy’s faith, including one really odd one in which she muses that it’s slightly sacrilegious to sit in a chair that pins your hands to the arms with thorns.
Even if we discount the obvious point that the thorns were worn atop Christ’s head when he was crucified, and the nails must have gone through his wrists, not his palms, or he would have fallen off the cross very quickly (I’m not being flippant here, this is a historical fact concerning the manner of crucifixion), it’s seriously out of place.
Mercy is in a vampire Seeth giving testimony concerning a sorcerer, if anything should be causing an issue with her faith it’s the nature of the world at large, not the furniture.
This is but one example of frequent references to Mercy’s faith throughout the novel, all of which are irrelevant to the plot, and many of which take the form of sanctimonious preaching. The core of the issue, however, is not truly that Mercy has faith, but that Patricia Briggs seems to delight in filling out her novels with endless passages concerning trivial nonsense that does nothing to further the plot or inform character.
Yes, it serves to provide details of the world, but most of them are already worked into the narrative by plot points, making it all pointlessly repetitive. It does nothing but bog the story down, which is a real shame because both the first and second book suffer terribly due to an extremely slow pace, and little meat in the plot.
I got the distinct impression that it was originally one book that was spilt, and both halves seriously padded out, to create two separate stories.
Older Than Her Years (And Not In A Good Way)
Mercy’s character in the first book was tedious, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, other than the fact she was supposedly the same age as me and yet read like a much older woman. The picture I got in my head of her was of a late middle aged woman, not a 32 year old. I’m 32 years old, and it just highlighted for me the extent to which Briggs misses the mark in the portrayal of a character of that age.
I’ve previously had trouble connecting to protagonists who are a lot younger than me – it’s one reason why I really dislike the majority of YA fiction; it needs to be incredibly well written to overcome this issue. The odd thing is, that was true even when I was a teenager, for the same reason we have here: author perceptions of how certain age groups think and act don’t always match reality.
Most teenagers are written in a very unrealistic way – entirely too immature, naive and stupid, and conforming to the ideals adults wish they had, but they seldom exhibit (like sexual abstinence and an avoidance of smoking, drugs, and swearing).
Mercy Thompson goes the opposite way.
She’s not a teenager, or a young adult. She’s in her 30s and thus should be in that awkward phase of life where she feels too old to be young but is still utterly perplexed by the adults of the world. Your 30s are all about railing against the fact you’re getting older and trying to hold onto your youth as long as possible, while simultaneously struggling to meet the responsibilities that come with true adulthood.
Mercy has the potential to be an interesting character in this regard, forced out into the world at a young age, forced to take on that responsibility too soon, shouldering it well and making her own way. She has her own business, left to her by her boss when he retired, and her own home, but the business doesn’t always turn a profit easily, and her home is what you’d expect a 32 year old to be able to afford when she’s struggling to make ends meet.
All of this is in the book, but her reaction to the whole situation of her life is not that of a 32 year old. The majority of my friends are in their 30s and none of them would act or think as Mercy frequently does throughout the book.
Honestly until it was specifically mentioned how old she was I assumed she was my mum’s age. And that didn’t bother me – I was able to connect to this middle-aged woman who had a lot to deal with and was down on her luck, far more than I could to a woman who was supposed to be my age and inexplicably acted like she was 30 years older.
It’s particularly disappointing since physical descriptions of her paint Mercy as a strong, sassy young woman with tattoos and an attitude.
That’s certainly how she’s depicted in the cover art, and presumably what she was intended to be, but when reading I didn’t feel like I was inside the head of a strong young woman.
The attitude and rebellion feels like it was pasted on with a few tattoos, it only runs skin deep. At heart, Mercy is a boring and predictable middle aged woman.
The age issue is especially prominent given how much of the story hinges on Mercy interaction with much older characters. Aside from the children and sporadic humans in the series, all the other characters are a lot older than Mercy, despite looking the same age, younger, or only slightly older.
It’s especially peculiar in that Samuel, one of the oldest werewolves, reads like a man who is genuinely 32 years old but has experienced an unusual amount of hardship in those years. His character background tells us he’s been married multiple times and lost many children, and that this is his motivation for his affections towards Mercy, but his actions and dialogue say very different things.
Had we not been told these things from his past, we never would have inferred them from his actions or anything he says how old he truly is. Even a conversation in Blood Bound concerning a woman he met while he was alone, who aborted his baby, reads like the broken recounting of a young man who would have loved to have a child, not the account of a man who has fathered many children and already lost all of them.
It’s always going to be difficult to write characters who have lived so much longer than the realistic human lifespan, because one really can’t know how such a person would think or act, but I’ve read a lot of stories involving characters who are hundreds if not thousands of years old, which have done a much better job of it.
The problem is only exacerbated by the contrast between Samuel and Mercy, who is written at the opposite end of the scale – like a woman much older than she is.
The Sexist Nature Of Briggs’ Wolf Society
There is clear sexism in werewolf society from the start, which Mercy comments on when it makes itself apparent and is clearly bothered by. The story explanation for this is the fact that werewolves are so long-lived and have yet to make it into the twenty-first century and fully embrace feminism, which makes perfect sense, except for the part where their werewolf culture and social structure is based entirely on wolf culture.
From the motivation for their behaviour to their instinctual desires and actions, to their rules, customs, and insane rigidity were dominance and subservience is concerned, everything the wolves do is dictated by wolves far more than it is humans.
In fact, their culture is wolf culture taken to extremes at the expense of all human logic.
If their culture is so informed by wolf culture that a person must lower themselves to the floor in order to ensure their head is always lower than that of a more dominant wolf, just because said dominant wolf is in a bad mood, it seems ridiculous to assume that their attitudes towards gender are governed by human customs at all.
Gender roles based on those of natural wolves would seem far more in keeping with the rules of the wolf society Briggs has created. Rules which are, incidentally, really grating.
It’s quite possible that part of the problem here is that I came to read these books years after the first ones were published. The notion of the ‘alpha wolf’ and the strict rules of dominance and subservience within a wolf pack were soundly debunked long ago. But I’m not certain that was the case when Briggs was writing. As such, I can’t fault her for basing werewolf culture of contemporary research concerning natural wolves and, once she’d created the world and its rules, she couldn’t easily change it.
In my more charitable moments, I feel that this odd discrepancy in a culture that is fully based on natural wolves and somehow also governed by human gender dynamics was her way of ensuring she had some room to manoeuvre within the rigid confines of what was believed to constitute a wolf pack at the time she was writing.
Because there was little room for alpha women.
Then I remember that it’s only 11 years since Moon Called was published and that I was fully aware of the issues in the whole ‘alpha wolf/dominance’ theory well over a decade ago, and was at that time already getting annoyed with books that had been published a few years earlier that were unaware the research had been debunked.
There’s an argument to be made that werewolves are partly human and thus governed by human concepts as much as wolf instincts, and as such might form packs based on this structure due to the same misinformation that caused the term ‘alpha’ to become so widespread.
My own personal belief is that, if a werewolf pack did exist, they would be governed by their instincts as well as their human logic, sensibilities and morals, and as such would understand the need for a clear chain of command, in much the same way that any organisation of warriors (and you can’t really argue that a person who is subject to the instincts of a wolf and spends a lot of time fighting isn’t a form of warrior) requires leadership and a clear chain of command.
In any group there are individuals who are strong, those who are weak, and those who fall somewhere in between. If your society depends on strength for survival and frequently fights other groups of the same species, it’s natural for the strongest in society to end up in the roles that require strength.
Ergo, the ‘alpha wolf’ concept is not an unreasonable hypothesis for a pack of werewolves given that you are coupling wolf instincts with human ideas.
But there is a big difference between accepting that each pack of werewolves would likely require a clear leader, and that this leader might well be called the ‘alpha’, and supposing that werewolves are predominantly ruled by their dominant/subservient instincts.
This is the problem I have with the world of Mercy Thompson.
Not that there are alphas. But that a ‘dominant’ wolf can only be ‘controlled’ by a more dominant wolf, and that in any situation two dominant wolves might become insanely aggressive towards each other simply because they are both dominant and in the same place.
Likewise, the notion that in order to calm a dominant wolf one must lie prostrate before them and bare one’s throat, despite being aware that they are a) temperamental, b) feeling aggressive, and c) physically stronger than you are.
That flies in the face of all human reasoning. Which means that such a group of wolves must be entirely governed by their ‘wolf instincts’, which for reasons that are unclear are greatly exaggerated compared to the instincts of an actual wolf.
Whichever way you slice it I can’t wrap my head around the notion that these werewolves could be subject to human concepts when it comes to things like gender roles.
Which means that wolf society in Mercy’s world is not ‘behind the times’ but simply misogynistic.
And that’s okay!
Really, it is.
Many societies and social groups are terribly misogynistic. That has been true throughout history and it’s still true today. You already have a situation in which Mercy is an outsider, a non-wolf among the wolf pack. She has an outsider’s perspective and an insider’s knowledge, as well as the affections of several key players in the werewolf community, including the uber-alpha wolf himself, his son, and the next most powerful alpha.
She’s in the perfect position to help them adapt to a different way of viewing gender by broadening their cultural understanding and giving them the perspective of a similar but unrelated race (skinwalkers).
Passing the buck and blaming outdated values for the misogyny at work in werewolf society is a serious cop-out, because it presupposes that werewolves have always aped human society but are never quite ‘with it’ due to their age.
This disregards the obvious fact that despite being long-lived, werewolves are frequently killed by their incessant fighting, meaning that the collective age of their society is not static.
While the wolves in positions of power may well be very old, the majority of their society will range in age from ancient to brand spanking new.
So how can all werewolves be antiquated in their thinking?
And if they are so behind the times, why are they only behind the times when it comes to this one thing?
Characters like Samuel clearly demonstrate that even the oldest stay up-to-date when it comes to their profession, expose themselves to new ideas, learn new skills, and adapt. One of the key plot points of the whole series is that werewolves and other supernatural creatures are having to reveal themselves to humanity for the first time due to modern technology.
They are not incapable of adapting to changing times, and it is in fact the oldest among them who are keen for that change, and the younger wolves who are resistant to ‘coming out’.
All of this produces an inconsistent view of werewolf society that leaves us with the impression that they are misogynists either because Briggs didn’t fully think through the implications blaming it on their age, or (and I think this is the more likely option) because she wanted to depict a culture that required Mercy to be submissive, and a status quo she could profess to want to change while simultaneously indulging in it.
Couple this with the insane extremes to which the dominance/subservience is taken in werewolf culture, and the insistence on detailing religious elements that go nowhere and are totally irrelevant to the plot or (to a very large extent) characterisation, and what is left is the impression of religious guilt over a fetish for BDSM and a whole world that was created to allow one to indulge in a naughty pastime while simultaneously professing to be a champion of feminism.
Which is particularly ridiculous when you realise that BDSM and feminism are in no way mutually exclusive and it’s perfectly possible to write a feminist world and main character who enjoys being dominated without turning it into a bizarre and uncomfortable exercise in misogyny and religious guilt.
Needless to say I won’t be reading any more of the Mercy Thompson books, if you need me I’ll be re-reading Kelly Armstrong and Ilona Andrews (again)…
For those of you interested, the original research on wolf pack hierarchies was carried out in the 1940s by a guy called Rudolph Schenkel, who was observing a pack of unrelated wolves in captivity. More modern research has determined that there are key differences in the behaviour of packs who are blood-related and those comprised of unrelated wolves forced to form a pack due to captivity. The latter can be observed to display clear roles when it comes to dominance and subservience, with ‘alpha’ wolves acting as leaders of the pack. This is where the term comes from, and it has since passed into colloquial use as a term for the leader of a group – any group, not necessarily wolves. It regularly crops up in werewolf stories due to the prevalence of the notion and the fact that it is only relatively recently that it has been disproved.