I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it so badly. When it was handed to me as my first project for the book department, I was ecstatic. As my first book review for the Hub, I’m furious that I can’t give a great, positive review for a novella that I enjoyed and could recommend. If I told you I enjoyed this, I’d be lying straight to your face. So here we go. My first book review for TheRainbowHub, Natural Order by Moondancer Drake.
The summary of the book is as follows:
An evening at the movies turns into a living nightmare for Elizabeth Crew as her lover Dusty battles for their lives and the unborn baby Elizabeth is carrying. Dusty’s dying request is that Elizabeth go live with Dusty’s family, where she and the baby will be safe. Dusty’s family takes Elizabeth into their home with open arms and a bit of concern. What will happen if Elizabeth learns that her new family includes shape-shifters? For Elizabeth, the family secrets are not all that awaits her in the darkness.
I was so ready for this paranormal lesbian fiction. I need more lesbian fiction in my life, paranormal or otherwise. But that’s not what I got here. What I got was a book that dragged me through its story, hands lashed together and following the caravan until I could no longer stand. If I had a physical copy of this book I would have launched it across the room in frustration multiple times. I was hyped and then disappointed so badly that I’m actually upset that this book is the first in a series.
I could continue with metaphors explaining my distress, but that’s not going to tell you anything other than I’m a jaded, cynical jerk. So, here are some points that properly show why Natural Order is not a book that should be added to your library.
The Prose: It’s stiff and description heavy. Not in the good way. It’s cool to get a lot of detail in a story so that your mind’s eye can form the pictures the author is trying to portray. But the readers don’t need to know about every single mundane task the main character does. Readers don’t need to know what Beth is wearing every single time she gets dressed, or what that one really ornate teapot looks like, or every single turn that takes place during a family board-game. The entire story is swamped with so many meaningless details that the plot is almost nonexistent between them. Everything feels flat and sluggish and I found my eyes glazing over multiple times, my brain refusing to process the downpour of information that does nothing to further the plot.
The characters: They’re forgettable. Our main character, Beth, has little to no personality besides her distrust of alternative remedies, her love for Dusty, and her pregnancy. Dusty dies in the first chapter, so we don’t get to know her. The impact of her death on the writer has to be felt through Beth’s experience, and Beth’s poorly written depression makes her grief seem flat. The grief of Dusty’s family is no better, as they barely mention her outside of her relationship to Beth. There’s little to no mourning other than Beth’s eyes misting up literally every other paragraph (which gets annoying instead of portraying how sad she is). If Drake didn’t give us the names of the characters, everyone could just be a cardboard cutout with a smiley face drawn on them for all the reader knows – there’s almost no deviation in personality between any of them. Orion is kind and gentle, okay, but so is Bardo. And Greer. And Mitexi. And Vesta. And literally everyone else except for the terribly obvious bad guys.
The Dialogue: Probably the most painful part of the book, to be honest. The characters don’t speak like normal people, and everyone has the inflection of a robot. Greer, the Irish matriarch in the house, only has a phonetically written accent half of the time. Literally every time food is mentioned, someone expositions the crap out of Beth. Take a look at this:
“ Beth came downstairs after she’d washed up and changed into a set of blue sweats. There was a plate of food and a mug of tea sitting on a table. She curled up in a comfy corner of the couch, her feet tucked under her, and set the plate on her lap.
“Fish? I don’t know, Bardo. I was reading in a DNR report at work today that the fish in this area have high PCBs. With those fishcakes I had for lunch, I should be careful how much more fish I eat. Bad for the baby.”
“The fishcakes were made of salmon given to us by a friend in Montana who lives in an area where no industrialization has access to the water source. That there,” he said, nodding at her plate, “is perch from a man-made lake on our property and should be perfectly safe to eat.” Bardo smiled in a way that told her he’d taken no offense, but that he was looking after her completely.”
Who talks like that? This happens literally every time Beth asks about food. It’s almost preaching environmentalism, which is something that can be done in a paranormal lesbian fiction surrounding the Oneida culture without ripping the reader out of the story.
Also, everyone seems to have weird insight where they shouldn’t. There’s one part where Marc tells his mother, Isha, that Beth is pregnant. At less than 15 weeks at the time, she’s probably not showing much, and she definitely didn’t tell him that. So how did he know? Well, he noticed that she had bags from the maternity stores in the mall and she was being protective of her stomach – as in, she wasn’t squishing her stomach against the table she was sitting at. Now, not only is this an absolutely ridiculous thing for Marc to notice, but it’s even more ridiculous when you realize that Marc is twelve years old. No twelve year old is that dedicated to observing a woman he (creepily, might I add) wants to set up with his mother.
The race: As a black person, you’ll never hear me complain about diversity in fiction. Except here. It feels forced. Beth is a black woman adopted by a white couple. Dusty’s family is a mix of Oneida and Irish. The love interest, Isha, is Indian. Side characters are a hodge-podge of different skin tones. I know there’s no reason for diversity, but it really seems like Drake was trying to put as many different races/ethnicities into the book as possible, so it makes each and every one of them seem tokenized. What really got me was that there’s almost no mention of Beth’s experiences being the only black person growing up in a rich white neighborhood. There’s one sentence dedicated to the racism she experienced, so it seems like Drake didn’t do any of her homework when it comes to trans-racial adoptions. That, and the fact that Beth is referred to as a “Nubian Goddess” multiple times throughout the story makes me extremely uncomfortable.
The spirituality: The characters so often talk about their faith and their beliefs that it’s obviously supposed to be an important part of the story, but Drake never explains that in detail. There’s some mention of Norse Gods, some mention of Iroquois beliefs, some mention of their “Goddess”, but no solid explanation about the things they believe. There’s a long ass origin story, but that doesn’t tell us much besides “Where we came from”. On top of that, there’s some weirdly anti-Christian messages, and I’m not particularly sensitive to anti-Christian sentiments so they’ve got to be extreme. The bad guys (The Imperium. Yes. Really.) hide under the Christian banner and go around murdering ShapeShifters indiscriminately. One of the members literally goes around preaching the scripture at people, copy-and-paste. I’m all for bad guys and the misuse of religion in fiction but it seems so forced that it’s laughable.
The romance: Or, should I say, the lack thereof. Like I mentioned, Dusty dies within the first chapter. The romance is over before it begins. We get the implication that they loved each other very much, enough to raise a child together, but without any flashbacks or chapters with Dusty before her death, there isn’t anything for the reader to hold onto. The new love interest, Isha, comes in somewhere around the middle of the story and spends to first scene starting at Beth awkwardly – later exposition tells the reader she was literally just imagining groping Beth’s breasts. So romantic. Every interaction with Beth and Isha after that is either an awkward distance-keeping dance or outright sexual assault. Maybe it’s just because I’m Asexual, but meeting a woman at her stall in the market and having her basically feel me up the second time we’ve seen each other doesn’t seem romantic at all. It seems creepy. Also, the weird fetishization of Beth’s pregnancy. Extreme discomfort. Oh, and Dusty comes back as a spirit to tell Beth that she can move on and date Isha. That’s very run-of-the-mill and attempts to nix any emotional conflict before it even starts.
The plot: There’s something to say about this book when I was tallying the points I wanted to bring up and realized I’d missed one. The missing point was, in fact, the plot. Because there isn’t one. Maybe it picks up in the second book, but that’s no excuse – if you don’t capture a reader by the first book, then why would they want to pick up its sequel? By the summary, I thought I was in for a story of personal exploration, Beth overcoming her grief and learning that it’s okay to move on and love again. What I got was all of the above points. There is no romance. The action sequences (with the exception of the first one, in which Dusty is fighting for her life) are boring and uninteresting. When the plot finally does show up, 4/5ths of the way into the book, it’s rushed and handled poorly. The big reveal (surprise our family is comprised of ShapeShifters!) is done in a way even worse than the infamous “I know what you are.” “Say it, out loud.” “A Vampire.” Then Beth asks for the history of their people and there’s five bloody pages of exposition, which immediately destroys the importance of Beth finally learning the big secret. A big secret which, by the way, was so poorly revealed to the reader that it’s not even an interesting secret. And then Beth just….accepts it. Sure, she just went through a terribly traumatic experience, almost lost her unborn child, and learned that her family can turn into animals at will – but she reacts like someone just told her that her bagel bites were finished cooking. The lack of impact on the main character means a lack of impact on the reader.
The most frustrating part of this book is how much potential it had. I was fired up for this book. I was ready to chew through it in a day or two. Instead, I struggled through a muck of mundane and disinterest. Oneida culture and ShapeShifters and sisterhood and lesbian love! We could have had it all. Instead I got nothing but three days of frustration and having to relive that while writing this. There were sparks of interest here and there (the phrase “I can take out two perps with one zipstrip” made me chortle), but not enough to save the novel. Any brilliant idea or plot device or character that could have been in Natural Order was smothered by the awful prose, the flat characters, and the nonexistent plot.
The Final Verdict: No. It’s not worth it. Don’t read it. Love yourself.