Title: Skinwalker
Author: Faith Hunter
Genre: Action, Adventure, Mystery, Urban Fantasy
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ || 1.0 star

Jane Yellowrock doesn’t remember anything about her life. She was twelve when she walked naked out of the forest with no recollection of her past beyond the fact that she’s a Skinwalker. Years later, she’s become an accomplished vampire hunter contracted to come to New Orleans––to work for vampires. New Orleans has been plagued by a rogue vampire, who aside from attacking humans, has also been turning on his own. And though Jane heads to Louisiana determined to claim a kill that will put her on the map, what she ends up finding may be more than she bargained for.

major spoilers

I’d give this zero stars, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I really liked this book. Not liked, perhaps. Enjoyed. The pacing was snappy and lean, leaving very little time for extraneous fluff. The world felt very lived in in a way few novels do, and the New Orleans setting felt alive with energy, even when being threatened by a rogue vampire. The plot was interesting, the mystery element keeping on edge. Jane was a compelling protagonist; she’s a pragmatist and a self-interested one at that, but even though she demonstrated a lot of the same qualities that sour me to other protagonists (an “I’m not Like The Other Girls” attitude, pheromones so strong apparently that every man and woman in New Orleans wants to bang her, an insistence on her straightness that a) makes me doubt that assertion b) was so unnecessary, etc.), I still rooted for her.

I can’t root for this novel, though.

From a cursory Google search, it seems that Skinwalkers are a primarily Southwestern Native (and specifically a Navajo) creature, so the choice to make Jane Cherokee strikes me as a bit odd, even though the author seems to have done her research not only into stories of the Skinwalkers, but also into the structure of Cherokee society. This, of course, may simply be because I’m not indigenous, nor am I familiar with the lore, so I’ll just leave this here for other, more knowledgeable people to assess.

But even if I wasn’t bothered by that, there is a litany of microaggressions within the text of the narrative itself that really pissed me off. First: the only Black people (in New Orleans!) who exist in any significant way in the text play secondary roles to even secondary characters. Antoine is a cook who plays second fiddle to one of the side characters, Rick. Miz A is a servant in a vampiric household. Both these characters occupy the role of servant, and they are both the victims of disproportionately violent fates: Antoine is killed as collateral damage (so that not even his death belongs to him), while Miz A is attacked by the rogue vampire. She is asked after once and never mentioned again.

A South Asian sex worker is described as “look[ing] twelve” (thanks for the infantilism, like we really fucking needed that?), a tattoo is described as “Oriental,” while Jane describes herself as having “golden brown skin and…[a] sharp American Indian nose.” Hello essentialism. She’s also called an “Inj*n princess,” and while I assume this was meant to be an example of in-universe racism, it’s neither commented on or called out as racism; Jane simply takes it in stride (it’s also worth noting that the character who calls her that is portrayed as sympathetic).

If none of this is bad enough, the question of Jane’s past and the role that other Cherokee people play within the narrative is truly the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Jane says she was raised at a Christian children’s school, and she herself seems to be a lapsed Christian, which is honestly highly disturbing given the history of boarding schools vis-a-vis the indigenous community in America. She makes mention of the fact that she was teased by the white girls for not being able to speak English, but nothing is made of the fact that she is a Cherokee girl who is assimilated into Christianity at a boarding school. Boarding schools, one of the major sites of Native genocide in America. Nothing is made of this. Nothing.

It’s one thing if the author makes at least some semblance of commentary about Jane having been raised at what essentially amounts to a boarding school, but it and her Christianity, her guilt over not going to church more, her attachment to her Bible are presented so uncritically, as if audiences are simply expected to take it into stride. And doubtless there are Indigenous Americans who are Christian, who go to boarding schools, and it’s not a denial of their heritage or their validity, but to have the implications of what this means skated over, especially given what we later learn of Jane’s history, felt negligent at best.

Further, the only community Jane gets in the novel are two elders who live in a home with a sweathouse (which Jane initially labels as a sweat lodge; I am unsure if there are any differences between the two terms), which again from a quick Google search is not a Cherokee tradition. The women who live there are humans, but they are more sensitive to the supernatural than most, and I don’t think I have to explain why that’s an offensive stereotype.

The fourth Cherokee man in the novel is the rogue vampire, who, as it turns out, is a Skinwalker. Or a liver-eater, one who steals the souls and the forms of other people. He’s a poorly developed character with very little in the way of motivation or, god, even individuality. He’s only ever referred to as the other Skinwalker, or the liver-eater, or the other Cherokee; no name, no history, no personhood is afforded to him. The explanation given for his attacks is that he wanted to gain control of the New Orleans vampire community through the body of the son of one of the most powerful vampires. This is an utterly unsatisfactory explanation given that we are given little to no firsthand evidence of his desire, of his character, of his history, and of his decision to use dark magic to achieve his goals. Further, it carries the implication that a brown man (specifically an indigenous man) is scheming to take from white people (and vampires are specifically coded as white) what belongs to the latter.

Further, his capture and death do not at all feel earned. Though Jane spends the majority of the novel tracking him, she does not come to his identity or his status as a liver-eater herself; rather, she is straight out told by one of the vampires under his control. And because of this, Jane, though she’s established to be a good fighter and a good tracker, does not come across as a good detective. The mystery element of the novel, then, which was at first so compelling, falls flat.

So we have a novel that, despite its exciting pacing and riveting plot, repeatedly conflates Cherokee traditions with those of other indigenous Americans’, is consistently microaggressive towards its characters of colour, including its main character, casting them in the molds of stereotype. It chronically underserves the people from whom it takes the majority of its mythology and its novelty.

In the spirit of honesty, I did enjoy parts of this. I enjoyed the way that the vampires were integrated into the fabric of the novel, and the characters are compelling enough to make me curious about what their next adventures will be. However, I simply cannot recommend the Jane Yellowrock series to anyone.

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