“Gretchen and the Bear” A Botched Experiment in Genre

Where science fiction and fantasy meet, there is an estuary of richness to be had––whether it’s industry making waves in a world of magic (The Legend of Korra, Shadow and Bone), sorcery that works like science (Trial by Fire), or vice versa (Crewel), these genres aren’t quite as at odds as it would initially seem––in fact, they pair quite well.

The premise of Gretchen and the Bear, the third novel by Carrie Anne Noble, holds such allure for this very reason. Set in the far future, it depicts an Earth reclaimed by faerie kind, where warnings about the dangers of faerie food are transmitted across futuristic comms and our protagonist, Gretchen, arrives in a woodland realm pulled straight from Arthuriana by airship.

Gretchen is in these woods because she has to find her sister, who set off from the colony months ago and has since dropped off the face of the Earth. As soon as the airlock lifts, however, and the latent magic in these parts starts messing with Gretchen’s tech, we enter a paradigm where this setup becomes entirely irrelevant, and, save for the dates under chapter headings, we might as well not have bothered to step into the future in the first place.

If the slight sci-fi angle were just a brief interlude before we stepped through the portal, that would be fine (albeit a sad spate of missed opportunities), but Noble moves like she’s going to set the rest of the book on faerie lands, only to pull a midpoint reversal and catapult us back into the future. Though the first half is shallowly archetypal, undeveloped, and suspenseless, this pivot, while ostensibly the right move in fulfilling the book’s early promises, is what ultimately puts it on the rocks.

For one thing, it’s clear from Noble’s debut, the charming and vulnerable The Mermaid’s Sister, that her style doesn’t aim for extensive worldbuilding, instead opting to play with the known in a way that focuses on the characters. We can see her doing this when she crafts the world of the faeries, using familiar tropes and existing mythological creatures to get the reader up to speed quickly. Even the book’s central conceit, faeries who can shift into bears at will, known as Bearfolk, is a familiar fantasy idea.

This makes a world of magic easy to step into, even welcoming, but when it comes to crafting a futuristic society…no dice. The colony where Gretchen comes from is familiar in the same way that the fae are familiar, but here, that approach utterly backfires, as Noble gives us a distant future that is at best a bland imitation of the recent past. Our characters live recognizably contemporary lives, with similar priorities, and our best hope of a villain is a one-note conniving politician who, by the way, is up for re-election in the most generic, unimaginative sense of the concept. Where unicorns, gryphons, and giants can get you where you need to go in terms of small scale, fairy-tale fantasy, the same cannot be said for wrist comms, scanning devices, and airships in service of sci-fi.

What’s more, the sci-fi second half and its first-half fantasy counterpart share in woefully mismanaging the stakes at hand. The promise at the beginning is that Gretchen will find her sister and return to the colony with her in tow, but the plot veers drastically off-course rather early on, and as a result, Gretchen and the Bear feels aimless, whatever could’ve been gained by its restlessness lost in its lack of direction.

It’s obvious that the forbidden romance between Gretchen and Arthur, one of the Bearfolk, is the heart of the book, but that doesn’t then relieve it of the need to follow through on everything happening upstage: Gretchen’s initial goal of rescuing her sister is resolved flippantly and hastily, a prophecy introduced early on meets much the same fate, and the makings of the novel’s climax exist only in mentions until we meet them too late to truly get invested.

These plot weaknesses don’t exist in isolation; in fact, they work to weaken the central romance. If the obstacles keeping our lovers apart are flimsy, their motivations are the very same. If their respective repressive societies are weakly built, the taboo that’s supposed to cause them angst never comes off as more than a minor annoyance. If not enough attention is given to them as individuals within their respective worlds, they amount to nothing together.

All of this is, of course, is why it’s generally a better bet to stay a steady course instead of hopping from one book, effectively, to another between the covers of a single novel. There is one reason, though, why a setting should be so neatly split between one half and the next, with two complete B-plots unfolding one after another, and if Gretchen and the Bear had happened to have it, there’s a good chance it would’ve fared better: a structure like this only works effectively as a study of character.

With that central uniting thread, the attributes of one world become the foils of another, both of them working at the main character’s heart, the central question being which one she’ll choose.

There’s a historical fiction example of this in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, but in a work looking to straddle genres like Gretchen and the Bear is, the possibilities are endless, and the missed opportunities are a bitter disappointment. If you’re going to put a girl of the far future in relief against the mythology of the distant past, why not do something with her relationship to modernity? Why have her chafe against her life in the colony in only the most superficial ways? Why not offer deeper flaws to the fae world to complicate her obvious choice?

Because Gretchen and the Bear‘s problems, though numerous, all amount to this: in the face of an underdeveloped pair of settings, the central dramatic question evaporates. The romance loses its significance. Whatever choice there could’ve been between these two worlds, is rendered, in the end, not much of a choice at all.

“Instant Karma” An Instantly Charming Summer Romance

Marissa Meyer’s prolific collection of gallivanting sci-fi (Cinder, Renegades) makes a contemporary set in a tiny coastal town a surprising choice, but her disarming use of character and a witty but completely sincere approach to writing it make the genre a natural fit for a writer whose domain is normally superheroes and spaceships.

Meyer’s lead is the pitch-perfect Prudence Barnett, who never lets an assignment fall to the wayside––even if her lab partner, the clubbable yet chronically tardy Quint Erickson, is more than happy to brush it off. Prudence, as a character, is definitely an extreme, and if you’re iffy about dialing up a character’s high-strung tendencies to comedic effect, she might read to you as disingenuous, but her habitual captiousness and teeth-grinding is tied with strong sinews to the heart of her character, and even when it’s transparently impossible to take her side, her insecurities have real substance, alongside the hilarious misunderstandings they set in motion.

Prudence realizing the virtue of giving others the benefit of the doubt is definitely a revelation the reader can see coming, but Meyer’s character development, as well as being self-aware, is also generous. Prudence doesn’t “loosen up” by the end in a way that condemns her. Rather, she gets to be thoughtful and particular; flexible and confident. Meyer recognizes and pokes fun at her foibles without ever being genuinely mean-spirited about it, and that makes all the difference.

Also, to bolster this widening of horizons, Meyer includes some environmental themes, with her characters working at a marine mammal rescue center. She misses a couple chances to give us more––a vegan character picks a fight over some leather boots, for example, and we hear nothing of the pitfalls of pleather––but on the whole, she does justice to the difficult tightrope of being an ordinary person and trying not to cause the environment harm.

Where the book fumbles is in the third act, when Meyer shrinks a potential conflict so small its narrative powers are almost completely foiled. In the rush to get the pair together and all the ducks in a row, Instant Karma loses the chance to burn a bridge and pay page service to the fallout. The result is a quick fix to a deep rift that comes way too easy. The book falters where it should be fixed on affirming itself, shying away from consequence where it should ultimately matter most. Its enthusiasm and earnestness carry it through, but the awkward twist and its snappy resolution are out of place in a work that otherwise embraces complexity. The ending still satisfies, in other words––but not as much as it could.

Instant Karma is worth it for the romance alone, though: Meyer mastered the banter-y, opposites-attract dynamic in The Lunar Chronicles, and wields it with joyful precision here, to graceful effect. That, and the sheer unabashed nerdiness that sings from the page whenever her characters discuss music or sea animals, and this book is a surefire winner for anyone in search of something sunny. By those standards, Instant Karma is radiant.

This review was first posted earlier this year on Goodreads.