Tantalize – Kieren’s Story
By Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrated by Ming Doyle
Candlewick / Walker
“As a hybrid werewolf, Kieren is destined to join an urban Wolf pack and learn to master his shift. Soon he’ll leave everything behind: home, school, his family, and Quincie, his human best friend … who’s beginning to be a whole lot more than a friend. For years, Kieren has managed to keep his desires – and his wolf – at bay. But when the chef at Quincie’s family restaurant is brutally murdered, Kieren resolves to be there for her, even if it means being framed or watching Quincie’s beloved restaurant morph into a vampire lair. But when the new chef begins wooing her, how long can Kieren control his claws? How long can he protect Quincie – and himself? In an elegant graphic edition featuring cinematic sequential art and lush, romantic cover art, best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith re-envisions her delicious dark fantasy through wolfish eyes.”
Part of me wanted to dislike this from the start; a teenage gothic graphic novel with vampires, werewolves and simpering girls falling for them. It had the unmistakable stink of Twilight about it, just look at the cover – with the moody, ripped hotbody wolfboy and the pouting, sallow girl behind – oh yes, this had hormonal teen-friendly lust written all over it.
Which may well be why I naturally recoil from this sort of thing – I’m just too old. But how many intelligent, literate young women do you know who absolutely devour every book? There’s something there definitely, it’s no good just dismissing it. So attempting to adopt the persona of a 17 year old girl, I set about to read it. And it’s nowhere as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, there are huge failings with both story and art that snowball as the story races to a conclusion. But if I was a Twilight loving teen, I think I’d be pretty happy with what I just read.
The press blurb at the top really does tell you most of what you’ll need to know with the basic story. But possibly the most important part is the “Cynthia Leitich Smith re-envisions her delicious dark fantasy through wolfish eyes” part. It turns out that Tantalize: Kieron’s Story, despite having the identical cover to the original prose and putting the all important “Kieren’s Story” in very small type, is not a simple adaptation, but a look at the original story from another point of view:
(Tantalize page 1, introductions and interesting (but subsequently unexplored) ideas abound. From Tantalize by Leitich Smith and Doyle)
In the original Tantalize centres on “orphaned .. fiercely independent Quincie” and her troubles with her hybrid werewolf boyfriend and her new vampire themed restaurant. But here in Kieren’s Story, the focus switches to hybrid-werewolf boyfriend Kieren struggling to cope with his life, his attraction to Quincie, and the very real threat that she’s invited into her family’s restaurant. It’s a nice changeup, but whilst the concept might be good, the execution leaves something to be desired.
Lets start with the plot – everything is telegraphed, characters almost having their roles pinned to their lapels as handy “first day at school” badges. But to the majority of readers that’s a complete non-issue. I’m sure Candlewick and Walker hope and expect this to sell well to the target audience, and most of that audience will already know the story in Tantalize already. This really is simply selling another version to the existing fans.
So when we begin to explore the burgeoning sexual attraction between Kieren and Quincie, when her new chef turns out to be something very nasty, threatening to both Kieren and Quincie, when Quincie begins to change, turning away from Kieron, a new sensuality enveloping her, almost as if the chef in the vampire themed restaurant was actually a …….. yes, you can see it coming a mile away.
But like I say, for the intended readership, I don’t think that mattters one bit. Will Kieren manage to rescue Quincie in time? Will it all end in tears and blood? Will love find a way? Well, really, knowing it’s a classic Twilight-esque gothic teen romance – what do you think?
(The three elements – obvious bad guy, smouldering close-up of dangerous leading man, and a love that should not be. From Tantalize by Leitich Smith and Doyle.)
So I can excuse (if not forgive) the story for being predictable since it’s already preaching to the choir, but I can’t excuse some terrible pacing in the book. It starts out well; the chaste but steamy, will they, wont they of Kieren and Quincie playing out in a flurry of stereotypes alongside the developing mystery of the recent series of violent attacks and murders in the neighbourhood.
But about two-thirds through everything steps up a gear, and not in a good way. Rushed, and cluttered, the end is just a series of moments as the characters go from A to B to C, hurriedly explaining everything as they do. The early promise is ditched and it ends as you’ve been expecting all along, just at double the speed it needed to.
The thing is, there’s enough interesting little twists here to potentially raise it above the standard. But these elements are skated over, with Leitich Smith just barrelling along with her key plot points. I’d have enjoyed finding out about the society they live in; where humans, werepeople and vampires have been coexisting for many years, tolerating each other but with distrust and prejudice everywhere. But instead there’s more on the nature of the were-things than the world they live in. On which note ….it was quirky and interesting at first having the possibility of multiple creatures to think of – were-wolves, were-cats, were-bears were-vultures, and on and on… but when it gets to were-possums and were-armadillos then we’re just getting silly.
Granted there’s one magnificent bit of comedy playing off the idea of a were-possum and were-armadillo being caught casing Quincie’s house as a favour to Kieron, but that one moment does sit very awkwardly against the very serious, adolescent angst everywhere else in the story:
(Well, what would a shocked were-possum do? It’s a great visual gag, and lovely timing. But it sticks out like a sore thumb in the hyper-serious, angst ridden world of teens in Tantalize)
Ming Doyle is a debutant artist, and it shows. She’s good, and at points she’s actualy very good, with touches of an early David Lapham about her faces. And she’s very good at faces, which is handy, because there’s an awful lot of closeup work in Tantalize, which may be a writer’s decision, or it may be to disguise the weaker side of Doyle’s work. In trying for a cinematic feel she’s over-reaching, as she’s not really good enough yet to pull it off, and sometimes her panel compositions, even her basic perspective goes a bit haywire. Going in close to faces hides this, but it does make it all the more obvious when she pulls away for the long shots.
But more importantly, just like the story, the art at the end looks very rushed, and there’s a noticeable drop in the quality. Like I said, she’s good, but she’s not up to this mammoth job, not yet, not so early on.
The temptation for publishers to adapt and “re-envision” existing, and popular works must be huge, the promise of a bonus payday alluring. But the comic and the book are not the same thing, and any adaptation has to exist and work on its own. Perhaps Leitich Smith could have been better served by working with a comic writer on this. The success of those Alex Rider graphic novels being an obvious example – Anthony Horowitz’s story, adapted by comic writer Antony Johnston is a huge hit in school, but through my imaginary teen girl filter, this sort-of adaptation can only be something the most hardcore fan of Tantalize will love. For everyone else, I fear the early promise will be lost in the failings of the book as a whole.
Tantalize: Kieren’s Story is published by Walker Books on 6th October.