This is a really tough review to grade, because on one hand, I enjoyed the absolute heck out of this book. I highlighted so much I left horizontal marks on my reader screen. I laughed aloud so many times, twice loud enough to startle the dogs. I ran around the first floor delighted that I had gotten a sly reference to the Crows series, ridiculously proud of myself. I took pictures of my reader screen and sent them to people, explaining how Shelly Laurenston was for certain trolling me with this book, and that I loved every second of the torture. I emailed quotes and texted pictures of funny moments to a bunch of people.
Here’s an example, from Max’s point of view, which has since been highlighted by a few more people in my copy:
She needed loyal friends more than she needed another dick attached to some idiot man. She could get dick anywhere, but someone who always had your back? That was like gold.
I could make that a cross stitch pattern, I bet.
Seriously. I had the best time reading this story, and flying through all the chaos with the characters. It was an incredible amount of giddy, zany fun.
On the other hand, as a romance, it’s not as strong. There is so much plot and so many characters that the romance progresses like a game of hopscotch where you have to jump from square 1 to 4 and then to 12. A lot of the courtship or even emotional questioning was over before it started. There was one moment where I think the hero and I both were like, “Wait, this is a relationship now? Really? Oh. Okay.” And because there was so much going on with so many people (SO MANY) the internal conflict and the elements of the character development I most wanted were less present than the many (many) forces working against the heroine(s).
And yet, I have a big goofy smile on my face when I talk about this book. I read it in a day and a half. I skipped out on a few things to go read instead. Basically, though I can see the flaws of the romance, and trying to explain the plot would take about a half an hour, this story was incredibly fun for me.
The first Honey Badger book, Hot and Badgered, introduces the three Honey Badger sisters, Charlie, Max, and Stevie. You can see our dreamcast of the series, if you’d like – and if there can be a Game of Thrones series, there should absolutely be a series based on this series, or the Crows, or both.
Charlie and Berg meet and fall in love in the first one, and this one is Stevie’s story. She’s a child prodigy, and a musical and scientific genius, world famous and scary levels of smart. She’s also a tiger/honey badger shifter, and her shifted form is kept a secret from most other shifters because she’s a massive, dangerous, terrifying hybrid, and she has little control over herself when she’s shifted. Moreover, Stevie has considerable problems with anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, and takes carefully monitored medication to try to prevent herself from panicking, shifting, and causing a few million dollars in damage. It happens.
Shen Li is a panda shifter. Of course if there’s going to be a terrifyingly massive predator shifter, her perfect match is a happy, laid back, bamboo-munching panda who is also deadly in his own right. When he needs to be. But probably not right now.
He’s hired to protect Kyle, a secondary character (also a child prodigy and art genius, and generally insufferably pompous – many of the side characters are) but Shen ends up also protecting Stevie, sometimes from outsiders, sometimes from herself.
There are a number of things I adored about the way this story is constructed. For one, Stevie’s mental illnesses are treated as a part of her, as is her shifter side. But while she would very much like to divest herself of her dangerous, deadly shifter side, over which she has no control, she cannot do so. She’s more understanding and accepting of her panic and anxiety than she is of her identity as a shifter.
Shen and the other characters encourage Stevie in different ways to accept every part of herself, including the shifter part. And in addition, there are several scenes wherein Stevie and her sister seek out counseling, medication, and mental help for their respective problems in a matter of fact way, and I deeply appreciated those scenes as I read them.
There are a few moments wherein Shen talks to Stevie about accepting and integrating every aspect of herself, and how he maintains his own happiness. Part of his contentment is his acceptance of who he is, and his ability to enjoy the moment he’s in (especially if he has a duffel bag of bamboo – the chewing of which drives the other shifters nuts). He is a mellow, integrated whole. He is also a mighty contrast with Stevie, who is deeply empathetic and caring and creative on her human side, and a massive, indifferent predator on the other. They’re an interesting couple.
This scene is an example of Shen and Stevie’s contrasting personalities:
“Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if you didn’t shift?”
“No, because I know what it would be like. It would be miserable.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Nothing is more awesome to me than” – he leaned in and lowered his voice – “shifting and hanging from a tree limb, in the sunshine…or snow and just being me. Oh!” he suddenly added. “Even better, getting a big ball, wrapping myself around it, and just rolling around a yard.”
“It’s the best. What do you like to do when you are…” He glanced around, saw the full-humans and vaguely finished, “…your other self?”
Stevie gazed at the panda for several seconds before she admitted, “…Human toys are the best because they kind of fight back. And the screaming weirdly entertains me.”
“I get that. But that’s a typical predator thing.”
“I guess…. What if, with medication, I could stop shifting…forever?”
Shen, and pretty much everyone else, think this is a terrible idea, and unlikely to be possible, no matter what Stevie’s science brain thinks. But the theme pops up a few more times: why is Stevie so accepting of her genius brain, her intellect, and her mental illnesses, but not accepting of her shifter side? What if she could accept and appreciate all of them?
Another moment I could cross stitch and frame, this one from Charlie talking to Stevie:
Gaining control of something is not the same as eliminating it forever.
The mental health aspects and the contrast between Shen and Stevie eventually fade to the background as Every Problem And There Are So Many take over the plot. As the story got going (and whoa, does it go) the scenes get shorter, the point of view switches faster, and it’s difficult to stop reading. There is a lot going on, and a lot of individuals who Stevie, Max, and Charlie have to deal with, either by manipulation, reason, or ass kicking. Their father is the most hated man in their family, and most of the extended honey badger clan haven’t had much to do with the three of them. They consider themselves on their own, and watching the three of them learn that they have allies with Berg and his siblings, then the larger clan of bears, and then the different parts of their honey badger family, is lovely fun. There’s missing money, a massive family funeral with warring factions within their extended relatives, a problem involving science, another involving ballet, plus soccer, and if I keep going there will be too many words.
Also an important spoiler.
One of the sisters’ terrible cousins attacks Stevie, and when she’s cornered, horrible cousin shoots one of Berg’s dogs. The dog is fine, I promise! The dog is okay!
And I hope horrible cousin is absolutely decimated very slowly in the next book.
Stevie and her sisters have to solve problems between them, some problems about them, and solve problems around them. So Stevie’s romance isn’t much of a problem besides Shen kind of grumping about how everyone has decided he’s in a relationship and he hasn’t decided, except he kind of has because like he accepts himself, he accepts how he feels about Stevie pretty easily. Romantic tension, there is not much. Sexual tension, slightly more. Narrative tension, oh, boy: strap in and don’t drink too much caffeine while you read this.
The part I wanted more of, and the part that I’m thinking most about as I write this, is the attention paid to the tension between Stevie, who as a human cares a lot, very much, about everything and everyone to the point that it makes her extremely anxious, and her shifter side, which, as half a honey badger, doesn’t give a shit about anything. Then there’s Shen, who fully accepts himself, and is a very happy, mellow panda shifter. I was a little jealous of his equanimity. There’s a lot to explore in the differences between their personalities.
Usually, when I read a Laurenston book, beneath the camp, and the over the top plot, and the characters who chew each other and the scenery, there are always questions I end up asking myself. Who are my sister crows? What am I giving a shit about that I don’t need to?
In this case, I look at Stevie at war with herself, trying to change part of her identity, and Shen, who is pretty chill and happy. So with this book I ask myself, if self acceptance and happy, content, mellow equanimity are what I’d like to have most and more of, what’s standing in my way, and how can I get rid of it? What if there were nothing more awesome than just “being me?”
While I missed having more romantic tension in the story, the opportunity within Laurenston books to ask questions of myself like these, while reading about multiple hybrid shifters and shifter families carrying rocket launchers and going to ice parties, is always worth the experience.