Space Opera and Bad Porn: Vicky Peterwald: Target by Mike Shepherd

Content warning: spoilers, cursing, discussion of rape scene.

I spent two days casting around trying to think of a way to write this review that didn’t involve screaming, punching walls, and turning the air bluer than a sailor on a bender. But, ladies and gentlemen and honourable others, I’m not entirely sure I’ve succeeded. Because Vicky Peterwald: Target, Shepherd’s first entry in his spin-off from the long-running Kris Longknife series, is… well.

Let’s get something out of the way first. I like the Kris Longknife books. They’re fun fluff, popcorn reading, they’ve got a rollicking pace and despite their problems, they can be very entertaining. But Target? It’s got the same workmanlike prose and mostly-breakneck approach to pacing, but this? What did you decide to do, Mike Shepherd and the Ace editorial team, marry space opera to bad porn and end up with the worst of both? I haven’t seen as sexist and illogical a mess made of a female viewpoint character and her world in…

…You know what? I don’t even know.

(SWEET GODLESS HEAVENS WHY DID YOU DO THIS THING WHY?)

Vicky Peterwald is the daughter of one of the most powerful men in human space, a businessman who parlayed his fortune into ruthless control over dozens of planets and set himself up as an emperor. The Peterwald family has a long-running feud with the Longknifes, who have ended up on top of another several dozen planets in a slightly more democratic fashion—and Vicky Peterwald has just returned from an expedition with Kris Longknife out into uncharted space. They fought aliens, and came back with very few survivors. Vicky’s been hunted by her pregnant stepmother’s assassins since before she left, and now that she’s back, her peril has redoubled. Somehow she needs to stay alive. Her best bet for support is the Navy—but when powerful factions are willing to bribe Navy admirals to see her dead or disposed of, is there really anyone she can trust?

I wanted to like this book. Its cover copy deluded me into thinking it had all the ingredients for a fun distraction. So did Shepherd’s previous form. I could put up with the terrible dialogue. Terrible dialogue is not an insurmountable problem! I could even put up with the uneven pacing—although stopping nearly all FORWARD MOTION ON THE PLOT (such as it is) from chapters thirty-five through thirty-nine and again in chapter forty-three to describe a lot of prudishly-written sex* and include paragraphs of bad banter is a bridge too far—but what I can’t cope with is how unreal, how male-gaze, male-fantasy playgirl nymphomaniac, completely sodding illogical our main character’s actions are when it comes to interacting with men.

*Seriously, for a book that spends so much time dwelling on getting into bed with people, it’s weirdly coy about nouns and descriptions. The only concrete nouns the text ever uses to refer to sexual characteristics are “nipples,” (type: female) “breasts,” and on one or two memorable occasions, “balls” and “package.” Not a penis or a membrum virile or a verpa or a vagina or labia - or any modern slang equivalent—among them, and certainly no mention of any word so crass as fornication, copulation, or fucking. It’s creepily coy, actually: seems to be aiming for R-rated scenes with a PG-rated vocabulary, and failing to actually manage evoke anything like real human sexuality.

I’m not going to walk through the male-gaze bullshit, bad-porno logic, and the terribly-written sex scenes. It starts in the first chapter. It’s bad, and pervasive, and going through it point by point would take at least three days. Let me just focus on what’s probably the most problematic set-piece of the novel, which takes place in chapter twenty-eight. In this chapter, Vicky Peterwald wakes up after having been abducted, finds herself tied to a bed, and seduces** her abductors in order to get free. Her abductors, by the way, are ugly, fat, and stupid. The smartest one is given to Bond-villain threats.

**For “You’re shitting me? This is cringingly bad and deeply unbelievable,” levels of seduce, I have to say. Let me quote the beginning of Vicky’s attempt at seduction:

She’d let her skirts fall to the floor, hiding much of herself as she sat on the toilet. Now she pulled her hem up slowly, revealing her shapely legs, wiggled one leg out of her panties, and lofted them in Albert’s general direction.

He had to make the catch with his free hand. Immediately he put them to his nose for a sniff.

“You like it,” Vicky tried to purr.

Vicky kills one of her abductors when he’s screwing her, in what has to be one of the least believable, least sensibly-described, kind of awfully wrong depictions of sexual assault/rape I’ve ever had the displeasure to read. Seriously, if you’re going to write about rape and you’re going to make a point of stating that your main character is “dry as sandpaper,” for the love of god and all the bloody prophets don’t tell me “[o]n the third effort he slipped in.” If you’re dry there’s pain and possibly tearing and maybe chafing and seriously slipping? That’s the verb you’re going to use?

NOPETOPUS SAYS NOPE.

It’s a weirdly sanitised and distanced way of describing rape from the point of view of the victim, and not the kind of distanced that you get when people are in shock or running on adrenaline. It’s creepy, but voyeur-creepy. It’s bloody powerless for a scene that should disturb, that should provoke our empathy and understanding. If you’re going to write sexual assault and rape into your novel, then you’d damn well better make it mean something more than gratuitous filler. Here, just like depictions of consensual sexual intercourse, it’s narratively meaningless—but what’s annoying with one is bloody offensive with the other. Sexuality as wallpaper: but in Target, the text judges women other than its main character for the appearance of sexual availability, while (badly) portraying Vicky using sex as a bargaining chip or means to bind men’s loyalty or just for fun at every opportunity.

And you know what? I’m sick to death of bloody unnecessary sexist creepy bullshit. I can put up with it around the edges of a novel, but in Target it seems like it’s the entire point.

Bad dialogue, uneven pacing, workmanlike prose. There are moments where Target looks like it could have been an entertaining novel—assassination attempts, a shoot-out or two—but I can’t get the sour taste of WHAT THE HELL, BOOK? out of my mouth. If you’ve got a higher tolerance for creepy sexist bullshit than I do these days, I wish you joy of this novel.

Me, I’ll be over here with my mouthwash.

Vicky Peterwald: Target is available now from Ace.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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