Monday, May 7, 2012

"What Is A Werewolf?"

Bonds of Fenris

Talia Thornwood's life ended one year ago, when she became a werewolf. She survived the attack, and the horrifying transformation a month later, but the life she has now is barely worth living. She lurks about in a filthy, run-down house, with too many werewolves crammed into too small a space. Every day is a struggle against the stress of human contact, the romantic prodding of her obnoxious packmate Pierce, and the gnawing hunger for flesh in her soul.

She's all but resigned herself to a dreary existence on the margins of society when she meets Corwin. Corwin is a werewolf like none other. He walks among humans as if it was nothing, and can keep his wolf under control even when the moon is full. Talia's mind is suddenly opened to the possibilities before her, and the realization of how little she really knows about lycanthropy.

Corwin claims that he can teach her how to cope as he does, even how to transcend her affliction. But it will not be easy. It is a hard education that requires her to question everything her pack taught her, and confront exactly what she has become. And, more amazingly, what she never stopped being.

If the whole theme of this blog wasn't evidence enough, I'm a bit of a wolf lover. That affection also extends easily to werewolves. And yet, surprisingly enough, the only 'werewolf' books I've reviewed thus far were the Mercy Thompson series. So when Mr. Bell offered his soon-to-be-released werewolf story up for review, I was thrilled to accept. And look at that, our color schemes match perfectly!

Anyone reading popular fiction these days will have no doubt noticed the romanticizing that our favorite movie monsters have received lately. Vampires are tortured souls looking for love, zombies are starting to fight for equal rights among the intellectual community, and werewolves are hot body-builders with super strength and super senses who happen to get extra hairy when they get ticked off. You may be into that sort of thing, but I was happy for a return to the days of olde, where turning into a monster was actually...well, bad.

Talia and her pack may have been werewolves for a while, but they're far from happy with their situation. Being part wolf isn't just a once-a-month thing, it's a constant strain on their psyches as they try to keep their inner wolves at bay. Cause, you know, trying to eat your friends, family, or random passersby isn't something anyone wants to explain to the authorities. They hope that as a pack they can rely on each other to get through the hard times, but after a year for Talia (and longer for the others), their hope for better times has started to wane.

But then Corwin shows up. Now, to be honest, my very first impression of this guy was, "OMG, he's a Mary Sue (Gary Stu)*!" And really, he did have a couple Mary Sue-ish moments in the story, but he got better. He's the obvious romantic interest in the story, and he plays that part to a T, but to his credit, he's not completely perfect. He's often unsure about his actions and struggles with whether the end justifies the means, he's not in your face about being the romantic interest, and he does get the snot beat out of him a couple times. He was a little dry for my personal tastes, but he was fairly well balanced otherwise, so overall he gets my romantic seal of approval.

Which brings me to Talia, our main character and narrator. She grew on me. At first, I didn't get a clear sense of who she was, just that she was depressed and desperate. She's in a really crappy situation and is practically on the edge of losing it, so I sorta understand not having much personality there, but it's not conveyed in the best way (more on that later). Once she gets calmed down and gets a little control back over her life—which unfortunately was about halfway through the book—she turns out to be very outgoing, a little witty and snarky at times, and extremely loyal. Not my preferred kick-ass heroine, but not a bad character.

The supporting cast was fun to follow, but I wished they'd had some more focus and fleshing out. Leroy led the pack without actually leading the pack. He didn't need no stinkin' badge or fancy title to command authority, he simply was. But beyond that, he didn't impact me as much as I thought he should. Bo was the typical strong but dim guy. There were hints of him vying for Talia's affections, but that story was dropped fairly early, leaving him in the background. Marlene was pretty bitchy throughout, and though I grew to like her as a character further down the line, she never made it easy. Yet another case of females threatening each other rather than banding together—it's starting to get old.

And then there's Pierce. By far the most complex and interesting character in the entire book, and he's delegated to the semi-villain of the piece. I never knew if I was going to love or hate Pierce. At moments he was more obnoxious and horny than I could stand, but at other times he was that snide, wise-cracking, goof-off that I usually end up crushing on. Unfortunately, his persistence tended toward the first side, so I don't know that many will sympathize with him as much as the book calls for. Still, I thought his backstory and subsequent issues were well handled and made for great conflict throughout the story. If a prequel or sequel were ever in the works, he'd be my choice for star, no contest.

Though I'm very supportive of seeing more from Mr. Bell, I won't say this book was without its flaws. My main complaint was never feeling connected to the narrator. Here are a few examples of problems I found:
"A hard stone floor makes a distinctly suboptimal mattress."
"Only the moon, thick and gibbous, provided the barest natural light."
"[...]'and of course some unknown miscreant brought beer.'"
"'Seems a rather petulant attitude.'"
"When I heard Corwin had taken off after a potentially disturbed individual, it chased all other thoughts from my mind."
I'm sorry, but does that sound like a typical college student? That last one didn't even sound human. In addition to popping me out of the story, lines like these were so unlike the Talia/narrator I'd already read that I began questioning my impression of her. And when you're constantly analyzing and re-analyzing a person, it's really hard to feel connected to them.

I was also confused by some of the time shifts that the narration took. Yes, the story is in past-tense, so the narrator does know what's going to happen before any of the rest of us, but it's not always the best option to flaunt it. There are a couple points where Talia throws down some foreshadowing spoilers that, again, pop me clean out of the story. She doesn't add any insight to the moment, she flat out tells us that something bad is gonna go down. So keep reading, wink wink.

And then there's my main head-desk moment. It's nearing the end of the book when suddenly, we're reading a conversation that Talia isn't present for. That's right, she's merely relaying a conversation that she had to be told after the fact. Not only that, but it had to be told in two parts!
"That was all Corwin told me of their conversation. But some time later, when he and I were on better terms, Pierce told me the rest."
Wai-What?! If you're going to have a story focus on, and be told by one character for the entire time, why would you not include her in what is apparently an essential conversation? Well, essential enough to be included in the story. Reading the conversation, I understand why the author wanted to include it—it's really a very nice resolution to the characters involved—BUT if Talia's going to learn about it anyway, why not have her intentionally or accidentally overhear it from outside? Frankly, I found the whole time-jumping thing overly complicated and completely unnecessary.

But once you get past all that, the story really is wonderfully intricate and philosophical. Yes, I said philosophical. I know I said the werewolves weren't romanticized here, and I'm sticking by that. They're not bitten and then instantly gorgeous, super strong, and bound to their packmates. But—here's where some werewolf fans might be turned off—these werewolves aren't bloodthirsty beasts as much as they're people trying to fight against themselves. They're humans trying to do their best to stay human, even when they're obviously not.

And therein lies the main conflict of this story. This is a tale of self-discovery that happens to feature lycanthropy. It also had strong elements of philosophy, psychology, and teaching/learning principles, which I found to be unique and welcome additions to the werewolf genre. At the same time, I understand if 'hardcore' werewolf fans passed this book into the categories of shapeshifters or skinwalkers. Bottomline, this isn't a hack and slash book, but it is an interesting study of what a modern werewolf might struggle with.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed Bonds of Fenris. It has some polishing issues here and there, but I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a new take on werewolves who doesn't mind a bit of romance and philosophizing. It would probably hit home better with college-aged and older because of the situations and themes tackled. There are a couple fights and quite a few references to sex, though nothing is ever described, and language is non-existent, so probably no younger than high school. If you never thought the subject of werewolves could be thought-provoking, I'd give Bonds of Fenris a shot. It might just prove you wrong.

Approximate Reading Time: 6 hours

*Mary Sue/Gary Stu most commonly refers to a character inserted into a fan-fiction to instantly woo the main character. They are often the most attractive, most powerful, and most talented character of all, with few-to-no faults.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.