Friday, August 22, 2014

Not Just A Wild Wolf, But A Werewolf

Werewolf Rising
~Werewolf Rising~
By R.L. LaFevers
Amazon ~ Powell's

Luc Grayson is just like any other boy. He's about to turn thirteen and his body is changing. All too suddenly, he finds himself becoming faster, stronger, more aggressive. But unlike his classmates, Luc is increasingly troubled by nightmares and strange urges. Then a stranger appears in the home Luc has shared with his Aunt Jane and Uncle Stephen since his parents died when he was three. The mysterious man claims he has come to take Luc back to his father's people. Luc is about to learn a thrilling and terrifying truth: like his ancestors, he is a shape-shifter, and on his thirteenth birthday he will change form for the first time. Under the full moon, his bones and muscles with stretch, he'll drop to all fours, his mouth and nose will become a pointed muzzle with lethal fangs, and thick fur will sprout through his skin.

He will become a wolf.

Luc is dazzled by his new powers, and he realizes he has longed for the sense of family his new-found relatives—his pack—provide. But Luc has brought danger to his new community. His uncle Stephen hates and fears the shape-shifters, and how that they have taken Luc, he'll stop at nothing to see them wiped out. It will take all of Luc's abilities—wolf and human—to save his pack, and himself.

Once I heard that Robin LaFevers, the author of one of my new favorite series, had once penned a werewolf novel I knew I had to check it out as soon as possible. Published back in 2006 for a middle grade audience under the pseudonym R.L. LaFevers (no doubt because the main character was a boy and we wouldn't want to advertise that women could write boys' books), I didn't really expect much from it, but still was hopeful for an interesting take on werewolves from an author I greatly enjoyed.

Let's just say, there's a good reason you don't hear much about this book.

Luc Grayson is an orphan being raised by his mother's family who tolerate but don't really approve of him. We join him just before his thirteenth birthday, when inexplicable changes start happening to him. Then a stranger comes in the middle of the night to whisk him away to a strange and awesome community he never knew he belonged to. Once there, he makes two friends (a boy and a girl), deals with half-blood-prejudiced bullies, attends classes to master his new abilities, and eventually learns of a great evil who destroyed his parents. He then defies orders and faces this foe by himself in order to prevent him from harming anyone else.

Sound familiar?

Now, I'm not at all against twisting a story and adding new elements to make it your own. Heck, I don't even mind obvious parodies if they're done well. But that's where Werewolf Rising fails to deliver on its potential. Too much of its premise is familiar without being new. Even the coming-of-age werewolf discovery story feels cliché now. I'd say perhaps that comes from the paranormal craze in the eight years since the book's publication, but even a cliché story can be compensated by memorable characters, which unfortunately this book also fails to deliver.

Where some other titular orphans own their stories, Luc is very much played by his. He starts out as a typical teen, not particularly great at anything, with only a friend or two, and picked on by generic bullies. When strange things begin to happen to him he's a bit confused but assigns their cause to puberty without even another thought. There's no curiosity or fear or awe, giving the impression that he doesn't even care. Granted he isn't given much time to care before being whisked away, but some amount of passing interest in his changes would at least show some character.

The best descriptor for Luc is passive, and unfortunately in an adventure story, that makes him the least interesting character. He waits for explanations, he follows orders, he asks very few questions, and he only rebels three times in his whole time with the pack. Sure, he has some 'radical' democratic ideas about the pack's hierarchy, but he never voices them or puts them into action. I can understand having a character who is a goody-two-shoes, but when he continually has rebellious thoughts and never acts on them, that's where I find a disconnect. Especially where 12/13-year-olds are concerned.

And the other characters aren't any more engaging than our protagonist. Rider, Luc's uncle, guide and caretaker, is all-knowing but close-mouthed. He does have an obvious (yet secret) crush/relationship with an ostracized female of the pack, so we know he doesn't value tradition and rules over what is right, which makes him an ideal role model for Luc. But due to Rider's responsibilities and the fact that he's an adult, there's not time for a strong enough friendship to be established to really bring Rider's character out around Luc, thus he remains confined to his role and little more.

The other kids in the pack are fine, I guess, but they are given so little screen time they might as well not be there. Luc forms friendships with two kids in particular, a spastic boy named Nuri and a naturally talented girl named Suki, who help him in some things like learning to control his shift or just offering a little fun, but aside from those descriptors there's nothing else to be said about them. The bully was actually the most developed of the kids, having a legitimate reason for being distrustful of outsiders and hating Luc. But again, he was given so little time he served more as a plot point than an interesting character.

The rest of the pack can also be summed up in one or two word descriptors, but if there was one thing that worked for me, it was the lore of the werewolves themselves. Lycanthians have the ability to change between human and wolf forms at will. A half-blood's (half human, half Lycanthian) first change always occurs on a full moon, but the moon doesn't control all changes. With enough practice, a Lycanthian can shift whenever he wants. And rather than horrifying or monstrous human/wolf hybrids, the shifts are solely from one form to the other, either fully human or fully wolf.

Descended from Remus and Romulus, the Lycanthians' attribute their shifting abilities to divine intervention by the Old Gods. They continue to practice spirituality, accepting Old Gods and New Gods because I guess they're not picky with semantics? Most important, though, is their connection to the spirits of their pack which communicate and give strength to the living through their cairn stones. Luc is surprisingly attune to the spirits in the cairn, though what implications this might have are never addressed.

Lycanthians also have a very strict hierarchical structure, with the Alpha whose word is law at the top, to the Omega who is the pack's designated whipping boy/girl. There are rules when addressing your better, what respect you must show to which members, as well as bloodline rules when it comes to leaders. All of these seem strange and unfair to the reader and Luc, and I can't help but wonder how these politics have gone unchanged in the hundreds of years they've existed, especially since despite their best efforts they are not completely isolated from outside society. I can only assume Luc was eventually meant to challenge and change pack politics in the future.

Unfortunately, what disappointed me most about the book was its obvious discontinuation. This was clearly an introduction to Luc's world, this culture of werewolves, these characters, and as such a lot of things are introduced but never resolved. Luc's discontent with the pack's politics, Rider and Luna's forbidden relationship, Luc's connection to the spiritual... All these are introduced with clear importance to what may lie ahead in Luc's future, but are pushed aside for the immediacy of the current plot. I think this hurt the characterization the most, since, as I said before, we just aren't given enough time with all the secondary and tertiary characters to get anything more than one dimension from them.

I'm not saying I don't understand why the story wasn't continued. There were a lot of problems that needed addressed, starting with more focus on characters to lead you through the story instead of getting pulled along by it. Maybe a tad less world-building and a bit more unique premise. But perhaps a few of those issues could have been resolved with more room (she was apparently forced to cut 20,000 words from the original manuscript) and/or books to expand on. But as it stands, can this be read as a standalone novel? Yes, but unfortunately not very well.

Overall, Werewolf Rising had an interesting premise but lacked the character to keep me engaged in its story. If you have a younger reader who has recently become engrossed with werewolves or wolves, then they'll probably enjoy this. No language or romance, and extremely mild violence puts this in the perfect range for elementary or middle grade readers. Perhaps not all I had hoped from one of my favorite authors, I still had fun peering into another world of werewolves.

Approximate Reading Time: 3 hours