Sunday, August 15, 2010
Raised by Wolves
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Jennifer Lynn Barnes is new to werewolf fiction, but not to writing as a whole. Her website lists six previous YA books to her credit. Her experience shows in Raised by Wolves, because the book is clearly the work of a master storyteller.
Our heroine is one Bronwyn Alessia St. Vincent Clare, called "Bryn" for reasons that should be obvious. To say Bryn's had a rough life would be the understatement of the year. At age 4, she watched as her parents were killed by a Rabid- an insane, pack-less werewolf. The werewolves of the Stone River Pack arrived in time to save Bryn, and took her in as one of their own. Now fifteen, she lives as a human member of a werewolf pack- a situation that she's uneasy with. Werewolves are psychically bound to serve the pack and the alpha. Bryn has the same bond, but she's closed it off on the advice of her adopted mother Ali. Then one day, a bout of troublemaking ends with Bryn finding a young boy named Chase held prisoner in Callum's house. Chase has been attacked by a Rabid werewolf and turned into one- something Bryn thought impossible. Callum agrees to let Bryn talk with Chase, provided she start acting more like part of the pack. Bryn would have said no before she met Chase, but now her priorities have shifted...
The first half of Raised by Wolves is a conflict of a very personal kind- between community rules and mores on one hand and personal self-determination on the other. Barnes' werewolves hold strongly to communal values, emphasized by the nature of the pack-bond. Alphas are to be obeyed, the pack- especially the females- are to be protected, and strength is respect. One thing they don't seem to value much is personal independence, and Bryn spends a good portion of the book trying to maintain her individuality in a society where individuality is tolerated at best.
This is not a conflict drawn in black-and-white terms. On the one hand, some of the things we see happening are frankly abusive. One rather hard-to-watch scene has Bryn tied to a refrigerator for being where she shouldn't. At the same time, though, noone really seems to take this as abusive behavior- it goes into making sure the pack is strong enough and united enough to survive. Ali, the sole other human in the pack, is the only one who calls Callum out on a particularly brutal punishment levied against Bryn- even Bryn herself believes he was acting in her best interest. Callum, for his part, is more a father figure than anything else- he enforces discipline, but also serves as a protector and mentor. The latter part includes training Bryn to be a Badass Action Girl, which leads directly to her gaining the strength to achieve her own independence.
The issue seems to be that while the werewolves have very clear standards of right and wrong, they're coming from a perspective on life which is... well, not human. Ali is often used to give voice the misgivings in the reader's head. It is to Barnes' credit as a writer that these do not come off as strawman arguments. The impression is more that Ali is perfectly right from her perspective, but that werewolves operate on a much different level. They value survival above all else, and a strong pack and strong packmates for the purposes of survival. Mind you, the werewolves are not entirely right, either. The ending makes it clear that their cultural standards are long overdue for revision.
This is, however, an adventure story. So about halfway through the shit hits the fan in a big way. Man vs. society conflicts are back-burnered, and our heroes decide that hunting down Chase's attacker would be a better use of their time. This second half is no less enthralling than the first, but it lacks the same depth. Bad guy on a rampage. Kill him. No ambiguity there. The second half also flirts with cheesiness at a few points. Bryn gets some retractable-blade gauntlets, ala Wolverine. This is not only silly, but pointless and impractical since she's already carrying a pair of silver knives strapped to her shins. And I have a hard time believing that a pair of teenagers could drive across two states with a enough firepower to level a small town, even if this is the rough n' tumble American West.
There's also a romantic subplot between Bryn and Chase, which is... meh. It's not bad, nor is it irrelevant. In fact it's both a crucial plot element, and part of Bryn's coming to understand the importance of pack-bonds. And if you can forgive the manner in which they hook up- essentially, love at first sight with magical assistance- it's a charming relationship with realistic interactions. But it's abundantly clear that this is a subplot. It's enjoyable if you want to enjoy it, but Raised by Wolves is the story of Bryn, not Bryn-and-Chase.
But we're quibbling now. The bottom line is that Raised by Wolves is a solid book with a strong cast and expert writing. The pages keep turning fast and furious, and the story is a rewarding one to read. I can confidently give this a very high recommendation.