Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nightshade

Series: Nightshade (#1)
Genre: Romance/Adventure
Author: Andrea Cremer
Publisher: Penguin Group USA


Nightshade has been promoted relentlessly over the past few months. It's gone as far as the publisher mailing (vandalized) old books to prominent book bloggers and a series of v-blogs from main love interest Shay Doran. (Okay, a young actor playing Shay Doran, but you get the idea.) Hype on that level is a dangerous game- more promotion is generally better, but too much makes readers wary. Fortunately, the blogosphere seems to have decided that Nightshade lives up to the hype, and I agree. Albeit with some reservations.


Nightshade takes place in the area of a wooded mountain protected by two wizards called Keepers- Emile Nightshade and Efrom Bane. Each Keeper has a pack of Guardians to protect and serve them. Our heroine is Calla Tor, the daughter of the Nightshade alpha. Calla leads a sub-pack of five teenage werewolves within the Nightshade clan. She's also been set up in an arranged marriage to Ren, who serves a similar role in the Bane pack. Said marriage is supposed to inaugurate a new pack, made of the young werewolves from both and headed by Efrom Bane's son Logan. Calla seems to be pretty much okay with this, since she's loyal to the Keepers and Ren is a frakkin' sexpot, but as the marriage approaches she realizes that she's about to cease being the respected alpha of the young Nightshades and become Ren's loyal little wifey. So, there are doubts.  The shit really hits the fan in the novel's opening scene, where she rescues a young human boy named Shay Doran from a bear. In the process she's forced to expose herself as a werewolf and heal his wounds using a forbidden technique. Well, it turns out Shay is the new student in her school. And the nephew of a very respected Keeper. And now Calla's falling for him, with her marriage to Ren less than a month away. So begins the story of Calla Tor, Rebellious Werewolf Princess.

There are some pretty big issues here. Don't get me wrong, the book is excellently written. Calla is a compelling protagonist. She's a strong-willed woman in a society which doesn't allow her that kind of independence. She's perfectly aware of the irony that she's both the leader of the pack and the one who has the least freedom. Her little brother, her gay friend, her beta-wolf Bryn- they're all following their own hearts in search of love. She's stuck with a man that the Keepers chose for her, for reasons that are their own. She wants to buck the system, but she really does feel something for Ren, and rebellion means not only becoming a fugitive, but abandoning her friends and family. She agonizes quite a bit over these issues, but for the most part her angst is believable rather than whiney. Cremer keeps the narrative lean and mean- every scene advances the plot in some way, and while problems crop up the book is never tedious. The pages keep turning rapidly- 450 pages goes marvelously fast when the writing is this good.

But though undeniably talented, Andrea Cremer is a debut author, and her inexperience shows. There are some odd storytelling glitches on display here, indicating that she doesn't have a great sense of what's obvious to the audience. In one scene Logan orders one of Calla's packmates around, and she starts reacting in a paranoid manner. The cause of this is not immediately apparent, but the author seems to think it is, which leads to some confusion. In another Shay and Calla go from an argument to bursting into laughter for reasons that, again, are played as obvious but aren't. The worst glitch is when Calla is injured and a desperate and highly dangerous gamble is necessary to save her. This is a pivotal scene in the book, and a crucial point in Calla and Shay's relationship. And it falls completely flat because Calla's response to a potentially-fatal injury is Dull Surprise, sucking all the suspense and drama out of it.

Another problem is that the sheer epicness of the story could use to be toned down. It's not enough to just be about a pair of werewolf packs, they have to be servants of fantastically powerful mages trying to protect cosmic keystones that could supposedly set off the end of the world. It's not enough to just show a young woman struggling for personal independence, she has to live in a highly repressive society where every authority figure we meet is borderline abusive. It's not enough for Calla to just be attracted to two men, she has to spend a chunk of the book's middle making out with one or the other once a chapter, like some kind of PG-rated Anita Blake. It's all kind of distracting, bordering on camp in places.

Cremer also seems to have a knack for biting off more than she can chew. Brief dramatis personae: We've got Calla, Calla's pack- the little brother, the BFF, the gay guy, and the other girl that I can't be bothered to remember anything about right now. There's Ren, and he has his pack- the brute, the slutty girl, the shrinking violet, and the other gay guy. Then there's Shay and his mysterious uncle, Keepers Emile and Efrom, Keeper-in-training Logan, the school nurse, Ren's dad, Calla's mom (who is shipping Calla/Ren in a very creepy manner), and the Searchers- enemies who are after the Guardians and Keepers, and have taken a special interest in Shay.

Deep ambivalence here. On one hand, every one of these characters is well-developed. They all have unique and realistic personalities, and play out their little dramas and romantic subplots in the background. And these subplots are well-written and generally entertaining. On the other hand, background is pretty much all they are. The Shay-Calla-Ren love triangle and associated issues take up most of the book. The other characters are only occasionally felt in the main story, and their subplots often seem like filler.

And then there's Ren. Oh boy, Ren...

The shipping wars have already begun, and from what little information I care to gather Team Ren has a significant advantage of numbers. To which I must respond: are you people on crack, or was I reading an entirely different book? Ren is not only a serial philanderer, he is possessive, controlling, probably a misogynist, and is stated by the author to have a problem controlling his temper. These are all the ingredients of an abusive boyfriend. And even if you're somehow able to overlook this, how do you manage to skip over the part where wolf-form Ren grabs Calla's throat in his jaws tight enough to choke her? Or the earlier scene where he's building up to raping her in the school bathroom before being interrupted? This is not the stuff that true love is made of, people.

Believe it or not, I don't object to this. I object to readers who see him as in any way swoon-worthy, but he serves the purposes of the story magnificently. Like the best love stories, the romantic entanglements in Nightshade serve to motivate and propel a deeper conflict. Ren is an avatar of the oppressive society Calla is stuck in. He's absorbed the misogyny and chauvinism from his father and Efrom, leading him to embrace the fact that he can selfishly screw any woman he wants while Calla has to keep herself virginal until their wedding night. If the guardians are slaves- an idea which Shay brings up, and the story supports- then Ren is the slave who's bought into the system. Granted authority by the Keepers, he uses it to perpetuate their abuses.

We're supposed to believe that Ren is a good guy deep down and has been tainted by a bad upbringing. And yeah, I'll buy that explanation. But it doesn't change the fact that he's supporting the principles of a social order that is rotten to the core, and his relationship with Calla is in no way healthy for her. Make no mistake, people, a tragic monster is still a monster. Frankenstein's homonculus was abandoned by his father and left adrift in a world that thought him a horrific abomination, so we pity him. But he still killed four innocent people in a ghastly quest for revenge. It Cremer intended Ren to be sympathetic, she screwed up. He's so entwined with the corrupt society that serves as Nightshade's main villain that it doesn't work. I grant that he has the potential for redemption. Near the end, he's hit by an earth-shattering revelation which provides an opportunity for a lot of character development in the sequels. Until he makes good on some of that, though, he's getting no respect from me.

Shay, meanwhile, is Ren's direct opposite. Ren either doesn't see the injustices of the system, or exploits them to his own benefit. Shay sees them and is appalled. He routinely rants to Calla about how the Guardian society is repressive and unjust, and how Calla deserves her own independence. Calla's attraction to him is not just physical, or even emotional- he represents liberation and the freedom to control her own destiny.  It's probably worth noting that Shay never pushes Calla into anything, even if it would be good for her. Rather, he persuades- he does the research, presents the evidence, makes his arguments, and trusts in Calla to see the truth. Cremer's essentially given him the qualities of the Good Guy and the Bad Boy at the same time, and made it work. A rather impressive trick.

I considered bringing out the Antique Scales of Judgment for this one, but I don't think that's necessary. Nightshade earns itself a solid thumbs-up. It has some problems, but the depth of the story, the strong writing, and the vivid characters allow the book to transcend these difficulties. I'm a little disappointed because just one more revision might have made this a must-read. But as is, Nightshade is still time well spent, and this series has a lot of potential.

13 comments:

  1. Awesome review. I have no interest in reading this book, on account of absolutely loathing werewolves, but I still concede that the book cover is one of the most gorgeous I've ever come across :)

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  2. Interesting review. I have gotten caught up in all of the hype I'll admit and the cover is gorgeous. But it's good to know that the book itself has merit. I plan on reading it regardless, but you presented a different point of view than most of the other reviews I've read. Something to think about.

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  3. I really enjoyed your review and you definitely pointed out things I didn't think of or pick up on. However, this is still one of my favs of the year. Glad you enjoyed it regardless of the flaws!

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  4. Hm. I'll be honest, I've really been wanting to read this one (although ladsfndslnf 450 pages, holy shit o.O), but my attention was really piqued by what you said about Ren. He sounds like the classic rapist boyfriend, and *brofist* on your opening 'on crack' comment. I honestly don't understand half the fangirling over creepy asshole boyfriends, and I'm glad to see someone calling people out on it. Win.

    Also glad to hear Shay is the kind of guy who supports the heroine in her quest for independence. That's awesome.

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  5. Can I take a moment and tell you how happy I always feel after reading your reviews? Even when I haven't read the book yet (as is the case here) I leave with a better understanding of the experience of reading the book and I feel much better informed as to whether or not a book is something I'd enjoy.

    I'll probably read this book at some point, although I have to admit your commentary about Ren the Wonder Douche, the PG Anita Blake elements (the horror...the horror...) and frankly the love triangle at all make me leery. This might be one I pick up from the library.

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  6. You've given an absolutely amazing review. I did a review and meant to point out that the scene where Calla had to make a difficult choice to save her life wasn't as dramatic as I felt it should have been. I do agree with you regarding Ren, although I did feel sorry for him.

    But yes, I felt this was a really good book all in all with a lot of good storylines.

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  7. You're getting so much better at this. I always enjoy your posts. Now, you know that I have to read this, right?

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  8. I've just realised that there are several of my followers who I haven't yet met or haven't visited for such a long time that I thought I'd stop by to say hello.

    What an interesting post. You are right about this book being promoted relentlessly. Curiousity generally gets the better of me and I end up giving in as I did with the Twilight books. Fallen, however, somewhat cured me of this as I found it disappointing and especially after reading blogger after blogger say how wonderful it was.

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  9. Hey! I'm an old follower just stopping by on the hop to wish you a great weekend!

    Carmel @ Rabid Reads (Twitter)

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  10. Wow, you really analyzed this one! I was ambivalent. I wanted Calla and Ren to get together and live happily ever after in there nice houses given them by the Keepers. Then Shay had to open that big can of worms and be cute and smart and all antagonist, pointing out the indentured servitude of the were-folk. I didn't like that Shay broke up Calla and Ren, for Ren's sake. I think he was really into Calla. That was quite a hype campaign. I got a book and then it was way too complicated.

    Any way, great classical review.

    Come on over to my site where Kersten Hamilton, author of the less hyped but better written Tyger Tyger is guest posting today and giving away a copy of the bk and a major piece of swag. Fangs, Wands and Fairy Dust
    email: steph@fangswandsandfairydust.com
    twitter: @fangswandsfairy
    Tyger Tyger contest http://tinyurl.com/tytykhgp

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  11. wow that was an awesome review. I totally agree with the whole ren thing I didn't find him to swoon worthy or whatever i thought he was a bit of a bully, and abit possessive. Anyways loved the review!

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  12. I came to your blog specifically seeking your Nightshade review, as I've recently reviewed it myself, and was happy to see you've reviewed it.

    So I must say that I am SO GLAD that I am not the only one who disliked Ren. I get that he plays a crucial role in the story and that if he hadn't been so oppressive, Calla might not have made the decision that she did in the end, but I went into this book with my fellow book bloggers telling me that I'd love both boys equally. Boy, was I freaking let down (and yes, the misinformed hype I subjected myself to made me not enjoy the book as much as I could have).

    I'm honestly surprised at all the Ren supporters (there really are hardly any Shay supporters). After reading about him, and especially that bathroom scene, I was absolutely appalled at his character. Not only do Calla and Ren never have any meaningful conversations or try to get to know one another (they didn't start talking until recently and I'm supposed to believe that they wouldn't ask questions about each other?), but Ren never respected any of Calla's wishes or her stance on remaining virginal until Union. I'm almost 100% sure that if Flynn didn't interrupt Ren in the bathroom, he would have raped Calla. There was absolutely no romantic development between the two.

    I loved your assessment on Shay - I wish I had the eloquence to describe Shay the way you did. Actually, I'll take that back. I love your entire assessment of Nightshade. I found myself nodded at every single point you made - I especially didn't like that pivotal moment in Haldis with Shay and Calla. It happened way too quickly and I can't believe that a life-changing experience can last the whole of five minutes or so. Anyway, now I'm just rambling. Great review - I loved how in-depth you went. If there's anyone I can count on to be honest, but fair, on a review who doesn't completely get taken over by hype, it's you. :)

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  13. I bought this one and gave it to my mother to preview before I got to it. Generally, everything she hates, I love. She was pretty ambivalent about this one, so I'm nervous. After I read it, I'm definitely coming back here to read your review carefully.

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