Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Raised by Wolves was my favorite book of 2010, and I've plugged it perhaps a bit more than an impartial reviewer should. But there was a reason for my fanboyish behavior: Jennifer Lynn Barnes is good. Her writing is engaging, her plotting is tight, and her characters are believable. Most books take a while to get into, but Raised by Wolves grabbed me right at the start and didn't let go until the end. It sets the bar pretty high for a sequel, but I'm happy to report that Trial by Fire meets this standard, perhaps even exceeds it.
At the end of Raised by Wolves, our heroine Bryn became alpha of the newly-minted Cedar Ridge Pack. Being that Bryn is human, this is unprecedented. Due to werewolf politics, her old alpha Callum can no longer protect or advise her, but they remain on friendly terms. So when Callum sends her a small carving of a horse as a Thanksgiving gift, she knows something's about to happen. What with Callum's precognitive abilities, he never does anything that isn't nudging the future in the way he wants it. Sure enough, on Thanksgiving Day a young were shows up on her doorstep beaten, scarred, and nearly crazy from torture. His name is Lucas, and he's a member of the Snake Bend Pack -- specifically, he's the personal punching bag of the pack's abusive alpha, Shay. Shay demands Lucas returned through the proper diplomatic channels. When Bryn refuses, Shay smarmily clues her in that there's another group searching for Lucas, one which could be a lot more trouble for Bryn. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the strange new girl in school is wrapped up in all this.
I noted that Raised by Wolves was largely a tale of conflict between a strict society and a young woman determined to control her own destiny. That's nothing new. Off the top of my head, two other were books, one of which Barnes cites as inspiration, deal with the same theme. But Barnes' approach was interesting in that the social forces weren't depicted as explicitly wrong, merely operating on a different standard of right and wrong. At first glance, Trial by Fire seems to renege on that point, with Shay using the werewolf laws as weapons in his plot against Bryn and her pack. But this actually speaks just as much to the contrast between Shay and Callum, the latter of which bent the rules towards noble purposes in the first book. So ultimately it's not the social order that's the problem, but the abuse of it by individuals in power. But there's still a sense that they could do much better.
This isn't just setting. It's the key way in which the book defines its protagonist. Bryn doesn't want to be the old, authoritative type of alpha. She doesn't want to manipulate rules and order her packmates around. She wants friendly bonds with her packmates rather than feudal ones. But as the book goes on, she starts seeing more and more how hard it is for a pack to survive. She has to make the tough decisions and the sacrifices, and inevitably her decisions put her packmates at risk. As the title implies, Bryn is learning through pain and worry just how hard it is to be a werewolf alpha. By the end, she's learned that she can't even try to change the system until she can embrace it at least enough to keep her pack's head above water.
Trial by Fire being a very character-driven work, let's talk about the characters. First, the antagonists. There are two ways to go with villains: make them sympathetic and introduce moral ambiguity to the narrative, or make them irredeemable and get the audience cheering for them to go down. Shay is most definitely the second variety. Smug and sleazy, he seemingly outwits Bryn at every turn. With his objective being essentially to drag the females of Cedar Ridge into servitude, and it's easy to look forward to the day he goes down hard.
Shay is not our only villain, however. In fact, for most of the book Bryn is maneuvering against another group, a band of psychic werewolf-hunters. The most prominent among them is Caroline, the aforementioned new girl in school, who at first appears to be just as irredeemable. After tracking down the good guys, she tosses around threats and intimidation, acting like an amoral sociopath. Later, she boldly accosts Bryn in broad daylight. However, as the plot progresses, she gets character development and becomes a more sympathetic figure. The other psychics are not so well developed, which is a shame because Barnes put a lot of effort into giving them quirks and little bits of personality. Unfortunately, there's no room for them in the plot. Their leader is a bit of a cliche, Archer hangs around menacing Bryn and doing very little of significance, and the others are all just minions with flavor. Midway through, Bryn attempts to go undercover in their ranks, which sets up a really good "belly of the beast" storyline. But this storyline never happens. Instead we get a few developments and a brief expositionary monologue from a tertiary character, then a big plot twist forces Bryn to scrap the plan and return to her pack. The sequence serves its purpose, but feels like a waste of potential.
On the side of the good guys, the characterization is just as good, and some of the rough edges from the first book have been smoothed out. Barnes tried to play Bryn as a Badass Action Girl in Raised by Wolves, but it wasn't believeable. Because she can't keep up with the power level of a were, she got her butt kicked every time she had to get physical. In Trial by Fire, Bryn has taken the hint and tried to become a planner instead. And this works pretty well. Since the main villain is a schemer, unravelling his plan is what the hero should be doing.
Chase also gets some development, moving up from a glorified MacGuffin Boy to an actual character. Unfortunately, he doesn't move up enough. He doesn't serve much of a role except as Bryn's bodyguard and love interest. Barnes tries to play him as the aloof, intellectual one of the group, but since Bryn is already a thinking heroine, Chase's role in the story boils down to keeping Bryn centered and promising to protect her. Mind you, I don't object to that. The two make a good couple, and in a genre overflowing with tsunderes and bad boys, a relationship that is warm rather than hot and supportive rather than tempestuous will always be welcome. And Barnes does find useful ways for Chase to contribute to the team. I just wish he had more substance to him. Of the four leads, he has the least page time, and is bafflingly absent during a few crucial scenes. Bryn lampshades a few times that, despite them being a couple, she really knows very little about Chase. Maybe something to work on in the sequel?
Oh yes, there will be a sequel. Barnes has certainly left enough hooks lying around. In fact, the ending doesn't make any sense unless she has more to tell. And about the ending: damn. Without spoilers: about thirty pages from the end, Barnes gives her audience a massive punch to the kidneys, one which I was still reeling from the next day. I'm a cold-hearted bastard, so if Trial by Fire hadn't already earned a spot in my must-read file, that would have done it. Kidney-punch or not, this is the most engaging book I've read in a while, and fully lives up to its predecessor. By all means, check out this series.