Genre: Romance (allegedly)/Adventure
Author: Kelley Armstrong
I had meant to do Wolfsangel this week, but when I tracked it down at a local library, it was on the new books shelf and thus not for circulation. I wound up with Bitten instead because I happened to pass by the shelf where it was sitting en route to the restroom and thought "Well... why not?" These circumstances were interesting enough that I remarked half-jokingly to some friends that it must have been "destiny". And you know, there might be something to that. Bitten has wound up sandwiched on my reading schedule between the awesome Trial by Fire and my personal favorite series. Adding to that, midway through reading Bitten I was kidnapped by the muse and, lacking any dudes bad enough to save me, had to table my reading in favor of a week-long 30,000 word writing rampage. (Other writers will probably know what I mean.) So perhaps it was by some divine providence that this unenviable place on my TBR list was taken by a book that never had a chance in hell of getting a good write-up from me.
Elena Michaels is a reluctant werewolf, but she's determined not to let it get her down. She lives in Toronto with a human job and a human boyfriend named Phillip, making her best attempt at a human life. Okay, she has to sneak out once a week for a solitary morning run on all fours. It's no big deal. Then one day she gets a call from Jeremy, her old alpha/father-figure. Jeremy needs her to return to Stonehaven -- the pack's palatial estate in the Adirondacks -- to aid in a crisis. A rogue werewolf has been killing women in a nearby town, and Jeremy needs Elena's help to figure things out. Elena is hesitant to go, because she's been trying to distance herself from the world of werewolves. She's also needed distance from Jeremy's adopted son Clay, with whom she has had a tempestuous relationship. Elena arrives at Stonehaven hoping to wrap the matter up quickly and get back to Toronto. But two things delay her return indefinitely: Clay trying to rekindle old sparks, and the fact that a single rogue wolf turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
First, the good: despite this being a debut novel, with many of the expected mistakes, Kelley Armstrong shows a remarkable talent for writing, at least on a purely technical level. (Or showed, rather. This book was published back in 2001, when Jerry Springer was the nadir of daytime TV and restaurants had smoking sections.) The very first scene of Bitten is Elena leaving the house, wolfing out, and preying on some small forest creatures. I can recall surprisingly few werewolf books that start off this way, and I think there ought to be more. Because there are so many differing interpretations of the werewolf, lycanthropy itself is a central character in any werewolf story. Starting with a transformation allows the author to put both the protagonist and their lycanthropy immediately before the reader, and to do so without resorting to tedious exposition.
Speaking of exposition, there's a lot here, and this is a bit of a problem. (Not the problem, which we will get to shortly, but a problem.) Up until about the one-third mark, the book is frequently bogging down in pages and pages of backstory. On the one hand, it shows the remarkable level of detail and thought that Armstrong's put into the story. But on the other hand, it's all so much filler. For example, there's a great story early on about one of Elena's packmates who fell in love with a woman, tried to keep things a secret from her, failed, and had to leave, taking their son with him. It's a very moving passage, but by the midway point of the book, I didn't remember which of the wolves had gone through this little drama, and it never had any relevance to the immediate story.
Of course, in the story department, there's more where that came from. Indeed, while it's not appreciably longer than the books I normally review, Bitten is a lot denser. There's enough material in here for two or three books, and it adds up to an epic story -- the kind when you reach the end, recall the beginning, and realize with great surprise that there were a mere 350 pages between them. It's also a complex journey. A quote on the back cover praises the book for "skating between genres with style and grace," and that's a very apt way of putting it. There's a bit of everything here. Some mystery, some family drama, some suspense, a smattering of clever wit, and excellent action scenes, all handled with a deft touch and evocative writing.
There is a central plotline, though, and that's where the book falls to pieces. First thing back at Stonehaven, Elena runs into Clay. She broke up with Clay months ago when she moved to Toronto. She hates him today, and seems to have been love/hate with him for some time, but there's also a lot of passion in it. So of course, Clay wants to restart their relationship, while Elena wants to get back home ASAP. Pretty soon the rogue werewolves turn out to be a B-plot, and Bitten becomes the story of Elena and Clay reconnecting, reconciling, and eventually falling in love again. And you know what?
It is creepy as hell.
Yes, it's wild, passionate, and uninhibited. Armstrong knows how to write sensuality. The sex scenes, of which there are several, sizzle on the page. The scenes where Clay and Elena wolf out together are just as compelling, showing that the author has a firm grasp on the Dionysian appeal of lycanthropy. But even when the book is sexy, it's still creepy. And most of the time it's just creepy, without the sexy.
What has gone wrong? Simple: Clay is a psychopath. If that seems closed-minded and melodramatic on my part, I apologize, but I've got to call 'em like I see 'em. He has no compuction at all about killing people, be they humans who manage to find out things they shouldn't or "mutts" who transgress against the pack's code of laws. He shows not a drop of empathy for anyone in the entire book except Jeremy and possibly Elena. When Elena suspects him of the cold-blooded murder of an innocent trespasser, his alibi is "If I had done it, I would have told you." While it's very clear that he didn't do it, it's telling that he never denies he would have. Armstrong tries to sell this as sympathetic, and to her credit she does a pretty good job. A combination of Clay's disturbing childhood (he didn't know his father, and was a literally feral child until age seven) and a werewolf society's need to stay hidden and deal with troublemakers almost does the trick.
But any hope of Clay being likeable flies straight out the window when we see him constantly treating our heroine like dirt. An early scene has him indulging in some light bondage sex with Elena without her permission, and in fact after she explicitly tells him to back off. She starts going along in short order, which pushes this out of the "rape" category and into "reluctant" instead, but the nasty taste in my mouth remains. And this is hardly the only sign that Clay sees Elena not as a person, but as a kind of precious bauble with a marvelously convenient vagina included as a bonus. In a later scene, he puts her life in danger by using her as bait to lure the bad guys out, again without her permission.
The most galling bit? Elena is only a werewolf in the first place because Clay bit her, against werewolf law and, again, without so much as asking her first. Some vampire/werewolf/whatever stories equate a forced conversion to rape. Bitten doesn't, but makes no bones about the fact that it ruined Elena's life. I quote: "My plans for the future vanished in that moment. I could make a life for myself in the human world, but it would never be what I had imagined. [...] No husband, no children, and without either, no hope for a family or a home. All of that stripped away, as far beyond my reach as they'd been when I was a child. [...] I wanted to shout at him, say that I was not okay, that I'd never be okay, that he had made sure I would never be okay again. He'd stolen all my dreams and hopes of a family in one act of unforgivable selfishness." Clay's motive for this "act of unforgivable selfishness" is that he and Elena were already in a relationship, but she didn't know about werewolves. He was afraid of losing her when she found out, so he put her in a position where she couldn't leave. If that strikes you as misguidedly romantic rather than creepily possessive, try thinking what he'd do if she chose to leave him for Phillip. Actually, you don't have to, because Elena spells it out: Clay would feel threatened and kill Phillip without a second thought.
You might be asking why the hell Elena doesn't tear him to pieces in a lycanthropic bloodbath. Well, the answer, as far as I can tell, is: she's the heroine, he's the hero, this is a romance novel. Plus they have great sex. That's it. We never get a convincing explanation for her cowed attitude around him. Several are thrown out, but none make sense. We hear and see all the ways Clay's trying so hard to win her back, but when they're together, he's always a total dick. Elena is supposed to be a strong woman: Jeremy wanted her back to deal with the rogue "mutts" because she's a good detective and can hold her own in a fight. Indeed, she trounces the bad guys in every confrontation where she's not outnumbered or threatened with a gun. There is no reason at all why she should submit to the dehumanizing treatment she endures at Clay's hands. Elena knows this. She constantly, constantly asides to the reader that she shouldn't be putting up with this, that she's not in love with Clay, and that should just get the hell out and go back to Toronto. Yet not only does she continue to take the contempt which Clay has for her independence and humanity, she never gives him more than a talking-to for it. We're supposed to get the idea that the lady doth protest too much, but you can't sell that when the protests make sense and her casual ignorance of his abuse doesn't. As the book progresses, it goes past creepy, past infuriating, and finally winds up as just plain sad. A sad, depressing story about a sad, self-loathing woman who does not have the balls to cut off her abusive boyfriend's.
I could go on and on about this travesty. So I will.
Not only is Clay a sociopath with no respect for his girlfriend, but he's also a spoiled brat with no apparent respect for anyone. He doesn't have a regular job. He's intelligent, but he's used that intelligence to get a functionally useless degree in Anthropology. He does "occasional teaching stints" at universities around the country, but spends most of his time lying around the house, sponging off his rich old man. He generally leaves home only when Jeremy needs to apply Clay's psychotic urges to some troublesome mutt, and is also stated to be quite an effective torturer. And it doesn't end there. Clay is the golden boy, leader of the next generation of werewolves from an early age, and has had everything handed to him. It's not just Elena that he acts like a jerk to. He domineers over the other wolves in the pack, assured of being the heir to the throne and seeming to think this gives him the right to treat people as beneath him. How bad is it? The archvillain's eventual motivation is to get back at Clay for his jerkishness. That's right, the whole damn problem -- the murders, the conversion of criminals into werewolves, the attempt to destroy the pack, the suffering that the pack endures trying to stop it -- it all comes back to the fact that Clay is an asshole! It's a damn good thing for the story that he's recruited a team of murderous criminals and crossed more than a few lines himself in the whole kerfuffle, because otherwise I just might be rooting for him at the climax.
And Clay's massively overdeveloped sense of entitlement extends to his relationship with Elena, too. Her love is pretty much another thing he feels he deserves just for being his awesome self. He never acknowledges any fault for anything and considers the whole problem with their relationship to be that Elena won't accept that she's in love with him. Straight from the horse's mouth: "You know what I am, Elena. If I pretended otherwise, you'd accuse me of trying to deceive you. I don't want you to come back because you think I've changed. I want you to come back because you accept what I am." On the surface, that sounds like a good point, but think about it for a minute. Where exactly does he get off with this smug "You know you want me" attitude? Isn't it really just a nice way of saying, "By midnight tonight, you'll be on your hands and knees in front of me, ass in the air and loving it."? Is it so unreasonable for Elena to expect that her boyfriend won't tie her up for sex without asking? Is it so offensive that she be allowed live in the city where she has a job and a life instead of a house out in the wilderness where she'll have nothing to do but putter about all day? Is it really so wrong of her to want a life more fulfilling than a guy who lives with his dad at age thirty-seven and flits away a vast fortune could provide? Is she so out of line in preferring a kind human boyfriend that respects her independence over a self-absorbed lycanthropic sex god?
I should re-iterate that Kelley Armstrong is by no means a bad writer, nor is Bittten a poorly written book. In fact, there's more solid craftsmanship on display here than in most novels I read. Though I often wanted to slap some sense into both the male and female lead, I never stopped reading. But back when I was studying for a Computer Science degree we used to say: "Garbage In, Garbage Out." When your core storyline is about an allegedly strong woman laid low by her love/lust for a selfish, arrogant, insensitive, chauvinistic prick whom any reasonable female would have castrated ages ago, all the awesome writing in the world won't make your book any more than a wretched and logically baffling attempt at a romance novel.
Is there at least some character development along the way to smooth out Clay's rough edges? Yeah, a little. When Elena's threatened by the bad guys, Clay is always the first to her defense. You get the feeling that he would protect her, maybe even sacrifice his life. And in the end, despite Elena fearing the worst, (SPOILERS ahead, but this book is ten years old and has a dozen sequels, so who cares?) Clay doesn't wind up killing Phillip, even after he proposes to Elena. But if that's supposed to be a ray of light in all this, it doesn't work. Clay himself admits that the sole reason for sparing Phillip's life was that Elena wouldn't have wanted it. In other words, he hasn't turned over any new leaf at all -- it's just another part of his obsession with getting Elena back. Hell, the very last thing he does in the book is chase Elena back to Toronto because he's afraid of losing her again, which just reinforces that he's still possessive, still obsessive, and probably going to be right back to his old tricks as soon as they're back home.
On the last page, Elena is headed back towards Stonehaven to live with Clay and the pack. Armstrong, speaking through her characters, explicitly calls this a happy ending. She's welcome to her opinion. Personally, my happy ending is posting this review, popping Bitten in the library's book drop, and moving on to Kitty's Big Trouble. I can say without equivocation that Carrie Vaughn's old-school feminist cred has never appealed to me more.