Monday, August 15, 2011


Series: Nightshade (#2)
Genre: Adventure
Author: Andrea Cremer
Publisher: Philomel

I object to the cover art on general principles.

The original Nightshade cover was fantastic. It was colorful and eye-catching. It jumped off the bookshelves to hit you between the eyes and make your brain say "Huh, interesting." The original Wolfsbane cover was done in the same style, and while not quite as eye-catching it was well-designed and nice-looking. But now, by publisher fiat, those covers are out and we have three new ones with generic composition over dull black covers, the same as half the other covers in the YA paranormal section. What was wrong? My assumption is that the public couldn't tell that these were werewolf books. Hence the not-very-subtle Nightshade cover, the wolf on Bloodrose, and the full moon hanging over a bored-looking model for Wolfsbane. While I can understand wanting to put a selling point front and center, I think someone at the publishing house doesn't get this series. While the Nightshade books have werewolves, that's pretty much all they have to do with the current vogue for paranormal YA. They're more accurately defined as fantasy novels placed in a modern environment -- evil wizards, noble orders of mage knights, swords and bows as the weapons of choice, and a strong focus on the personal evolution and development of it's main character.

Nightshade ended on a cliffhanger, with Calla and Shay having fled the Keepers into the hands of their enemies, the Searchers. Not being entirely trusted, Calla was chained up by their gracious hosts until Shay could sort things out. Wolfsbane picks up a week later, with Calla being let out of her cell and meeting the enemies of her enemies. In their ongoing war against the Keepers, the Searchers have attempted to ally with rebellious Guardians before. Calla is convinced that she can bring her young packmates over to their side. But after an initial attempt at contact goes bad, the good guys find themselves having to mount a rescue mission instead. Meanwhile, Calla fights with her own divided loyalties. While she's in love with Shay, she hasn't yet thrown away Ren's ring, and the guilt of betraying him -- justification regardless -- weighs heavy upon her.

Wolfsbane has a lot going for it. The characters, at least once fully developed, are appealing. Andrea Cremer being a history scholar, her world-building is second to none, despite the occasional cheesy touch. And the plot is very good. As mentioned, it shoves aside the usual PNR/UF tropes in favor of becoming more of a fantasy novel with a modern setting. I liked this change of pace, but it sometimes seems a little awkward. Our heroes favor crossbows and blades as their main weapons, which is a little jarring in the twenty-first century. I'm left wondering why noone ever thinks to pull a gun.

There are also times when Cremer simply trades one set of tropes for another. The MacGuffin the Searchers need is a pair of swords broken into two pieces each. Each piece represents one of the four classical elements, and is hidden at a secret location. Shay has one already, from the Haldis site. To defeat the bad guys, he has to travel to the other three sites, find the other three pieces, then assemble the swords and dual-wield them against the evil forces. When this is all revealed Shay, being a fan of comic books and other pulpy forms of entertainment, expresses disappointment at how predictable and cliche it all is. The reader may be inclined to agree. I think the author kinda does too, because all that gets tossed onto the back burner while the heroes deal with more pressing matters. Instead the main plot divides it's time between Calla trying to put her memories of Ren behind her, and the buildup to the rescue mission. It's far from bad, but it's brought down by a truly excessive amount of padding. There are pages upon pages of exposition and entire scenes full of color dialog that add nothing to the story. Near the beginning, several full chapters are devoted to an infodump in the form of a war council, and in the last chapter the denouement is pointlessly delayed so that a character can babble her backstory to Calla.

Paradoxically, despite the padding, the book also has too much plot. Or perhaps more accurately, too much sub-plot. The opening chapters introduce us to half a dozen Searchers. Like with the first book, I'm ambivalent about such a large cast. On the one hand, they're all well-developed characters with distinct personalities and backstories. On the other, relating all those backstories to the reader requires more and more expositionary dialog while the plot stalls. It also clutters the story. The sheer number of supporting characters makes it nearly impossible to keep everything important in your head. Nightshade had the same problem, and at the time I thought it was worth it. But when Calla's old packmates showed up it took some time to remember who was who and what their personal subplots were, which suggests the approach might be counter-productive.

Most of the real meat in the story is the Shay/Calla/Ren love triangle, which is actually a lot deeper and better executed than most books can pull off. Despite having run off with Shay, Calla is still wearing Ren's ring, and Shay becomes a bit of a jerk about it, which hangs a dark cloud over their relationship for most of the book. For awhile I thought this was all a contrived attempt to draw out the tension, but on further reflection it makes perfect sense psychologically. On Shay's part, he's risked his life for Calla several times, and spent the whole last book trying to help her break away from a corrupt social order. So when he sees her still hanging on to what she left behind, of course he's going to be a little frustrated.

Meanwhile, if you read between the lines of Calla's feelings for Ren, you realize she's not really in love with him. She's concerned about his fate, but it's not the same thing. In her mind, Ren's become a symbol of the life she left behind -- bad for her, certainly, but also familiar. Contrariwise, the Searchers are an unknown faction who don't fully trust Calla, so it becomes a case of the devil you do know versus the devil you don't. More importantly, however justified she was, Calla still betrayed Ren. Not only that, she betrayed her packmates as well, condemning them to imprisonment and torture. They were all part of the system, giving it their tacit approval, if not always supporting it. But they were also good people and close friends. What Calla's asking herself, really, is "did I make the right decision?" Was her freedom worth the price?

As for Ren:

Contrary to popular belief, I do not object to Ren as a character. He makes a good villain. I'll even say that by the end of Wolfsbane, he's significantly more sympathetic then when we first met him. My objection is to the fangirls who think he would make a good match for Calla. Her angst notwithstanding, Ren was a horrible boyfriend, possessive and controlling yet with no loyalty to Calla. And while his brief appearance in Wolfsbane shows some regret, it's still a violent encounter with undertones of rape. With that said, though, it is becoming apparent just how much Ren is a product of the society that raised him. His personal growth was stunted the same way Calla's was, hemming him into the same restricting worldview. The only real difference between them is that the system put him on top and her on the bottom. So while he's still a villain, he's a tragic villain, a falcon in a gilded cage with no control over his destiny. Cremer is setting up a redemption arc for him, one which will hopefully bear fruit in Bloodrose.

All in all, Wolfsbane is a solid story, although not as good as its predecessor. It drags a lot in places, and a lot of the supporting cast is all dressed up with no place to go. Still, it's a worthy read for those who liked the first book, and hopefully with all of the world-building out of the way, Cremer can deliver a solid concluding chapter in Bloodrose.

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