Monday, November 7, 2011
Author: Joseph Bruchac
Publisher: Lee & Low Books
The last book I recall snatching off the library shelves on total, blind impulse was Red Moon Rising, which turned out to be an underrated gem. I picked up Wolfbreed and Raised by Wolves in the same fashion. So when I saw Wolf Mark sitting on the new books cart, having heard nothing of it beforehand, I trusted my instincts and grabbed it. I was not disappointed. Joseph Bruchac has crafted a tale that, while not quite as original as he seems to think, delivers a solid reading experience.
While you can't exactly call Lucas King's life comfortable, he gets by. Sure, he lives in a dilapidated trailer with a father who drowns himself in booze and weed. And sure, he lives in a small town on the verge of collapsing from the Great Recession. But on the other hand, he's got good friends, a sweet motorcycle, and an actual home -- be it ever so humble -- after spending too long moving from place to place around the country. His main concern is making a love connection with a beautiful Pakistani immigrant whom he knows from school. But then his dad's past comes back to haunt them both, when Lucas receives a coded message from dad telling him he's been kidnapped. Dad vanishes, but the kidnappers have no idea what they're dealing with. Before mom died, dad was a special forces operative, and he taught Lucas everything he knew, including how to think his way through difficult situations. And when dad's directions lead Lucas to an ancient family secret, Luke finds out he has more than enough power to take on the kidnappers and get his father back.
Wolf Mark takes a bit to get going. The opening chapters are very patchwork, introducing a bunch of ideas and concepts with little enthusiasm. And the writing style is, to be blunt, not the best. It's serviceable, especially Luke's vibrantly sarcastic and rambling narration, but actual dialog is often stilted. Bruchac also soapboxes a bit much; that rambling narration takes repeated swipes at the poor state of the country's economy and the failure of trickle-down policies to fix it. It doesn't jar too much, but it's annoying. More annoying is his habit of consistently faking out the reader with false scares. The first time he closes a chapter on Lucas reacting in surprise to something only to backpedal right at the start of the next chapter, it's mildly irritating. But it becomes increasingly obnoxious with each iteration, and you often get the feeling of him laughing at the reader, "Ha ha! Fooled you!"
With that said, though, once the action got properly started, Wolf Mark became a highly engrossing read. Luke stands out among the heroes of YA literature for being incredibly clever and competent. He doesn't just blunder into a conflict and start acting on instinct. He takes in every facet of a situation with practiced ease, and then deftly outmaneuvers his enemies with the techniques his father taught him until he's in the clear and they're frustrated and confounded. The crowning moment of the book is a confrontation at the trailer where Luke outwits two henchmen into abandoning their mission and leading him straight back to their base without them ever knowing he's even there. This is a style of awesomeness that is rarely seen in YA.
Regrettably, the book can't hit this level of quality consistently. After this point, the book runs out of steam. A confrontation with the police feels like filler, and in general the plot meanders a bit until things are set up for the castle-storming sequence. And when it comes time for the rescue mission, the trickster-hero bits are abandoned for shocking discoveries, pages of exposition, and more traditional action sequences. A pity, it was going so well.
The book is also, as mentioned, not as unique as Bruchac believes it to be. He stated in the author's notes that he wanted to create a sympathetic werewolf that drew from Native American traditions, and he succeeded, but he seems to think this is uncommon, when in fact both aspects are kinda standard, maybe even a little overdone. And while he deserves credit for a book with a Native American hero, a Middle Eastern love interest, and a group of friendly Russians who turn out to be allies, the multicultural love is somewhat undermined by a bad guy who is a stock-standard Evil German Mad Scientist. Seriously, the archvillain is so obnoxious that when he finally appears, his over-the-top motive rant and cheeseball, cliched villainy completely derails the books climax.
But I don't want to give the impression that I disliked this book. To the contrary, despite the things it does wrong, Wolf Mark is still an engaging story with a charismatic and enjoyable hero. Give it a try.