By Kelley Armstrong
I had only a hundred pages left of the “serious” novel, but then it took yet another dark and heavy turn. Damn this 600+ tome which has dramatically reduced my reading rate to ONE book for the month of July. Then a friend lent me Bitten, the first book in the Women of the Otherworld series about werewolves, witches, necromancers, and vampires struggling to fit into contemporary human society. Perfect – just when I needed to take a break with something fluffy!
And did it deliver some fluff. Bitten introduces us to Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf in the world. Cuz one, the werewolf gene only gets passed from father to son. Two, werewolves don't have long-term relationships but they can mate with a human woman. If a male baby pops out, the father kidnaps said baby and boy is secretly raised with his werewolf brethren. Three, humans can turn into werewolves by getting bitten, but the majority do not to survive their first agonizing transformation. And it’s super duper rare for a woman to survive a werewolf bite. This is why Elena is so highly coveted in the werewolf world, they all want to do her.
The back-story is told via flashback when our heroine falls hard for Clayton Danvers, a blonde curly-locked academic with piercing blue eyes and a body straight out of Baywatch. Clay has a dirty little secret: he is actually the Beta male of the only werewolf pack in the world, aka the Pack, as well as the foster son & bodyguard of Jeremy, the Alpha (leader of the Pack :-). Clay may lack basic social skills and possess a disdainful attitude towards people, but Elena would never suspect this is because her BF is more wolf than man! Did I mention that on top of Clay’s wolfish sex appeal, he is also a brilliant academic who earned his Ph.D. specializing in ancient anthropomorphic religions?
When Clay ends up biting Elena without her consent, she doesn’t exactly embrace her newfound wolfenness. Instead she spends much of the novel being pissed off at her BF. It isn’t so much that he lied to Elena about his true identity, but he had to thoughtlessly ruin any chance for her to attain the normal happy human life she never had. How bloody inconvenient is that? Elena may not get past the indignant “how could you!” phase but it doesn't stop her from having hot outdoor sex with the guy (in bipedal form unfortunately). You see, our heroine was orphaned at a tender age and subsequently suffered abuse in the hands of foster daddies. After surviving her childhood she became a strong, independent woman, yet she still longs for acceptance and belonging. So Bitten begins with Elena having left the Pack to salvage and resume the ordinary life she was having in… Toronto (what better place to live out a bland, conformist lifestyle?).
Of course, Elena’s attempt at a normal lifestyle gets kiboshed when Jeremy summons her back to his estate in upstate New York to deal with an emergency. Non-Pack werewolves are stirring up trouble in their territory of Stonehaven, perhaps even staging a coup. Pack werewolves use the more derogatory term – mutts (I know, don't laugh) - for these problematic lone wolves. To keep mutts in check, the Pack routinely seeks out and punishes those who try to settle down, since making a home for oneself means claiming territory - and only the Pack could claim territory. As a result, mutts drift from place to place, stealing and killing humans for food.
Armstrong has a couple of interesting spins on the werewolf mythos, but she doesn’t delve into her universe deeply enough for me. The Pack versus Mutts issue plays out like werewolf politics, where the Pack is like a fascistic oligarchy, but I’m not sure Armstrong sees it this way, therefore dodging any complexity by portraying mutts as bad werewolves who really just want to kill people whenever they want, just like in the good old pre-Industrial days.
Pack werewolves are more highly evolved somehow and they also have successful careers in the human world (due to the ability to live in one place and cultivate yourself). Since all mutts live by their own rules, they aren’t exactly team players and thus, not worthy of the Pack. What’s more, murderous mutts call attention to themselves and threaten the safety of all werewolves, so this gives reason for the Pack to eliminate them with impunity. So yes, the Pack is good, Mutts are baaaad. There is no comparison, I know, but if you really want to read a meaty novel about how otherwise civilized people succumb to the pack instinct and transform themselves into barbaric murderers, I suggest you read The Secret History.
But what if there are mutts who don’t want to kill, keep a low profile and want a bit of territory? Just enough land to hunt some wild game, so they don’t have the urge to kill humans. This way the Pack won’t have to waste time traveling around the world rousting out stray mutts, and werewolves can all live happily ever after… oh but wait, we won’t have much of a story then, will we?
So a few conniving mutts want to either destroy the Pack or negotiate territory for themselves, so they come up with the brilliant idea of turning human serial killers into werewolves and sicking them on members the Pack. This would be an exciting plot device but the villainous mutts and serial killers-turned-werewolves are disappointingly two-dimensional characters. Come to think of it, the good guys aren’t very dynamic or charismatic either, but at least they're given a little more development and back-story.
There are also some nagging logistical omissions in the storylines. Since bodies can pile up during werewolf skirmishes, the narrator explains it can take at least half a day to make a body disappear. When Pack brother Logan gets killed, they just bury him in the forest and move on. But didn’t Logan fly in from Los Angeles in order to help his pack? In the human world, didn’t he have a successful career as a lawyer and a long-term girlfriend in Albany? If he had loved ones, they’d want to know what happened to him. His law firm would no doubt report him missing. Yet the novel conveniently avoids going into the ramifications of dealing with the recently deceased.
Another issue I have is the interpersonal dynamics within the Pack itself. Armstrong models much of these dynamics on real wolf behaviour, ie. the pack hierarchy. If Elena is the only female werewolf in existence, then wouldn’t wolf behaviour dictate she belong to the Alpha male, and not the Beta? When Clay betrays Elena and Jeremy spends time taking care of her and teaching her the ways of the werewolf, wouldn’t he want to claim Elena as his mate? Oh wait, but the Alpha is conveniently beyond that, ie. the bonds of brotherhood is stronger than succumbing to instinctual behaviour, or whatever. And why can’t mutts claim any territory again? In any case, it is more convenient for Jeremy to be the benevolent father-figure than for the story to have a potentially interesting love triangle.
I’m also not big on Armstrong’s writing style and Elena’s smart-alecky sense of humour is more jarring than amusing. What’s more, the author’s few attempts at pop culture reference backfires. Badly. When Elena tells her hohum human BF that she’s watching Evil Dead 2 on TV, she quips: “This one’s pure camp… It’s a sequel. Horror sequels suck.” Armstrong may have wanted our heroine to sound clever, but she is embarrassingly unaware that ED2 is the rare classic sequel that surpasses its predecessor in sheer awesomeness! But that isn’t the worse offense. She had to have another character proclaim that Scream 2 is actually superior, pretty much destroying any hipster or geek cred she may be trying to grab.
There was another thing about the novel that bugged me, but I couldn’t put a finger on it until near the end, when Elena’s Pack brother Nick confesses:
“I don’t know how you did it in Toronto all those months,” he [Nick] said with a shudder. “I had to do it a couple times last winter… Anyway, I had to Change by myself…. It was awful. It was, like walk out to the woods, Change, stand there until enough time passed, Change back. It was about as much fun as taking a shit… I’m serious. Come on, Elena. Admit it. That’s what it’s like if you’re by yourself.”
I guess if you’re a Pack werewolf there is no joy in embracing the freedom of running in solitude. Elena ends up making fun of her Pack brother because she was a true loner, not by choice, but by circumstance. What Elena ultimately wants is to belong to a community or family because she never had those things growing up. The running theme of Bitten may be about how supernatural beings (outsiders) try to fit into normal society, but it seems the idea it's perpetuating is that the desire to belong to a group is normal and good. To want to be alone, or worse, to want to live a fulfilling life alone, is bad or undesirable. For me, it seems that Armstrong is an extravert who does not understand non-extravert mentality.
As a werewolf, Elena still clings to the artifacts of human society, like wanting to celebrate Christmas every year. Eventually her werewolf family replaces her need for a human one. But the novel provides no option for her to reconcile her humanity with her werewolf side. Genetic werewolves do not identify with humankind, which makes sense, and neither do made werewolves like Clay, who were bitten when they were young. But what about werewolves like Elena, who were turned as adults, what's more a female adult? Sadly, this potentially interesting theme isn’t explored as deeply as I'd like either, or in the way that I was expecting.
I guess the reason I’m giving this book a hard time is because I was really looking forward to reading this book, and it’s the first in a series of like a dozen. But Armstrong’s universe just didn't turn out as rich and rewarding as I hoped it’d be. Her style, humor and aesthetics seem to be opposite of mine and I didn't find anything particularly remarkable or different in her take on the werewolf mythos. Even though I’m already reading the next book, Stolen, it’s mainly because it's already been lent to me, it’s a quick read and I have a mild curiosity in wanting to know what happens next. But it isn’t strong enough to sustain an interest in following the rest of the Otherworld series. One thing Bitten did do for me though, was to rekindle my interest in going back to the ordinary, yet ultimately much more complex, world of my “serious” novel.