When you read the word “Were-kind,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably an image of a werewolf. This isn’t surprising given the wealth of wolf lore out there, from An American Werewolf in London and The Wolfman to Teen Wolf and Twilight. In Random, however, Alma Alexander introduces a whole different kind of Were and a rich culture to go with it.
There are characters who Turn into wolves during the full moon, sure, but there are a multitude of others who transform into cats, bats, crows – even chickens. There’s also a subset of Were-kind who don’t have a set animal form, instead changing into the last warm-blooded animal they see before the Turn. The novel’s protagonist, almost-13-year-old Jazz Marsh, is one of these so-called Random Were and experiences her first Turn at the beginning of the book.
Jazz’s transformation is premature and…well, let’s just say “unorthodox” so as to avoid spoilers. This early Turn may or may not have been triggered by the stress in Jazz’s life, stress that comes from the heap of secrets and misfortunes that the Marshes have accumulated over the years. To start, there are Jazz’s overprotective parents – immigrants from the Old World where the Were were hunted and persecuted – who keep Jazz sequestered at home. There’s also Mal, her moody older brother who’s still embarrassingly un-Turned at the age of 17. And then there’s Celia, the sister Jazz barely knew who died young and is mourned but never talked about in the Marsh home.
When Jazz stumbles upon Celia’s old diaries, she’s introduced to a version of her sister – and the world – that she never knew existed. Celia describes her family’s experiences as new immigrants, adopting new names, learning a second language, struggling to find employment, and never, ever being allowed to forget they don’t belong. Even worse than being a foreigner is being a foreigner who also happens to be Were; as Celia’s diaries reveal, many Normals – non-shapeshifting humans – are clearly prejudiced against Were-kind.
Strict laws require Weres to carry identification at all times and to be contained in government-approved holding areas during their Turns. The unfortunate Weres without access to a private Turning facility must report to the ghastly Turning Houses, where conditions are bleak, to say the least. Injustice takes place even at school. Celia is bullied by her classmates and discriminated against by her teachers. Life becomes nearly unbearable under their torment, and poor Celia can confide in no one but her diary, which she does until her untimely death.
These diaries open Jazz’s eyes to the plight of Weres in general and her deceased sister in particular. As she describes, “Those diaries sucked me in like a whirlpool; I drank in the poison of Celia’s life in great gulps, and I could feel it changing me as I did that.” Not surprisingly, the diaries raise many questions for Jazz. Why and how do the Were transform? Why don’t they remember the time they spend as animals? How can you hold on to your sense of self when your identity is fluid? Do animals, and therefore the Were, have souls? As Jazz seeks answers to these questions, she discovers that the more she learns, the less she seems to understand about Were-kind, or even her own family.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, Random isn’t just a story about shapeshifters, it’s a story about humanity. It’s about what it means to be a member of a family, a culture, a race. This is an ambitious undertaking, but Alexander handles it with grace and skill. There were times when I found it challenging to keep up with all of the plot points and cause-and-effect relationships, but the story was well worth the effort.
As great as the plot is, what really made me fall in love with Random is the way Alexander writes. There’s a beauty to her language, an intelligence and insight. Take this line, for example: “I looked at her and I saw an ocean; I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw a suburban fishpond with a couple of tired koi swimming around in circles.” Her voice is comforting and warm, like snuggling up in front of a crackling fire with a mug of hot cocoa; if I could wrap her words around myself like a fuzzy blanket, I totally would.
The only downside to Alexander’s writing is that it doesn’t always seem in character for someone Jazz’s age. Many times Jazz comes across sounding more like a college professor than a pre-teen. I don’t know any 12-year-olds who say things like, “[H]e would do so by apportioning blame and justification of ‘defense’ against the encroaching Other that threatened his own world view,” for example. Still, the fact that the writing is so smart and lovely makes this easy to overlook.
Something else I appreciated was the humor in the book. Despite the weighty subject matter, there’s plenty of levity to keep you smiling as you read. Much of this humor comes from Jazz’s attitude, particularly towards her parents and brother. She’s funny, passionate, and mischievous in turns, and I found it very easy to like her.
In fact, all of the characters appealed to me. I really liked Mal, who, though very brooding, sulky, and resentful, is undeniably interesting. I couldn’t get enough of him, nor of the other supporting characters, like Jazz’s friend Charlie and his mother Vivian, who is also the Marsh family’s caretaker while they’re in their Were forms.
The great characters, fascinating Were culture, and lyrical prose all guarantee that I’ll be reading the next book in the Were Chronicles trilogy as soon as it’s available. Alexander is a thoughtful, inventive, and articulate author, and I can’t wait to see what else she has in store for Jazz and her family.
A free ARC of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Check back tomorrow for an interview with Alma Alexander and a chance to win a free copy of Random!