Review: Shifter by Alma Alexander

Shifter Book Cover Shifter
Alma Alexander

My name is Saladin van Schalkwyk.

And yes, there is a story behind that name.

I was not an accident; I was a chimera, both in name and deep into my DNA.

I was created.

I did not know for what purpose, and the secrets that surrounded my past were too well guarded for me to break through.

So when my friend Mal offered to take the chance of becoming a Lycan in order to infiltrate their ranks and find out the truth for me, I agreed to help him in any way I could.

We both learned far more than we had bargained for. And one thing was clear.

Everything I thought I knew about myself was wrong.

Review:

*This review contains spoilers for Random and Wolf, the first two books in the Were Chronicles.*

I received a free ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When I sat down to begin Shifter, the final novel in Alma Alexander’s Were Chronicles trilogy, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d enjoyed Random and Wolf, the first two books, and expected I would like Shifter very much as well. I expected a funny, devil-may-care protagonist who would make me chuckle, wrap up the trilogy in a neat little bow, and leave me to put the book aside at the end and continue merrily on my way.

Here’s what I did NOT expect: to be presented with a bold, caring, noble protagonist who would win my heart, move me to tears, and leave me, more than a week after finishing Shifter, still reeling and struggling to regain my emotional equilibrium.

Shifter is by far the best novel in the Were Chronicles, though I’ll admit I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. Each book in the trilogy is narrated by a different character and starts with an extensive recap of the events of the previous book(s) from the current narrator’s point of view. This can get repetitive, and even though Shifter is told from the perspective of Saladin “Chalky” van Schalkwyk, my favorite character in the series, I was initially frustrated that I seemed to be re-reading an old story rather than getting a new one. There are new details on Chalky’s childhood – what it was like growing up with his paranoid and mentally unfit mother, how he came to Turn for the first time, what his life was like as a young hacker – but the key points of the plot aren’t “new” until approximately 75% into the book.

Once Shifter catches up to where Wolf ended, though, things get good. Really good. There’s the re-emergence of the hateful Barbican Bain, with whom Chalky interacts personally. There’s a slip-up that has dire consequences for Were-kind in general and Chalky and the Marshes in particular. There’s escalated anti-Were violence and paranoia. And, as Chalky points out, “at the center of it all, there was that primal terror – not of what the Were-kind actually were, but of what they could be.”

Even if the action hadn’t picked up the way it did, Chalky as a narrator still would have been enough to make Shifter my favorite book in the Were Chronicles. I liked Chalky in Random and Wolf, finding his humor and craftiness appealing, but it wasn’t until Shifter that I had the opportunity to peer into his inner workings and realize that there’s so much more to Chalky than simply being Mal’s clever techy friend. Beneath his jaunty demeanor is a profound loneliness and a desire to be part of a family. He’s one of a kind, for better or worse, always on the fringes of society:

“I did think for a moment that it might be better for everyone if I never Turned back into Saladin van Schalkwyk, the human misfit who was so very wary and lonely and alone in that life. Perhaps I could just stay as this bird, from now on, and I might never have to think about any of that other stuff again. Nobody would ever hit me, or look at me as though I was the cause of everything bad that had happened to them. They wouldn’t resent me or think of me as a burden or a nuisance, or even a reminder of things that might have been but never came to pass. I would be free.”

Being the only one of his kind comes with a certain accountability. As the Spiderman movies proclaim, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and Chalky is the most powerful Were alive. He is pivotal to the events of all three books in the Were Chronicles, and though other characters play important roles in the adventure, the series couldn’t possibly take place without Chalky’s skills as a hacker and his ability to shift into whatever form is needed. By virtue of his unique gifts, he becomes the guardian angel that watches over the Marsh family and everyone else who crosses his path, taking care of them because he’s the only one who can do so.

I was intellectually interested in the plights and philosophical questions in Random and Wolf, but it wasn’t until I viewed the story through Chalky’s lonely, yearning, white-knight lens that I was impacted on an emotional level. In the scene where Celia is reunited with her siblings after years of absence, for example, I actually got choked up. I’d read this scene once before in Wolf, and it hadn’t really affected me. When shown through Chalky’s eyes, though, it brought me to tears.

One thing I’ve always found captivating about the Were Chronicles is the way Alexander portrays the logistics and consequences of Turning. This is especially compelling in Shifter, as Chalky isn’t encumbered by the same “rules” as the rest of Were-kind. His abilities are above and beyond those of other Were, but so are the repercussions of using these abilities. Here are a couple of snippets:

“My innards felt churned up, as though all my major organs were still deciding where they properly went after they’d been forced to play do-si-do in various body forms with such intensity over a shatteringly short period of time.”

And:

“There was a trade-off when it came to Were changes. Things had to be kept in balance … Much smaller creatures – like for instance a mouse, the shape I was in now – paid for the loss of mass by an increase in metabolism – we were hyper-charged mice, if you like. Our heart rates were much higher than an ordinary mouse. The wear and tear on our insides was enormous; we literally had to give up physical substance to drop into something that could weigh one hundredth or less of our human form, and that had to go somewhere. We paid for it with an acceleration of energy and metabolism. Our small forms lived faster. If we stayed in a small form for too long we could – probably literally – explode our hearts.”

Much as I loved Shifter, there were some parts that didn’t work for me. The ending is rushed, with several events not fleshed out to my satisfaction. Likewise, an important relationship is established without having sufficient time to develop; the reader is required to simply take the author’s word for it that said relationship makes sense. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing in general, and you’re asked to take it on faith that the friendship between Chalky and Mal is deeply rooted and that the two have had many meaningful bonding moments beyond what’s directly witnessed in the books.

None of these things matter, though, in light of how much of an emotional punch Shifter packs, especially in the last few chapters. Alexander’s writing is gorgeous and insightful, and she uses it to full advantage. I’m always sad when I finish a great story, but as I wrote to Alma Alexander in a Facebook message while in the throes of book withdrawal, “I just finished Shifter and now I have to cancel my plans for the day to eat chocolate and cry!” The best books leave a hole in you when they’re over, and Shifter certainly left a gaping void in me. 

The experience is worth it, though. And look at it this way – once you’re finished you can always go back and re-read the book’s perfect last line over and over again to bring yourself comfort, as I’ve been doing. So what are you waiting for? Go get some chocolate and start reading this book!

Review: Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock

Hemlock Book Cover Hemlock
Kathleen Peacock

Mackenzie and Amy were best friends.

Until Amy was brutally murdered.

Since then, Mac's life has been turned upside down. She is being haunted by Amy in her dreams, and an extremist group called the Trackers has come to Mac's hometown of Hemlock to hunt down Amy's killer:

A white werewolf.

Lupine syndrome - also known as the werewolf vius - is on the rise across the country. Many of the infected try to hide their symptoms, but bloodlust is not easy to control.

Wanting desperately to put an end to her nightmares, Mac decides to investigate Amy's murder herself. She discovers secrets lurking in the shadows of Hemlock, secrets about Amy's boyfriend, Jason, her good pal Kyle, and especially her late best friend. Mac is thrown into a maelstrom of violence and betrayal that puts her life at risk.

Kathleen Peacock's thrilling novel is the first in the Hemlock trilogy, a spellbinding urban fantasy series filled with provocative questions about prejudice, trust, lies, and love.

Review:

Like many other readers, I have to credit Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga for initiating me in the ways of paranormal romance. Prior to meeting Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, and Jacob Black, I never would have dreamed of venturing beyond my realm of realistic fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. Twilight opened my eyes to a totally different genre than the ones I was used to, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Though I’ve expanded to paranormal fiction, I have to admit my experience within the genre has been decidedly lopsided. I’ve gobbled up countless vampire novels, but the werewolf side of the house has been noticeably anemic. Hemlock is the beginning of my attempt to balance this out.

In Kathleen Peacock’s novel, the world is coming to terms with the existence of werewolves and dealing with the fear and prejudice that go along with this. Strict rules regulate werewolves, requiring that anyone who becomes infected by lupine syndrome, the disease that triggers a transformation from human to werewolf during periods of stress, anger, or other intense emotion, reports themselves within 30 days. At that time, the werewolf forfeits their assets and basic human rights and is relocated to a rehabilitation camp, where they must live out the rest of their lives “quarantined” from the rest of the population.

In the town of Hemlock, the general fear and mistrust is exacerbated by a rash of brutal werewolf attacks. When Amy, teenage granddaughter of a U.S. senator, is savagely murdered, the senator calls in a group of hunters known as the Trackers to help maintain order in the town and apprehend the wolf responsible. The group has its roots in white supremacy groups, so as you can imagine their methods and ideology leave something to be desired.

Amy’s best friend Mackenzie wants justice for Amy and the other victims, but she doesn’t agree with the Trackers that justice means the eradication of all werewolves. When it becomes evident that the police and the Trackers are more committed to furthering their own political agenda than actually solving Amy’s murder, Mac decides to take matters into her own hands and launch an investigation of her own.

I haven’t read enough werewolf books to truly gauge how Hemlock stacks up against its peers, but it didn’t strike me as particularly awe-inspiring. It’s a decent book, and I enjoyed Peacock’s writing style, but the plot is extremely predictable, and the mystery didn’t really wow me. The book also lacked the depth and weight I’d been expecting from a book about murder and prejudice and hate.

One thing I did like about Hemlock was watching the evolution of the characters’ relationships. When Amy was alive, she and Mac were part of a happy posse that included Amy’s boyfriend Jason and his best friend Kyle. After Amy’s death, the relationship between the three survivors understandably changes. Jason’s guilt and grief drive him into a self-destructive downward spiral, and Mac’s determination to help him out of scrapes causes friction between her and Kyle. Grief, secrets, prejudice, and vastly differing opinions about the Trackers’ mission test the trio’s limits and strain their friendship.

I always find it fascinating to read about relationships where people try to operate as though nothing’s changed when it obviously has. It was interesting to see Mac try to reconcile the Jason and Kyle she knew and loved when Amy was alive with the Jason and Kyle who are left behind after Amy’s death. The “new” Jason spends a lot of time getting drunk, getting into fights, and basically being a dillweed, but Mac can’t help but remember the great guy he used to be before Amy’s murder. She can’t stop herself from caring about that Jason, and this is what keeps her in his corner, even when he’s acting like a jackass.

This is another thing that I liked about Hemlock: it doesn’t glorify being a “bad boy” like a lot of other YA novels do. While I’m all for fictional troublemakers, it’s a nice change to see a book that sends the message that dealing with drama and danger isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jason is rich and gorgeous, but the fact that he’s undependable and self-absorbed detracts from his appeal. As one character points out, “Someone needs to tell him that the drunken and tragic antihero isn’t all that sexy in real life.”

If it weren’t for the relationships in Hemlock, I probably wouldn’t have given this book more than 2 stars. As it stands, though, I feel like the trilogy has good potential, and I look forward to seeing the plot and characterization taken to the next level in the sequel, Thornhill.

Review: Random by Alma Alexander

Random Book Cover Random
Alma Alexander

My name is Jazz Marsh.

I am a Random Were, which means I am a Were of no fixed form – like all Random Were, my family can become any warm-blooded creature which is the last thing they see before they Turn. For me, when my time came, that meant… trouble.

I was quite young when I lost my older sister, Celia, and my family never spoke about her. It was only when I found the secret diaries that she had left behind that I began to discover the truth behind her life and her death.

I never understood what drove my moody and dangerous older brother until I began to get an inkling about his part in Celia’s death… and until, driven to the edge of patience and understanding, he finally had to face his own Turn problems… and disastrously took matters into his own hands.

One thing is clear.

Everything I thought I knew about Were-kind was wrong.

Review:

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!