If you’ve read Random, Alma Alexander’s novel about a family of shape-shifters and their numerous secrets, odds are you’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the story’s sequel, Wolf. After the cliffhanger ending Alma tortured us with in Random, I couldn’t wait to get my greedy little paws on Wolf. Not only does it pick up following the shocking revelation of the first book, but it’s narrated by the character who intrigued me most in Random: Jazz Marsh’s mysterious older brother Mal.
A friend of mine recently confessed that she fell “a little bit in love” with Mal after meeting his character in the first book of The Were Chronicles, and I can’t say that I blame her. Mal is brooding and inscrutable, a curious amalgam of anger and guilt and wounded pride. He’s also one of the author’s all-time favorite characters, and she’s here today to share why.
My name is Mal Marsh.
Instead of remaining the Random Were that I was born…I enlisted the help of a friend, a creature beyond the strictly drawn boundaries of Were-kind, and chose to become a Lycan, a true wolf. I thought it would give me a chance to take my revenge on those I believed to be responsible for what had happened to my sister. Right until the moment I realized that things were much more complicated that I had ever believed possible… and that my choice might have far more repercussions than I had thought.
One thing was clear.
Everything I thought I knew about my family was wrong.
Falling in Love
By Alma Alexander
When I first nutted out the storyline of The Were Chronicles in my head, I had, as usual, the most broad-strokes outline possible.
I don’t, as a rule, go in for detailed planning or outlining of my books, and I tend to find out what happens next in the same breathless fashion as my eventual readers do – they by reading and me by literally writing the next bit of the narrative. This can mean a very rollercoaster ride for the writer because there are often unexpected things that I never see coming until they flatten me. And boy howdy, did this happen with a vengeance when it came to this series.
These books evolved as a loose triad – not so much a trilogy as a triptych, a story arc seen and observed and most importantly reinterpreted by three different (VERY different!) POV characters.
Random, the first book in the series, showed up in the firm grip of young Jazz, who carried it with grace and humor and a sense of slow enlightenment. But for all that she was familiar territory, when it came to characters. I’m always writing books with strong female protagonists and the 15-year-old Jazz was (almost) a breeze. She was a known commodity, someone whose character I could simply sit down and pour out. She was funny and tragic and strong and beautiful and she was the rock on which I built my story.
But in “her” book, in Random, I also introduced her brother, Mal, the character who would become the POV character in book 2, Wolf. A 17-year-old boy who was tortured by things of a magnitude that would shatter a lesser being. He had to be so much, did Mal – he had to carry so much. And honestly, he was wholly strange in the sense that I had rarely – make that almost never before – written a full book from a male protagonist’s view of the world. He would be a challenge to portray accurately, sympathetically, and believably.
So I started writing his book, in his voice, and waited to see what would happen.
And what happened…was little short of miraculous.
I watched this little boy I had created from my own mind and heart and spirit. I watched him struggle to deal with the weight of the worlds I had laid on his narrow young shoulders, trying to come to terms with difficult things. I watched him *fail* to do that. I watched him turn into this utterly believable sulky, whiny, self-pitying teenage…BOY. A REAL boy. Someone whom I had no problem imagining stepping out of the pages of my book and existing in the real world. Many real people like him, I am almost certain of that, already do – or at least many like this difficult to like early character whom one reviewer has described as a “hostile witness.” That’s exactly what he is – he’s been shaped by forces which are titanic, by love and loss and a sense of inadequacy and self loathing for reasons he can do absolutely nothing about and by a shattering tragic guilt which overshadows his life to the point of threatening to permanently destroy him…until he finds a way to turn that guilt and that sense of personal failure into an ill-thought-out plan of personal revenge, in his own name and in the name of the beloved sister he has always believed himself responsible for the loss of.
And this is where his story really begins. Because at this point, I saw him struggle to deal with his demons, I saw him come face to staring face with one of them… and instead of falling or whining or sulking or doing anything at all that hearkened back to his earlier difficult teenage self, he stood up straight, looked everything in the eye, and TOOK IT ON. Against all odds, against any and all words of wisdom, against everything he knew – putting into jeopardy all of his plans – because he found something else, something bigger, something greater, something that demanded all of him…and he gave it. All.
Does that sound like I kind of fell in love with him at this point? You’d be right. I did. He was so strong, and yet so vulnerable, that everything in me rose to both applaud and protect him.
Perhaps it was that second impulse that breathed life into another character in this story.
I was the author. I was God. I was above and beyond this universe, and it seemed that all I could do for poor Mal was to keep piling grief on him. But inside the story lurked another difficult character, another rebel – Asia. Asia the half-Lycan, with her own dramas and burdens. A touch bitter, bowing down to pack loyalty and doing everything that the pack demanded of her…including being mated within the pack with the newcomer, the boy younger than she by a handful of years, the entity she half-disparagingly refers to as Wonderboy, and trying to make the best out of the situation…until everything crumbles around BOTH of them and she is forced to make an almost impossible choice: her pack, or her mate.
I could not help Mal, I could not save him, so I created this strong, savvy, fiercely intelligent, proud young she-wolf to run at his side. And no, she was not a Mary Sue. She was not, in any way, me. She was the character whom Mal needed to survive this story, and when he needed her she was there.
This is very much that thing which is known in the trade as a “coming of age” book – and both of these young people come of age within it. They are faced with difficult challenges that make them take adult decisions way before they are ready to do that – and they rise to the occasion. They are both adrift, lonely, alone, lost, trying to find a place to belong – but that’s the beginning of the book. By the end, they haven’t adapted themselves to the world – they forced the world into a new conformation which held a new and unexpected and wholly unique new place for them. They were also no longer alone. They weren’t standing back to back, forever looking in opposite directions. No, they were standing there, together, steady, hand in hand, staring the world and all of its demands down until it backs off.
It is not an easy place, and it’s likely to get harder. But it is theirs, and they are there together, and I think, with Asia at his side, that Mal can take anything on at this point. He’s still young but he’s a tempered sword, and he’s a deadly force to be reckoned with.
He is in so many ways a gift of a character – and yes, I fully realize that he can be difficult to like. That, I think, may be the point. He is flesh and blood – he is not a pretty picture painted to be admired by readers, he is there as a full equal to those readers, as real as they, someone they could wrench their eyes away from the book and easily recognize in someone standing right beside them in the “real” world in which they live. He is quite possibly the first male protagonist of mine who has carried the plotline of an entire novel on his own shoulders, and despite having had little practice at writing such characters…this one stepped out fully formed, and perfect. I am so ridiculously PROUD of him.
Mal is an unbelievably powerful character for all his being “difficult” – and by the end of the book, loving him, feeling this insane urge to run out and protect him against all the drama and mayhem that I myself unleashed upon him, it was the best I could do to give him someone like Asia, someone who lived in his world and who could love him and trust him and believe in him and work beside him as partner and as someone to love.
Mal will stay with me for a long time. For someone who never really existed outside the words on the page, he is instantly recognizable to me – I can close my eyes and he is with me, with those brooding eyes, that sardonic grin, that stubborn strength of character which brought him through everything, if not completely unscarred, then at least in one piece. I threw enough at him to break him and he would not break, he shouldered it all and stood tall under the burden and looked me in the eye and said, Damn you, I will survive this. Yes, I will, and all those whom I love, also. Do your worst. I will live. I will endure. I will not ever bend or break or stop being ME.
All I can do from here is smile, and nod, and whisper to Asia, Take good care of him. You won’t find his like again.
About the Author
Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched 2000-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, or her blog.
Don’t forget to check back on Wednesday to read my review of Wolf!