- Joyce Chng writing as J Damask. Heart of Fire. Fox Spirit Books.
- Jo Thomas. 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf. Fox Spirit Books.
Disclosure: These books both come from my personal library, and coincidentally come from the same small publisher. [Www.foxspirit.co.uk]
Werewolves are a staple of both traditional horror and contemporary urban fantasy. Chng and Thomas write them with startling originality and resonant detail. Both novels are deeply rooted in research and specific landscapes, with vivid and memorable protagonists, and both work splendidly as stand-alone novels while being part of a larger arc. Heart of Fire is the third in a trilogy, while 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf is the first in a planned series of three novels, with its sequel (Pack of Lies) just released this month.
In July, Fox Spirit is re-releasing Wolf at the Door and Obsidian Eye, Obsidian Moon (books 1 and 2 of J Damask’s trilogy).
I have read both of these books as stand-alones.
Everyone expects a Book 1 to entice, but I also found Heart of Fire, Book 3 of a trilogy, compelling as a stand-alone narrative with a lot of implied backstory. Jan Xu (Xu Yin) is mother to a lively toddler, an active participant in her family and community, with a sister who is suffering from physical and mental disability in the wake of earlier events.
She’s also a werewolf, and the alpha of her pack. One of the most powerful themes in this story is the generational changing of the guard. I read it just before my final six weeks with my mentor, and the emotional truthfulness of the relationship between Jan Xu and her dying father (as well as his presence with her after his death) gave the kind of sustenance we expect from great fiction. The scenes of family life are delightful, including the extended family packing up cars and coolers for a Lunar New Year traditional gathering. That it’s werewolves getting ready for a full-moon hunt is just one more detail, and the family dynamics remind us that (were)wolves are family people.
Of course, as city folk living in Singapore, Jan Xu and her kin take part not only in family politics but municipal politics. Singapore supernaturals are both indigenous and European; the drakes (European dragons) have intermarried with their local counterparts, only one of many relationships carrying over from a colonial past.
On my second reading of Heart of Fire, I noticed how much of the sensory palette is kinesthetic, gustatory, or olfactory. Those deep, old senses hook into human memory and evoke the sensory surround of a city I’ve never visited, not an “exotic locale,” but an old city full of people who’ve lived there for generations and retained ties to rural roots. There’s a sensual specificity about food, interiors, ordinary family relationships, children at play, family holidays, that’s really marvelous (oh yes, and on the subsequent read-through I got the same craving for oyster dumplings, so don’t read this novel when you are hungry).
Along with Jan Xu we feel supernatural politics as an intrusion into daily routine. She already has enough stuff going on, and dealing with dragons, vampires, and other troublemakers local and imported is not what she wants to be doing with her time. She gives short shrift to the angsty characters who’d be the focus in a standard-issue urban fantasy, whether the wealthy bicultural vampire or the mysterious foreign werewolf who’s turned up on her territory with wounds from an attack by parties unknown.
The glimpses we get of Jan Xu’s relationship with her husband, sister, parents, as well as minor characters such as her community-gardening Taoist elf friend carry the weight of established relationship, and make me hungry for backstory without leaving me entirely in the dark. As in all great urban fantasy, the place is itself a character, with a wonderful sense of layers of history hidden under the busy surface of the present day.
In the course of the story, Jan Xu settles into her new status as alpha. She’s such an interesting character that I want to know how she got there. So I’m eagerly awaiting the first two volumes of her story.
As a writer, I found myself watching all the references to events (back story) outside the scope of the tale. They’re done with feather-light grace, after the fashion of world-building asides in good historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. The other thing that’s nonstandard here is that it’s written POV the “supernatural creature” and takes us for a journey in another skin.
The sensory palette is a huge part of the human-but-Other feeling of the story. Jan Xu constantly reacts to the “wrong smell” (be it drakes, vampires, or werewolves outside her pack) with a convincing combination of revulsion and resolution. Yes, they’re Other, but they’re part of my world. Yes, all this political stuff is a serious annoyance, but dealing with it is part of my family responsibility. This relatively brief story (under 50K words) shows and suggests a rich web of kinship, relationship, alliance, and opposition.
Heart of Fire takes place in a lush, sophisticated urban setting, with a protagonist who enjoys a lively and ramified family of both blood and affinity. 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf is a stark contrast, both in setting and social milieu. The protagonist, Elkie Bernstein, is the child of an embattled single mother; she grows up in impoverished rural Wales, isolated from most of her peers except for her next-door neighbor, David. Since childhood, Elkie and David have practiced combat with homemade spears, learned the scrubby local landscape, and cobbled together a notion of the world from romance novels, television, and spotty access to the internet.
When a series of lone werewolves show up, one after the other, Elkie and David improvise ways to defend themselves. These werewolves are scary lone men with wrong-wrong-wrong written all over them. Jo Thomas is playing an entirely different face of the werewolf: the savage within, inhumanly murderous. The gritty contemporary setting plays off ancient echoes of berserkers alongside well-researched detail about rural life, biological hazards (including parvovirus), not to mention what happens when train hits werewolf. (Answer: train wins.)
Before long, Elkie and David track the shape-shifters back to a neighbor whose wife and son supposedly left him. The real case is both weirder and uglier than that, including some murky business with the son, Ben, and a series of citified visitors. No spoilers here, but economic motives drive a good part of the action. This is not some misty Celtic Twilight landscape but an underdeveloped corner of a modern country, where ambitious young people are as desperate to leave as their counterparts in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.
Not long into their career as a werewolf-killing duo, Elkie and David have serious differences of philosophy. Elkie finds herself at odds not only with the werewolves but her former friend. Both her character and David’s are limned in psychologically realistic action, with an arc of ambition and betrayal that rivals the drama of supernatural action scenes. Not that there’s any shortage of the latter; Jo Thomas makes good on her promise of twenty-five lethal means, which unfold in clumsy, brutal, and occasionally comic action scenes. As the situation spins out of control, Elkie finds herself more and more isolated.
What drives this story is a resourceful and desperate young protagonist, far out of her depth and dealing with a series of ugly surprises.
The supernatural element here is as matter-of-fact as in Chng’s novel, and just as much an intrusion into the main character’s life. Unlike many urban fantasy heroines, Elkie wastes no time in either angst or skepticism, but adapts to the new reality with the alacrity of a survivor. Like Jan Xu, Elkie is the child of a specific place and time, and all the more memorable for it. Whether she’s doing farm chores, studying (or abandoning) school-leaving exams, battling predatory interlopers, or doing internet research at the local library, Elkie feels entirely plausible. In particular, the pinch of her limited resources very real.
Structurally, there’s a sort of triangle between Elkie, David, and Ben. It’s far from romantic, even when sexual attraction comes into play. David’s in an adventure quest, Ben’s in a video game, and Elkie has to cope with the results implied by those narratives. As with Chng’s novel, I’ve read this one more than a few times, to tease out how different levels of narrative work.
Thomas deploys a witty meta-narrative here about the sorts of stories people think they’re in, as well as mordant satire of stories and situations that have become a staple of paint-by-numbers contemporary fantasy. She dispatches the usual story with the same ruthless, desperate verve that her protagonist dispatches vulpine shape-shifters. There’s nothing attractive about these werewolves. They have a lot in common with mundane predators, the drifter/serial killer or the neighborhood child molester.
Thomas evokes Northern European folklore about magical wolf-skins, whereas Chng draws from the behavior of real wolf families. The enchantment in 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf is of the raise-the-hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck variety, and the gritty rural setting both underlines and offsets this. The magic in Heart of Fire is everyday family life on the border between human and Other, with sensual details from a very-much-intact cultural and physical setting.
For both novels, research is the bones, character the muscle, and conflict the motive force.
As the first novel in a larger arc, 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf does not resolve all its plot threads, and implies trouble to come even as Elkie confronts the people who’ve been making werewolves… to what end, it’s not clear. I found the structure very satisfying, though I’m definitely looking forward to more.
Update: at time of writing (7/7/2015) book 2 of the Elkie Bernstein series, Pack of Lies, is available both in paperback and ebook. I’ve purchased it and have begun reading. Wolf at the Door is also available in paperback.
In a few weeks, I’ll be writing about Prequels and Sequels, and talking about the larger arcs.