Thursday, 14 October 2010

Review: Naomi Clark, Silver Kiss (QueeredFiction, 2010)



Naomi Clark's novel, Silver Kiss, is an urban fantasy set in a world where humans and werewolves live side by side. The narrator is Ayla Hammond, a werewolf who lives with her human girlfriend Shannon. Ayla has recently returned home (with Shannon), after years of self-imposed exile from her pack. Shannon works as a private detective and is asked to investigate the disappearance of a teen werewolf named Molly Brady. This investigation, and the consequences of what Ayla and Shannon uncover, forms the main plot of Clark's novel. However, other issues - such as Ayla's reintegration into her family/pack, and Shannon's lack of ease with this homecoming - also surface over the course of the narrative.

Clark's work weaves together elements of various genres, which is not an easy feat. She does this well, though the novel's heart belongs to urban fantasy. In-keeping with this generic context, Clark creates an alternative 'reality' in which werewolves are integrated into human society. The establishent of this world is done with subtlety; 'reality' is conveyed through character and action, and Clark avoids using lengthy exposition. For example, early on in the story, the reader is given a glimpse of the television news Ayla is watching: "Then the final headline went past: Teen werewolf still missing in Yorkshire." This matter-of-fact way of presenting the 'alternate reality' of Silver Kiss adds depth to the fantasy. The reader is immersed in the world without constants breaks to have things explained. This is, of course, due to the fact that the story is told through the first person narration of Ayla herself. Exposition would seem somewhat odd from a character who is living the reality! Notable exceptions to this are Clark's explanations of how the police force and hospitals have adapted to accommodate and make use of werewolves. Nevertheless, both of these (appropriately brief) clarifications are necessary to the plot.

What becomes apparent, however, is that this accepted integration of humans and werewolves is a vulnerable status quo. Hints appear early on of a more troubled relationship between the species. Ayla works at a tattoo parlour - a common trope of urban fantasy, and often a place of refuge and safety for 'other' beings - but her colleague Kaye isn't "keen on lesbians or werewolves". Kaye's hostility towards Ayla speaks of a prejudice based on a long shared human/werewolf history: "When I was a kid, my brother used to tell me that you guys hunted humans down at Lupercali... you'd steal little kids and chase them through the woods on full moons." Ayla responds to this by offering a lycanthropic point of view: "My granddad used to tell me that human hunters went after us on full moons."

The uneasy relationship between humans and wolves becomes more and more threatening as the novel progresses, and is an important aspect of the central plot. By the brutal final confrontation, Ayla has become lost in a more "primitive" understanding of human/wolf dynamics: "For as long as there had been forests and prey to stalk them in, man and wolves had been enemies." Drawing on the generic conventions of detective fiction and thriller, as well as those of fantasy, Silver Kiss has Ayla and Shannon drawn into a dangerous circle of drugs, violence and anti-werewolf hate crime. Although the women are gay, many of the difficulties they face are due to Ayla's species, rather than her sexuality. Affiliations with the "Pack" are also a source of tension for a number of characters.

Clark's werewolves are a familiar type. Born, rather than made, the lycanthropes of Silver Kiss lives in packs that resemble extended family structures, but which are maintained with hierarchical structures and codes of conduct. Thus, we are told, there "was no law against abortion in the Pack, same as there was no law against homosexuality. But there was an unspoken, acknowledged rule that it was not done." Wolves who do not follow these acknowledged rules risk being outcast. Other wolves, like Ayla, may choose to sever their own ties with the pack and become a "lone wolf". This type of self-imposed banishment entails the danger of becoming "feral". In addition to rigid pack structures, Clark's werewolves are also influenced by the (feminized) moon, although they are able to transform at will; they are also quick to heal and adversely affected by wolfsbane. As in most fantasy fiction, the metamorphosis into wolf form is presented as easy, near-painless and swift. It is something to be desirec, as being a wolf brings with it freedom, harmony with nature, and beauty. There is also no break in consciousness between the human and the wolf: memories and rationality are not changed with the shapeshift occurs.

Though the werewolves in Silver Kiss are of a recognizable variety, Clark does offer some exploration of the darker side of these lycanthropic identities. The questions of savagery, brutality and wildness are never far below the surface. In the opening chapters of the book, we are introduced to the "Lupercali", a werewolf festival celebrating pack loyalties and the coming-of-age of cubs. This is first presented as a cultural and social experience, one which cubs learn about in "Lupine Studies" at school. However, within just over a page, we see a female wolf approaching with a sacrificed lamb: "Its throat had been recently cut and the lamb still smelled warm, its blood perfuming the air." Ayla acknowledges this inherent violence of the werewolf, but is at pains to relegate this to a dark vision of the "Middle Ages". Nonetheless, it surfaces in Silver Kiss, culminating in the degeneration of many of the wolves into creatures controlled by their "bloodlust".

Clark juxtaposes the wildness and brutality of wolves with the violence inherent in human beings. The "Alpha Human" group that terrorizes and attacks werewolves is a sinister organization that carries out acts of 'inhuman' cruelty - such as the murder and subsequent skinning of Ayla's young cousin. At the climax of the novel, both werewolves and humans are prey to their "bloodlust" (a word which Clark repeats to emphasize this parity). While feral wolves pose a distinct threat, so too do feral humans.

While the fantasy world of Silver Kiss is certainly interesting, what really made this book for me was Clark's characterization of Ayla and Shannon. Ultimately, the two women are likeable and easy to relate to. Their relationship is strong and convincing, and, despite the (insidious and overt) homophobia they face and the fact that they are different species, Ayla and Shannon seem well-matched and grounded. As the events of the novel unfold and put a strain on the women's relationship, the reader is able to identify with both sides of the wolf/human divide growing between them. One of the reasons I found Silver Kiss compelling is that I genuinely cared and wanted to find out what happened to the protagonists.

So, to conclude, Silver Kiss belongs to a specific genre - one that is not everyone's cup of tea. But for fans of urban fantasy - or those who just like any well-written werewolf stories - it is strongly recommended. Clark's writing is tight and well-paced, and her narrative is enjoyable. The final plot reveal is shocking, and I found myself sincerely hoping that Ayla and Shannon would get through it together. Overall, Silver Kiss is a welcome addition to my werewolf library.

Silver Kiss was published in 2010 by QueeredFiction. It is available to buy direct from the publisher or on Amazon.

QueeredFiction is an independent small press publisher, specializing in LGBT genre fiction. For more information about their publications and forthcoming titles, visit their website by clicking here.

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