Sunday, 5 December 2010

Review: Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Raised by Wolves (Quercus, 2010)

Raised by Wolves, published by Quercus in 2010, is a YA urban fantasy novel, which tells the story of Bronwyn (otherwise known as Bryn), a girl raised by a werewolf pack. When she was four years old, a lone "Rabid" werewolf - the "Big, Bad Wolf" - attacked and killed Bryn's family. She only escaped by hiding in a cupboard until the Stone River Pack arrive to kill the lone wolf and save the girl's life. Bryn is then taken into the pack by powerful alpha Callum, who "Marks" her and raises her. When human woman Ali arrives - searching for her sister who has run off with a werewolf - she is given Bryn as a surrogate daughter, despite being only a few years older. This semi-stable family set-up continues until Bryn is seventeen, when the arrival of newly-converted "Were" Chase causes Bryn to question everything she thinks she knows about the pack and her place within it.

Barnes' werewolves are of a recognizable type: presented as a sort of cohabitation of human and wolf within one 'shifting' bodyt; 'born' not 'made' (on the whole); subject to the strict regulation of a hierarchical pack structure; and telepathic via a "Pack bond", a shared consciousness that links all members of a particular pack. The societal organization of the pack is utterly patriarchal, reliant on obedience to the alpha male. Bryn is doubly subject to this patriarchy; as a woman, but also a human, she has ostensibly little power to rebel against the rigorous and controlling influence of alpha Callum. The novel begins with Callum chastizing Bryn for three transgressions: she has 'borrowed' a motorbike from a classmate [What is it with YA heroines and secret motorbikes??]; her Algebra marks are low; she hasn't fully complied with her curfew. These circumstances may be reasonably familiar to readers of YA fiction. However, on eof the strengths of Raised by Wolves is that Barnes extends this marginalized, powerless situation of the heroine to a wider presentation of women within the werewolf world.

It is made clear throughout the book that there are very few female werewolves. This is presented as a fluke of werewolf biology: "Something about the chemistry involved in werewolf conception made it impossible for girl embryos to survive the first trimester, unless they were half of a set of twins and had a brother to mask their presence in the womb." This 'scientific fact' has a series of deep repercussions for the female characters in the novel. It makes female werewolves very rare: Bryn's foster-sister Kaitlin and close friend Lake are unusual, and thus highly prized members of the pack. As werewolves are 'born' and not 'made', the only way to breed 'purebred' werewolves is for these females to mate with male members of the pack. Their relative scarcity means that they are the focus of an undercurrent of sexual violence and coercion. In the later chapters of the novel, Bryn becomes aware of this when Lake - a rebellious tomboy of breeding age - hides in the mountains when a group of alphas visit her home. As Lake's father explains: "Some Weres, especially the dominant ones, get real funny around females, and Lake's not a kid anymore." Not only is the fifteen-year-old Lake now at risk of the "real funny" behaviour of dominant males, she may also be subject to "bartering" by her own alpha. Bryn comes to a realization that her friend - and, evenutally, her younger sister - will be seen as "commodities" by Callum.

One of the ways alphas exert power over each other is through the size of their pack. The more members to a pack, the more power the alpha has. As there is no way - apparently - of converting humans into werewolves, breeding is an important concern for the pack. The rareness of female werewolves results in most werewolves taking human wives. Barnes is fairly stark in her portrayal of these women - they are little more than breeding machines, and maternal mortality rates are ridiculously high. At one point, the narrator Bryn comments on mass, unmarked graves of female women who have died giving birth to werewolf children. The cumulative effect of this focus on reproduction, mating and mortality is to create a world in which to be female is to be inferior, fragile and vulnerable to patriarchal violence and control. Barnes sustains this throughout her novel, adding to the tension and precariousness of Bryn's situation.

Nevertheless, Bryn is not the sort of heroine who will simply compel with such monolithic societal controls. As Lake's father comments, she is "scrappy". The characterization of Bryn, and her determination to rebel against and subvert the world in which she lives, is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Bryn is adept at finding loopholes in pack rule, and discovers a number of skills and attributes that allow her to fight back against the injustices she has faced. (And I will say no more on these, as they are integral to the development of the plot.) Moreover, Bryn configures an alternative society, at odds with the traditional pack, made up of the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the powerless. This social group includes Chase (the werewolf convert who 'shouldn't' exist), Lake and Bryn's close friend Devon - "the world's only metrosexual werewolf". This group - also incorporating Bryn's strong and principled foster-mother Ali and adorable wolf-cub Kaitlin - is likable and sympathetic. The reader sides with them easily against the rigid and brutal pack patriarchy.

Although, as I have said, Barnes' werewolves are of a reasonably familiar type, the author plays around with the usual formula. For example, the "Pack bond" shared by the werewolves can also be enjoyed by humans who have been "Marked". Bryn and Ali have the opportunity to share in this bond, but choose to close off their minds to it. This leads to some consideration by Bryn about what exactly separates humans from "Weres". Though she realizes that she is not actually a werewolf, Bryn doesn't feel or act fully human either. Snarling in anger and revelling in the unrestrained physical freedom of "running with the Pack", Bryn seems to be part-werewolf, despite the impossibility of this. This all raises an interesting question: is it nature or nurture that makes a werewolf?

Raised by Wolves is an enjoyable and gripping YA fantasy. Believable characters and a well-handled and suspenseful plot make for a great read. While the basic premise of the book (and its werewolf world) may seem like well-trodden territory, Barnes' handling of these ideas is original and fresh. The writing bears favourable comparison with other bestselling examples of YA fantasy - and, indeed, is an instance of the genre at its best. Definitely recommended.

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