Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Review: S.J. Bell, Bonds of Fenris (S.J. Bell, 2012)

This is the second of four reviews of recent female werewolf fiction. You can read the others here:

Part 1: Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon

Part 3: Allison Moon, Lunatic Fringe

Part 4: L.L. Raand, The Midnight Hunt

Bonds of Fenris is a self-published novel by S.J. Bell. It tells the story of Talia Thornwood, a young woman who has recently been ‘infected’ with lycanthropy and is seeking a way of coming to terms with her new life. She lives with her ‘pack’ – Bo, Leroy, Pierce and Marlene, also young ‘infected’ werewolves – and meets Corwin, a werewolf who can apparently control his lycanthropic side. Talia, keen to be free of her ‘wolf’ and her uncontrollable, bestial transformation at each full moon, allows Corwin to mentor her and teach her more about what it means to be a werewolf.

The novel’s plot falls into two distinct halves – the first being Talia’s life with the ‘pack’ in their “rental on the edge of the woods” (p. 6). The young werewolves squabble amongst themselves, hunt on a monthly basis and try to hold down jobs and go to college. This section of the book was by far the stronger part and had real potential for development. However, tragedy strikes and (to coin a hackneyed phrase), life will never be the same for Talia and her friends.

It’s at this point that the narrator seeks assistance from the mysterious werewolf Corwin, who has apparently found a way to overcome the involuntary transformation occasioned by a full moon. He and Talia retreat to a cabin in the woods, so that he can teach her the important lessons of control that a werewolf must learn.

Sadly, the book loses its momentum at this point. As Corwin begins to mentor Talia, the narrative becomes very exposition-heavy, and the final revelation of what Talia must learn is pretty obvious from the start (if you have read much recent werewolf fiction), meaning that the ‘lessons’ feel overly-dramatic and onerous. I was left unsure as to why Corwin felt the need to put Talia through such an ordeal, and why she submitted so readily.

For fans of werewolf fiction, though, this book has a lot to recommend it. The werewolves are of a recognizable late twentieth-/early twenty-first-century type – infected by a bite from another werewolf, controlled by the full moon, subject to bone-popping, painful metamorphosis, and filled with angst and remorse at what their ‘wolf’ does. Like much recent werewolf fiction, there is a lot of discussion of control, balance and harmony, and lots of reference to two beings inhabiting one skin; however, though the title misleadingly suggests some connection with Northern European legend, the successful werewolf must actually embrace teachings more reminiscent of Eastern philosophy.

There are some interesting passages early in the novel, and some particularly poignant examples of the young ‘pack’ trying to integrate themselves into ‘human’ society – using peppermint soaked rags to disguise the smell of human flesh, for instance. Unfortunately, though, the book suffers from the (sadly) typical under-editing of a self-published novel, and never quite lives up to the potential of its idea.

Characterization, in particular, is a weakness. The protagonist, Talia, is not convincing. Her submission to the males around her was a source of frustration to me throughout the book. One early example sees her in an argument with Marlene, the other female member of the pack. This is interrupted by Leroy who says: “Girls, girls […] Chill out, okay?” Rather than react or respond to this patronizing tone, Talia (the first-person narrator) describes him as speaking “diplomatically” (p. 9). Elsewhere, Talia is the victim of physical assault by Pierce (who wants to have sex with her) and intense emotional blackmail by Bo (who also wants to have sex with her). Her reaction to both is to lock herself in her bedroom and decide that the men might have a point and muse on whether or not she should sleep with one of them. Not only is this an unusual reaction for a woman, it is almost completely unheard of for a female werewolf – the tradition of ‘she-wolves’ avenging sexual assault is a long one, but, seemingly, not one to which Talia belongs.

As a side note, I would also say that small, frustrating details seem to undermine Talia’s presentation. For instance, though she is apparently twenty-one, she uses a mobile phone that is a “beaten-up relic of the late 1990s” (p. 28) (i.e. she is still using the same phone that she had when she was seven). I don’t wish to come across as being pedantic or overly critical, but rather to offer an example of under-editing that had an impact on character. A robust critique prior to publication would have tidied up these minor inconsistencies.

Perhaps (and I always like to be self-aware in my reviews), this is also down to my own tastes. Talia was a little too submissive and hopeful for my liking. I like my female werewolves in the mould of Emson’s Laura Greenacre or Miller’s Kalix MacRinnalch. Hell – I think Leah Clearwater was Meyer’s finest creation, and was genuinely pleased when she ended the Twilight series still brooding, angry and isolated. As a result, I was much more drawn to Bell’s grumpy, intellectual Marlene than Talia, and would love to see this character developed further in future books. I think my favourite part of Bonds of Fenris was when Marlene explained just how stupid Corwin’s lessons were!

For a self-published, debut novel, Bonds of Fenris is a decent read. It is certainly head and shoulders above some self-published works.* There are few grammatical or spelling errors, and the paragraphing and chapter divisions are well done. This indicates to me that Bell is a proficient writer who is in the process of developing his craft – and I will look forward to seeing this development as he progresses. I wouldn’t normally bring what I know of authors personally to a review, but I have to admit that I know Bell is a huge werewolf fan, and I think this enthusiasm shows in his writing. Bonds of Fenris is a book about getting to know werewolves from the inside out, and Bell’s strong knowledge and passion for all things lycanthropic give him a good starting point for this.

In conclusion, then, Bonds of Fenris is a recommendation for werewolf fans. It is the work of a novelist at the start of his career, and there are some teething problems, but it will definitely appeal to fans of the lycanthropic, and I will certainly look forward to seeing where he goes in his next book.

For more information about Bonds of Fenris, please see S.J. Bell’s website.

Part 1: Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon

Part 3: Allison Moon, Lunatic Fringe

Part 4: L.L. Raand, The Midnight Hunt

*Please don’t take this the wrong way – I really, really want to like self-published novels, and always approach them with optimism and an open mind. However, I am inundated with books for review that were published way before they were ready, and it’s weakening my resolve a little.

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