Nightshade by Andrea Cremer

Nightshade

A review by Evie Kendal

The Nightshade series is a young adult paranormal romance series involving a species of shape-shifting wolves, the Guardians, who are the loyal servants of a group of magic wielding beings known as the Keepers. The Guardians protect the Keepers and are the foot soldiers in their war against another group of magically powered beings, the Searchers. The series consists of three novels, Nightshade, Wolfsbane and Bloodrose, with several additional instalments expected throughout the year, including novellas, prequels and companion books.

 Nightshade

The first book of the series follows the usual pattern of a speculative fiction, providing a “guide” in the character of Shay Doran, a human who has been thrust into the magical world hidden at the edge of human society and beyond their knowledge. In fantasy and science fiction, this guide character asks the questions that the reader needs answered in order to understand the fantasy world of the narrative. Shay is rescued in the opening sequence of the novel by the Alpha female wolf, Calla Tor, a seventeen-year-old girl who is preparing for her arranged marriage to the Alpha male, Ren Laroche. Revealing the Guardians’ healing secrets is forbidden, but Calla feels drawn to the human boy and defies her “masters” to save him. As the “love at first sight” moment this scene is very well written and the physical description of the characters is very effective.

Although it is established that the Guardians are shape-shifters and not technically werewolves, similarities to other werewolf stories are clear, most notably including the use of a female protagonist who possesses fierce animal instincts and a powerful sex drive. In this way the werewolf love story often reverses the common stereotype that men always desire sex while women are coy, and explores a reality in which women are constantly sexually available and interested. However this unrelenting hormonal drive is often used to excuse unacceptable behaviour in the male characters of such stories, and this is certainly one of the failings of the Nightshade series. As Calla is always described as being sexually attracted to her intended mate, Ren, this appears to mitigate his forcing himself on her on several occasions. Calla is often pinned down, held against her will, and kissed and petted even after she asks him to stop. Most disturbingly, this is described in romantic terms, rather than the assault it represents. This element of the series most reminded me of Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson series, in which Riley’s wolf libido is used to excuse the various sexual assaults that are committed against her, including some that are clearly rape. There is a definite power imbalance in Calla and Ren’s relationship as Calla’s position as Alpha female makes her subservient to the Alpha male she is expected to bond with, making his behaviour even more concerning.

The Nightshade series is full of distasteful forced submissions, with the female characters dominated by the males, the wolves all ruled by their Alphas, and their packs governed by the Keepers. While the Guardians believe they are prized warriors fighting for the protectors of humankind, Calla discovers throughout Nightshade that the Keepers are evil and have been keeping the wolves as slaves. While all the young wolves in the story are willing to accept their complete lack of freedom, believing it is for the “greater good,” Shay, as the outsider, recognises the Keepers’ behaviour for what it is. He is horrified that Calla is expected to submit to an arranged marriage, that textbooks are censored in their school and that the Guardians are kept ignorant about their heritage.

By using a paranormal context, Cremer thus succeeds in setting up a present-day historical romance plot, in which she can explore issues of slavery and patriarchy as they affect the protagonist. Like the historical romance heroine, Calla does not truly fit her stifling society, and the double standard of demanding female chastity in the face of male infidelity is illustrated well. However, while most historical heroines represent anachronisms the modern reader can identify with, one of the major flaws of the sub-genre is that while one female may break free of social repression, the status quo for society at large remains unchallenged. This is not the case in Cremer’s narrative, in which Calla’s rebellion against her masters, both in saving Shay as a human at the beginning and later turning him into a Guardian, represents the beginning of a wider revolution that will be explored in the later novels. However the subjection of women and use of slaves is certainly not portrayed positively in the Nightshade series; I argue it fails to critically reflect sufficiently on these issues to yield an unambiguously negative portrayal either. More importantly, the use of romantic language to describe men physically overpowering women is dangerous, especially considering the target audience of young adult fiction.

Nightshade ends with Calla fleeing her wedding ceremony and escaping with Shay, both admitting they love each other. They are then attacked and carried off by the Searchers, setting the scene for the next novel. Personally, I would have preferred a more complete resolution to this instalment, particularly as unfortunately it represents the high point of the series for me. As a paranormal romance, the series only offers one truly unique element, and this is contained in the early part of this first novel. The following excerpt explores this and occurs after Shay asks Calla to explain how Guardians differ from werewolves:

 “But you can turn into a wolf? Whenever you want…I mean. No moon necessary? … I don’t mean to insult you. I’m going completely on pop culture references here.”

“Yeah. That’s fine,” I said. “And the answer is yes. We can change whenever we want. The moon has nothing to do with it.”

He looked impressed. “And you kind of shimmer when you change, which is interesting. I mean, your clothes don’t go flying off in shreds.” The moment the words were out of his mouth, he flushed.

I nearly spilled the rest of the coffee. “I’m sorry to disappoint you … It’s complex magic,” I said, hurrying past the awkward exchange. “Technically I’m both the wolf and human all the time. I choose what form my soul inhabits and I can move freely between the two. Whatever form I’m not in is still there, just invisible – in something like another dimension – until I occupy it again. My clothes, supplies, whatever was with the human form the last time I was in it doesn’t alter. And I can pull on components of either form if I need them. Like the way I can make my teeth sharp even when I’m in human form… I probably could make it so I had clothes on when I was a wolf if I really wanted. But there would be no utility in something like that. It would just be silly.”

(Nightshade, 115-116).

 While this new spin on the werewolf myth is interesting, I argue one original element is not enough to sustain the reader’s interest throughout the whole series. A lot of the writing is quite cliché and the plot devices very repetitive for anyone who has read extensively in the paranormal sub-genre. Overall it feels like Cremer wanted to write a historical romance, but chose a paranormal because it was guaranteed to sell in the current young adult market. As the above excerpt demonstrates though, Cremer has finally managed to work around the clothes-tearing inconvenience known to plague many other shape-shifters within the sub-genre. Given the prevalence of this issue in paranormal romances, this represents a major success for the Nightshade series!

 Wolfsbane

Wolfsbane

In this novel Cremer introduces the three different sections of the narrative with quotes from Dante’s Divina Commedia, and I argue the progression from eleven chapters devoted to Purgatorio, fifteen chapters to Inferno, and finally a mere three chapters to Paradiso, should tell the reader all they need to know about this instalment. While the beginning is quite interesting with the description of the Searchers and their history, the story quickly sinks into a series of depressing events, at one point essentially becoming torture-porn with many graphic descriptions of Calla’s former pack-mates being punished for her disobedience.

The tension for Calla and Shay’s relationship also seems rather contrived, with the introduction of various complicating factors including Adne, a female Searcher who starts flirting with Shay, and the sudden resurgence of Calla’s feelings for Ren. In this novel Shay’s backstory is explored in greater detail, with the Searchers explaining what it means that he is the Scion, a term he and Calla discovered in their search for the truth about the Keepers in the previous novel. An interesting Scion-related plot is proposed in Wolfsbane, involving a quest to recover a secret weapon that is expected to tip the balance in the war against the Keepers and their dark allies, the Wraith, however this story is not pursued in this book. Instead, the vast majority of the action centres on rescuing Calla’s pack-mates, which makes a decently engaging plot.

The characterisation of the Searchers and the wolves is definitely the best achievement of this novel, although the reader’s emotional investment in certain characters is often abused. In several places characters are built up in the narrative only to be brutally slaughtered in the next scene. However, what is very disappointing in this novel is the change in Shay’s behaviour toward Calla, especially as he was the only positive voice in Nightshade arguing for equal rights and freedom. In Wolfsbane, Shay starts behaving just as badly as Ren, forcing himself on Calla and treating her like property. Again, the first-person narration from Calla’s perspective, coupled with her animal libido, is used to excuse this behaviour and cast it in a romantic light.

The story serves to perpetuate the myth that women reject sexual advances while secretly wanting to accept them – the damaging “no means yes” argument being supported by Calla’s internal monologue, in which the reader discovers she enjoys the attention despite her repeated protests. This is a common practice in young adult romance, and it is often difficult to remember that while the reader has access to this perspective, the character refusing to take no as an answer is not privy to this and thus is acting reprehensibly.

It is a relief, however, that when Calla and Shay’s “fade-to-black” sex scene finally occurs in the story, that Calla clearly states this is what she wants. It is concerning that at the time she doesn’t realise this act will elevate Shay to the position of Alpha male though, which has already been established in the text as being superior to that of Alpha female. The empowered female protagonist who rescued the frail human boy at the beginning of the series, has thus been relegated to second-in-command of her own pack, seemingly as a punishment for indulging her sexuality at long last. Shay, on the other hand, has gone from being a weak outsider, to discovering he is the Scion, being transformed into a Guardian, and finally becoming the Alpha male of Calla’s pack.

There are many shocking revelations contained in this instalment, and it again ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger  The writing style is best when focused on describing the magic of the Searchers, and the plotting is generally well paced. Apart from the concerns already listed, however, there is also the inconsistency of Calla’s emotional development that detracts from the narrative, as she weeps over the death of near strangers but is comparatively unmoved by reports of her own mother’s brutal murder. Calla also blows hot and cold when it comes to Shay’s attentions, daydreaming of Ren at inappropriate times. Coupled with the dramatic changes in Shay’s behaviour, this coldness and flightiness serves to undermine exactly what was appealing about the love story between these characters in the first place.

 Bloodrose

 Bloodrose

This novel is broken into sections by the elements air, water and fire, in reference to three different divisions of the Searcher’s magic, and the remaining pieces of the Scion’s weapon (the “earth” part having already been retrieved in Nightshade). At the beginning of the novel Calla and Adne rescue Ren and bring him back to the Searchers to form part of the alliance that will attack the Keepers. Calla uses the fact Ren loves her to convince him to return with her, leading him to believe they will be together. This is despite having told Shay that she only loves him in the previous books, and that her affection for Ren was somehow different.

Whether for plot convenience or in an attempt to undo some of the damage done to Calla’s empowerment in the previous book, Cremer introduces a new hierarchical system in which Shay and Ren cease to be Alphas until Calla chooses one of them for her mate. While on the surface this appears to return some of Calla’s authority, it is distressing that her only real power comes from using their feelings for her as leverage to manipulate them into fighting for the Searchers. The love triangle is hardly unexpected, but feels more than usually manufactured for convenience. Given the behaviour of both males in the preceding volumes, neither secured my sympathy at the beginning of Bloodrose, leaving the mostly off-the-page developing romance between two minor characters, Ethan and Sabine, as the only one capturing my interest.

The promised mission to retrieve the Scion’s weapon is delivered in this instalment and is sufficiently interesting to drive the plot. The interpersonal relationships between the Searchers and Guardians are also worth following, although some of the more interesting characters remain on the periphery. There is no doubt that the ending is worth reaching, with the resolution containing some unexpected twists that make up for some of the less successful plot elements of the previous novels. Without wanting to give away the conclusion, all I can say is that the story possesses a wonderful symmetry. However, given the fact the primary goal of a romance plot is to convince the reader what the love interests feel for each other at the end is “true” love, Calla’s inconsistent behaviour casts doubt on the one element of the story that really matters. After all, it is hard to feel secure in the “happily-ever-after” of such a narrative.

As for the more technical aspects of the series, there are several variant covers for the novels, each focusing on the phases of the moon. My preference is for the more cartoonish cover, as I don’t usually like photos of models potentially stifling the imagination of the reader when trying to envisage the appearance of the characters. The interior of my copy also contained black pages to separate each chapter, often also including pictures of the moon or stars. Although an interesting stylistic choice, these pages appeared to be a waste of ink and caused some staining of the other pages. The font and margins of my copy of Nightshade left me with the impression the book had been resized and the text squashed into it, however this wasn’t the case for the other two books. The chapters are quite short, which helps maintain the momentum while reading, and the alchemical symbols included on the pages add something artistic.

As to whether I recommend the series, it depends very much on the audience. Those who have read a lot of paranormal romance are unlikely to get anything substantial out of the series, while those who predominantly read contemporary romance may. I am reluctant to recommend the books to a younger audience, due to the ambiguity of some the messages contained in the narrative, while also recognising adult audiences may not be interested in the teen drama element. I think the story may have worked better if more older characters were central to the plot, which also would have expanded the target audience for the series to be more accommodating to this adult market. As young adult paranormal romances go, the Nightshade series ranks somewhere around the middle, being neither appallingly offensive, nor overly innovative. As a result I enjoyed reading most of it, but if I had a young, impressionable daughter I would probably dissuade her from starting it, directing her towards the likes of Lauren Kate, Eoin Colfer and Isobelle Carmody instead.