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Who’s Afraid by Maria Lewis

A review by Nalini Haynes

Who’s afraid of the big blonde blue-haired wolf?

Tommi Grayson is a half-white half-Maori Kiwi (New Zealander) who grew up in Scotland. Her mom died in a car accident several months ago so now she’s decided to find her father even though he raped her mother. Apparently IRL stalking is better than internet stalking.

Two weeks off work. She flies in to the South Island but can’t find him.

Someone slips a note under her motel door giving her a name and address. (This is never explained.)

Tommi takes a taxi for the 40-minute drive to her father’s palatial brick home with heaps of bedrooms. (This is cited as a ‘normal’ NZ dwelling.) The front yard features lots of carvings like Native American totem poles but people go up the poles and, as the near the top, they turn into wolves.

The extended family inside is stunned and accusing because she looks so much like them. The mother of the family, Tommi’s father’s wife, names Tommi’s mom and accuses her of having an affair with her husband. There’s a photo that proves Tommi’s mom lied. Tommi’s dad died, also in a car accident and also recently. (This ‘coincidence’ is not addressed, not even in the protagonist’s mind.)

When Tommi tries to leave, the family assaults her and knocks her unconscious then hangs her from a beam in the garage using handcuffs. They come and go but no one cares enough to even stay with her and explain what’s going on and how they need her. They want her to increase their powerbase so imprisoning her and hanging her from the beam just like Clay in Bitten is really going to make her fall in line. [snark] Then her half-brother Steven tries to rape her. This triggers Tommi’s first change into a werewolf.

After Tommi reverts to human form and is showering in her motel room, a handsome stranger/stalker appears in her bedroom. She runs. First sensible thing she’s done but the mayhem follows.

I’m going to wrap up the ‘review’ here and I’ll continue below with a commentary after the rating and novel info for people who don’t mind spoilers and are concerned about issues. Who’s Afraid is very much like Bitten by Kelley Armstrong with a little Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor thrown in. Like in the 3rd Divergent novel by Veronica Roth, the mom’s backstory is a bit odd, adjacent to the story and introduces plot-holes. Who’s Afraid is for fans of paranormal romance, werewolves and kick-ass chicks.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9780349411149
format: paperback, 400 pages
Imprint: Piatkus (Hachette)

Commentary: the issues. MAJOR SPOILERS (but not total end-of-novel spoilers)

Who’s Afraid has diversity. Tommi Grayson is a kick-ass female protagonist who’s also half-Maori. She has a healthy sexual appetite and isn’t afraid to pursue sexual gratification.

However, the Maori as a people are depicted rather negatively. Tommi’s family are werewolves; it’s possible but not clear if all Maori people are supposed to be werewolves. Tommi’s Maori family is gangsta with ‘some’ legitimate business and a lot of criminal activity. They’re violent: her father had a criminal record and Tommi’s family, upon learning that she’s a werewolf, assault and kidnap her. They don’t care enough to even sit with her and try to explain things to her while they wait for the full moon to rise that very night.

As someone so eloquently put it during a queer panel at PAXAus2015, if you have one hundred representations of queerness and one is bad, it’s ok because you have a lot of good representation to counter the bad. But if you have one representation of queerness and it’s bad, then the only one you have is bad. Here we have an Australian author who seems to be white — I’ve looked her up online and she’s not overtly claiming to be Maori — and her depiction of Maoris, one of the very few I’ve read in recent years, is quite negative.

In Maria Lewis’s favor, it appears she’s consulted with Maori experts employed at NZ universities. I’m not sure if any were Maori or if they were beta readers or just consultants. Lewis’s protagonist is half-Maori but if she’s the ‘one good’ Maori, she’s also ‘special’ in lots of other ways.

Towards the end of the novel it’s mentioned, very briefly, that Steven was kicked out of the family after trying to rape Tommi. However, another sister followed him to Scotland to ‘sc—’ Tommi. Scare? screw? we aren’t told for sure, only that Tommi thinks she was going to say ‘scare’. I assume that this other sister will re-emerge as a villain because Who’s Afraid is following the tropes. Thus Maoris are a minority and they’re the bad guys unless they’re Tommi.

Towards the end, it’s mentioned — again, very briefly — that the Maori are a proud race with a tradition of being warriors. They alone of indigenous peoples were undefeated by the British Empire. However, what isn’t mentioned is that these days they tend to live in poverty and suffer discrimination as well as loss of culture and identity. One Maori woman was rejected by Air NZ for a steward position because of her tribal tattoo ALTHOUGH AIR NZ’S LOGO IS A KORU (Maori symbol). These are real issues today, making representation in Who’s Afraid problematic.

George R R Martin is responsible for making incest ‘sexy’ in Game of Thrones and reinforcing rape tropes in fantasy. I won’t bother with the anti-incest anti-rape rant here except to say that Steven seems to be Daniel Santos from Bitten without the justification, wanting to make puppies with his sister at first sight. Really? At least Santos wasn’t related to Elena and wanted everything of Clay’s as his motivation.

Tommi’s three friends are ‘nice’ but scream ‘fridge magnets’ because their highest recommendation is Tommi’s love for them without much backstory or relationship with the reader. I was surprised with who lived and who died but I wasn’t upset or relieved either way.

Lorcan is obviously a paranormal and Tommi’s love interest from his opening scene. He fell for Tommi too fast and with too little justification because, when Tommi sought out her fuck buddy to scratch an itch, Lorcan was hurt, what, a few days? a week? after they first met. Tommi is special, the most powerful werewolf ever [snark], but does she also have to have all the guys fall for her straight away?

The editing could be improved. There are some basic errors like ‘thick, cube’ and the like. Apparently Steven was kicked out of the family ‘months ago’ when they found out he tried to rape Tommi but later it was less than a month since Tommi first transformed into a werewolf (which she did when he tried to rape her).

Overall, Who’s Afraid is a good debut novel from someone so into screen entertainment that she’s known for her reportage and podcasting. In spite of my criticisms I enjoyed the story, I just couldn’t help feeling guilty at enjoying it while worrying about cultural misappropriation and poor representation of the Maori people. I give Who’s Afraid 3 out of 5 stars.

Who's afraid? cover features the back view of a young denim-clad woman, hands on hips, with her long blue hair pulled forward over her right shoulder

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.



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