Bitten by Kelley Armstrong
Review by Penelope Glen
My love affair with urban fantasy started a long time ago, when I was an early teenager. I thought to myself that my literary sense had to grow up a bit and start reading things that didn’t have Harry Potter or the world of Narnia inside them. We all grow through this phase I guess, and we all eventually find those special first books that propel us from ‘young adult’ to just ‘adult’ novels that thrill, excite and satisfy us when we read them.
In my case, the first book I read was ‘Stolen’ by Kelley Armstrong. I wandered into a Waterstones book shop by myself, headed past my Young Adult shelf and straight into the fantasy and horror section – determined to find something more fulfilling to read. I started with ‘A’ and didn’t have to go any further.
There were a few of Armstrong’s ‘Women of the Otherworld’ series that had been published by this point, so not knowing the order I randomly picked two of them and headed home to begin reading. I have a soft spot for ‘Stolen’, and although it was a fantastic introduction, I wanted to read more about the characters that I had fallen in love with. After investigating the order of Armstrong’s series, I found out that ‘Stolen’ had a predecessor and rushed out to buy it as soon as I was able. It was then that I found one of my favourite books, and I still rate it as one of my top ten favourite fantasy books to this day.
‘Bitten’ tells the story of Elena, a thirty year old woman with a problem. The problem isn’t her job as a successful investigative journalist. The problem isn’t her caring, loving and unaware boyfriend Phillip. The problem also isn’t her awkward life in Toronto, Canada.
The problem is that she is a werewolf, and a reluctant one at that. Betrayed ten years previously by the man she fell in love with, Elena has had to juggle a dual identity that is not just being a monster, it is between two lives – the one she thinks she should have and the one she cannot resist.
Wanting a normal life with a normal partner, Elena has spent a year away from the wolf pack who taught her to live as a werewolf. The difficulty for her is that instead of using the large plot of land behind the pack manor house, she is forced to change forms in the back alleys of Toronto when the need becomes too great.
Being a werewolf certainly has its perks e.g. being able to jump from a three storey window without injury or inconvenience, or finding no difficulty in being able to polish down as much food as you want due to the increased metabolism and enhanced life-span. Sounds fun huh?
It definitely not all sunshine and roses for Elena though. Her partner Phillip knows nothing of her frequent, furry runs through the street at night, changing into a wolf is not as simple and pain-free as those badly computer generated werewolves in Twilight: Eclipse and her old family (The Pack) need her to help them with a string of mysterious werewolf related killings in their area.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Elena will have to come face to face with the man who betrayed her in the first place. A man who she hates, but cannot resist…
I have read many novels that fit into the genre of urban fantasy or supernatural romance; some have been pretty good, some have been average and some have been awful and pointless. For me, reading ‘Bitten’ for the first time was like seeing Jurassic Park when I was six. Nothing else really comes close.
Armstrong’s vision fills the pages with finesse and passion that is lovingly intertwined to create a story that is funny, sexy and intelligent. She can make you feel a range of different emotions with Elena, as her character is effortlessly laid bare before you on the page. Her personality is written so well, that a reader can feel like they are sharing her experiences instead of just reading about them. Not once did I have to wonder about her motivation for her actions and thoughts – it was all right there in front of me. As a character, Elena couldn’t be more different than me or anyone else I know, yet Armstrong has made it so that every time I read the novel, it feels like I am welcoming back an old friend into my life.
Our heroine is again, typical for the genre. Parent’s lost in a tragic accident, fragile and temperamental personality, attracted to the wrong men, beautiful and sensual, strong willed, sarcastic – the list goes on. Other authors in this genre tend to take the above points as ingredients for a character and expect to come up with a different result in each story e.g. Anita Blake created by Laurell K. Hamilton (and many more). Although I find Hamilton’s work quite entertaining, I find myself connecting more to Elena than Anita.
The story is the tale of hybrids. A werewolf and a human. Monster and hero. Personal journey and crime thriller.
When Elena is in her animal form, Armstrong writes as confidently as she does when she is in her human form. Obviously she has done her homework, as the fluidity of Elena’s character is still contained as a wolf – the only difference being that her desires and instincts are set free in the woods of upstate New York, in the inhibited way that only an animal could feel. Elena constantly feels the irresistible pulls of her canine instincts e.g. to hunt, to play, to eat and to give in to her pent up desires – and Armstrong captures these conflicting feelings very well.
However, Elena’s long time paramour Clayton has a different set of experiences and feelings being a werewolf. His character is in strong opposition to Elena’s as he was bitten as a child and his emotional reactions to his environment (and the people in it) are more typical of a wolf than a human. It is very interesting to see his behaviour from Elena’s point of view, but Armstrong’s online novella has a few stories through his eyes. A reader can come to appreciate his reasons for doing what he does when reading those, especially ‘Beginnings’ – which is the tale of how the two met. However, the character of Jeremy the Pack Alpha is my favourite. No matter how wild and animalistic Elena and Clay become, Jeremy is always there to provide an anchor as the ideal patient and caring father figure and the only one with his head on straight. He keeps the other characters and the story from veering off into complete madness, so he is a welcome addition in the midst of chaos.
It is intriguing to read this novel and think about how complicated our lives have become – i.e. a werewolf would want to protect the pack/family, find food and find a mate. Essentially, don’t we as humans want the same thing?
Sex between two werewolves is exactly how a reader would imagine it; like a fire consuming everything around it, destroying defences, intensely animalistic, fun and simple. There are no metaphors in Armstrong’s erotica, which is exactly how it should be when a reader can imagine giving in to passion and letting down defences. These scenes are in keeping with the fast pace that readers are used to and continues to allow Armstrong’s prose to flow brilliantly into the next section of the story. Each encounter enhances what Elena is feeling at the time or it follows a traumatic event such as being reunited with the love of her life or the death of someone close to her.
Armstrong also vividly describes the physical and emotional pain that come hand in hand with being a werewolf – namely the changing process being written as your own personal hell, or more simply the sensation of every single bone and organ being crunched and shifted into different places. All I could think reading it was “ouch”.
Armstrong also asks her readers a question throughout the story; ‘Who is more of a monster? Is it the werewolf or the humans?’ Her villains answer that question. As newly bitten werewolves, they rely more on their killer human instincts rather than their new abilities. I won’t give away too much, but their motivations are probably more dangerous than any fictional monsters you can think of. In a perverse world, where the monsters are the good guys and human beings are capable of the most horrific violence imaginable, Armstrong makes her Otherworld seem strangely familiar and natural to a reader.
I admire how Armstrong has re-written what a werewolf is in her universe, as they are a lot more natural and to some extent – plausible. Silver bullets are not needed, as they can be killed in the manner that a garden variety wolf can. They age slower and are stronger in the ways that a wolf will likely need to protect its territory until a ripe old age. The moon doesn’t affect a change as much as it would in gothic novels, and a change can be the result of different strong feelings; such as being afraid, being in grief or being angry.
In both Bitten and Stolen, Armstrong includes Elena’s own interpretation of the werewolf myths and lovingly adds a bit of irony on some of them e.g. when a werewolf is shot or injured, at least part of them will revert back to human form. Elena remarks that if this were to happen to her, she wouldn’t be able to playfully fight with her pack-mates as a wolf, let alone defend herself against an enemy.
The reason why this book would be more of a horror, rather than a paranormal romance tale would be the gratuitous violence scattered throughout. As a potential reader, I’d heartily recommend that you are not upset by brilliantly described gore, severed limbs and frequent messy deaths.
Unfortunately the ending is what lets Bitten down. After the final showdown, it feels a little too quickly wrapped up and predictable for Elena’s character. If she read this herself, she would probably be a little confused at how easily things seem to work out and (I quote) would ‘grab the Uzi’ to create some confliction and go down fighting. Elena’s final act does make up for this though and creates a welcome bridge to the second book of the series.
Overall this was a brilliantly plotted, suspenseful, romantic tale and it provides an excellent starting point to an impressive collection of contemporary stories. Armstrong’s modern spin on an old gothic monster tale is a much needed change in a stale genre and I’m looking forward to what else she can come up with.
If you need something different and entertaining, definitely pick up this book and immerse yourself in the Otherworld.
What did you think about Bitten?
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