Posted on February 10, 2005 by Flames
Bitten is the first novel by Canadian author Kelley Armstrong, and if it’s any indication of works to come, she’s a superstar in the making.
Oh, Before I go any further I should clarify that this review will contain minor SPOILERS, both thematic and plot-based. I will endeavor not to give away anything major, however.
Over the past ten years or so in the genre of modern gothic fantasy (you can’t really use the term “horror” anymore) there have been an influx of popular female characters: Anita Blake, Sonja Blue, Magiere (of the Dhampir series), etc. These women all seem to have 2 things in common: they’re tough as nails and they are either part-vampire or spend a lot of time killing vampires.
In Bitten, Armstrong puts a not-so-clever twist on the theme that for some reason nobody else has thought of yet: her heroine, Elena Michaels, is a tough-as-nails werewolf.
I’ll be honest; this book snared me as an impulse buy for 2 reasons. First, I needed something to read on the bus ride home from the mall; second, well, I love werewolves and it’s so painfully rare to find a half-decent werewolf story. I’m not sure why it is, but nobody seems to be able to really nail the heart and soul of the werewolf story. The original Howling did it; An American Werewolf in London was a classic, despite its camp, and An American Werewolf in Paris to this reviewer’s mind was a very underrated werewolf film. But other than those three films, good werewolf stories seem to be slim pickin’s. I didn’t expect much better from Bitten, but I picked it up simply because I love werewolves.
I was pleasantly surprised. More than pleasantly surprised. I was downright impressed. Armstrong has a very accessible, straightforward and conversational style. She doesn’t hesitate to use metaphors where she feels it’s necessary and doesn’t bother to try and be too original or unique in her metaphors. While this may at first seem boring or cliched, in fact the end result is that the turns of phrase Armstrong uses are not obscure. A reader doesn’t have to stop reading to think “what does that mean?” or worse, go do a google search for the reference. More authors need to have the “back-to-basics” style that Armstrong adopts.
The book is told in first person, a point-of-view that can very easily become trite and tired in novels, and one that is not, despite how prolific it is, easily pulled off. Even well-known and successful authors such as Nancy Collins in her Sonja Blue books or Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake often fail to pull it off, and many of us have been victim to Anne Rice’s longwinded first-person expositions. In such works, the first person grows detached and almost sterile. It simply becomes a narrative tool rather than a true point-of-view storytelling.
Armstrong once again shines in this area. Her character narrates the story–really narrates it, even on occasion catching herself going off on a tangent, then apologizing before getting back on track. Once again, at a glance this may seem distracting but in practice it has the opposite effect. It draws the reader in; the reader gets to know the character personally, her idiosyncracies and modes of speech become second-nature, and by the end of the first chapter the one can almost envision himself sitting across the table from Elena (our heroine) in a coffee shop as she relates her tale over a cup of java.
In short, Armstrong’s writing has character and personality and that is something that is far too rare nowadays.
Another trap that Armstrong manages by and large to avoid is the women author’s convention of sex scenes every other page, or of sex as a primary motivator in the actions of the main character(s). See Anita Blake and the Vampire Chronicles for prime examples of this growing trend. Armstrong doesn’t fall prey to this temptation. That is not to say that there is no sex in the book; I counted four sex scenes, all brief, and though two were a bit graphic for my tastes all served the events of the overall story and served to strengthen a specific relationship within the story and cement events that had happened in Elena’s past. None felt gratuitous.
As one might expect in a book such as this, Armstrong lays the ground rules for her take on werewolves throughout the book. Werewolves can be killed by any means that can kill a normal human; silver has no special effect on them. They age much more slowly than humans do, but are not immortal. Certain werewolves have empathic and even telepathic bonds with one another. They can change at any time they wish, but if they don’t change often enough, the Change forces itself upon them. Likewise, if they change too often, it becomes difficult to change. They retain some semblance of their normal mind and personality while in wolf form, but are largely ruled by their instincts.
There are two types of werewolf: bitten wolves and born wolves. Born wolves endure their first Change sometime in their teens. Bitten wolves are rare and often don’t survive; the book makes it a point that Elena is the only woman ever to survive the first days of being a bitten werewolf. There are no born female werewolves, as the werewolf gene passes from father to son (presumably attached to the Y chromosome). You feminists can have fun interpreting that one, though the book goes to great pains to debunk the easy interpretation that all men are monsters.
The plot centers around the extended family unit that rules werewolf society: The Pack. The Pack is a small unit comprised of the elite. Elena is an estranged member of the Pack. All werewolves that do not belong to the Pack (for varied and sundry reasons) are Mutts and the Pack keeps a tight leash on the Mutts. As one might imagine, the story deals with a confrontation between the Pack and a group of uppity Mutts who get it in their heads to cause trouble. Tragedy, hilarity, romance, action, and horror ensue. It is in some ways a coming of age story, as through the tale Elena must come to grips with the juxtaposition of her life in the human world with her place in the world of the werewolves. The book resolves itself somewhat predictably, but satisfactorily and I did find myself looking forward to the sequel (called Stolen.) In point of fact, I was caught off guard by certain events during the work’s climax, which I later thought I should have seen coming. But Armstrong is a skilled enough writer that one never knows what to expect. By doing away with certain seeming major characters early on, she warns us that nobody is safe (except, presumably, our heroine, who is narrating the book) and anything goes. I liked that.
In conclusion, I give a hearty “thumbs up” and a wholehearted endorsement to Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten. 5 out of 5.
Reviewer: Jason Vey