Much like zombie fiction, I tend to habitually give werewolf fiction a miss. I think it’s the pack mentality aspect that freaks me out—that and the related posturing for alpha-male dominance. But there are always exceptions to the rule, such as the Kitty Norville series. And while Bitten might be a werewolf novel, I’m given to understand that the Women of the Otherworld series embraces supernatural creatures of all stripes. If the Kelley Armstrong’s writing in the sequels is half as good as it is in this novel, then I’m eager to read them. Bitten definitely takes my werewolf prejudice and buries it deeply as Armstrong makes me care about Elena’s plight and the plight of her pack.
It helps that the novel starts with a fairly extensive prologue that’s all about Elena’s struggle to be human. I can sympathize with that. I can’t sympathize with someone struggling to be a werewolf. Elena’s life is complicated because she hasn’t fit in, even before she was bitten and turned—she bounced from foster family to foster family, and her abuse at their hands hardened her resolve to make something of her life, marry a nice guy, and be a successful human being. That all changed when the "nice guy" turned out to be a maladjust misanthropic werewolf who bit her so he could keep her. We pick up several years later, with Elena trying to live with an ordinary human guy in Toronto, despite having to Change into a massive wolf and run through the forest every week or so.
Armstrong plays fast and loose with the werewolf mythology, but to good effect. Howl at the moon? You bet. Change with the full moon? Not so much. Her werewolves have to Change roughly every seven days, though some can go longer before the need strikes, and it’s also possible to Change on purpose. In wolf form, people retain their human identities but have the instincts of a wolf layered over top—Armstrong shows us (not tells us) this early on when Elena encounters a coyote, which reacts to her with confusion because she looks like a wolf but smells human. In human form, werewolves can act human, but they have a very complicated relationship with each other. Elena belongs (or used to belong, depending on how you look at it) to the Pack, a confederation of what is basically two werewolf families. The Pack doesn’t let any non-Pack werewolves (mutts) have any territory, a source of friction that drives much of the conflict in Bitten. Elena thinks she has left the Pack, and her lover/biter, Clay, behind her. But she is recalled to help them deal with killings on the Pack’s home territory, because if they are exposed as werewolves, then that’s dangerous for everyone, Pack or no.
The first two chapters—Prologue and Human—hooked me. Prologue could have been called Wolf, for all it told us about Elena’s human life. I think this chapter is valuable for readers like me who are wary of the entire werewolf proposition. It showcases Armstrong’s writing style and eases into Elena’s behaviour as a wolf. There is confrontation but not too much conflict, and we get a good sense of who Elena is and how she is dealing with this whole "being a werewolf" thing. A fight sequence with another werewolf, or some contrived dialogue between her and a member of the Pack, wouldn’t have worked as well. Similarly, Human shows us how frail Elena’s persona is, and how she is desperate to fit in. When Philip’s mother and sister are congenial towards her and invite her to do things, when the sister accepts Elena’s offer to come up for coffee and driving her home, Elena’s joy is palpable. Again, I have yet to be able to identify with the need to run through the forest on four legs, but I definitely know what it feels like to not be sure how to act in a social situation, and I know that feeling of relief mixed with elation when you realize you’ve got it right.
After the second chapter, Elena returns to New York to answer the summons of the Pack Alpha, Jeremy. From here on out I found that the plot developed very slowly for my tastes. There were a lot of flashbacks and first-person exposition, and I kept feeling like I was waiting for the main part of the story to commence. Nonetheless, I did get a strong sense of the difficulty Elena was having in being immersed in the Pack life again. After working so hard to free herself from this dependency, she has been forced to get on it again, like an addict plunged into the middle of a drug den. The tension that she feels, torn between Clay and Philip, becomes the backdrop to her involvement in the larger struggle between the Pack and the mutts. And it’s this tension, the suspense created by her impending choice between the two men, that elevates Bitten above many similar books.
See, when it comes to novels with a straight female protagonist and two competing lovers, the lovers tend to be fairly obvious: one is bland and dependable, the other a dashing scoundrel. Yawn. In Bitten, the dichotomy is not so straightforward: Elena is truly torn between Clay and Philip, and it’s hard to say whether one is the superior choice. They are both very different choices. Armstrong does a good job emphasizing that there is no “right” choice, just two very different possible lives for Elena. And I was convinced she would go back to Philip for the entire book, right up until the end.
I’m disappointed she chose Clay.
Firstly, let’s get this clear: Clay is a douchebag. It’s probably not his fault—he’s an hereditary werewolf but was abandoned as a kid to live in a Louisiana swamp, where he would have remained feral if Jeremy hadn’t rehabilitated him. Still. Biting your fiancee is a dick move. Consent, people.
Secondly, I don’t like what Clay represents. This might be my human bigotry rearing its head again, but Philip represented life in the human world. By choosing Clay, Elena admits she belongs as a member of the Pack, which also seems to bring with it all the hierarchical, hegemonic nonsense that Pack life entails. True, she shows her resolve to remain Clay’s equal, not just his mate. But this just highlights my inherent discomfort with the patriarchical nature of the pack mentality.
Finally, did I mention Clay is a douchebag? No, but seriously, Philip is incredibly patient and understanding while Elena traipses off to New York, stays there longer than expected, and returns to Toronto with her "cousin" Clay in tow like a bad-tempered bad penny. (Note to future generations: a penny was a 1-cent coin Canadians used to have before we became uncool.) He does nothing but support her and tell her he’s there for her. He lets her have her space and secrets but also gently reminds her that he is available if she needs to talk, when she is ready to open up. He is the least developed character in this book, but he is still better than Clay.
I didn’t write the book, though, and Elena didn’t choose Philip. She chose Clay. I have to live with that. Or Google for some Elena/Philip fan-fiction. Or just live in blissful denial until I read book two. Yeah, that sounds good.
Because I am going to read book two. Even though I don’t agree with how Armstrong chose to end Bitten, it’s still a fantastic story. Now, I don’t have to read book two; this is a brilliant standalone novel. But I’d be happy to read more of Elena’s adventures. She’s a lovely protagonist with a great voice—not too smartass/sardonic, which seems to be in overabundance these days, but definitely not simpering either—and Armstrong puts her in sticky situations that require smarts and strength to resolve.
Team Philip, all the way.