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Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the new Jessica McClain urban fantasy series from Orbit, written by Amanda Carlson.
“I had no idea that reading about Werewolves could be so much fun. Big Thumbs-up.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ll be honest: urban fantasy, despite all my experiments with the genre this year, is really not my thing. I like watching this stuff, far more than I do reading it. Buffy, Angel, Underworld, True Blood, I’m all for that kind of stuff. But reading just doesn’t work for me all that much. Matt Forbeck’s Carpathia, a Titanic and Vampires mash-up, is the first such novel I read since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, back in middle school. Sarah Marques’ Vampire Musketeers: Sword & Blood, a Three Musketeers and Vampire mash-up was also fun, and I kinda did love the book of course, but I didn’t exactly feel a drive to read more about Vampires. They were both fun little experiments. Reading Amanda Carlson’s Full Blooded has changed my feelings on that matter however and now I’m really keen to read more in this sub-genre of urban fantasy: supernaturals of all types, whether Vampires or Werewolves or other kind of shifters.
The protagonist ofFull Blooded is Jessica McClain, a female werewolf, and the only one of her kind in known memory since there have never been any female werewolves. This marks her as somewhat of an outcast but given that she is also the daughter of Callum McClain, the Pack Alpha of the Northern US Territories, she gets some leeway and a tacit acceptance. It’s all still an uphill battle for her though, and has been from the start since her birth was an oddity: Werewolves always fathered sons, never daughters. The only thing that stopped her from getting killed until the present day was that she never shifted. But that’s all changed now, and there are forces out there who have been ready to take her down for years, since she is supposed to be the subject of the “Cain Myth” which effectively says that a female werewolf will be instrumental in the destruction of the Werewolf race. Now Jessica has to keep her new abilities a secret from anyone not of the McClain pack, even though there’s a detective from NYPD (an old nemesis from when she was an officer) breathing down her neck about a case.
Let me start by saying that I loved the novel. Carlson’s voice has a lot of welcome levity to it and it rarely gets over-serious to the point that, as a reader, you feel stressed out over what’s going to happen next. Jessica is smart, she is capable, and she is… normal. Not over-sexualised, not under-sexualised. There’s a balance to her character. And she has some good support from Tyler (her twin brother), Callum, James (the second-in-command of the pack), Rourke (a mercenary shifter of some kind), and Eudoxia, a Vampire Queen who has taken an interest in Jessica for reasons unknown.
The characterisation is definitely the key selling point here. Jessica McClain just leaps off the pages here because of how well she is written. There are some dialogue and monologue bits that fall a little flat and are a bit cheesy, but they don’t devalue the experience at all. Full Blooded is written as a full-on action movie, and Jessica’s character fits into that role very nicely. I’ve heard some horror stories of how female protagonists in the subgenre are often treated by the authors, as nothing more than a representation of author fantasy and the male gaze, which demands that the character be over-sexualised (both in terms of personality and attitude and clothes), and that if she isn’t some sort of an archetypical kick-ass heroine, then she be a damsel-in-distress, even though she may be the star of the novel! Jessica is none of those things. Her characterisation is mature and intriguing because there is a real depth to her as a character, as borne out by her struggles with her new abilities and her unfamiliarity with the “other side” of the fence.
The supporting cast of Tyler, Callum, James, Rourke, Eudoxia and the others is a really rich and colourful cast. Some of them fill archetypical roles such as the over-protective father (Callum), the badass merc that everyone is scared to death of (Rourke), and the sophisticated and sensuous Vampire (Eudoxia), but they are all so much more when put up against Jessica. Given that the novel is in the first person, we don’t get to read their side of the story but through Jessica we do get to explore the characters all the same. Callum’s role as Pack Alpha is emphasised again and again, as well as his over-protectiveness when it comes to Jessica, but none of it is ham-fisted in any way. When Carlson writes him as someone who has a dominating presence within a group of his fellow shifters, he does have that presence. Rourke is more than just what he is made out to be in the pages. He is actually a genuine compelling character that you can root for. Carlson writes him as an expressive extroverted character rather than this brooding bad-ass everyone is scared of. Eudoxia is a sweet-talker and charmer, but she has her “off” days too, when she gets all fired up and badass. There is a certain confrontation towards the end of the novel which is particularly delightful in that respect.
The action in the book is non-stop, like any good action movie. Chapter to chapter, there’s always something going on, whether it’s Jessica undergoing her change for the first time, being ambushed in her own home by a rogue werewolf, fighting against other werewolves or what have you. Reading about how a werewolf takes to combat was really interesting. It’s one thing to see it on the screen, such as the Lycans from Underworld or the native-american werewolves from Twilight, but its very different to actually read it all. The first-person perspective gave me a very unique experience, with all the internal monologue between Jessica and her wolf spirit, as well as Jessica’s comments on her own transformation during combat.
Along with the excellent pacing of the novel, Carlson’s world-building is also very intriguing. There are supernatural sects of all kinds all over the world and Carlson hints at political differences between all of them. Where the werewolves are concerned, it appears that the world is divided into six territories, based on continental differences, and that all werewolves belong to either the Pack from each territory or they are rogues. The latter is looked down on at the best of times. I have to say that I don’t like my supernaturals to be too regimented in their organisation. True Blood is a bit different, when it comes to Vampires, in that there are a hell of a lot of territories and each coven is apprehensive of the other, not to mention that switching loyalties is not a hard and fast rule either. Things appear to be more complicated and intertwined in Full Blooded though, and I’m a bit ambivalent at how… monolithic the Packs are made out to be. There is some internal dissension yes, but I felt that it wasn’t given as good a focus as it could have been, which is a shame. Because other than that, I did like what Carlson has done, especially since she mentions shifters other than werewolves, such as werecats (as Rourke is hinted to be), and there are werefoxes (such as Jessica’s friend), and even a special were-breed that comes off as a surprise towards the end, guaranteed to elicit a lot of laughter.
All in all, Full Blooded was quite an excellent novel, with my only main criticism being that it is too short by far. A chunkier novel would have been far preferable in my opinion since the ending was a bit rushed, and I was expecting a much more substantial pay-off. But that’s fine too. The novel still ends on a good note, promising that Jessica is going to have an even more of a good time in the sequel, Hot Blooded, when she takes on one of the villains introduced here.