This is a review of a book provided to me by Strange Chemistry (the YA imprint of Angry Robot books).
The Premise: The Toland siblings, Natividad, Alejandro, and Miguel, have fled from their home in Mexico, all the way across the United States, and have just reached their destination in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Their father's old enemy, Malvern Vonhausel, still stalks them despite already destroying their village and murdering their parents. Now the siblings are making a desperate gamble: that Dimilioc, a stronghold for shapeshifters called black dogs, will take them in. They have very little to convince Dimilioc's Master -- only that their father was once a Dimilioc wolf, and that Natividad is Pure. Their father told them that Dimilioc protected the Pure, but it never tolerated strays. Miguel may be granted amnesty because he's human, but Alejandro is black dog and may not be treated so kindly.
Read an excerpt of Black Dog here
My Thoughts: Before reading Black Dog, the other books I'd read by Rachel Neumeier were two-thirds of The Griffin Mage Trilogy, and House of Shadows. These are all straight fantasy, and for some reason (probably my own obliviousness), I thought Black Dog was the same. I didn't realize that until I began reading it that this is urban fantasy. This was not a bad thing. It felt nice to be surprised that Black Dog was Neumeier's own riff on werewolf mythology. The world is not far off from our own as it is now, but Neumeier alters all we know by setting Black Dog right after a war. This war is one that is not necessarily fully explained, but what we do know is that it has wiped out all vampires, and vampire magic happened to hide the supernatural from regular people. It also has the devastating consequence of Vonhausel tracking down the Toland family and slaughtering everyone in their village. Black Dog opens in the midst of the siblings' flight from home, with the plan to be taken in by the group of black dogs that their father once belonged.
Black Dog is narrated in the third person but focuses on Natividad and Alejandro, and as you would expect when a supernatural murderer is after you, this story has a desperate edge. First there is the fear of getting caught before they reach Dimilioc, and then there is the stress over what to say that would most likely keep them alive once they get there. After that the challenges just keep coming. So this has a quickly moving plot, but beyond that, the world building and the characters kept me engaged as well. The Tolands' Mexican upbringing is part of the narrative (the dialogue is peppered with Spanish), and that mixed with their having to grow up quickly kept these characters real and vulnerable.
What black dogs and the Pure are, are organically introduced as necessary. It isn’t difficult to catch on that a “black dog” is a shapeshifter that turns into a monstrous dog, but Neumeier throws in her own touches, from the superficial (like their black fangs and claws, intense heat, eyes of “fiery gold and red”, and black ichor of their wounds) to the fundamental (that they are two separate selves, one human, one shadow, housed within the same body). The Pure, which Natividad is, is more difficult to grasp. Natividad demonstrates that she has powers that she uses to protect and hide her brothers from their pursuers, but as the story moves forward, it becomes clear that’s not all she’s useful for. Adding to the mystery is the strange relationship the black dogs have with the Pure. Black dogs are drawn to the Pure, but while one half of their nature wants to protect them, the other wants to destroy. It’s not certain that even the Pure and the black dogs know how they are linked.
The Dimilioc wolves believe in protecting the Pure. In fact, they are prized, which is one of the reasons Natividad and her brothers have decided to go to them. Here is where things get sticky though, because Natividad is willing to sacrifice herself in exchange for her and her brothers’ survival (“I’m not a puta; I won’t lie down with them all. But if you take us into Dimilioc, I will take any one of your wolves you say”). Whether Natividad really has any agency is one issue, that she is only fifteen years old (while the youngest of her options seem to be in their twenties, there are men much older than that here), is another. I suppose I should feel better that it’s one of the youngest who is most aggressive in the pissing contest over Natividad, but when you are fifteen, a five or six-year age difference is significant. Any further romance or consent would be questionable. On the other hand, things don’t progress far enough for me to really question what is happening. All this is sort of there, in the background, percolating, while the Toland siblings deal with more immediate life or death situations. Yes, there is attention and Natividad isn’t immune, but there is the sense she wonders whether it’s real. I feel hopeful, because of the thoughtfulness of the writing, that when this series continues I won’t be disappointed by what happens to Natividad. I am not completely against a romance, but I’d feel better if Natividad got to grow up first. I also wonder whether the controversial romance is deliberate. It’s interesting when you pair the situation with Natividad’s nature, which involves a lot of placating of the black dogs and defusing aggression with teasing jokes made at the right moment. I also noticed a mirroring of Natividad’s situation in another (male) character. Needless to say, I’m very interested in finding out where this is going to go. Unfortunately, Strange Chemistry has been discontinued, but it sounds like Rachel Neumeier still expects to be able to publish the sequel, Pure Magic, one way or another.
Overall: Every time I read a book by Rachel Neumeier, it becomes my new favorite by this author. I think this is because of a mix of super thoughtful writing plus an element of surprise. Black Dog is no different. This was the kind of read that you gobble up quickly, with a lot of life-threatening action squeezed into the space of the few days, but it was the quieter moments between the life-or-death situations, where the characters are planning and anticipating and arguing, that lingered long after the book was closed. For those looking for no more than action and adventure, you will find it here. For those looking for something deeper – Black Dog sometimes made me uncomfortable in a way that is never resolved. Depending on how things go, I think this series has the potential to be more subversive than you’d initially expect.
Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository
Bunbury in the Stacks @ Tor.com – “Black Dog is, like the characters within its pages, frightening and beautiful and solid right down to its core.”
Chachic’s Book Nook – “Rachel Neumeier made a successful foray into urban fantasy with Black Dog.”
On Starships and Dragon Wings – “I was excited to get to know some characters a little different from the typical young adult cast, but I was completely unable to connect to them for reasons I’m honestly still not able to pin down.”