This was a book that I thought might be a tad on the predictable side. Werewolves? Pack mentality? Love triangle? I've seen it all before. And then some. However, Nightshade turned out to be a much darker, more thrilling, more original tale than I would have ever thought possible.
Set on a remote mountains somewhere in north America the book follows the exploits of Calla, a female Alpha wolf, living with her pack and their masters. I'd call her a werewolf but there's all sorts of crazy magic stuff going on so I suspect she's more like a shapeshifter – either way, she has the ability to get her wolf on whenever necessary. Her community comprises of two wolf packs but this is all about to change as Calla and alpha male Ren were literally born to be together – conceived solely to create a new pack that will combine the genetic strengths of both the Nightshades and the Banes. Yep, on turning eighteen they are expected to shack up and make babies as well as combining their own small packs into one large, happy family. The wolves themselves exist as Guardians to an ancient race of witches known as the Keepers who they serve unquestionably while guarding them from a mysterious band known only as the Searchers. Add into the mix Shay, a mysterious and also rather clueless human boy who seems of great importance to the Keepers and you have the start of an extremely interesting story.
As lead protagonist, Calla is pretty great. She's obviously tough, with the whole alpha female thing going on and illustrates all the qualities of a great leader yet at the same time is very aware of her position in the community. While she has a degree of power she is quickly realizing that she will have to submit to the will of her Alpha male, Ren, as well as to the demands of the Keepers. She's never questioned her life or position before but now finds herself starting to wonder if her much touted destiny with Ren is really her only option. She spends much of the book rocketing between Shay and Ren, each of whom represents one possible future and her struggle is believable and touching. I liked her relationship with her pack and the author skillfully walks a fine line between leadership, family and friendship in Calla's interactions with them.
Ren and Shay are interesting in the fact that they are polar opposites of each other. Shay with his ceaseless curiosity and inability to accept anything at face value is a lovely character, persistently chipping away at Calla's belief system and allowing her to see her community for what it really is. As an inherent part of that community, Ren at first seems to represent all that is bad about Calla's situation. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that just because he tows the company line doesn't mean that he is unaware of the troubles that surround them. He is just as bound by the Keepers and his family as Calla is, he just lacks the impetus to truly fight against them. The other pack members are not only interesting, but a lot of fun. I particularly liked Mason and Neville, while Ansel and Calla's sibling relationship is truly heartwarming.
The plot itself is fantastic. There is, out of necessity, a lot of world building. Cremer has created a complex and intricate mythology that I've never come across before and spends a fair amount of time looking closely at the relationship between the Keepers and the Guardians. And what a relationship it is. The Guardians are essentially slaves to the whims of their masters, kept in place by the security, homes and livelihood that the Keepers dangle over their head and by the threat of the terrifying wraith like beings that the Keepers also employ. Each wolf pack has a Keeper who is responsible for them and it quickly becomes clear that the Keepers use the pack members as their personal playthings – expecting them to serve them in all ways. This abusive relationship (on both a mental, physical and sexual level) is hugely unsettling and disturbing to read about. However, it also lifts Nightshade to a level above a lot of paranormal YA, introducing deeper issues than usually seen in this genre. On this foundation, Cremer then introduces the plot line that will clearly run throughout the series and which involves Shay, Calla and Ren more directly. Nightshade ends on a cliffhanger so I have no idea where this story line will go but I am most certainly keen to find out.
Nightshade is Andrea Cremer's debut novel yet reads like that of a seasoned author. Her storyline is gripping, her characterisation brilliant and her heroine refreshing and original. Without doubt, she is an author to watch in the future particularly if she maintains the courage shown in introducing genuinely troubling aspects to the paranormal genre – a genre that often plays it safe, despite the frightening worlds it often portrays. Absolutely excellent stuff – pick up a copy as soon as you can.
Nightshade is published by Atom Books in the UK and is available on bookshelves from 28th December. Thanks to Andrew at The Emancipation of The Pewter Wolf for entrusting me with his shiny ARC of this title – it's winging its way back to you good as new.