Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier is the first book I've read by the author. It's about three Mexican teenagers trying to find a better life in the US and it's an interesting take on werewolf mythology. It's got a long blurb, but not as spoilery as it could be.
Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases – like for Natividad’s father and older brother – Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.

But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

In the snowy forests of Vermont they are discovered by Ezekiel Korte, despite his youth the strongest black dog at Dimilioc and the appointed pack executioner. Intrigued by Natividad he takes them to Dimilioc instead of killing them.

Now they must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. Alejandro must prove he can learn loyalty and control even without his sister’s Pure magic. Natividad’s twin Miguel must prove that an ordinary human can be more than a burden to be protected. And even at Dimilioc a Pure girl like Natividad cannot remain unclaimed to cause fighting and distraction. If she is to stay she must choose a black dog mate.

But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.
So there was a lot to like about Black Dog. Culturally diverse characters, interesting mythology, pretty good writing. My favourite aspect was the magic/mythology worldbuilding. The Black Dog take on werewolves was different to anything I'd seen before. There were, mostly tangential to the plot, traditional werewolves that change with the moon. But the black dogs central to the story were born that way and their "shadows" — the entity/curse of the black dog inside them — were uncorrupted and controllable (although control wasn't guaranteed). The power politics between black dogs were interesting and added to the texture of the story.

To go along with the black dogs there were also "Pure" women and girls, of which the main character, Natividad, was one. In some respects, the Pure are witches, with their power tied to the black dog curse. Black dogs benefit in various ways from having one of the Pure around; the Pure make them "more civilised" by exerting a magical calming influence. It's also desirable for black dogs to take Pure women as wives. What I didn't like about the concept of Pure magic (y'know, apart from the name which I found problematic in itself) is that it set Pure women up to be used by black dogs. Even if, like the Dimilioc wolves, the black dogs revere the Pure, it still irked me because although Natividad was powerful, by aligning herself with the Dimilioc wolves she lost a lot of autonomy. To be fair, so did her black dog brother, but that was portrayed differently (he willingly aligned with them to protect his siblings, she didn't have much of a choice).

On that note, when Natividad and brothers arrive at Dimilioc, it's basically accepted that she will have to pair off with one of the black dogs. Because she's only fifteen, she doesn't have to choose a mate until she's sixteen (and then that mate will have to constantly defend his position from the other black dogs, even though she chose him). Almost immediately, Ezekiel stakes a claim in Natividad and basically threatens to kill any other (male) black dog that tries to win her over. So I thought that was pretty uncool. It also squicked me out that Natividad a) liked him and b) kept being glad that there was an eligible black dog close to her age. Point b, in particular, I didn't like because as far as I gathered Ezekiel is twenty-one (or maybe twenty) which, at fifteen, is not such a small gap. Also, aside from being badarse but nice and not as creepy as he could have been, I wasn't sure what his appeal was supposed to be.

The bad guy was adequately evil and I liked how the recent history that was scattered throughout the story — involving a war between werewolves and vampires — was tangentially relevant to the action portion of the plot. As I've already said, this book had top worldbuilding.

I would recommend Black Dog to readers who want to see interesting werewolves and particularly to anyone looking for cultural diversity in their lead characters. For all that I've discussed some of its faults above, none of them were deal breakers for me and the book's strong points carried it through. I'm actually very torn about the star rating since the writing and worldbuilding put it very close to being a "four" book. Nevertheless...

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2014, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so? It felt very self-contained.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

2 comments:

  1. Ah, Tsana, if you were a teenage girl, you'd think the whole thing was terribly romantic, including the heroine having to take a mate and be claimed by the cute boy! :-) That premise is rather cliched, but kids like more of the same. I'm guessing right now that it will get a lot of rave reviews from teen book bloggers who love the idea. ;-)

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    1. I have to say, other than that aspect, what the book did (in terms of worldbuilding particularly) it did very well. But maybe you're right as to why it didn't resonate with me.

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