Women of the Otherworld
Dime Store Magic
by Kelly Armstrong
Review by Sarah-Wade Smith
I am, admittedly, a sucker for werewolf stories. I seem to feel the same attraction for them that other women feel for vampires. Which is how I got into this series which has so far run four volumes: Bitten, Stolen, Dime Store Magic and Industrial Magic, with a fifth, Haunted, due out in a few months.
According to her website, Canadian author Kelley Armstrong originally intended Bitten to be a stand-alone werewolf novel. When approched about making it into the start of an ongoing series, Ms. Armstrong decided that werewolves would get boring. So, she came up with the idea of a series of "braided novels", with a interlocking cast of various continuing supernatural characters with the focus shifting between them.
Thus, the first two of the series are told from the viewpoint of the world's only female werewolf, Elena Michaels. The second two shift to the viewpoint of a young witch, Paige Winterbourne who was introduced in Stolen with Elena and her friends making guest appearances as supporting characters. The fifth book will shift again, to the story of the ghost of Savannah Levine's dead mother.
One thing I like about the books is that the lead characters are very different people. Elena Michaels is a thirty-something tomboy who describes herself as "femininity challenged" and has a more or less successful career as a freelance journalist specializing in Canuck politics. She is extremely independent, athletic and self-confident. Paige, a 23 year old computer geek/spellcaster, is a very unselfconfident young woman suddenly saddled with her mother's position as coven leader and the job of foster mother to a rather dangerous young teen-ager and not at all sure she is prepared for either one. And they both work.
As I mentioned, Elena is the only female werewolf in Armstrong's supernatural world. This is because the gene that creates a hereditary werewolf is on the Y chromosome, so it's only inherited by males. However, you can also become a werewolf through being bitten by a werewolf; an inconsistency that does bother me. After all, if the condition is genetic, how would a bite change the victim's DNA? However, the rest of the book is good enough to overlook it. Women can become werewolves, but only through being infected by a werewolf's bite.
That is not as easy as it sounds. Werewolves bite to kill. If the prey does somehow survive, and also survives the stress of the transformation the werewolf usually makes a point of tracking down the wounded victim and finishing the job.
Elena was unusually lucky having been bitten by a werewolf who wanted her to survive. Meet Clayton Danvers, himself one of about three surviving bitten werewolves in the world. Nobody really knows where Clay came from. He was bitten about age five and lived from age 5 to 10 in a swamp as a feral wolf before being "rescued" and adopted by pack leader Jeremy Danvers. Despite having the good looks that only a male romance novel lead could have, Clay also has a brilliant academic career in sociology. Nevertheless, Elena insists that Clay is still more wolf than human in his thinking and he does not play at all well with normal people. In fact, he bit Elena specifically in order to give himself a girlfriend who wasn't human. Nice guy.
When we meet Elena, she has left the Pack to assert her own independence and is living in Toronto with a very sweet, gentle boyfriend and pursuing her journalism career. Of course, she still has to shift to a wolf every two weeks or so, or else! The "or else" being enforced by her own body.
When Jeremy Danvers, all-around nice guy and Pack alpha as well as Clay's adoptive father, asks Elena to come back to the Pack's estate near Syracuse to help with a problem, Elena is reluctant. She left, after all, because she was tired of dealing with the Pack wolves' attitudes which started with being highly overprotective and got harder to deal with from there.
However, she owes Jeremy for his help in overcoming her condition's murderous side and she did promise him to return and help if truly needed. Besides, despite his cluelessness about women, Jeremy is one of the sweeter guys she knows and something of a surrogate father to her.
The problem turns out to be a group of non-Pack werewolves, called "mutts" who are beginning to move against the Pack's turf. They are targeting and killing locals and dumping the bodies on the estate, threatening to expose the Pack. Elena is finding herself in an escalating war among wolves that will cost her several friends and maybe her own life into the bargain.
Stolen, the first sequel, finds Elena more or less reconciled with the Pack and with Clay. Following up on someone who seems to know way more about werewolves than is good for the Pack, Elena finds herself meeting with an elderly witch named Ruth Winterbourne and her young "niece" Paige.
Ms. Winterbourne wants to warn the werewolves that someone is kidnapping supernaturals and to invite the lycanthropes to an "Interracial Council meeting" at a town community center in rural Vermont. After leaving the Winterbournes, Elena is attacked by very professional and very well armed mercenaries.
When she, Jeremy and Clay show up for the Council meeting, they are attacked again by the same squad. Infuriated, Jeremy chews the witches out for being incompetent enough to let themselves be tailed, and severs contact with the council, warning them that the wolves will look out only for themselves.
However, as they return homewards, Elena is ambushed when she allows herself to become separated from Clay. Ambushed, drugged and abducted, she finds herself in a very secure prison, guarded by the aforementioned mercenaries and run by scientists who want to know what makes supernaturals like her tick. They are financed by a computer genius who wants to aquire the supernaturals' powers and is prepared to quite literally take them apart. In the meantime, he'll settle for simply hunting down and killing whoever is deemed to have outlived his usefulness as a lab rat.
To further complicate matters, Ruth Winterbourne has also been abducted and is trying to somehow shelter Savannah Levine, a 12-year old fellow inmate.
Savannah is almost as anomalous as Elena herself. Her late mother, killed when an abduction team decided she was far too dangerous to simply hold captive, was the daughter of a powerful witch and demon. Gaining powers from both sides of her heritage, Eve Levine was banned by the Winterbournes' coven for her willingness to use dark magic. Savannah is her daughter by an equally powerful sorceror and is herself showing signs of having serious power. If you can imagine a nuclear power plant in the form of a tempermental 12 year old girl, you've got Savannah, and there are a lot of parties who want to get their hands on her.
Then there is the scientist who injected herself with Elena's saliva in an attempt to become the second living female werewolf. She succeeded and now suffers from attacks of homicidal rage and, of course, blames Elena for all of it.
With the third book, Dime Store Magic, the focus shifts to the younger Winterbourne, Paige. Her mother's death in the last book has made her the titular head of the North American coven, but the elders who actually run the coven have no intention of paying any mind to the 23 year old. They certainly have no intention of changing in the slightest the way their grandparents did things just because Paige thinks they are living in the 21st century.
On top of her new responsibilites and frustrations, Paige is also having to deal with being the guardian of a dangerously precocious Savannah Levine, and she has exactly the wrong man on her doorstep: Savannah's natural father, Kristof Nast. Nast wants custody of his daughter and has more than enough lawyers, guns and money to take her, not to mention being able to offer Savannah the sort of fairytale princess lifestyle that Paige, a struggling web site designer, can only dream of.
If this weren't bad enough, Nast soon outs Paige as a "wiccan" and Paige's lawyer is murdered by obviously supernatural means, making Paige the chief suspect. Her coven is falling over themselves to control the damage by divorcing themselves from Paige and her problems and insisting Paige give Savannah up to Nast to protect her sisters.
Paige's only ally is a bespectacled lawyer who is almost as good a sorceror as he is an attorney. However, Lucas Cortez is also the illegitimate son of the magickal verson of Don Corleone and Paige isn't sure if she can trust him or how far. His very presence drives even more of a wedge between Paige and her coven.
Industrial Magic, the most recent entry in the series, finds Paige trying to settle into her new life, same as the old life, in Portland. Banished from Massachusetts by her former coven mates, she is trying to rebuild her web design business with some success and to start a new coven with unaffiliated witches with zero success. In large part, this is because she is living with a sorceror, Lucas Cortez, was kicked out of her old coven for endangering them, and is the guardian of a 13 year old who still scares everyone. Despite this, Savannah is actually mellowing into a fairly sweet teenager and Paige's romance with Lucas is blossoming.
Then the wrong man turns up on her doorstep. In this case, Lucas' father, Benicio Cortez, head of what amounts to a cross between Enron and the Yakuza plus black magic. Lucas has nobly dedicated his life and law practice to fighting the Cortez cabal. Despite this, and his illegitimacy, Benicio has named Lucas his heir as head of the cabal, much to the fury of Benicio's wife, and their three legitimate sons, most of whom have already tried to have Lucas killed.
What Benicio wants is Lucas. More specifically, he wants Lucas and Paige to take a case for him. One of the few nice things about the cabals is that they do protect their loyal employees. Now someone or something is stalking and murdering the runaway children of the cabal's supernatural employees. Something has to be done to stop it and Benicio wants Lucas and Paige to be the ones to do it. In part, this is because he wants to use the case to mend the rift between him and Lucas.
I have to say that Lucas is about my favorite character in the series. Where Clay is matinee idol handsome with a bad-boy attitude that just won't quit, Lucas is a straight shooting Mr. Nice Guy, who can stand his own ground when he has to. He is an ordinary looking guy who wears wire-rims in preference to contacts, but who rides an antique Harley he has lovingly restored. He shrugs off mob hit men and takes on longshot cases pro bono to prove his abilities as an attorney. Lucas is the guy you really want to cuddle up to.
Another favorite of mine is the vampiress Cassandra DuCharme, a bloodsucker in Italian designer fashions, Prada pumps and a makeup application that only 300 years of practice could perfect. I mention Cassandra because she contributes a lot to making Industrial Magic the funniest of the series. Just watching her try to deal with Jamie, a necromancer, who keeps pointing out that Cassandra is, well,...dead, is delightful.
Then there is Cassandra and Paige's encounter with the New Orleans vampires, a coterie of blatant Lestat wannabes. Among them is John, who prefers being called Hans. John also insists on flirting with all the boys even though he is totally straight, because he thinks it makes him look cool. The description of Paige and a mortified Cassandra exploring John's beyond tacky vampire fetish house never fails to send me into helpless spasms of ROFL no matter how many times I reread it.
Yet, there is a poignancy to it because Cassandra's comical self absorbtion stems from the fact that her long undeath is slowing coming to its own end. Cassandra is, in effect, dying.
And yes, Elena, Jeremy and Clay are back as supporting characters.
Nor is genuine horror missing from the series. Elena's original decision to accept Jeremy's help came because her inablility to control her condition resulted in her killing and eating two innocent people. She still grades mutts into the "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". The good ones can resist the urge to kill, the bad ones can't and the ugly ones don't see any reason to try. Cassandra and her ilk may not be the nightstalking terrors of a Dracula flick, but over a multi-hundred year life span, they still fill a graveyard with victims to preserve their own lives, and the cabals are perfectly prepared to use human sacrifice if that's what it takes to close the deal.
And amazingly, it all works. In four books, Armstrong has run us through bloodshed, horror, pure evil, slapstick, true love, etc and has done it with a butchy tomboy, a romance novel bad boy, a plump insecure 20 something, a nice guy who wears glasses and has the family from hell, and a vampire who has trouble thinking about anything else but her. She's made us love all of them, even some of the bad guys.
The next novel in the series is to be called Haunted and will again shift the focus, this time to the ghost of Savannah's dead mother, Eve Levine who has revived her old affair with Kristof Nast in the afterlife. I'm looking forward to it.
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