066 – Bonds of Fenris by S.J. Bell

Bonds of Fenris cover Talia Thornwood’s life ended one year ago, when she became a werewolf. She survived the attack, and the horrifying transformation a month later, but the life she has now is barely worth living. She lurks about in a filthy, run-down house, with too many werewolves crammed into too small a space. Every day is a struggle against the stress of human contact, the romantic prodding of her obnoxious packmate Pierce, and the gnawing hunger for flesh in her soul.She’s all but resigned herself to a dreary existence on the margins of society when she meets Corwin. Corwin is a werewolf like none other. He walks among humans as if it was nothing, and can keep his wolf under control even when the moon is full. Talia’s mind is suddenly opened to the possibilities before her, and the realization of how little she really knows about lycanthropy.

Corwin claims that he can teach her how to cope as he does, even how to transcend her affliction. But it will not be easy. It is a hard education that requires her to question everything her pack taught her, and confront exactly what she has become. And, more amazingly, what she never stopped being.
Full disclosure: you might have seen me make reference to the author of this book, S.J. Bell, once or twice – he also goes by the name Lup, and runs a damn good werewolf literature review blog that I’m particularly fond of. I’d like to think that we’ve become good friends, and I was lucky enough to be able to beta read this novel before it was published.

I’m telling you this up front so that nobody thinks we’re trying to pull a fast one by ignoring personal ties. Lup is a friend, but Bell is an author, and his book gets the same treatment here as anyone else’s.

So yeah, hopefully, we’ll still be friends after this.

Here’s the thing about Bonds of Fenris: I really like the concept. One of my biggest problems with werewolf literature is that werewolf characters tend to be domineering, possessive, angry, aggressive assholes, and they typically use their second nature as an excuse for this behavior. We can get into arguments up one side and down the other about this sort of thing being a fundamental part of the werewolf as a mythological creature, but my point is that Bell takes this idea of werewolves as raging, out of control beasts, and works it to fit with his own philosophical perspective. In fact, I think one of Bell’s posts from his review site puts it best:

In literature, supernatural monsters rarely represent supernatural ideas. In fact, they almost always represent some aspect of humanity, some thing inside us incarnated. The werewolf is strange to us, foreign. But it is also familiar. For the werewolf is man, in a state of nature. If the writer sees humanity as inherently noble and righteous, the werewolf will represent that. If the writer sees humanity as conflicted and troubled, the werewolf will represent that. If the writer sees humanity as violent, loathsome, and uncontrollable, the werewolf will represent that. But never is the werewolf something from beyond. He is always something from within. Something that, underneath the fur and the sharp incisors, is distinctly human. Werewolves are fascinating purely and solely because humans are.
This philosophy seems to be the basis for Bonds of Fenris, in which animalistic rage is not the ideal, but neither is it the enemy.

That being said, while the concept was interesting, I don’t feel like Fenris was quite able to be a completely satisfying novel.

For one thing, the pacing gave me problems. Much of the story felt rushed, squishing months at a time into paragraphs that did little more than summarize the goings-on. This means, of course, that we were left with paragraphs upon paragraphs of telling, explaining, summarizing the characters’ state of minds, the mood of the household, and the misery of their lives, without getting much of a chance to actually see it. We do get snapshots here and there – times when the narrative will slow down long enough for us to get in a scene or two demonstrating things that our heroine Talia has already explained to us – but it feels so much like that, like an example rather than an experience, that it leaves you disconnected from the story itself.

But I think this disconnection is also in part due to the way the story is told. There’s probably a word for the style of narrative used here, but basically, the events in the novel are being recounted to us by the protagonist after they’ve already happened.

A few problems I had with this: one, we aren’t actually experiencing things with Talia. She’s telling us about them. While you can kind of forget this in the sections where Talia is recounting things in real-time, it slips back in to the summaries often enough to be quite jarring.

Two, the narration repeatedly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the reader personally. For example:

The truly awful thing about full-moon nights is, they feel good. It’s almost like a drug. Yes, you’ll wake up the next morning feeling rotten about yourself for enjoying the blood, the murder, the loss of your humanity. But in the moment it’s euphoric, an indescribable sensation of freedom and power. You run free, king of the wild lands, all creatures within it submissive or powerless before your fast legs and sharp, killing teeth. No need for any thought but pure instinct. No need to do anything but just be.

Not the first time, mind you. The first time is pure, unadulterated hell.
Who is “you”, in this context? Yes, Talia is telling her story, but to who? For who? Nobody in the book itself, which only leaves the reader, and that never, ever works for me unless the narrator is writing some sort of journal or memoir or Hell, even a blog post. It doesn’t really matter, as long as there is some kind of plausible excuse for them speaking as though they know they have an audience. Otherwise, we end up with that distracting quagmire of “Why is this fictional character talking to me when they shouldn’t know I exist?”

O.O

IT’S BECOME SELF-AWARE.


I realize that some books are just written this way, but that sort of style puts me off hardcore.

Speaking of telling, we got a whoooooole lot of that, too. Most notably, Talia seemed compelled to explain her emotions or motivations, more often than she displayed them. Not just for herself, either. She bordered on omniscience at times – when she made an observation about another character’s motivation or personality, it struck me as less like her own personal take on them, and more like it was Word of God dropping in to let us know what’s up.

We also got a few awkwardly worked-in flashbacks that made me wince. One very long on I remember in particular, that seemed to go on forever despite occurring in what should have been a brief moment – I wonder how long Talia was staring off in to space while she remembered? Another wasn’t even really a “flashback”, per se – Talia just narrated an entire scene that she hadn’t even been around for, explaining that one of the participants had just told her afterwards.

So now she’s recounting a scene to us that’s been recounted to her by someone else. BOOKCEPTION.

When it comes right down to it, all of these different issues made it very difficult for me to feel connected with the story, and to really empathize with the characters and their experiences. The problem with that, aside from the obvious, of course, is that Bonds of Fenris is a very character-driven book. The stakes are fairly low; this is about people learning to coexist with their inner wolves, after all. The very worst thing that could possibly happen were our heroes to fail is that one of their number could die. So if I don’t really get invested in the characters, then the plot and conflict aren’t going to mean very much to me.

Mild Spoilers

To its credit, Bonds of Fenris does shoot for a few complicated characters. The results are…mixed. Some, like Talia’s packmates Bo and Leroy, are hopelessly one-note, but generally likable. Others, like Marlene, Pierce, and even Corwin, show different facets of themselves, but…well, aren’t easy to like. Pierce probably fared the best, in my opinion, managing to be simultaneously dickish and sympathetic, but he does have the benefit of being the focus of the entire climax of the book.

Marlene, whose title, if she had one, would probably be “the bitch”, gets a little development, in so far as you get to understand why she’s a “bitch”, to Talia especially. My hackles were raised a bit in that she is a bitch to Talia out of jealousy and envy, partially over a guy, of course, but they do manage to make up by the end of the book, and get to a place where it’s not an issue.

Corwin…how can I put this? I can see the kind of character that Corwin is supposed to be, but oh my god, he came off like such a pompous jackass. I know he’s not supposed to, and I know that steps were taken to make it so that Corwin isn’t always right and doesn’t always know best, but all of his philosophical speeches, all of his questions, his lessons, his challenges, they all seemed to be delivered with this air of condescension that made it impossible for me to really like him.

And as much as the book went out of its way to make Corwin’s methods seem noble, like the best he could manage, it’s pretty much impossible to run a program where you lock someone up, stark naked, and then let them waste away in a cellar for days without coming off like a pretty big creeper.

As for Talia…perhaps it’s because I’ve corresponded with Lup for so long, but his voice was so distinctive in her that I was never able to really see Talia as a character, and certainly not a female character. Her romance with Corwin was sweet, but a little lukewarm, and I never quite felt as though Talia got to be on equal footing with Corwin. Yes, she went on to be a teacher, too, but in the end, she still seemed to look “up” to him more than she looked “at” him.

Also, she was far, faaaaaar more understanding of Pierce’s sexual harassment than she should have been.

The dialogue was awkward at times, very expository, especially in the beginning. It seemed to be intended to get across certain particulars of the situation, but wasn’t really able to accomplish this while still sounding like anyone would actually talk like that.

The near-constant speech-making fared worse. While typically each character had a distinct speaking “voice”, every time they had to answer one of Corwin’s philosophical questions, you could tell that the words were coming from the exact same mouth – or perhaps, in this case, pen.

On the upside, I loved that the characters’ lives, as weres, was not sugarcoated or glamorized. They were miserable, unable to keep from seeing humans as walking hamburgers, snorting peppermint spray to mask the appetizing smell, living in solitude, confused and scared and unsure of what to do. It’s a far cry from most were books, and if I were to call any particular depiction of werewolves “realistic”, this would probably be it.

I quite enjoyed the moral of the story, as well. I liked that the wolf was not something to be tamed or gotten rid of, but freed. I loved that, in the end, the human’s intellect, the human’s ability to learn and grow, was able to get a hold of the animal instinct. It goes back to Lup’s quote: werewolf books are a reflection of their authors. For Bell, weres – and thus people – are able to be both man and animal without descending into animalistic nonsense. It’s an awesome message, and I could think of a few wolves *cough*Adam*cough* who would greatly benefit from one of Corwin’s lessons.

When all was said and done, Bonds of Fenris had a unique take on the werewolf mythos, and a lot of cool ideas, but it felt more like a prelude to me than a stand-alone novel. While I realize that the focus was intentionally small here, intentionally personal, I couldn’t help but feel like it was backstory, set-up for a bigger story to come.

I do genuinely hope that Bell continues on in this world, because I’d love to see these characters, as happy, competent, and healthy as they are in the end, band together to take on a more external threat or cause. They could be a pretty badass force to be reckoned with, and I’d enjoy seeing the characters and world more fully developed.

three stars


 

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