051 – Nightshade by Andrea Cremer

Nightshade cover Calla Tor has always known her destiny: After graduating from the Mountain School, she’ll be the mate of sexy alpha wolf Ren Laroche and fight with him, side by side, ruling their pack and guarding sacred sites for the Keepers. But when she violates her masters’ laws by saving a beautiful human boy out for a hike, Calla begins to question her fate, her existence, and the very essence of the world she has known. By following her heart, she might lose everything – including her own life. Is forbidden love worth the ultimate sacrifice?
I was rather psyched when I found out that my library had a copy of Nightshade. It was even the version with its proper cover, which is more than Wal-Mart could manage. I’d heard good things from friends and was eager to get my hands on it. And now I’m thinking maybe that was the problem. I was expecting a lot from Nightshade, and it left me more ambivalent than anything else.

Other reviews have mentioned being entranced by Nightshade from the first few pages, with the experience headed up- or downhill from there. I kinda had the opposite reaction. With no set-up or introduction, we’re dropped into our heroine Calla’s world in the very moments in which she’s deciding whether or not to save the life of lost hiker and eventual love interest, Shay Doran. He’s somehow managed to get himself attacked by a bear, and Calla is concerned that saving him will violate her laws. Somehow. But she’s inexplicably compelled; she can’t leave this “beautiful boy” in such danger, so she proceeds to not only go out of her way to fend off the bear in her wolf form, but then transform into a human right in front of Shay and give him a drink of her healing blood. In the space of about five pages, Calla has broken at least three of her world’s most sacred laws, punishable by death, for the sake of some guy she literally has never seen before.

And I’m sitting there at the end of all this like, “Okay:

  1. What?
  2. Since when do werewolves have healing blood? I thought that was vampires.
  3. How in God’s name did Shay manage to get himself attacked by a bear in the first place? How does someone do that, especially someone who later insists that those kinds of bears aren’t native to this area? What did he stumble upon apparently the only bear in Colorado and then steal its honeypot? No seriously though, this is relevant information, I want to know what kind of stupidity or bad luck got Shay in a such a bad tangle with a bear that he needed to be rescued by Calla.
  4. and,
  5. What? Why the Hell did Calla just do that? She doesn’t even know this guy?”

Nightshade‘s very introduction was just incomprehensible to me. Calla, as we come to learn, plays by the rules. She’s down with it. For all of her life until Shay’s intervention, she’s done as others tell her. She may not like it, she may grumble about it, but she does it. I mean, Christ, in the very next chapter we see her grudgingly agree to wear a prettier clothes to school because her mother tells her to. Her mother. So why exactly in the first few pages does she make what is likely her first act of rebellion one punishable by death for a guy she doesn’t know?

This is a legitimate issue, and it really undermined Calla’s relationship with Shay as well as her behavior throughout the book. Personally, I just didn’t see the emotional genesis for Calla and Shay’s relationship. Most paranormal romance books go out of their way to excuse a couple’s attraction – it’s destiny or fate or Reincarnated Love or some feature they possess that makes them unique. Cliches, yes, and no substitute for good old fashioned relationship development, but it’s something. Nightshade offers no explanation for Calla’s compulsion to risk her life and ignore everything she’s ever been taught to save Shay. She just thinks he’s beautiful. And you don’t get the feeling that she’d do it for just anyone. There’s something ~special~ about Shay; they’re only together for a few moments and he’s bleeding out for most of them, but his touch makes her ladyparts happy, and also her heart, and afterwards, she can’t stop thinking him.

WHYYYYYYY? He’s done and said nothing! Why?

Call me too literal, unromantic, picky, but this bugs. I can’t buy absent motivation like this. Not when the entire conflict occurs as a direct result of it.

But I’ll be honest, the whole first quarter or the book struck a sour note with me. We’re introduced to Calla’s life – her family, her friends, her predicament, and her world – and the gist of it is that the werewolves, or “Guardians”, and are subject to an oppressive and oddly selectively sexist culture imposed on them by their Masters, the Keepers. The Keepers are magic-wielders who have total control over the Guardian’s lives, and use the werewolves for whatever they see fit. In Calla’s case, the Keepers have decided that, as Alpha of the teenagers within her pack, the Nightshades, she must marry Ren, Alpha of the teens within their rival pack, the Banes. Together, the teens will form a new pack, to be put under the control of the Bane’s Master’s son, as a gift for his eighteenth birthday. Yeah. A gift.

At any rate, the set-up and conflicts, while interesting, are presented pretty clunkily, and largely without subtlety. Characters show up for literally no other reason than to justify awkward, stilted expository conversations. Numerous times. Characters are characterized before we ever get to meet them – *cough*Ren*cough* – and we’re beaten over the head with how awful and/or facilitating nearly every single adult in Calla’s world is, just in case we didn’t get that werewolf society is sexist and horrible.

I get that this is something we need to understand in order for Nightshade to work, but it comes off a bit heavy-handed. For example, the reason that Calla’s mother wants her to dress more femininely is because she wants her to make a sexy impression on future husband Ren. Calla is explicitly told by her mother that a woman’s duty is to be desirable for her husband, and to be able to please him when the time comes. However, her mother pointedly adds, until the wedding ceremony at the end of the month, Calla is not, under any circumstances, to give it up. To anyone. Not even her future husband. Ren can fuck around with whoever he wants, because he’s a guy and that’s what guys do, but not Calla. It is a woman’s obligation to remain PURE until marriage, goddammit.

Okay, two things. First: the werewolves are ok with Calla being the Alpha of her own little sub-pack, and wielding genuine power over people – in theory, and we’ll get to that – and that’s okay, but she’s not allowed to get her sex on, which has no tangible effect on anyone else because…why, exactly? They don’t even offer an excuse, it’s just not allowed. Cause she’s a girl, and the Keepers are sexist, and that’s final.

Second: so yeah, we get that Calla’s mother is an unreasonable, facilitating asshole, and that the point is that she’s forcing Calla to become an anti-feminist cliche – a girl who objectifies herself for the sake of a man, but is unable to act on her own sexual impulses, because society has decreed that she must remain a virgin until marriage. But the sexist ideals so heavily emphasized that it’s becomes almost cartoonish. Multiple characters ever so casually bring up how much it’s okay and normal for Ren to be the Casanova that he is, but that it’s important that Calla remain pure. One character, after catching Ren and Calla mid-makeout, even goes so far as to chastise her for “letting” Ren get as far as he did, since it is solely Calla’s obligation to put a kibosh on the premarital sex. Okay, yes, we get that the culture is sexist, but some subtlety would go a long way towards making this more believable, and relatable for modern teenage girls, or Hell, modern women.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that I’m criticizing the degree to which Cremer shows her characters are sexist and oppressive, and that says volumes about the text in general.

While I have issues with some of the writing and development, what Cremer’s set out to do in Nightshade is completely worthwhile. I really appreciated the themes and conflicts presented here, and these ideas are by far the best part of the book for me. The dickishness has been turned up to 11 because we have to understand that Calla’s world is wrong. The Keepers are raging assholes who treat the Guardians like their pets, and the whole point is that this isn’t right. Thematically, Nightshade is about freedom, choice, and escaping oppression; it’s about taking back control over your life even when your circumstances aren’t, say, dystopian-dire. The ideas that Shay presented to Calla – about how people can be slaves without realizing it, kept misinformed and manipulated and placated with material things – all resonates loud and clear in our current society, and I was impressed that Cremer drew those parallels at all. That’s probably the one aspect of the Keeper’s oppression that I don’t feel like she went overboard with.

Cremer has a message here, and I respect not only the message, but the new dimension it adds to Calla’s story. It’s a unique twist when you consider that everything Calla – and by extension, the reader – know about her world, its history, and its order, are false. I loved the sheer scale of this revelation – it’s not just important to Calla and her life and her future, it’s relevant to the lives of an entire race of people. The foundation of these Guardians’ very world is a lie. That’s fantastic and amazing and a premise rife for drama! There is so much you can do with this idea, and whatever you do, it’s bound to be on a large scale. Plus, it makes Calla one of the bad guys for much of the book. That’s awesome. And it’s not simply in allegiance, but in act as well. She’s killed in a human being in the line of duty, and while she’d been fed false information about his motivations, he’s still dead by her hand. That in itself is rare in YA, but for him to turn out to be a good guy as well? Cremer’s got balls.

And while we’re talking about good things, I’d like to mention how cool it was to find two homosexual characters who weren’t horrifying stereotypes Her gay characters, Mason and Neville, are just normal guys, not immediately identified as gay by their love of shopping or fashion or showtunes, and it seemed like a concentrated effort on Cremer’s part to avoid that. In fact, in perhaps one of the best, most amusing moments of character establishment in the book, Neville loses a bet to Mason and has to get up and sing “If I Were a Rich Man” at the top of his lungs as punishment, which is described as his “personal Hell”. It’s kind of nice to find an author who not only understands but wants to show that a person’s sexual orientation does not set them into one specific personality type. It’s also worth mentioning that Mason and Neville’s inclusion isn’t simply for the sake of diversity or tokenism; Mason gets a subplot demonstrating their culture’s prejudice against homosexuality, and what terrible things might be in store for him and Nevile if things continue as they are.

Unfortunately, not all the characters making up Calla and Ren’s packs managed to fare as well as Neville and Mason. Most are relegated to singular character traits – Hell, one character’s defining personality trait is that she had no personality – and half-developed or random subplots – can anyone really tell me what the point was of Dax and Fay being such awful homophobes? and Bryn and Ansel just came out of nowhere, didn’t they? It’s hardly surprising considering that there are ten Guardians in total, and while Cremer gives it a valiant effort, she doesn’t quite succeed at making all of these characters more than props.

While I generally loved the premise and where it has the potential to go, Nightshade obviously had some issues, and plot-wise I found it kind of “meh”. Of course it’s the first book, so it has the burden of establishing the premise for the trilogy without really telling us anything substantial, but even excepting that, there were a few naggling issues (and one big one). For one, it was incredibly predictable. What little world expansion we got from Nightshade was heavily reliant on things like prophecies and Chosen Ones and ancient wars, all of which tropes we’ve seen done a thousand times before. Fake history aside, there weren’t a whole lot of shocking revelations here. And God, that last twist involving the “sacrifice” at Ren and Calla’s wedding? That runs flailing past the boundaries of believable ignorance on the part of the characters, even in a genre where characters are almost required not to see the obvious. That’s almost character-assassinating idiocy, right there.

For two, Cremer massively underplays several pivotal moments throughout the story. Events that feel like they should be significant or difficult or relevant to the plot, or even are all of these things, are glossed over as though there’s nothing incredibly important about them. Shay’s conversion, for example – that should have been a game-changer. It should have been an agonizing decision, a painful, disorienting process, or at least one of those things. Yet in-book, it felt like a convenient solution to a mildly troublesome problem – that Calla and Shay hadn’t even tried to remedy any other way – and it had no impact on the book’s overall plot whatsoever. How is that even possible? Shay was turned into a werewolf, for Chrissakes; Calla commits the ultimate taboo, and once he heals her, she’s not even terribly concerned about it. The process is absurdly easy for Shay, despite Calla saying it can be troublesome for people who aren’t born a Guardian, and seriously, none of the nine other werewolves he goes to school with have any idea that he’s been changed, even though he hangs out with them on a regular basis. None? HOWW?

My biggest issue with Nightshade, though, is that this incredible, epic, complicated conflict manifests itself primarily as a love triangle between three people. Nightshade‘s epic conflict is scaled down so that it can be neatly embodied by Calla’s struggle to choose between love interests: her arranged fiance Ren, or would-be liberator Shay. While this serves to elevate the triangle – for once there’s more at stake here than just broke hearts – it almost seems like a waste of a perfectly good instigation for a rebellion. While it’s probable that the grander implications of Calla’s discovery will be explored more in the sequels, I was a little disappointed that so much of Nightshade‘s focus was put on the angsty and sexy aspects of the love triangle. I wanted Calla to make this discovery and start screaming rebellion now.

Of course, it doesn’t help that, as previously mentioned, I didn’t really buy half of said love triangle. Or that Calla deals with her confusion largely by making out. Constantly. With both boys. Not, like, at the same time, but often back-to-back. Somebody inevitably gets sloppy seconds.

Here’s the potentially weird thing – I get Calla and Ren. Calla’s feelings for him are based on a mix of lust and familiarity. For Calla, Ren is the safe option, the one with whom her life will stay the same as it has always been. Even if she has some reservations about Ren’s character, her life with him would be comfortable. Known. I also get Ren. He made exactly the impression I figure he was supposed to make, as a controlling, possessive, but ultimately redeemable product of all the sexism in Calla’s culture. He’s trying to be fair, he’s trying to be a good leader, he cares about his pack, and he’s vulnerable in his feelings for Calla. Granted, we don’t truly see this vulnerability until the end, and as a result, he comes off as a shallow, dickish horndog for most of the book despite what other characters tell Calla, and I don’t really know if this is intentional or not. But we see his vulnerability in the end, and that’s when it truly matters.

Calla’s relationship with Shay I get in a symbolic sense, but emotionally, it doesn’t work for me. Calla and Shay go from captivated strangers to weary acquaintances to making out in like three meetings, and again, I never understood why Calla was so interested in the first place. After the requisite period of denying her interest and tersely pretending that she didn’t save his ass from a bear and then shape-shift right in front of him, Calla relents and takes Shay into her confidence relatively early into the book. She adds yet another death-worthy crime to her list by expositing to him her world rules, history, and present romantic entanglements, and it is then that Shay actively takes up the banner of rebellion, being the only one far enough removed from the situation to see it for what it really is – oppression. Together they set about uncovering the real history of Calla’s people, which is closely tied to Shay’s mysterious origins and destiny. During this time together, Shay plays the “devil” on Calla’s shoulder, sharing information forbidden to the Guardians by the Keepers, and encouraging her to rebel and to put her desires over the will of her Masters.

You’d think with an agenda like that, I’d like Shay a little more, and I genuinely expected to, what with his comic book fanaticism and “sweet, caring nature”. But honestly, he was alternately too accommodating and too douchy for me to develop any great affection for him. We’d be getting along just fine, and then he’d say something so utterly dickish to Calla that I had to do a double-take, wondering “Christ, am I really supposed to like him after that?” He constantly trivializes Calla’s feelings, her fears, the enormity of her impending marriage to Ren and what it means to her, and most of all, her confusion over how to handle all this new information. I had to keep reminding myself that he was the character who was in the right, here; that to him, Calla’s world’s rules, and her choice to continue abiding by them were absurd to the point of stupidity. Hell, I would probably have the same attitude if I were in that situation. But you know what that would make both of us? Unsympathetic, privileged assholes. While I share his frustration at Calla’s reluctance to accept the new reality of her life and act accordingly – especially considering the evidence and sheer evil of this reality – Shay doesn’t do his character any favors by belittling her for it.

Yet in aspects of the story where he would generally be justified in having more of an attitude – like, for example, how Calla carries on a relationship with him while at the same time refusing to break off her involvement with Ren – he’s inexplicably chill. Initially he tries to take a stand, refusing to kiss Calla while she’s unsure of what she wants, but that’s just lip service; he immediately does a 180 by kissing her in the very same scene, pretty much as soon as his little speech is over. After that, his pride is pretty much non-existent, and I can’t help but wonder, why even make that speech at all, then? It doesn’t make you look like any less of a doormat if you immediately change your mind.

So yeah, with Shay, I ended up on the “no thanks” side of “meh”.

As far as Calla is concerned, I have to waver a bit from the general consensus: I honestly did not get an impression of Calla as an especially “strong” heroine, at least at this point in the series. This isn’t to say that she won’t ever develop into a strong character – in fact, I kind of expect her to as the series progresses. But as of the end of Nightshade, I just don’t feel it.

Sure, she’s the “Alpha”, but there’s a difference between being an Alpha and being strong. Hell, there’s a difference between being an Alpha and being a leader, and Calla didn’t demonstrate a whole lot of talent in that department, either. If I were going to venture a guess as to how Calla’s world works, I would say that she’d inherited the title of “Alpha” from her father rather than earned it. She comes off very much like a level-headed princess – someone who has accepted the burden of leading without ever having to prove herself worthy of it in practice. I don’t recall Calla ever doing anything particularly leader-y in Nightshade. She may have snapped orders at her packmates once or twice, but she spent more of the book in her boyfriends’ company than in her pack’s, and in the odd moments when she was with her them en masse, she mostly deferred to Ren’s suggestions and judgement. Not that Calla’s pack really listened to her anyway – I mean, they ignored her warnings when it suited them, and flat-out told her to stuff it at least once.

But, well, I never got the impression that Calla had particularly spectacular judgement, anyway. I mean, emotionally she’s all over the place, putting her life at risk to save and spend time with a dude she barely knows, while at the same time perpetuating a relationship with another asshole that she lusts after. She allows him to treat her like crap, and any complaints she might make about this are invalidated by her inability to follow through on them.

To me, a strong heroine is one who knows herself, who values herself, who acts on her own behalf or on behalf of others, who stands up for herself and overcomes an obstacle on her own terms. As of the end of Nightshade, I don’t feel that any of that yet describes Calla.

I feel that a strong heroine would, at some point, have put an end to allowing herself to be treated like a sex object. She would not have just accepted Ren’s displays of possessiveness as natural, nor would she have used them as tool to discourage Shay. A stronger heroine, I think, would have been more resistant to Ren’s pursuit, but Calla is a willing participant. She knows he’s a dick, she doesn’t really like that about him, but she still happily sticks her tongue down his throat whenever the opportunity arises. Not to mention that his touch, his sexual persistence, gets Calla hot, and well, no. Just no. As Bookzilla’s review so accurately puts it, “I wish that Nightshade played less into the stereotypes: possessive, jealous men; sexual possession; the idea that such themes should be presented in a way to titillate readers.”

That, so much.

My overall impression of Calla was more along the lines of “confused” with a dash of “feisty” to make up for the angst she claims she never has. And that’s fine – you can still understand and sympathize with her predicament, her feelings for the two boys, and her struggle to choose. But I wouldn’t call her “strong” just because she’s in a position of leadership and happens to have a temper.

I also don’t buy into the idea that this is a particularly “feminist” novel. I mean, let’s face it, Calla’s not exactly a terribly active heroine until Shay comes along. Sure, she has inklings of abuse of the system. She doesn’t really like her Masters or the way they treat her pack, and she has defiant, rebellious thoughts, but Calla falls into the Mercy Thompson trap of not acting on them. She defers to the Keeper’s superiority, she’s perfectly cool with her pack being gifted to another human being, she follows her Master’s, her mother’s, her culture’s orders, and she refuses to stand up for herself no matter how much she wants to, because it’s what she’s been taught. It is not until Shay arrives that she ever considers acting on her rebellious impulses, and even then, she considers her rebellion, for the most part, temporary. She never wavers from the belief that ultimately, she will follow the Keeper’s decree and marry Ren, even right up to the end. Knowing that everything she’s been taught is a lie, knowing that the Keepers may be the bad guys in this grand cosmic battle that we get so little information about, knowing that they’ve killed her kind to quash rebellion before, and that her people have always been manipulated, Calla still, in the end, chooses to go through with her marriage to Ren. The only reason she isn’t Mrs. Renier Larouche is because the ceremony puts Shay’s life in danger.

It’s another unfortunate consequence of tying the love triangle so closely to the themes of the story. While the turmoil involved in Calla’s choice is made more understandable, the themes behind the conflict are tainted by this parallel. For me, anyway, Calla’s choice came off as being more about which boy she wants – or, at best, doesn’t want to die – than which world she’d rather live in. I’d have liked Nightshade more if Calla’s hand hadn’t been forced by the plot device of Shay’s life.

Again, Nightshade doesn’t necessarily have to be a feminist story to work. It’s one girl’s tale of escaping the system, and maybe she’ll make a triumphant return and play Moses of the Werewolves in the sequel. But it kinda bugs me to see it touted as such – maybe if Calla had been more active on her own behalf, or made some dramatic turnaround in the end, but she doesn’t. She finishes Nightshade as a prisoner, hoping that Shay will come save her. So yeah, not quite there yet.

I’m of mixed feelings about Nightshade. On the one hand, I love where this series is going, what it seems to have set out to do. It’s more than many paranormal series even attempt, and that’s awesome. On the other, I just didn’t care very much for how it worked in Nightshade. So much of it was just Calla angsting, making out with people, biting her tongue, and set-up for things the author can’t expand on til the sequel. Still, it is a rec, and I’m hoping the Wolfsbane delivers on this series’ epic potential.

three stars


3 Responses

  1. LupLun

    November 3, 2011 12:46 am, Reply

    Glad you liked it! ^_^

    Calla falling for Shay instantly actually makes perfect sense when you think about it: it’s a manifestation of a maniacal, desperate need to break out of the constrictive role the Keepers are forcing on her. It’s plausible Calla herself doesn’t understand this, but that’s what it is.

    And the “virginal bride” thing is probably a big deal for the same reason it used to be a big deal in real life: to ensure the legitimacy of the father’s heirs.

    Shooting for the Moon

  2. StephanieD

    November 4, 2011 5:43 pm, Reply

    Brava, Kayla and Cyna! This is one of the most comprehensive and insightful reviews I have ever read. I agree with most of the issues you brought up but mostly I too applauded Cremer’s inclusion of normal (well as normal as werewolves can be), gay teenage characters. I don’t see that often enough. I haven’t read the rest of the series but I think Calla’s dormant feminist nature, her strength, self-knowledge, and independence – will be fully awakened.

    Stephanie ~Misfit Salon~

  3. Kayla + Cyna

    November 26, 2011 12:48 am, Reply

    @Lup – I had actually considered that, but it seemed like too much of a cop-out to me. Like just a convenient excuse for a meeting necessary to get the ball rolling. But that’s just me.

    I guess that makes sense if the title of Alpha is hereditary :/ But that seems like an illogical way to run a pack.

    @StephanieD – thank you 🙂 I agree, I liked that aspect very much, although halfway through Wolfsbane, I don’t think she handled her lesbian characters with that kind of grace :/ Ah, well. Here’s hoping!

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