IT TOOK A SECOND TO CHANGE ELENA’S LIFE… NOW SHE’S FIGHTING BACK
(Women Of The Otherworld, Book 1)
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 464 Pages
Date: 6th May 2010 (First Published 2001)
Elena Michaels is an anomaly. A female werewolf in a world where only male werewolves live a hidden existence. Now Elena’s commitment to her pack, as well as the life she has built for herself outside of it, will be put to the test when a series of grizzly murders threatens to expose her pack to the world. Yet, far more disturbing than the killings themselves is the realisation that whomever is responsible has intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the pack. Can Elena get to the bottom of the conspiracy before it’s too late? And can she do it without exposing her own supernatural secret to her human boyfriend?
When Kelley Armstrong’s debut novel, Bitten, was first published in 2001 the urban fantasy genre was still very much in its infancy, hence the book didn’t need to do much to stand out; Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series was more or less the only high profile competition. As the market was not yet as saturated as it is today the tropes that readers now come to expect of the genre had not been established. One obvious benefit of this circumstance is that readers at the time would more than likely not have viewed the story as lacking in originality. Two decades later, however, anyone reading the book for the first time won’t be able to escape the feeling they’ve read it all before.
Readers well versed in urban fantasy will be unsurprised to discover that this first instalment of the Women Of The Otherworld series features a female protagonist (as is so frequently the case) in a world where the supernatural is a reality. Nor will it come as a shock to discover that for much of the book’s narrative this heroine finds herself “torn” between two men. In the blue corner: the “Bad Boy,” whom she knows is no good for her, but he’s possessive, controlling and dangerous, ergo he’s exciting and makes her hormones go crazy, so she loves to hate him and hates to love him. In the red corner: “Mr. Nice Guy”, whom she regards as undemanding, loyal, safe and dependable, ergo he is boring and incapable of stirring her passions. (In other words he’s far too good for her, and deserves so much better.)
No prizes for guessing the outcome of this tediously predictable love triangle. After all, it’s not just a well worn, established trope in urban fantasy, it’s a convention that prevails in literature in general so it would be unfair to criticise Armstrong for utilising a cliché that seems to resonate with large numbers of female readers. The only saving grace is that the relationship shenanigans don’t completely overshadow the novel’s principal story line.
The story takes place in North America, switching between Canada and Upstate New York, where the novel’s werewolf heroine lives an unusual existence—in more ways than one. Not only is Elena Michaels the only female member of her pack, she also has the further distinction of being the only female werewolf in the world. But rather than being a source of pride, her unique circumstances are the cause of much resentment because she was “turned” against her will by the man she loved.
Years later, Elena remains reluctantly bound to her werewolf pack, and her duty to the pack. This duty entails ensuring that the existence of werewolves is kept hidden from the world, by adhering to the laws that govern werewolf civilisation, and, when the need arises, eliminating any humans unfortunate enough to stumble upon the existence of werewolves—which complicates Elena’s efforts at maintaining some semblance of a normal, independent life as a journalist in Toronto. But a recent spate of gruesome murders threatens more than just that. The exposure of her pack means the exposure of all werewolves, herself included, and then it’s only a matter of time before they are hunted to extinction.
What was once a mildly gripping tale when the novel was first published is very much a run-of-the-mill affair today. The narrative progresses predictably to its predictable conclusion, and few readers will encounter much in the way of genuine surprises. Likewise, the characterisation is rather typical of the genre, with several of the characters fitting familiar archetypes. Elena is the kick-ass, independent heroine with poor taste and judgment when it comes to men; her love interest, Clay Danvers, is the brooding, misunderstood alpha male; her actual boyfriend is the oblivious, expendable loser. The antagonists, meanwhile, are from the James Bond school of villainy. Rather than taking care of the “good guys” as quickly, directly and as ruthlessly as possible, they find it necessary to toy with them and play needless games, not to mention the bizarre insistence on verbally articulating their nefarious intentions before getting on with it.
As is often the case (at least as far as this reader is concerned) the most interesting character of the novel is one of the minor characters: in this particular instance, Jeremy Danvers, the leader of Elena’s pack, and the adoptive father of Clay. Regrettably, he receives negligible ‘page time’ during the story, but Armstrong reveals enough about him to highlight that not only does he have an intriguing backstory worthy of exploration, he also has more depth than any of the main characters, and the potential to be a protagonist in his own right. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Bitten would have been a more interesting affair if it was narrated from Jeremy’s point of view; certainly more worthwhile than waiting to see how long it takes for Elena to betray her boyfriend.
Despite the aforementioned deficiencies of the book, none of these matters are inherently detrimental to the readability of the story. From beginning to end, Bitten, remains readable on account of Armstrong’s engaging writing style. Her narrative is never laborious, so few readers should have difficulty completing the novel, though it’s not one likely to live long in the memory.
In conclusion, if you are a reader who has consumed copious amounts of urban fantasy, Bitten, will be a case of “been there, done that”. Chances are you’ll struggle to shake the feeling you’ve read it before given how little there is within its pages to set it apart from most other novels in the genre. If you are new to urban fantasy, however, you may find it a more rewarding read, and feel more inclined to venture into the rest of the Women Of The Otherworld series.