Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier
Genre: Young adult paranormal
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release date: February 4 2014
Source: eARC via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: A fascinating take on the werewolf tale, wrapped up in an emotional story about complex family relationships, with some much-needed character diversity and lots of cool magic!
Natividad thought the girl couldn’t be more than thirteen or fourteen years old. Her father’s elegant features were, in her, a fragile delicacy. She didn’t look like a girl who could survive disasters. She looked stunned and blank, like she had not yet figured out whether she ought to feel grief or rage or despair or terror. All those emotions would crash in on her at once, Natividad knew. Soon. Probably as soon as Harrison locked her in the cage downstairs to wait, alone, for her corrupted shadow to rise.
Whatever you do, don’t call black dogs “werewolves,” because they’re not. But it’s hard not to think of these creatures this way, because black dogs and werewolves are similar: they look human until they shift into their wolf form, and they are driven to kill. Neumeier has taken this idea and created something unique. Her black dogs not only shift into wolf form in a new way, but they live in complex packs that seem to closely resemble those of dogs and wolves. Neumeier has gorgeous writing skills and uses them to her advantage, creating a story that flows beautifully and is equal parts violent action and focused family drama.
When the story opens, fifteen-year-old Natividad and her two brothers, Miguel and Alejandro, are on the run. They have left their beloved Mexico after their parents were brutally murdered, and are on their way to Vermont to look for the Dimilioc tribe of black dogs, where they hope to be granted refuge from the enemy who killed their parents. But finding the Dimilioc black dogs could be more dangerous than they realize, because pack leader Grayson Lanning is wary of any black dog who isn’t already part of his pack.
With the Dimilioc’s acceptance comes great responsibility, as Natividad and her brothers are about to find out. Because their nemesis, a cruel and dangerous black dog named Vonhausel, is about to make his presence known in the worst way possible. As Grayson’s black dogs and the newcomers slowly start to trust one another, they must join together to destroy Vonhausel once and for all.
I think my favorite part of Black Dog was the incredibly detailed world-building. I loved the idea of the black dogs, who are born that way (not changed by a bite). When a black dog changes to wolf form, it’s their shadow that creates the change. It takes over the human body, much like a storm cloud passing over the sun. A black dog can control his shadow and keep it back if he doesn’t want to change, but this skill requires great strength. Just like the classic werewolf, a black dog is constantly at war with his alter ego.
When I said the family relationships are complex, I wasn’t kidding. Alejandro is a black dog, but his brother Miguel is human and Natividad is something else entirely, a “Pure.” Pures are always female and have magical abilities that can calm a black dog and keep his shadow from rising. Pures are highly valued in the black dog world for this ability, but unfortunately, they are also desired for breeding purposes. This was the one part of the world-building I wasn’t crazy about. My feminist side couldn’t help but protest the fact that all of these tough and dangerous black dogs were salivating over Natividad, even the gray-haired leader, Grayson. Some of Natividad’s interactions with him had me raising my eyebrows, and at one point I was worried Neumeier was about to have them hook up romantically (and yuck!). But when I stepped back and simply observed the reactions of the black dogs, it made sense in a way. The author has set up a realistic “pack” that behaves like domestic dogs do. Even as I was wincing as the males started literally sniffing around Natividad, I tried my best to distance myself and just go with it.
Natividad has a potential romantic love interest (and yes, he wants her just as much as the other males!), but the author wisely puts the romance on the back burner. One of the strongest black dogs is a man named Ezekiel who practically stamps his name on Natividad’s forehead when he meets her. But as the story progressed I grew to really like him, and he never went beyond a stolen kiss or two with her, which I thought was appropriate, especially because of her age.
Neumeier did a great job of showing just how hard the life of black dogs and Pures are. Pack life is always uncertain at best, and downright deadly when someone gets out of control. Everyone must obey and look up to Grayson, which was hard to read about at times. The Dimiliocs in particular have hard and violent lives, because Vonhausel wants to kill them all. A thrilling climactic scene reveals some interesting things about evil Vonhausel, but before things are resolved, get ready for lots of bloodshed.
What didn’t work for me were the scenes between all the action, when the characters were sitting around talking about what they were going to do next. There seemed to be way too many of these talky scenes, at least for me. They served the purpose of conveying information about the world of the black dogs and their customs, but after a while I felt they were just repeating themselves.
But other than that, I found Black Dog to be a fascinating and utterly original story. Amidst the violence of pack life, Neumeier shows us beauty in the smallest details: Natividad’s protective magic, the times when the characters comfort each other, and the joy Natividad and her brothers feel when they see snow for the first time. These moments balance out the blood and grief, and make this a story of hope.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
I interviewed Rachel recently, and you can read the interview here!
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