Pretty much everything here originally appeared at my actual blog: By Singing Light. I particularly focus on upper middle-grade and young adult books. I also enjoy adult genre books, especially speculative fiction.
Rachel Neumeier is one of my favorite authors–I’ve loved every book of hers that I’ve read–and I also enjoy her blog and Twitter a lot. So when she offered to send me a copy of her newest book, Black Dog, saying yes seemed like a no-brainer. And then I proceeded to devour it in two big chunks, pausing mostly because sleeping sometimes is a good thing.
Natividad Toland and her brothers are on the run, fleeing from the ashes of their home in Mexico and the enemies that are pursuing them. They have no choice but to run to Grayson Lanning and the Dimilioc wolves in New England, even though there is no guarantee that Dimilioc will accept them. Natividad is Pure and therefore an asset, but her twin Miguel has no magical powers and Alejandro is a stray black dog. Their hope lies in the fact that Dimilioc is still rebuilding after the recent vampire wars and needs everyone it can get.
Okay, summaries are weird things–reading the official blurb for Black Dogbefore I read the book, I wasn’t at all sure what it was really about, or if I would like it. And reading over my own blurb, I’m not sure I’ve really conveyed anything beyond the essential conflict of the book. Regardless, as soon as I started reading, my fears were put to rest. I loved Natividad and Alejandro and Miguel, and I found their story extremely compelling.
So, the mechanics of the world are somewhat confusing to try to explain–for instance, black dogs are sort of like werewolves, except they’re not wolves and the rules their lives follow aren’t exactly werewolf rules. I won’t try to explain anything else, but I will say that in the context of the story, the worldbuilding and especially the interactions between different types of magic and magic users works really well. I also loved the relationship between the people and their black dogs, which is really interesting and complex. But even more than that, I found the way religion and magic interact to be completely fascinating. I liked that they aren’t shown as necessarily antagonistic–the emphasis is much more on whether you’re a moral person. This is a perspective that isn’t often shown in fantasy, and I liked the understated way it’s portrayed quite a bit.
Stories about families are one of my favorite things, and here we get a marvelous relationship between the Toland siblings. They rely on each other because they have to and because they love each other, but also their motivations don’t always line up. In addition, the Dimilioc group functions as a kind of family, and a lot of the conflict comes from the Tolands trying to fit themselves into this new family while still mourning the loss of their own parents.
I also really liked how definite Miguel is–it would be easy to see him as a less-interesting character because he’s the only one of the three who doesn’t have magic abilities, but instead he is pretty strong in his own right.
But in a way that’s all background for Natividad and Alejandro, who carry most of the story. I started off liking Natividad a lot, for her strength and her way of looking at the world. I still do like her a LOT, but Alejandro grew on me as well. His struggle with his identity–what is black dog, and what is him? how does he hold those two things separate?–was really powerful.
And I haven’t even gotten to the romance, which could so easily not have worked for me but which really, really did. There were several elements that I often would view with a skeptical eye, and yet somehow they didn’t bother me. I think this is partly because by the end of the book, a lot of what could potentially have bothered me gets complicated and more interesting, partly because black dog society seems to give things a different slant than usual, and partly because I just like Ezekiel. Tumultuous backstory without a lot of angst and single perfect tears? Messing up but also trying really hard? So much more interesting than characters who moodily mood about.
I’m at all qualified to comment on how authentic the Mexican settings and culture are, but I will say that the Tolands’ sense of exile and strangeness, especially Natividad’s, worked really well for me.
I don’t know that I’ve really conveyed just how much I loved this one–I finished it and immediately started pining for the next one, which will probably be out next year.
BONUS: Because I had already pre-ordered a copy when Rachel offered to send an early copy to me, I’m ending up with two. So I’ll be giving one away. If you want to enter, leave a comment here and tell me so! I’ll pick a winner randomly on 2/11.
Book source: review copy from the publisher, also bought one
Book information: 2014, Strange Chemistry, YA fantasy