I love that when I pick up a Rachel Neumeier novel I am always surprised at what I end up getting. (In a very good way.) She is such a diverse writer and covers so many different types of fantasy and characters. I went into Black Dog the slightest bit wary because I don't ordinarily enjoy paranormal fantasy, but I trusted her enough to know it would probably be something I ended up liking in the end. I didn't like it, I LOVED it.
(This is a review of an ARC received in exchange for a fair review.)
Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases – like for Natividad’s father and older brother – Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.
But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.
In the snowy forests of Vermont they are discovered by Ezekiel Korte, despite his youth the strongest black dog at Dimilioc and the appointed pack executioner. Intrigued by Natividad he takes them to Dimilioc instead of killing them.
Now they must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. Alejandro must prove he can learn loyalty and control even without his sister’s Pure magic. Natividad’s twin Miguel must prove that an ordinary human can be more than a burden to be protected. And even at Dimilioc a Pure girl like Natividad cannot remain unclaimed to cause fighting and distraction. If she is to stay she must choose a black dog mate.
But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.
When I did my TTT wish list a few weeks ago I said I would love to see more sibling stories in YA, and that is what Black Dog is first and foremost. The whole story centers around the bond between Alejandro, Natividad, and Miguel, a black dog, a Pure girl, and a human boy, and their love and loyalty to each other. After the death of their parents, they flee to the only place they imagine they will be safe. While dealing with their grief and tragedy, they must learn to navigate the politics and personalities of the powerful black dog family who has taken them in and begin to trust people outside of each other for the first time. The story is told in third person and follows all three of them, with a stronger focus on Natividad and Alejandro. And through all three of them the reader also gets a thorough introduction to Dimilioc's Master and Executioner, Grayson and Ezekiel. I love all these characters so much, but I particularly enjoyed the book when it followed Alejandro. It was fascinating to look through his eyes as he shifted between a human body and that of a black dog. There is a wonderful exploration of the duality in human nature between light and dark. This is also there in Natividad and Miguel, but in more subtle ways. Natividad is a stubborn and independent soul. She is mourning her parents, working hard to keep peace in her new home at a time of war, and knows that as a Pure girl her job is not to be protected but to protect. The men her life all want to protect her, but she does what she knows needs to be done. This often puts her in danger, but I never felt she was being unthinking or stubborn for the sake of proving her independence. She did what needed doing. I had a great respect for her as a character. Miguel is the strategist and critical thinker. He is also incredibly persuasive when he wants to be. The three siblings make a terrific team. Ezekiel, who was chosen for his role of executioner at the age of 13, is a complicated character. Through all three Toland siblings different sides and nuances of his character are shown. I found that I wanted more about him still though. He is thoroughly fascinating. My one complaint is that I wanted more of him and less Grayson (who is interesting but not as interesting).
The world of Black Dog is an intensely interesting one. It takes place in contemporary times and picks up following a war between vampires and the Black Dogs. The vampires lost and are gone, but the black dogs did not fare much better. Black dogs, as much as they may sound like it, are not werewolves. Neumeier did new and interesting things with the old stories here and I enjoyed the combination of legend, magic, and politics. A outside threat to Dimilioc involves a renegade black dog who is after the Tolands, most particularly Natividad, for the power she wields. Neumeier did not shy away form the consequences of vicious creatures at war with each other. This book has a pretty high body count and is quite gruesome in some respects. I loved the realism of this. I can't stand it when situations like this are made unrealistically safe for the protagonists and the people they love. Or when innocent bystanders remain unaffected. This is a story that shows all of that, and then tackles the emotional consequences as well. Nativdad, as a Pure girl, is expected on her 16th birthday to choose one of the Dimilioc dogs as her mate. Ezekiel makes it quite clear he is going to destroy anyone other than him that she picks. The two of them share some intense moments, but there is no strong romantic element to the story, something I also appreciated. (I'm choosing to assume here that Natividad's relationship with Grayson is NOT heading in that direction because that squicks me out.) The book takes place over only a week's time, and they are fighting a war. Natividad is confused, and Ezekiel is determined, but mostly they are just trying to stay alive.
Black Dog has so many elements I look for in my favorite books: strong characterization, deep and layered relationships, rich setting and world-building, and an intense plot that doesn't shy away from the darker elements it explores. It is going on my favorites shelf and will be one I revisit again. And I'm really hoping there will be a sequel sooner rather than later. (I've heard there is going to be one, though this works perfectly as a stand alone.)
I read an e-galley received via the publisher, Strange Chemistry, on NetGalley. Black Dog is available on February 4th.