A. V. Mather Reviews: Wolf by Alma Alexander
Wolf is the second book in the Were Chronicles series, which began with Random and will close with Shifter. The series focuses on the lives of one particular Were family and the struggles they face assimilating into regular society. The overall story is complex and deals with issues such as the importance of identity, family ties, the binding nature of loyalty and how these forces compel us to action.
Malcolm Marsh is the middle child in a family of ‘Random’ Were-people who have immigrated to a new country to escape persecution. Hunted in the old land and now marginalised in the new, they soon discover that tolerance of their kind comes with strict rules and restrictions. Here, the public face of acceptance has simply made bigotry more insidious.
Armed with a new identity and a name that he can scarcely pronounce, Mal suffers his way through the full force of bullying at school. Despite this toxic unpopularity, he manages to gain an unassuming ally who goes by the name of Chalky. It is a kinship of spirits, and as their friendship strengthens, it becomes apparent that Chalky has secrets of his own. If Mal’s random Were-blood puts him in the minority of the minority, Chalky is a true outlier – he exists somewhere just beyond the rules.
Their friendship made life just about bearable for Mal, until, at the age of twelve, a tragic event caused his fragile world to shatter completely. This becomes the harbinger of a series of changes in Mal, which takes him through his teen years on a path of self-loathing, isolation and destruction. Fuelled by guilt and anguish, and further ignited by his own inadequacies, he finally hits on an opportunity for redemption through vengeance.
With the help of Chalky, Mal hastily knocks together a plan and throws himself at it, body and soul. Against the odds, his half-baked strategy works and continues to work. Before Mal has time to get his bearings, he is once again saying goodbye to everything familiar and taking on a new identity. All he can do now is hold on and try to stay ahead of the game, but the people he has taken on are serious and have a long-standing agenda of their own. It soon becomes apparent that Mal had only a vague notion of what he was getting into and that this time he might not make it back out.
I enjoy a good hare-brained, emotion-driven, revenge plan and this one is a classic of its kind. It really does take on a life of its own, and Mal spends most of the second half of the book trying to keep up with it. He manages to achieve so much without anything going wrong that when disaster eventually strikes, it does so in spectacular fashion. But by now, Mal is somewhat impervious to disaster. He succeeds in building a strong support team, despite his habit of placing them all in danger, and they bond together through his mission.
Through it all, Mal never loses his stubborn, headstrong determination. While this behaviour certainly rings true for his age and emotional state, after a while it began to seem a little callous. I started to wonder if he’d ever learn anything because he repeatedly drags those close to him through the wringer, without much thought for consequences. That said, there certainly are times when it is an advantage to act, and Mal finds that he has gumption to spare.
I also found his internal voice to be quite mature, and it jarred with the way he comported himself in the outside world. He often muses like a student of Philosophy, pondering the big questions. Similarly, his character arc seemed to jolt in places. He changes from unreachable, surly teen to compliant worker bee almost overnight and with little complaint. Readers who had spent the first part of the book identifying with his misunderstood, loner status might find his new ‘can-do’ persona difficult to like. However, people are complex and different environments do change behaviours. Mal takes the opportunity to step up and this is certainly a positive approach.
There are many familiar teen issues in this story, with the pain of adolescence very much at the heart. Whilst the main themes tend towards the masculine side of things, female readers in this age group will certainly be able to identify with experiences of isolation, guilt, loyalty and rebellion. Sadly, many will also recognise the slow torture of self-loathing.
I particularly enjoyed the science underpinning ‘Wolf’. It tends to get pushed to the background by the action, but it is well thought out and convincingly written. The daily lives of Were-people, along with the concept of the ‘Random’ Were, were interesting and presented with compassion. The larger issues, such as genetic manipulation and the use of drugs to control nature, are perfectly pitched and relevant. Setting the whole thing against a background of bigotry and the threat of a Master Race scenario – while not particularly original – created an appropriate sense of scale and consequence. Although the pacing tended to drag in parts, there is some terrific descriptive writing, (eg ‘…an agonizing oily slowness that comes with waiting.’), which made the long stretches worth it.
Mal does spend a lot of his time raging against the injustices that life has dealt him. This will certainly be a familiar tune for most YA readers, or anyone who has had a child, or been one. It is this very thing that makes it so easy to identify with his story. In ‘Wolf’, Alma Alexander holds a light to the feelings beneath the surface, the emotions that unite us all, and that makes for a moving experience.