Black Dog, by Rachel Neumeier

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Publication date – February 4, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

Thoughts: It struck me as interesting pretty early on that this wasn’t just another book about werewolves. Black Dogs, conrtrary to their initial presentation, have more in common with the stories of spectral dogs that roam churchyards than they have with typical werewolves, which was one way in which the story caught me off guard. Black dogs typically look like humans until they transform into large hellhound creatures when their shadow takes over them, and their shadow is something that comes from Hell. A person can be born a black dog or else be turned into one through an infectious bite, at which point they become known as a moon-bound shifter, less in control of their shadows and their abilities than true black dogs, and in this way Neumeier combines two legends as one and creates a fascinating take on both aspects of folklore.

In addition to that, Neumeier shows talent at knowing what to write and what not to write in a novel when it comes to setting up the world. Many times it’s mentioned through character thoughts of dialogue that vampires had been mind-controlling humans for centuries into ignoring all signs of them, and that recently there had been a war between vampires and black dogs (with vampires on the losing side of that war), and the entirety of Black Dog takes place after this war. No flashbacks, no long info-dumps about a history that is relevent but not an immediate concern, the way history is to most of us. The characters were aware of that war and the history behind it but had more pressing concerns to deal with. The story, after all, wasn’t about the war or vampires or all, but something that took place in the aftermath. Neumeier gave us hints of an interesting hidden history but left it as the tantalizing hints they ought to be, and it added a good amount of realism to the story.

For a YA novel, it was surprisingly mature, showing the amount that the intended audience can actually handle reading about. If you don’t want teenagers to be exposed to graphic violence, anger management issues, swearing, or the idea that someone can sacrifice themselves for a greater good, then Black Dog probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, the fact that nothing in this book comes across as sanitized is a real mark in its favour. In many YA genre novels involving people being in a very bad situation, fighting, end-of-the-world type stuff, there’s still a sense that everything will turn out alright because that’s just how the story goes. It’s a sanitized crapsack world. Not so here. The tone here is dark, desperate, three teenagers putting themselves in uncertain hands for protection after the murder of their parents, and all of them trying to muddle through and survive as best they can.

I loved the running attempts to strike a balance between many things in Black Dog. Natividad trying to figure out how to balance the magic of light and dark at the same time, and what it means when the two are combined. Alejandro trying to balance his black dog shadow with his own nature, holding his own against violence and anger. And I was thrilled with a minor plot twist near the end where Alejandro’s black dog is completely removed from him, and he no longer feels the anger that plagued his life and made things so difficult for him, but at the same time he feels incomplete and bereft at the sudden absence of something that he’d lived with for so long. This was fantastic to read because so often people in genre novels are given the chance to remove something negative about themselves, and the general expectation is that they will be happy at its absence because now they’re no longer held back. Idealistic and false, because there’s almost never an adjustment period, no destabilization of the self when an entire part of a person, be it physical or emotional or spiritual, is cut away. Neumeier gets much love from me for showing that even the removal of a difficult thing can throw a person off and make them feel loss and grief.

If there’s anywhere that this book fell down for me it was that the narration at times felt flat and distanced from the characters, a hovering overhead camera instead of being right there in the thick of things. Except for fast-paced and brutal battles, that is; then we were thrown right into the middle of the action, which made it seem even more tense by comparison. I got more emotion and connection from Alejandro’s viewpoint than I did from Natividad’s. This makes sense, since Alejandro’s thoughts were often centred on how to overcome his black dog’s inherent brutality and anger, and Natividad’s thoughts were on how to hold everyone together and stay calm, but with most of the novel taking place from Natividad’s viewpoint, it made some of the calmer moments downright dull.

I can see a few things that are potentially problematic for other readers. On one hand, it was great to have the main character be people of colour, who are still largely underrepresented in fiction. On the other hand, our lead female, while not exactly one to just sit back and let the action take place around her while she waits to be rescued, is definitely the more passive type of heroine, and it could be said that her greatest contribution to the future is being willing to join herself to one of the Dimilioc black dogs and bear his kids. Not exactly a stunning role model for feminine independence. The fact that female black dogs were unable to produce children that didn’t die within a few years and that the entire species, if you will, rested in the hands of powerful and temper-prone men didn’t exactly do anyone any favours either.

Still, the creativity in mixing elements of folklore and mythology make up for the problems I had with the narrative style, and I found myself really enjoying the story and the hints at the greater historical story in the background. If you want to take a step into the darker side of YA urban fantasy novels, then this is a book you should definitely consider. Tread carefully in some areas, but I think that this could still be an enjoyable book for many.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

8 comments on “Black Dog, by Rachel Neumeier

    • It’s not often that I find a YA novel that isn’t afraid to appropriately use the f-word. Bonus, this book increased my understanding of Spanish, since phrases were used quite often. Occasionally with only vague context around the phrase, but still. (The single use of French was flawed, however, which irked me; I didn’t spend 6 years in French Immersion to not be irked by bad language use, even if I’m no longer fluent. :p)

      • HA! I am not great at Spanish, though my time in restaurants taught me kitchen Spanish and a lot of cussing, so I would be irked if I caught it misused as well.

      • Ria, there was a problem with a French phrase, really? Reviews are making me see how very, very careful I need to be when using languages I don’t speak at all; I’m already making plans to have EVEN MORE eyes check over every single non-English bit for the sequel. I don’t even remember any French (it’s been a long time since I wrote this!), but I will certainly try my best to make sure it is corrected if and when BLACK DOG goes back for another printing and in the ebook formats.

  1. I really enjoyed the aspect of the book and Black Dogs as well. Well done. But, I’m curious to see how Rachel writes Natividad in the coming books. She’s so young and with the prospect of picking one of the Black Dog, I’m curious. I’m wondering if her chosen will back off once she’s picked, being she’s so young. I’m in for the next books. :)

  2. Pingback: February in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

  3. Pingback: Review of Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier | Fantasy Cafe | Reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books

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