The Fantastic Otherworld of Kelley Armstrong
By Justine Manzano
It was early April of 2011. I had a terrible sore throat, a new Nook, and nothing to read. My husband, for just about the 50th time, suggested a fun Urban Fantasy novel he had read long ago, the first book of a series that he had since lost track of. He swore it was an amazing book – he just got distracted by books that were more his genre. So I downloaded my copy – Bitten by Kelley Armstrong.
It ended up, I was diagnosed with strep throat and was home for the next four days with close to no attention span. And yet – when I returned to work – I had already made it halfway through Book 4 of the same series, Women of the Otherworld. Within a matter of months, I had devoured not only that series, but everything else Armstrong had ever written.
So, why write about this now? Because July 24, 2012, Armstrong’s main series will be coming to a close with the release of the novel Thirteen. So, to catch you up before the epic release of what is sure to be a mind-blowing conclusion, here is my review of, not only all things Otherworld, but all things Armstrong. Enjoy!
Women of the Otherworld (AKA The Otherworld Series)
The Women of the Otherworld Series, which later morphed into The Otherworld Series when Armstrong started including male narrators in her series, is comprised of 12 (soon to be 13) full length novels, 2 short story anthologies, 5 novellas and a graphic novel. And that’s just the stuff that has been officially released for publishing – there are loads of extras on Armstrong’s website, www.kelleyarmstrong.com. That makes this series a must for anyone who has ever fallen in love with a character and wished there was just MORE.
So how does a series last that long without getting stale and boring? Armstrong intelligently employs multiple narrators, taking a supporting character from one book and pulling them to the forefront of the next, each with a different voice in narration and an important aspect of Armstrong’s world to explore.
The first story in the series, Bitten (which is really all I can talk about in detail without spoiling chunks of the other novels), follows Elena Michaels, a young journalist from Toronto with a nice, normal boyfriend, and a nice normal life – except for two things: 1) Every now and then, she must sneak out of her house in the middle of the night and undergo The Change – she must become a werewolf; and 2) She left behind a whole world when she decided to live apart from The Pack, the policing force of werewolves, a world that contains her ex-fiance, Clayton, some very close friends, and the closest thing she’s had to a father since she lost her parents as a child, Jeremy, the Pack Alpha. But despite those things, she’s happy to have left. Elena was changed against her will, and she’s still trying to reconcile her werewolf and human sides.
Still, when the Pack comes under fire thanks to a group of rival werewolves who are changing serial killers and setting them loose on the public, Elena is called back, forced to return kicking and screaming to a life where death is a constant, burying bodies and solving mysteries are common place, and her very human life back home doesn’t seem to have a place.
Can Elena and The Pack stop the bad guys? And better yet, can Elena figure out which is in control – the woman or the wolf?
Armstrong’s adult stories have a lot to celebrate – the descriptions are always powerful. Armstrong is strongest when she’s describing the Change or the movement and behaviors of wolves and one can tell she’s done her due diligence and researched the hell out of that aspect of the story. The story is dark and sexy, just like every urban fantasy should be. Her characters are flawed and complex. Nobody is perfect and most of them have some pretty hate-inducing moments, but every character is also memorable and likeable. All of these statements are as true for all editions of the series.
There are some negatives. There are moments when Armstrong’s tough female characters seem a little more whiny than tough. In the early stories, the mythology is shaky and Armstrong has a tendency to change tiny things for convenience (which is something you never realize until the second reading, but it’s there). Still, the stories are engaging enough that you want to root for the majority of the characters and you’ll be on the edge of your seat through every action scene. The good definitely outweighs the bad here.
The Darkest Powers/Darkness Rising Series
The Otherworld contains foul language and sexual situations and that made me wonder how Armstrong would fare in a young adult world – and the answer was – just as powerfully as she did in the adult one. This series takes place in the same universe as the adult series, and while there are vague connections between the two (Derek, the werewolf character in this series, references a fear of the Pack; a couple of throwaway bad guys from the adult series get a more important role) the two don’t seem to be destined to meet, as Armstrong has said in various interviews that there would be no young adult series if the adults could just swoop in and fix everything.
This series, so far, is broken into two trilogies. The first, Darkest Powers, follows Chloe Saunders, who sees dead people (this is also a reference back to the adult series, in which necromancer Jamie Vegas refers to her power as “the darkest power"). Believed to be crazy, she is enrolled in a home for troubled teens, where she meets several others who may be just like her…and encounters the reasons the powers she never knew she had are completely out of control.
The second series, Darkness Rising, is currently incomplete. The second book in the trilogy was released this April. This series follows another group of teens that realize that they are different. The lead, Maya Delaney, is suddenly experiencing a lot of strange things. She seems to be able to envision moments in the lives of the animals around her, and she seems capable of healing them. Friends she has had for years suddenly begin to behave differently. And a mysterious reporter has come to investigate her town, which was chiefly built around a medical testing laboratory. Troubled by the possibility that she may BE a medical test, Maya lands herself on a dangerous path that may just lead her to another group of teens with the same fears – and one Chloe Saunders.
Darkest Powers was the kind of book series that leaves you guessing until the very end. Throughout it I found myself eager to uncover the mysteries of the group of doctors that were watching over the teen subjects, who could be trusted, who couldn't and what each character's assigned powers were. The core team worked well together, but had the appropriate level of tension between them to create an interesting dynamic. Darkness Rising is shaping up to be interesting, but it doesn't seem to have the same level of excitement that the original trilogy does. However, in this case, the mysteries of who has what special powers is way more intense. The characters in both cases are always very well developed, with interesting back stories and motivations.
One of my only problems with this series would have to be the whole "running in fear" aspect of the books. This happens a lot. There are a lot of great character development moments that come from these escapes, but sometimes it can come off as a little repetitive. Characters get backed into a corner, escape, hide and then run again numerous times throughout the stories. Still, in the end these stories are a lot better than a lot of the young adult fare out there. Well written, with interesting mysteries and well-developed plot lines, I can't wait to see how the final book of Darkness Rising brings the two trilogies together.
Want your novels with a little less supernatural mixed in? Well, Armstrong has done that too.
Exit Strategy and Made to be Broken are about hitwoman Nadia Stafford. Stafford was born into a family of police officers and worked as one herself until a traumatic past and a particularly heart wrenching case combined to motivate her to put a bullet in a suspects head. Now, she makes her own justice, working with a small crime family and killing those criminals that go astray. But is that enough for her?
This series didn't have the same kick for me as the others did, but I still loved it. I especially became wrapped up in the mystery behind Jack, Nadia's mentor, who never seems to show his real self to anyone. Things really get interesting as Nadia gets closer and closer to working the vigilante justice she truly craves. Exit Strategy has her hunting a serial killer and Made to be Broken has her hunting a co-worker's murderer, all while she struggles to keep the lodge she owns by going under. If only she could find a more lucrative way to pursue her goal?
Book 3, which is currently in the works by Armstrong, holds the opportunity (if the other books are leading in the direction I think they are) for Nadia to join a syndicate of vigilante hitmen. You'd think they'd be trustworthy, but Nadia exist in a spy network where some people will never see you out of whatever character you're portraying. In a secretive world like that, nobody can be considered completely trustworthy.
That's not even the whole of it. Armstrong also manages to write other short stories on the side, edit anthologies and keep up with a rabid fanbase, creating additional content for her website to whet our appetites for future installments of her popular series. She even has an interactive newsletter and contests every week. She's a very cool author to be a fan of, a very giving one.
So, if you are looking for a great new author to get into, and are looking for some strong female protagonist to follow, or some hunky and clever male leads to drool over, pick up one of Armstrong's books. I promise, you will not be disappointed.