Black Dog, by Rachel Neumeier (Strange Chemistry, February 4, 2014).
Going into Black Dog, I knew three important things: 1. It is about shapeshifters--humans with shadow black dogs. 2. Many of my blogging friends (such as Brandy, Maureen, Liviania) liked it very much indeed. 3. It is written by Rachel Neumeier, which means I could trust the writing to be pleasing.
And the snow fell, and then the "pellets" fell (when I was a child, I don't think we had "pellets;" plain ice was good enough for us and pellets makes me think of rabbit food) and the pages turned happily.
Short synopsis: humans coexist with supernatural creatures. The vampires were just pretty much wiped out in a vicious battle; now the Black Dogs are struggling to recoup their losses and rebuild some sort of stability. Three teenaged siblings from Mexico have journeyed to Vermont to find one of the last strongholds of civilized Black Dogs, the Dimilioc clan. Manuel is an ordinary boy. Alejandro, the oldest, is a Black Dog. And Natividad is Pure--one of the rare women blessed with the power to bring peace and protection to those around her, able to calm the rage of Black Dogs and help them find control. It was not a journey they wanted to make, but they were forced to when their parents were slaughtered by enemy Black Dogs....who have followed them to Vermont.
The Dimilioc take the siblings in, in large part because Natividad is a prize beyond measure--she is their hope for a new, civilized, generation. It is a somewhat desperate hope, as their numbers have been greatly reduced (by the war against vampires and its aftermath). And now that danger has come to Vermont, Dimilioc is faced with a new struggle to survive. Alejandro's struggle to maintain control over his Black Dog Shadow while being the fierce protector of his younger siblings, Manuel's clear-thinking logic, and Natividad's magic and goodness are about to be put to a test with hellish consequences should they fail.
Me being me, I enjoyed the first half of the book, the set-up, the most. In some ways it felt like a paranormal house party story--the three newcomers arrive and find eccentric inhabitants with short tempers, back-stories, and agendas, and every one starts getting to know each other. There's lots of nice ambiguity and tons of tension--Black Dogs, being dogs, are very much in to the (somewhat brutal) nuances of pack hierarchy. For Natividad, the getting to know each other part is somewhat fraught by the assumption that she'll be paired off with one of the Dimilioc men just as soon as she's a bit older--which is squicky, and she knows it, but which is at least not as bad as her being passed around, which is what I was afraid of. At least she has some choice, and at least, though it's clearly indicated who she'll pair up with, it's not insta-swoon Luv, but a more nuanced build up of tension!
Even better than the whole house party set up is the sibling relationship that is at the heart of the story, and it was very nicely done--lots of little flashbacks of memory, lots of genuine concern for each other. Each of the siblings brought their own strengths to bear on their situation--and it was especially gratifying to see Natividad really truly steps up to the plate with her magic; she is one of the bravest heroines in YA I can think of, not because she is "kick-ass" but because she sees what she alone can do, and does it regardless of how scary it is because she is a good person.
The paranormal world building is kind of dropped in here and there, which worked for me--I'm still not clear on every last detail, but we are given enough to go on with, and information keeps coming. A refreshing touch to the worldbuilding is that Christianity isn't shunted off to the side--the Pure, for instance, came about through the intervention of a centuries-old saint, and Natividad's magic is strengthened by Christianity.
My only reservation is that I grew a tad weary of the rather frequent mention of Black Dog social issues--the proper submissive posture to adopt toward the pack leader, and that sort of thing. But that did not stop me from enjoying this one immensely!
Black Dog stands alone well, but I just this sec saw this tweet from Rachel that made me happy bounce: "And, done! Completely done! With the BLACK DOG sequel." Yay!
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher at the request of the author