A Quill Pen


by Kelley Armstrong

1 January 2006 book review
by Collie Collier

I was set to really enjoy this story, as I've always loved the idea of being able to shift shape into a powerful animal form. Now I've finished it, I'd have to say it was... okay. I'll give a synopsis and list the problems I had with it first, so I can close on a positive note.


Elena, our protagonist, is utterly unique. In this world, "werewolfry" is invariably contracted only through one of two ways. Either it is acquired through the male genetic line, or through being bitten -- which is ordinarily so painful and damaging that few men and no women survive the process.

Further, there are only about 35 werewolves in the entire world, and of those, less than ten are members of the ruling class Pack -- who refer disparagingly to all the remaining, lone werewolves in the world as "mutts." Thus, due to a remarkable set of circumstances Elena is not only a member of the exclusive Pack -- she's also the only female werewolf in the entire world.

Elena is not happy about this, as she feels deeply betrayed by her lover having bitten her. After a decade or so of being a werewolf, she's left her Pack in an attempt to discover who she truly is. Currently she's financially successful, romantically involved with a nice man, creating a nice niche for herself in her job... basically just trying to make it in the human world, even as she must struggle to deal with the issues of occasionally being a wolf.

Then her pleasant, carefully constructed "human world" life has to be put on hold -- because the Pack calls for her return. Someone is messily killing humans near the Pack's home, and the Pack is afraid they'll be discovered. Elena must decide between a nice life she's created and chosen for herself; and a life she loves on a gut level, but which was created and chosen for her by her former lover.

Tails down

Right off the bat, I had a serious issue with two of the basic premises of the story: women aren't as intimidating, or as able to endure pain, as men are. Unfortunately for the story's background premise, every independent study ever done on the subject demonstrates conclusively that women have more endurance, and handle pain better, than men. I'd guess, from this story's basic premise, the female author has not yet given birth or engaged in any very physical sport.

Also, Elena routinely laments her inability to scare off even normal human men, and concludes women just can't do intimidation. When I read that I had to laugh; it was painfully obvious the author had personal issues showing up in the character.

As a woman, I have more than once "bounced" men away from bothering me -- sometimes without even trying. Frankly, I wish the author had done a bit of research before making such silly assumptions. Issues such as these make it hard to take the story's background seriously. Once my suspension of disbelief has been so rudely shattered, it's like poor Humpty Dumpty -- everything comes tumbling down, and it can't be put back together again.

A wolf's-eye view

I also wish the author had done a bit of research on both logic in particular, and wolf behavior in general. For example, Elena comments more than once about how any truly horrible acts performed by werewolves are emotionally due to their human parts -- because wolves would never be such monsters. Yet the Pack's enforcer, legendary for having tortured and dissected the last intruder on the Pack's territory, is consistently described as being more wolf than human.

I can understand the author having werewolves be less worried about morality than humans. However, deliberate torture in order to terrify others is, both in real life and by the author's definition, a horribly human trait. Wouldn't it make more sense, both logically and wolf-behaviorally speaking, for the more human werewolves to be responsible for the more reprehensible acts the Pack feels it must perform?

And what about canid sexual behavior? True wolf behavior would have the Alpha making Elena his lover -- since in a real wolf pack only the Alpha breeds. Yet it is the Alpha's son, the Pack enforcer, who is Elena's lover. How is the supposedly most wolfishly-behaving werewolf getting away with being the sole mate of the only female werewolf, and yet not fighting to become the Pack's Alpha?

Further, there's plenty of sexual behavior in the book, and Elena mentions several time she has no intention of ever having children. However, there's no mention of her being sterile, nor of birth control. How is she managing this? For that matter, I find myself wondering -- what's the point of her being the only female werewolf in the world, aside from creating a bit more sexual tension? Why is this so important that it's part of the story background? Unfortunately this is never satisfactorily explained.

Ultimately I suspect this confusing and nonsensical mish-mash of human and wolf behavior is just the author desperately trying to add romantic tension to the story. It is the wolfish enforcer, after all, who is Elena's now-and-former lover. He's also the one who decided without her knowledge or permission that she'd make a nifty werewolf, and so bit her against his Alpha's direct orders; who insists on referring to her constantly as his "darling" and wife -- because he bit her, therefore she's 'his'; and who has a wall of his bedroom plastered with photos of her, rather like some sickly obsessive shrine to a stalking victim.

Why she doesn't permanently flee this emotionally damaged man is beyond me. This sort of obsessive behavior is well beyond "sexual-tension-inducing plot point" and unpleasantly probing into "deeply disturbed."

A human's-eye view

In essence, this book is yet another romance novel. It is also therefore a good example of one of the current themes running through modern romantic literature: in order for there to be politically correct sexual tension in stories such as this, the heroine must be strong willed and able to do what she wants. Consequently she must also be absolutely, annoyingly clueless as to what it is she truly wants and who it is she really loves.

In fact, despite our protagonist (I don't think she's a hero) huffily asserting several times to different folks that she's emphatically not saving her lover due to her finally discovering he's the one she truly loves -- in the end that's precisely what she does. Methinks the lady doth protest too much? At least this time the author gives her protagonist a legitimate, in-story excuse for her over-emotional, often thoughtless reactions.

I'm not much of a fan of romances. Frankly, many of the genre's conventions irritate the heck out of me -- and a whole bunch of them appear in this story. They're nicely hidden under the facade of the werewolf story, and they're not hammered on incessantly, thank goodness... but I can't help but wonder how much better the story would have been without them.

In retrospect, they're pretty obvious: the over-poweringly strong, virile, seductive male lover that sweeps the woman off her feet (in this case literally); the need to get away to find oneself, coupled with the assertion she may not be back -- despite everyone knowing she can't help herself and will come back eventually; the (in this case supposedly genetic) helplessness and powerlessness of women compared to men; the last-minute rescue of the lover by the woman, due to figuring out he's the one she truly loves; and finally my least-favorite convention of all: the unintentionally cruel, unceremonious dumping of the previous lover -- the one who's intelligent, undemanding, kind, non-obsessive, thoughtful, and straightforwardly honest about really loving her.

A plot's-eye view

Further, in a story where the protagonists are beautiful, powerful, fast-healing, extremely long-lived shape-changers... were the psionics really necessary? Wasn't just being werewolves sexy enough?

My final issue concerns simple tactical thinking. Consider: all the non-Pack werewolves are isolated and alone, living at the whim and mercy of the Pack. The supercilious Pack never allows them to establish a territory, but rather drives them out of their homes or kills them whenever any one of the mutts seems to be settling down. The poor mutts are forced to live very un-wolf-like existences -- constantly destitute and solitary, always furtively looking over their shoulder, knowing they're condemned to death if they ever annoy a Pack member.

Thus the mutts end up with very difficult lives, and the Pack, for its own purposes, makes it even harder for them. That being the case, it seems extraordinarily shortsighted of the Pack's members to not realize a desperate revolution would eventually be inevitable.

Tails up

This is the author's first novel, and as such it's technically well done. The paragraphs and concepts are well composed and laid out, and the story moves along at a good pace. Ideas are clearly communicated and not repetitive. The author has a nice grasp of clean word use, using imaginative and evocative phrasing to bring her characters to life. For example, I rather enjoyed her vivid descriptions of the wolves of the Pack playing with each other in their wolf forms. She also gives consistently sensual renderings of the brutal pragmatism of predatory life.

The background caused me quite a bit of perplexity, but the story itself was not bad. The author had a nice ear for dialogue, as well as a very good understanding of human psychological issues. Her demonstration of Elena's emotional projection of her own issues onto others was convincingly done, as was Elena's slow emotional growth. I could appreciate Elena's increasing maturity as the story progressed.

Indeed, several rather petulantly self-centered characters appeared to grow up quite a bit, and that was enough of a pleasure to read that it kept me involved. I've always despised the "brooding asshole loner" as a character type, especially when they stubbornly refuse to ever buy a friggin' clue. To have the protagonists decide they cared enough to grow up was refreshing.

In the end, the story itself (if not the story's background) was imaginative and interesting enough that I'll keep an eye out for the author's other books. I expect she's learned and improved rapidly, and I look forward to reading what she came up with next.

Reader Comments

07.26.05: George's thoughts

(and my replies)


Here are some comments on your review of Bitten:

Bitten is a camouflaged romance book and does suffer from some of the clichés of that genre.

Why should Elena love her molester (he bit her without consent) and stalker (the picture wall) and not the nice guy she was living with? It seems just another story in the lame collection of "woman falls for bad boy, even thought she knows that she shouldn't" collection. It annoyed me a lot when Elena finally fawns over her abuser. According to this cliché, "nice" guys should slap their mates around and then all the girls would love them. Yuk!

Yes! That's my irritation and annoyance with the story, all wrapped up into a tidy, compact paragraph. ;-p

And why didn't Elena ever give her human boyfriend a chance to know her secret? Partly because The Pack would kill him. And partly because Elena didn't trust him. And partly because she used her relationship with her human friend to deny the wolf part of herself. But once Elena had matured a bit, and she had reestablished enough trust with the Pack to get her own way, it's too bad she never gave him the chance to know the "real" Elena. It might have been a more interesting (and less clichéd) story.

Hm... that's a thought I'd not had. You're right -- it would have been both more complex, and psychologically interesting, to see Elena actually try trusting her poor human boyfriend.

A couple of other notes:

I don't remember the part about Elena being less able to take pain than the male weres. But I might have passed over it. Is it possible that she was just less able than the enforcer? If so, he was the pointy end of the bell curve, even for weres.

Elena wasn't good at intimidation. The fact that she projected that onto all females may be a limitation of the writer or of the character. I hope it's not a limitation of the writer.

Ditto, on both the above.

From an outside POV, the Pack were a bunch of sociopaths. Some of them were nice sociopaths. But they had no empathy for the greater community of their fellow beings. They defined the entire human race, and all mutts, as the "other" and were willing to kill them without remorse. The enforcer would have killed Elena's human boyfriend without a thought to the boyfriend's feelings. He did care about Elena's feelings and the alpha's, but not the humans or mutts. Not a nice bunch.

Elena just seemed to assume that she couldn't have children. It was a plot hole that wasn't well explained.

Yup, to both the above too.

Also, why are there only 35 werewolves in the whole world? It seems like there should be lots more.

I wondered about that too, actually.

I liked how the author filled the book with sensual imagery. Elena's world is alive with smells and sounds.

The plot moved well. The story swept the reader along and seldom bogged down. This covers up a multitude of sins in my book.

The sensuality appealed to me also. Regarding the story sweeping you along, I very much agree that covers a multitude of sins. Most of my irritation with the story grew out of my slow-dawning realizations after I'd finished reading.

According to Amazon, Kelley Armstrong's connected series of novels are, in order:

  • Bitten
  • Stolen
  • Dime Store Magic
  • Industrial Magic
  • Haunted

A short story collection she contributed to:

  • Call to the Hunt
Oh, cool! I'll have to keep an eye out for them.

Thanks for the review.

Thank you for the feedback! ;)

07.26.05: Lou's thoughts

(and my replies)

You write: "Elena must choose between a life she's chosen, and a life she loves but which was chosen for her."

While this is true, I don't actually see it as being the critical part of the story. It's what she's concerned with much of the time, but it isn't the critical part.

I saw the critical part is that she has to realize who she is, both the good and the bad, is who she is, not something being a werewolf brought her. She had been blaming that for her strength, anger, and dangerousness and temper. Once she realized she was that way, she could see what she really needed, not the things she thought she needed to be "normal" or "happy."

That, at least, she did finally realize. However, I think there was more to her emotional needs than just deciding she was who she was even before being bitten. For example, she makes a specific point of repeatedly mentioning her feelings of betrayal at being bitten by the man she loved, and gave all of herself to.

I admit, a small part of me rather snarkily wondered how she could be so cruel to her human boyfriend when she already
knew the pain of emotional betrayal by the one you love... but that's another issue entirely.

You write: "Right off the bat, I had a serious issue with two of the basic premises of the story: women aren't as intimidating, or as able to endure pain, as men are."

I agree with you about the intimidating part. I thought that was kind of surprising -- this is a stronger than normal, tall, muscular woman even as a human. She should have no problem scaring people away. The idea that men all find this a come-on, or even a few of them, is silly. The author hasn't seen it, and thinks it impossible. I think she's wrong.

I agree.

I don't agree with you that the book said women can't endure pain like men. I don't recall the discussion being about pain. I understood it to be purely about the heartiness and stamina of the people being bitten, not about pain thresholds. This is not to say that women aren't sturdy or strong, merely that the ones the werewolves bit (if they bothered to try) weren't. Even in the books, many men didn't survive either. The protagonist was particularly strong and healthy to begin with.

Randomly leafing through the book, I find the following terms used regarding the Change and being turned into a werewolf through being bitten:
  • shock
  • fortitude
  • strength
  • willpower
  • physical and mental stress
  • suffering
Frankly, not only do I
not believe men are better at surviving shock, physical stress, and suffering than women are, but as I note in the review, studies have shown women are indeed better at it than men are. Further, to imply women have less mental willpower than men is just downright insulting.

You write: "Elena comments more than once about how any truly horrible acts performed by werewolves are emotionally due to their human parts -- because wolves would never be such monsters. Yet the Pack's enforcer, legendary for having tortured and dissected the last intruder on the Pack's territory, is consistently described as being more wolf than human."

Were the truly horrible things the things that he did? The things I remember that she thought were really awful were things that the psychopaths did, and it was their enjoyment and pleasure in those things that she found most hideous. She did find the enforcer's behavior bothersome, but that was because her human side couldn't see how he could do the things he did, again reinforcing his differences from her.

From the book: "Clay's methods for dealing with trespassers were so renowned that one hadn't come within a hundred miles of Stonehaven in over twenty years. The story goes that Clay had dismembered the last trespassing werewolf finger by finger, limb by limb, keeping him alive until the last possible moment, when he'd ripped off his head. Clay had been seventeen at the time (pg. 34, hardcover version)."

Sounds like a truly horrible thing to me there. I'm not saying she found the psychopaths' behavior to be fine -- I'm saying she seems to find their behavior roughly analogous to Clay's... and he's supposed to be the instinctual werewolf.

You write: "Yet it is the Alpha's son, the Pack enforcer, who is Elena's lover."

Clayton was not Jeremy's son. Clayton was bitten, and rescued by Jeremy. They are fairly close in age, if I understood correctly.

Your point about alpha behavior here is still valid.

Re alpha behavior: thank you. Re sons: I should have stipulated Clay was an adopted son, true. However, from the book again, when Elena is referring to Jeremy, Clay, Antonio, and Nick, "Could two fathers and two sons be considered a Pack? (pg. 227, hardcover version)"

You write: "...what's the point of her being the only female werewolf in the world, aside from creating a bit more sexual tension? Why is this so important that it's part of the story background?"

This was mentioned by the escaped Pack member (I have problems with this one) as a way to make a "super werewolf," a true breed, rather than a half-breed. It was not well explained.

I'll say it wasn't well explained! If breeding the "true" breed is so darned important, surely any female werewolf would do? If the alpha bad guy is willing to make werewolves out of psychopaths, why not out of women too? And if it's even possible, why isn't Elena pregnant yet, after all that unprotected sex for the last decade?!

Frankly, I don't think Elena being the only female werewolf was the issue at all, and I thought the writer wasted her time with that. I think Elena was correct in her assessment of the alpha bad guy seeing her as just another possession of Clay's that he had to have. Bleah. And just as frankly, I still can't see any real need to put in the nonsense about Elena being the only female werewolf.

You write: "...that sort of obsessive behavior is well beyond 'tension-inducing plot-point' and well into 'deeply disturbed.'"

Yes, Clay is creepy.

I think she didn't flee him because she needed the Pack, and Clay came with it.

You write: "In essence, this book is yet another romance novel."

I think I disagree with you. I did not see the romance as the key part. It was a confusing issue that made it more complicated, but I didn't read it as the important part. I saw the important part of the story to be Elena's realization of what she needed. Once she figured that out, she was able to make good decisions for herself, and act on them.

Diff'rent strokes. See George's comment above for another viewpoint. ;)

You write: "Consequently she must also be absolutely, annoyingly clueless as to what it is she truly wants and who it is she really loves."

Lots of people have this problem. I suspect that it's another point of the author's life showing through, honestly. It reminds me of the struggles many people go through in their teens as they figure out who they are and what they want to be. Only once they figure that out can they settle down and work at being that way. Until then, they flail around and make asses of themselves and act like fools. Some take longer to grow out of it than others.

You list the conventions of a romance that this book fulfills. I wasn't aware of them as conventions. I can't deny that it does fit these patterns, but so do many, many stories that wouldn't be thought of as romances. I didn't feel this book was one.

I'd be interested in the titles of non-romance books which fulfilled all the romance conventions I listed here.

I did feel bad for poor Phillip. At least he didn't get killed. Clayton had done some growing up, too.

And thank goodness for that. See the review itself for my thoughts on 'brooding asshole loner' types.

You write: "Wasn't just being werewolves sexy enough?"

Apparently not. They had to have violent, kinky human sex as well, not to mention the strange psionics and various mental links.

You write: "Thus the mutts end up with very difficult lives, and the Pack, for its own purposes, makes it even harder for them. That being the case, it seems extraordinarily shortsighted of the Pack's members to not realize a desperate revolution would eventually be inevitable."

True. The Pack were idiots. They should have absorbed or killed off all the mutts immediately, rather than letting them linger.

No kidding! That really perplexed me. What, there wasn't enough space for more in the Pack?!

In addition, the all-respected leader of the Pack did some incredibly dumb things. "Let's hide the people they want in a place they've always been, and everyone knows about! Let's put innocents at risk too! Let's screw up Elena's life with her sweetie so she'll love us forever!" Here's a tip, Jeremy: If you're going to have someone run, have them run somewhere they've never been. Tell them to go to the airport, buy tickets someplace, then buy more tickets from there under assumed names, and get really lost. Have them go someplace you've never used before. DUH!

*sigh* Yeah. The Pack Alpha was really a managerial type, not a true leader. Still, as Elena notes, when he became Alpha, it was a strong-willed managerial type which the Pack desperately needed.

The mutts were idiots, too. Rather than making helpers they could depend on, they made crazy ones. Why didn't they bite some women of their own and start a real werewolf community? With so few Pack members, couldn't they simply outbreed them? Or just sic the police or FBI or men in black on them or something, not going anywhere near?

Terrible tactics and strategy on both their parts.

*'nother sigh* Yeah, again. I hate it when a story is based on a truly unconsidered or poorly thought-out premise.

I do agree with all the things you liked about the story. I liked it even though it was in hardback, although I had less problems with it than you did.

Thank you for the feedback.