Philomel Books: 456 pp., $17.99
Members of Team Jacob and Team Edward have a new love triangle with which they can take sides. Will it be the ripped-ab intellectual Shay or the smoldering playboy Ren? Readers of the wolves-and-witches series starter, "Nightshade," are likely to be torn, just like the book's heroine, Calla.
Although "Nightshade" is likely to be devoured by Twi-hards, there's a lot more to enjoy about this new series debut from young adult author Andrea Cremer than weak-kneed romanticism and its similarities to the vampires-and-werewolves blockbuster. A fantastical mash-up of religious warriors and witch hunts, of feminist will and societal oppression, "Nightshade" is historical fiction — with a modern, pop culture twist. An intelligent reimagining of the past played out in the present with shape-shifting werewolves residing in Vail, Colo., "Nightshade" is a book for well-read hopeless romantics who like their heroines conflicted, their love interests smoldering and their passions triangulated and torrid, yet unfulfilled.
At the center of all this drama is 17-year-old Calla Tor, a golden-eyed blond who is able to shape-shift between human and werewolf at will. At birth, Calla's parents arranged her marriage to fellow wolfen hottie Ren on Samhain, the night of Oct. 31. Together, they're supposed to bear wolf pups and rule a pack that guards the sacred sites of witches.
With their union fast approaching, Calla hasn't yet experienced her first kiss. Her future mate, however, is a gadabout who's dated, and possibly bedded, half her graduating class.
"Nightshade" opens with the scene that could prove to be Calla's eventual undoing: She saves a human boy in the midst of a grizzly bear mauling instead of leaving him to die on a hiking trail. That decision soon haunts her when Shay transfers to her school, challenging a scenario that was all but set in stone before his arrival — her imminent marriage to Ren, a boy she finds attractive but also troublingly flirtatious.
Calla's first and second kisses take place on the same day, albeit with two very different suitors — each of whom spends the rest of the book getting Calla hot and bothered without unbuttoning her shirt or pushing up the hem of her skirt too far. Cremer's writing in these frequent, steamy scenes would be worthy of a publishing contract with Harlequin. It's certainly enough to inspire readers to crank the air conditioning or fan themselves. But Cremer knows her audience — ages 14 and up — and draws the line with well-turned phrases involving various body parts, mostly above the waist.
If there is a strong sexual current to "Nightshade," there are equally virulent intellectual and feminist strains, which make sense for a protagonist inspired by the lines of a Margaret Atwood poem:
Not you I fear but that other
She who walks through flesh
Queen of the two dimensions.
These words inspire the pubescent wolf-girl, who is powerful but also repressed. And the dichotomies of female history help to flesh out a story that revolves around the double standard of an alpha male who can gad about with as many women as he'd like and an alpha female who must remain pure until her wedding night.
What if a woman follows a different path? What if she follows her heart instead of what she is told? Will she be persecuted? Or will she live happily ever after? Those are the questions that will be answered as this trilogy plays out.
Cremer, a professor of early modern history at Macalester College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, writes a fast-paced narrative that weaves the philosophies of world-class thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes together with hard science and the ever-popular teen themes of superstition and witchcraft. "Nightshade" has a page-turning plot that unfolds in the most relatable of contexts: high school and its inherent hierarchies.
Although Cremer credits Atwood for her inspiration, Meyer's "Twilight" seems to have had at least a moderate influence on "Nightshade." So Cremer's werewolves don't shred their clothes when the hairs begin sprouting on their chinny-chin-chins like Meyer's Jacob: They are still werewolves — werewolves who are teenagers, good-looking and live in a remote wooded area. They also drive nice cars and are clearly members of their community's elite.
There are a few too many scenes of characters summoning each other with "hooked fingers" and incidents of Calla feeling so turned on that her knees might give out, but Cremer's writing is otherwise imaginative and compelling — so compelling that readers of "Nightshade" will most likely have a hard time waiting for the follow-up, "Wolfsbane," which won't be out until next summer.