Black Dog (2014) is a YA urban fantasy that takes the werewolf shapeshifter subgenre and puts some unusual spins on it. The teenage Toland siblings, 15½ year old twins Natividad and Miguel and their 18 year old brother Alejandro, have been orphaned in their Mexico home by a mass attack of enemy black dog shapeshifters led by their father’s long-time enemy. Alejandro is a black dog, Miguel is a normal human, and Natividad is what is known as a “Pure,” one of the rare girls born with magical powers, including the ability to cast protective spells and to quiet the wild shadow that is an inseverable part of those who are black dogs.
When their Mexican mother and American father both die in the attack, the three siblings follow their father’s last instructions: leave Mexico and travel all the way to Vermont, where there is a strong pack of black dogs called the Dimilioc, to which their father once belonged. Their hope is that the Dimilioc will take them in and protect them from their enemies. It’s a risky venture, since the Dimilioc are hostile and may reject them all or kill Alejandro. But Ezekiel, the young Dimilioc pack executioner, decides to take a change on taking them to meet the pack Master, and they’re given a chance. It doesn’t help their relationship with the Dimilioc, though, when their father’s enemy and his army of black dogs turn out to be on their heels, determined ― for some unknown reason ― to bring the Toland siblings down, and the Dimilioc along with them.
As a young Pure girl, Natividad is cherished by the Dimilioc black dogs … in a rather rough way (which one might expect of werewolves), since they expect her to marry one of them as soon as she turns 16. They do their best, however, to protect her against the terrible danger that threatens. But Natividad is determined to use her magic to protect the pack, as well as the humans that live in the nearby town, despite the personal danger to herself.
I initially fell in love with the world-building in Black Dog when I read this passage:
Certainly the newspaper people were right about the great increase in ‘werewolf’ violence, though the writers did not yet know enough to distinguish between the true black dogs and the mere campiadors, the little moon-bound shifters. What ordinary people thought they knew about ‘werewolves’ was still mostly wrong, even now, when the vampire magic that had fogged human perception for so long had thinned almost to nothing. The vampires had not been gone long enough, yet, for people to figure out the real shape of the world.
We’re in the aftermath of a huge battle that wiped out all the vampires, and now the black dogs can’t hide from humans any longer? Sign me up!
The black dogs are a little different than your standard werewolf; they put me in mind of the fiery Presa Canario shapeshifter in Patricia Briggs‘ MERCY THOMPSON book Night Broken, or perhaps a mix of a wolf and an extremely large black Newfoundland dog. These shapeshifters are heavily influenced by the wild side of their nature, epitomized by their black shadows, which almost have a life of their own. This shadow also has some unusual benefits, such as instantly carrying away all but the most deadly, or silver-caused, injuries of the black dog. Most of the black dogs we meet in this novel are those born with the ability to shapeshift into the black dog at will; normal humans who are bitten by a black dog become the “moon-bound,” who involuntarily change shape with the full moon.
The Toland siblings, though they have an American father, are more heavily influenced by the Mexican part of their heritage and culture. This shows in their mindsets, including Natividad’s respect toward the Catholic religion and her use of the church building and crosses in her magical defense against evil forces. There’s a fair amount of Spanish language mixed into their dialogue and this story; most of it is either translated in passing, or the reader can discern the general meaning from the context. While I definitely appreciated reading a YA novel with a Latina heroine, I will say that the Kindle app’s translate function got used frequently while I was reading Black Dog.
Black Dog is a tension-filled and exciting urban (or perhaps rural in this case) fantasy, more about the conflict with evil than the romance, though there’s a hint of the latter. The characters are well-developed and Rachel Neumeier’s writing flows smoothly. Though this is the first book in a series and there are a couple of unresolved plot threads at the end, it can readily be read on a stand-alone basis. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the YA paranormal genre.