Nightshade is yet another addition to the burgeoning YA paranormal genre, but stands out for several reasons, including its creative premise. It centers on the Guardians (essentially werewolves but with a few vampire traits as well), who are powerful compared to humans but are themselves enslaved by a race of witches called the Keepers. The Keepers rule most of the world from behind the scenes. But in Vail, where 17-year-old Guardian Calla Tor lives, their dominance is overt.
All I knew going in was that this was a werewolf novel with a love triangle, and it took me a while to catch on to the world-building. So in an early scene where snooty Lumine Nightshade (a Keeper) talks to Calla about her upcoming arranged marriage to Ren, a fellow Guardian, I somehow thought Lumine was Calla’s grandmother. Then I realized the truth was even worse than I’d guessed and got chills. This is not a matriarch with dynastic ambitions; this is a slave owner directing the breeding of her chattel. Later we learn Lumine is not even the worst Keeper in the area.
The arranged marriage provides the central conflict in Nightshade. Calla has been groomed all her life to become Ren’s mate. Ren is hard to like, with his arrogance and playboy behavior. There are hints that he’s not beyond redemption, though; it’s more that he has enjoyed certain privileges all his life and never questioned them. Calla isn’t so sure she wants to be his mate, especially after meeting Shay, a human boy with a fun sense of humor and a comic-book obsession. Shay comes from our own world and urges Calla to take a closer look at her circumstances.
There was a time, about halfway through the book, when I wished Andrea Cremer had told this story from Shay’s point of view rather than Calla’s. He’s an enlightened young man of our times. He challenges sexism and, when he discovers a forbidden Keeper book, jumps at the chance to read it and find out what secrets they’re hiding. Calla thinks her circumscribed condition is normal. When she sees the book, she physically recoils from it. It’s harder for the reader to identify with her. We’re readers, after all, and we tend to want to read banned books, and we like to think we’d stand up to oppression if we found ourselves in it. Walking in Calla’s shoes is hard. Shay’s would be more comfortable. Cremer chose the right protagonist after all — the one that would make us think more.
The plot looks like an angsty romance at first, but expands into a suspenseful mystery when Calla and Shay start to learn things the Keepers don’t want them to know. Along the way, Cremer takes a critical look at the tropes of YA paranormal romance and of traditional romance novels in general: destined mates, alpha males, and the sexual double standard. Nightshade will likely appeal to both romance fans and dystopia fans.
At times, the descriptions of Calla’s yearning for Shay and Ren are a little much, especially her feelings for Ren. There are three reasons this is an issue. One is that Ren often comes off as a jerk and it can be hard to understand what Calla sees in him. Second, it seems that Cremer is trying to set Shay up as the one Calla loves more, and so when her attraction to Ren is so often described, it takes away from that and makes her look wishy-washy. (I have a crazy theory, though. I suspect the Keepers are using magic to manipulate the alphas’ feelings for each other. It would certainly be in character for the Keepers! If this turns out to be the case, I’ll withdraw both of these objections.) The third problem is simply that it slows down the book. Sometimes, mid-yearning, I would think “Can we get back to the forbidden lore now?” That may just be one of my quirks as a reader!
Those quibbles and a cliffhanger ending keep Nightshade from being perfectly satisfying, but it’s definitely worth reading. It has plenty of action and romance to keep the pages turning while also being one of the more thought-provoking books in the subgenre. Witches War is a series to watch.