Forget everything you thought you knew about werewolves.
Forget the full moon and silver bullets. Maggie Stiefvater’s werewolves are different from any you’ve seen before. After being bitten, a werewolf changes erratically for a while, then settles into a seasonal cycle. Cold weather brings on a change to wolf form; warm weather returns the werewolf to human form. However, this cycle doesn’t last forever. As the years pass, it takes more and more heat to trigger the change back to human, until one year the werewolf remains a wolf forever.
Our heroine, Grace, was attacked by wolves as a child. Just before she was about to become lunch, one of the wolves intervened and saved her. Ever since, Grace has watched for “her” wolf in the woods each winter. And every summer, a golden-eyed boy named Sam watches Grace from afar, too shy to approach her. Then, when one of Grace’s high school classmates is killed in another wolf attack, several of the local men take it upon themselves to rid the town of the beasts. This time it’s Grace who helps Sam. Finally, the two have the chance to get to know one another. Their budding relationship is marred by one tragic truth: This is almost certainly Sam’s last year as a human.
Like Deirdre, the heroine of Lament, Grace is more “real” and well-rounded than many of the girls who populate YA paranormal romance. She’s neither too perfect nor too wild, and she doesn’t become subservient once her love interest appears on the scene. She’s just an ordinary girl, compassionate and resourceful and caught in an unimaginable situation. The relationship between Grace and Sam is also refreshingly “real.” They don’t just fall in love because of the weird metaphysics that surround them. They bond over music and poetry and cooking and B-grade horror movies. The reader is left with the impression that, if only the looming metaphysical tragedy could be averted, they’d have a happy future together.
Which, of course, makes the inexorable approach of winter incredibly poignant. I couldn’t put Shiver down, wondering how Grace and Sam’s story would end, and Stiefvater kept me hanging till the very last page.
Shiver is written in vivid prose that engages all of the senses. Maggie Stiefvater does a great job of evoking the sight of a single spot of red against a sea of white, the sound of canine nails scratching at the deck outside Grace’s house, and the smell of paper and ink in a bookstore on a warm summer day, making Shiver a fully immersive experience. I nearly forgot it was July here as I read; I could hear the winter winds howling.
The probable Hollywood pitch for Shiver is “Twilight with werewolves,” and there are some obvious parallels. Human girl and “monster” boy. Romance. Sense of doomed love. Teens. But Shiver is a notch or two above Twilight, though Twilight was to my mind atrociously written, so that isn’t saying a lot. And Shiver does have some major flaws. But despite the flaws and the sometimes-overwrought writing, it also features some good writing and decent characterization.
The general premise is that Maggie Stiefvater’s werewolves change with the cold, though as they get older the change comes sooner and lasts longer until they’re permanently wolf. The book is set in Minnesota, so it’s cold a lot and pretty reliably. The werewolves can postpone the change by staying in heated areas or wearing lots of warm clothing. If you’re wondering why they don’t just move south where it’s warm all the time, well, that’s a good question that somehow doesn’t come up until two-thirds of the way into the book and then is tossed into the discard pile with a sentence or two. It’s a pretty gaping hole and one that just isn’t plausibly addressed. There are also a lot of glossed-over questions dealing with how heated areas and extra clothing work, and to what extent, and why some wolves change permanently earlier than others, etc.
The problem with these issues isn’t just that they’re unanswered questions but that a) they send a message that Stiefvater either hasn’t fully thought through her world or is assuming her readers won’t, and b) the “rules” start to feel arbitrary and manipulative, too obviously crafted to set up a tragic love story. This is especially true of the ending. I felt (no spoilers) that the logic of what happens to whom isn’t at all clear (actually, it feels as logic is just tossed aside), and so again the author has manipulated events for impact rather than letting things flow naturally as the story/created world has set things up.
The main character, Grace, lives with two oblivious parents (implausibly oblivious, unfortunately) and watches the wolves in her backyard, one in particular. Six years ago she was dragged off her swing by a pack of werewolves but rescued by Sam, one of the pack. The book’s jumping-off place is when Sam, in human form, finally meets Grace. The first meetings made me worry a bit that we were in Twilight mode with all the focus on Sam’s amazing eyes, but the star-struck teen language is toned down quickly for the most part. Eventually, of course, Grace learns Sam’s secret and also that this may be his last year as a human. Their relationship progresses with the specter of his permanent transformation hanging ever overhead. Meanwhile, some of the wolves are getting overly violent with the locals (one boy is bitten and becomes a not-so-nice wolf) and Grace’s friends become involved, though with varying degrees of ignorance and knowledge of the truth.
The plot is solid and has its tense moments, though I wouldn’t call it gripping — I assume the targeted audience will be more captivated than I was by Grace and Sam’s love story — and as mentioned, it has some gaping holes. The characters are a mix. Grace’s parents are simply too hard to swallow. Sam is spending nights, showering while her father is home, etc. yet they have no idea she even has a boyfriend let alone that he’s sleeping in her room nights on end. Both parents veer too close to caricature as well: clueless business-focused dad and spacey artist mom. Grace is a realistic teen, but neither she nor Sam really stands out. The sharpest, most interesting character is Isabel, the sister of the boy who was supposedly killed by wolves but actually bitten and turned into one. She is introduced as a near-caricature of a rich bitch teen but comes alive as the book progresses, more alive than the other characters who feel bogged down in the thickness of forbidden/doomed romance.
Shiver was a slow read for me. I didn’t care much about the characters or the story and the plot holes nagged at me, along with small, niggling things like Grace saying her mom wasn’t like all her friends’ mothers: “apron-wearing, meal-cooking, vacuuming, Betty Crocker” (I’m not sure this describes many moms today and I’m pretty sure “Betty Crocker” wouldn’t be the first comparison by a 17 yr-old) or the scene where Grace crashes into the woods upon hearing a scream, then, not finding anything immediately, calmly goes back to get her sneakers and wanders through paying attention to what a beautiful day it was. It’s the sort of writing that could have used a sharper revisionist eye or better editor.
Shiver isn’t bad, but it reads like a work that was not fully thought out or fully polished, one that with another year or so might have turned out much stronger.