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I find it difficult to read new fiction during the semester, and tend (if I have the time), to revisit old favorites rather than branch out in new direction . . . even new directions that take little intellectual or emotional effort. But this passed week, Patricia Brigg’s new installment in the Alpha & Omega series (werewolves; modern American West), Hunting Ground, so in the spirit of Hanna’s recent five-minute book reviews, I thought I’d offer a couple of reflections.

Warning: Mild plot spoilers for those who care.

So the Alpha and Omega series started out in a short story from a mass market paperback collection of supernatural romance stories, On The Prowl. Anna (cringe) is a recently-turned werewolf living in Chicago whose pack has been exploiting her. When the Marrok (head werewolf of North America) sends his son Charles to deal with the problem, Charles and Anna have a love-at-first-sight supernatural bonding thing and she ends up leaving Chicago and moving back to Montana with Charles to become part of his pack and (eventually, in the first novel-length book) his mate. So that’s the basic set-up.

While the first short story worked, I was disappointed with the first novel, Cry Wolf, since it felt like a long drawn-out love-at-first-sight-slash-recovery-from-sexual-abuse-via-sex plot (sans any satisfying sex, so what’s the point, really?). But I was willing to hang in there for the sake of the interconnected series, so when the second one came out this fall I put it on my reserve queue at the library.

And I’m happy to report that some improvement was made. Having gotten Charles and Anna together at the end of the first novel, we’ve moved on (mostly) from romantic angst to supernatural international political negotiation: the werewolves in the U.S. have decided to go public and some packs elsewhere in the world aren’t happy about it, so Bran, the Marrok, invites them for a diplomatic summit, held in Seattle, sending Anna and Charles as his delegates. Supernatural shenanigans and power-struggles ensue.

Things I’m pleased about:

Anna is developing a backbone, aided, in part, but her particular werewolf powers, which entail being somewhat outside of the normal pack structure and able to stand up to the Alpha wolves (she describes this at one point as being a “zen wolf” which I thought was kinda funny).

Briggs shifted the focus of the plot in this second book from Anna and Charles relationship to the political negotiations, which was a good decision. I’m not against relationships and sex — it’s okay to have both in the story, and in the Mercy Thompson series her ongoing negotiations with the guy she ends up involved with are a fun sub-plot/parallel-plot. But they are never THE plot, which they were in Cry Wolf. So side-lining them while simultaneously giving Anna a more active role in the relationship (as opposed to being the traumatized partner) was a good move.

Setting it in Seattle was fun — I like my urban fantasy out West, which is possibly just personal bias since I enjoy the landscape of the Pacific Northwest so much myself. And the coastal setting works in her favor in this instance.

Things not-so-pleasing:

Why does Briggs have to go and sexually traumatize her heroines before getting them connected with men (all her main female characters have so far been straight) who support their independence? Sexual trauma is less a feature of Mercy Thompson’s character as it is Anna’s, since she is raped in one of the later books when her character is pretty well-formed. With Anna, her history of sexual abuse at the hands of her first werewolf pack threatens to overwhelm other aspects of her character. I also resent the implication that for women trauma = sexual abuse. While obviously not minimizing (for women or men both) the violation that is sexual violence, I’d suggest there are other ways to signal “damaged female character” than have them be a survivor of rape.

Unsatisfying sex scenes. If you’re going to write sex scene that aren’t “off screen,” then have the guts to finish what you started. I felt like Briggs, in a couple of instances, was ramping up to a nice sweaty, satisfying bout of on-screen sex only to cut it off abruptly and imply that a “good time was had by all” without actually giving us details. It was weird. In my book, if you’re going to skirt around the sex by using that sort of maneuver, it’s best not to begin the scene as if you’re going to follow through.

On the whole, I’d say this is a middling-to-solid continuation of the series. So far still enjoy Mercy Thompson more as a heroine (begin with Moon Called), and hope to see a fifth installment in the near future. But if another Alpha and Omega book comes out, I’ll likely pick it up as well to see if she can build on the gains made in this one.

Related: My earlier reflections on Booknotes: Bone Crossed, the last Mercy Thompson novel.

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