June 2, 2012

The Underworld Series by Kelley Armstrong

I completely loved these books and I found some femdom in them. Not an erotic kind of femdom but just a strong female character kicking ass in a patriarchal world, with her pet boy by her side (kind of literally in this case). This is another of those reviews that frankly, I'm not sure if you'll be interested since it isn't full on erotic femdom. But I kind of think it deserves a place here, in the subtle femdom category.

This review is completely riddled with spoilers which are necessary to explain why this series is that subtle femdom which can be soooo good. I will flag up the spoilers that will significantly affect your enjoyment of the series. I should add, I'm only really talking here about the werewolf books of this series, specifically: Bitten, Stolen, Broken, Frostbitten, Hidden, Beginnings from Tales of the Underworld and the free online graphic short story Becoming.

Elena is a reluctant werewolf, has been a werewolf for 10 years and is living in Toronto. A crisis calls her back to Stonehaven, the pack's home with the pack leader Jeremy and Elena's ex lover/best friend/adversary/worst nightmare, Clayton. They're part of a small pack of werewolves, keeping a low profile and protecting humanity from the rogue idiot werewolves who think it's fun to kill people. The major part of the story for all the books is how the pack neutralize these threats. That is to say - the major part of the books is paranormal suspense thriller. The thread through all the books is the relationship between Elena and Clayton. Elena and Clayton have a difficult fucked up relationship with a complicated history.

All the books are first person narratives from the pov of Elena and don't shy away from letting her solve her own and other peoples, problems. That I think is one of the things I like about these books. Elena has support, is part of a team, but she also strikes out independently (sometimes unwisely, but never TSTL) and does things. She has agency and power and courage and she uses them.

These books don't pull punches on people dying or being hurt on both sides of the them/us divide. There are numerous fight and hunting scenes, with somewhat dispassionate descriptions of the 'gore'. Elena is not a shocked girl who faints at the sight of blood. Actually, she revels in it. Again, I rather like that. It's refreshingly honest somehow that a (were)wolf, a predator, is unabashedly a predator and not just a big dog who runs around.

One of the most interesting things about this series is that in some ways it's all about Elena's journey to accept her anger, her violence, her strength and power and the agency that this gives her. She is concerned in Bitten about being 'normal' and comes to accept what she is and accept Clay's adoration too. Elena struggles against Clay because he relishes her excitement at that part of their life. For Elena, he comes to represent 'not normal'. She feels unlovable and unfeminine because of her liking of violence. I think that there will be dommes out there who have been through, or are currently going through, the same sort of emotional conflicts that Elena has (though probably they don't have the added challenge of changing regularly into a wolf).

Most of the main issues are resolved at the end of Bitten, but there are lingering problems, which are then resolved through the next books. All the books are really about Elena's coming of age (yeah, even 30 somethings can come of age).

One of the issues that although Elena for the most part solves her own problems, she's essentially still an underling in a male patriarchal system. Much of the 'action' is actually Elena on her own - not with Clay, or the rest of the pack. The obvious solution? Elena becomes the pack Alpha. It's the last step in the journey really - from denying who and what she is, to being the leader of the pack in the last book.

Elena's relationship with Clay mirrors the journey that Elena has. At the end of Bitten, their relationship is still tentative - Elena has admitted that she loves Clay, but he is still the one pushing towards a relationship and she's holding back. Clay is always pulling Elena with him in terms of commitment - he proposes apropos of nothing, (this is a big spoiler, you might want to skip over it) then he bites her committing her without her knowledge to life as a werewolf, then tries everything to get her to stay with him, wears a wedding ring even though they aren't actually married, wants to have children, etc. etc. Elena is wary at every stage and it is Clay who is pushing the emotional intimacy as well as the physical intimacy. In Frostbitten, they have this exchange:
"...we're making little steps. Saying you love me. Saying you want to be with me. Saying you trust me. And now saying you miss me. The next big hurdle is saying you like your life the way it is."
"I love my life."

That really sums up Elena's journey with Clay. It's a journey to acceptance and happiness (even though that sounds really naff, it's not written like that at all.) Part of that acceptance is accepting that she likes being a werewolf and the strength and violence that comes with that. Clay is the foil to Elena's convoluted and complicated nature. Clay has long accepted who he is and is in some ways Elena's mentor, helping her to be the leader that he needs.

Clay is such an unusual and brilliant character. Not only is he a werewolf who is NOT an 'Alpha', doesn't want to be and is happy following Jeremy and then Elena. He's always in the supporting role rather than 'White Knight'. In several of the books, Elena saves Clay. In Stolen Clay spends most of the book sedated by Jeremy because he's going so mental that Elena is missing. He's Elena's henchman, backup - in short, her husband. In Hidden, Elena describes Clay as:
..the ideal beta-second-in-command, Pack enforcer, Alpha's bodyguard.
And this dynamic works perfectly for Elena and Clay as she likes to be in charge. As she says in Broken
Put Clay with a werewolf of roughly the same hierarchical position, whose judgement he trusted, and he preferred to follow orders...  which was fine because I preferred to give them. 
Clay does take the lead in their sex to some extent, but they fight for control and that is incredibly hot. They destroy hotel bedrooms and the naked rolling around 'play' fighting in forest is oh-so-hot. There is also development in this aspect of the story too. In the first book Bitten (and several others) Clay ties Elena up (for reasons that are major spoilers, so I won't go into) but by the last book Hidden, Elena ties Clay down to the bed - and Clay is happy about it. So Elena takes the lead in their lives and Clay is content in his beta/protector role.

So what else is unusual about Clay as a hero? He's a virgin when he and Elena get together and basically never been interested in or with any woman but Elena.  Clay might be antisocial, but his loyalty is never in question. He is fanatically loyal.

***End Spoilers***

TL,DR:  Werewolf thriller books, written from the first person perspective of the female protagonist who is awesome. A sexy sidekick hero. Lots of violence and sex in forests.

If I haven't convinced you by now, I don't think I will be able to. If you're not sure try Bitten, which is in some ways the most interesting of the series, and see if you get hooked.

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