One of the things I used to do a lot on the old blog was talk about books I’d read, films and TV shows I’ve seen. I already had one TV post (well, sort of), so here’s a book post.
Most of the books I read these days (fiction and non-fiction) actually count as research for my PhD thesis on genre hybrids with particular focus on books combining speculative fiction and romance. I’ll perhaps post some more about the thesis in the future, though I’m saving my theories and lightbulb moments for the actual thesis rather than post them on this blog. This post is solely for reflections about books.
Dream Stalker by Jenna Kernan:
Published in the Silhouette Nocturne category romance line (the line has since been renamed Harlequin Nocturne, but it was still Silhouette in December 2009, when this book was published), at first glance Dream Stalker looks like a typical shapeshifter romance: Girl meets and falls in love with were-grizzly. Yes, the hero is a were-grizzly and if you find that strange, trust me, I’ve seen stranger.
What makes Dream Stalker stand out from the glut of paranormal romances is that the worldbuilding is based on Native American, more specifically Lakota, mythology and that the hero and the heroine are both Native American. What is more, most of the novel is set in Alberta, Canada. This was also the reason I bought the book in the first place – in my research I focus on books and series that are highly popular, those that I personally consider excellent examples of the sort of genre hybrid I am researching and last but not least, on books that are different from the norm in worldbuilding, characterization, choice of mystical creature and mythological background. Dream Stalker ended up on my list, because it definitely falls in the latter category.
At the beginning of the novel, Michaela Proud, a young Native American woman, is recovering from the dual shocks of losing her mother and from an bicycle accident that nearly killed her. Ever since the accident, Michaela has been suffering from nightmares and she fears she may be going mad. One night, when Michaela is plagued by nightmares once again and cannot sleep, she goes off to feed her mother’s chickens (there is an explanation why she feels the need to feed chickens in the middle of the night, though it’s not all that convincing) and is attacked by a bear with strange glowing eyes. The bear, it turns out, has been possessed by the spirit god Nagi who shows an uncommon interest in Michaela. The struggle draws the attention of another bear, a mighty grizzly named Sebastian. Sebastian intervenes, though to save the possessed bear rather than Michaela. He manages to scare off Nagi and transforms into a man, because Sebastian belongs to the shapeshifting Inanoka clan. Michaela has already passed out by this point, so she doesn’t witness the amazing transformation and remains in the dark about Sebastian’s true nature for several more chapters. Meanwhile, Sebastian isn’t quite sure what to do with Michaela, who has been wounded by Nagi, both physically and spiritually. Because he fears she might have seen him change, he takes her with him to his luxurious home in the North Canadian woods. And since Sebastian conveniently also has healing abilities, he is at least able to halt the progress of Michaela’s injury, though the spirit wound she has sustained in the fight with Nagi is slowly killing her.
The luxurious home by a lake in the woods is one of the few concessions Dream Stalker makes to the standard tropes of category romances. For why would a shapeshifter who spends most of his time in bear form and is actively uncomfortable in his human form have such a luxurious home? Though the fact that Sebastian was very much a bear – to the point that it is hinted that he satisfies his sex drive with female bears, because he is wary of human women after one rejected him – was one of the things I liked about this book. Too often, were-critters and animal shifters in paranormal romance and urban fantasy are humans with fur, so it is a nice change to see a shifter who actually prefers his animal form. Michaela has her moments of stereotypical romance heroine stupidity (e.g. feeding chickens in the middle of the night or going into the woods, even though Sebastian has warned her not to), but she does manage to hold her own. And although she is nominally Native American, Michaela is not particularly interested in the culture of her people at the beginning of the novel.
Like all category romances, Dream Stalker is a short book, only 283 pages long. However, for such a short book, there certainly is a lot of action going on and there is a lot of worldbuilding. Michaela and Sebastian go on the run, pursued by Nagi who can possess any living creature. There is a very evocative interlude where Sebastian takes Michaela to see an old crone named Kanka (apparently another mythical figure), who lives in a hut of bones near the arctic circle. There are revelations about Michaela’s family background as well as the fact that she, too, has mythical powers, specifically the ability to see ghosts, that make her a target for Nagi.
Towards the end, another common category romance trope, namely the nigh impossible pregnancy as proof of true love, rears its head, but I didn’t much mind it here. Of the Silhouette/Harlequin Nocturnes I read, this is definitely one of the better examples and the worldbuilding is quite unique with its basis in Lakota mythology. I don’t know enough about Native American myths and legends to know how accurately they have been reproduced here – this would require more research if it goes in the thesis. Plus, there is also the issue of cultural appropriation, which is not for me to decide. Still, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, even though I was suffering from pretty severe pain due to an inflamed ischiatic nerve when I read it.
I initially assumed that Jenna Kernan was a debut author, because I had never come across her name before. However, it turns out that she has written several western romances for Harlequin‘s historical romance line, though Dream Stalker is her first foray into the paranormal genre.
All right, this post is long enough already, so more book reflections will follow in future posts.