I know, I know. You think you’ve slipped into some alternative universe and into one where a Sarwat Chadda is a fan of para-normal romance and you’re looking outside the window for the skies to be filled with red clouds and the statues to be weeping blood or whatever they do when the Apocalypse has finally arrived.
Fear not, this is not the first sign of the Apocalypse (which is, as we all know, due next Tuesday about 3.30 GMT) but my first ever review of a love story!
Over the next twelve Mondays I will will be delving DEEP into the paranormal genre. I'll be reviewing and interviewing the great, the good, the mad and the bad of the YA paranormal fiction. It's not just romance, I assure you. There'll be a grand prize draw at the end and the goodies will make you blush. So, we'll kick off with...
SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater
Openings. Oh how a book lives or dies with its opening chapter. As you may know I like my openings to have a certain ... intensity.
How about a small girl dragged from her swing by a pack of werewolves?
That, we like.
Move forward a bunch of years and we’re in the company of Grace living in Mercy Falls with her parents (no orphans yet, which is nice) and hanging out with her friends Olivia and Rachel. She’s that bookworm in the corner, good student, a bit quiet and obsessed by the yellow-eyed wolf that watches her over the winter, the yellow-eyed wolf that protected her when she was a child, dragged from the swings by the rest of the pack.
Then the attacks start. School bully Jack Culpeper is killed, his body vanishes, the locals organise a wolf hunt and the hunt leaves a bleeding, naked boy, yellow-eyed, on Grace’s porch. Sam.
There’s none of that ‘is he or isn’t he’, we know, Grace knows, he’s a werewolf.
They are destined for each other. They’ve watched each other with silent yearning for years, and now they’re together. The end? All’s well and we’re listening for the wedding bells? No. And this is where the story takes a major turn for the worst. Werewolves change with the seasons. As the temperature drops the beast comes out. It’s getting colder and the change is coming. Once Sam turns, that’s it. This is his last year as a human. One by one, they all become wolves, forever. Just as love has come, the winter snows will take it away.
The falling temperature adds an unbearable intensity to the page turning. Each chapter headlines with the day’s temperature and day by day, it drops.
Winter is creeping nearer and Sam will be gone.
Needless to say there’s far more but what’s best about Shiver is the truth of Grace and Sam. Sam’s not some clichéd ‘bad-boy’, he’s sweet, loyal, sincere but with a very damaged past (the reveal about the parents is shocking, but sadly believable. People destroy what they don’t understand), trying to make one last human contact before he becomes a never-changing wolf. As a bloke who writes action I really believed in Sam for his goodness, for his better angels and his struggle. The book is split between Grace’s viewpoint and Sam’s, both are equally strong and support each other.
Grace has a family, a caring mother and father, but is neglected in her own way. The story about her being forgotten in the car demonstrates that neglect (not conscious, you always believe the parents do love her, but in a vague way), and includes an important clue for other reasons.
Beck, Jack, Isabel and Olivia work well as secondary characters. Especially Jack and Isabel, the brother and sister who start off as the bad guys but reveal a depth and strength that lesser writers would not have bothered with. The fate of Olivia is brilliantly set up and I wish I could reveal more. Suffice it to say you will care about the second string and the fate of all of them. No-one is set up as a clichéd ‘best friend’ or ‘school-bitch’ or ‘wise mentor’.
Final note is the beauty of Maggie’s writing. It has a slow elegance to it that lingers in the mind. It’s like watching snow melting on a sunny day. Crisp, melancholy, sparkling in many colours.
But hey, why take just my word? I was pretty lucky to cross paths with Maggie in November and as one werewolf fan to another, there were a hundred and one things I wanted to ask her, but the queue was long and the security tight. But with (dare I say it?) a wolf-like tenacity, I’ve chased her down and managed to grab a few answers off her. So, friends, lycanthropes and all other manner of beasties, please put your paws together for the one and only Maggie Stievater!
1. Lets get the obvious question out of the way. Why werewolves?
It was an accident. Actually, it sort of was. I’m a big fan of the idea that when you write about magic, you’re actually writing about something else, and I always thought that the metaphor that traditional werewolves stand for was outdated. Traditionally, werewolves stand for giving yourself over to the brutal beast inside you, with all the violent and carnal desires that entails. Well, Americans do that pretty much every day, so where’s the fear in that? So I never thought I’d write about werewolves. But I had decided I really wanted to write a bittersweet novel for teens, and then I had a dream about wolves -- simply wolves, not men with excessive chest hair -- and I thought, okay, this is possible. If the metaphor is instead that you will lose your identity, your humanness, the things that make you unique . . . well, now, that is something that Americans are afraid of.
2. Sam’s brilliant and a fantastic change from the clichéd ‘bad-boy’ of the genre. It would have been so easy to make him scary, brooding, misunderstood and dangerous, but you focus on his sincerity, his honour and his loyalty. Tell us what you think of Sam.
Well, thanks. I made Sam Sam for two reasons. First of all, if the big conflict of the story is that the character is going to lose his humanness, he better be a damn fine human for you to care. We have to think that the world stands to lose a lot if he disappears. So I wanted him to be genuine and interested in the things that make humans great: poetry, music, opposable thumbs, quiche. And then the other thing was that I wanted readers to really believe that without that whole werewolf thing, he and Grace really stood a shot of being together. And while fiery bad boys in leather pants are all fun and games, I don’t think, in real life, that anyone can picture the fiery bad boy doing a load of laundry or remembering your birthday. I wanted him to be just a really nice guy. I went out of my way to describe him as being less than edibly handsome, too. Grace finds him cute, but that doesn’t mean everyone would.
3. I’m all for strong heroines and what I love about Grace is that she’s clearly Sam’s equal and (emotionally) the stronger. What helped me believe in her was that she knows she’s obsessed with wolves, Olivia even takes her up on it, but that obsession grew for when she was attacked as a child. That first scene really sets the ambience of the entire book. I’d love to know how that Chapter 1 came about.
Remember that dream about the wolves? I’ll confess that the first line of the book is from the dream. Possibly because I watch too many movies, my dreams tend to be pretty cinematic, especially when I’m in the midst of brain-storming, which I was that day. And the wolf dream opened with the line: “I remember lying in the snow, surrounded by wolves . . .” with Grace’s voice (which, by the way, is eerily similar in the audiobook of Shiver). Initially SHIVER was a short story, and that first scene formed the bulk of it. I needed to establish Grace’s relationship with the wolves and make Sam sympathetic at the same time, as well as setting the mood. It changed surprisingly little when I converted it to a novel.
4. I’m interested in the parental units in this book. Both Sam and Grace have parents that fail them. Grace’s parents are a sort of ‘caring neglect’, they’ve got their own lives and just expect Grace to get on, even though Grace’s dad does almost kill her with that neglect, while Sam’s are more than violent towards him. Then you’ve got Beck, Sam’s seemingly perfect werewolf mentor (who nevertheless has his own dirty secrets). Can you tell us a bit more about the part this neglect played in Grace and Sam’s lives?
Well, I’m a big believer in the idea that your parents form a large part of who you are as a person -- either you become them or you run away from who they are. I needed for Grace to be super independent, and there were a few different ways to do that, but I decided to go with her neglectful parents after one of my early school visits. I didn’t go to traditional high school (I was home-schooled from sixth grade on), so one of my stipulations in my early days was that I got to follow a student around for the school day. Well, at this particular school, I was blown away by how the students were miniature adults: their parents gave them cell phones, lap tops, a car, kissed them goodbye in the morning (if that) and then said “see you whenever you get back.” And then the parents had completely separate social lives. So I knew I wanted to talk about that sort of well-meaning neglect and what it would do to someone down the line. And then Beck . . . one of the things I wanted to explore was how, when we grow up, we stop seeing our parents as the idols that we regarded them as when we were children. We start to see their flaws and their secrets and see that they, too, are human, and it can be searing and disappointing and agonizing. I wanted to play with that in Sam/ Beck’s relationship. And his awful real parents? Belief is hard, and illness is terrifying, especially when it’s unexplained.
5. The final chapter completes the story perfectly. Part of me worries that, given its perfect ending, how could you move the tale on without betraying the end of Shiver? Was a series always part of the plan or something that came along later?
Initially I thought I could fit everything I wanted to do into Shiver, but as I came close to the end, I realized I had left a lot of stones unturned. I asked Scholastic if I could do a sequel, and then, as I started to plot that out, I realized I really needed three to do the character development justice. The hard part was balancing plot and character development in LINGER -- I needed the characters to be much stronger in order to take on what happens in FOREVER, and I was very much hoping that readers would be interested in watching that journey to get there. Thank goodness they still like me.
6. Can you tell us a little from where you intend to go from here?
You mean, post werewolves? I’m just finishing a standalone paranormal novel that’s coming out just after FOREVER. It’s bloodier, and more action-y, but there’s still some kissing as well. The tone is entirely different from anything I’ve done before and I’m simultaneously nervous as hell and so excited I could pee about it.
And on that slightly damp note I'd like to thank Maggie for taking part and kicking off the tour. There's much, much more all about Mercy Falls and Maggie here on her website. You will not believe how many foreign editions there are of her book! Practically every one on the planet should have a copy of her book by the end of the year.
Next Monday the 'Kiss Me, Kill Me' series will be turning to all things Chinese with my mate Cindy Pon. There'll be dragons, immortal sorcerors, martial arts and a brand new heroine on the block, Ai Ling.