Review of Tarnished by Rhiannon Held

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The cool cover and the author’s even cooler name snagged my attention, so I plucked this offering off the shelves, despite the fact that this is the second book in the series. Would my impulsive choice be a good read?

Silver has found her mate in Andrew Dare, but they haven’t found the pack they can call home. Some of Andrew’s old friends think he should return to the East Coast and challenge Roanoke for leadership. But Andrew has baggage, with his violent history with the packs of Europe and rumours of his lack of control. Can Silver and Andrew find a refuge within American werewolf society, or are they doomed to wander the continent as loners – only visiting pack territories on sufferance of the ruling alphas?  And – no – that isn’t the actual blurb, which contains far too many spoilers in my opinion. As Tarnished is the second in the series, it is all too easy to tell the whole story of Silver – the first book – while furnishing readers with an enticing tidbit.

So my advice would be to set aside Tarnished for the time being, and seek out Silver, because if it’s half as good as the sequel, it’s tarnishedworth the effort to start in the right place with this interesting addition to the urban fantasy genre. Tarnished is all about werewolf society and focuses on the struggles of a single female trying to cope in a pack environment where might is right. And – yes – this is an oft-travelled route since the likes of Kelley Armstrong and Bitten – but Held has taken the genre and given it a good old shaking.
In her world, werewolves can only be bred, not turned. So it is all about bloodlines and biological imperatives – and silver is absolutely poisonous to them. Recovering after a terrible attack, Silver is now unable to turn into wolf form, so when she teams up with Andrew, the two of them immediately pose a problem for any pack. And when one pack agrees to take them in, their mere presence triggers a chain of events that leads to a Convocation – a meeting of all the pack alphas to pass judgement on a major crime committed within pack society. So this book is mostly about the politics running werewolf society and how the main characters react and try to conform, or not, into the pattern set hundreds of years ago to allow weres to exist alongside humans.

Held’s taut prose has the slightly elevated feel of a literary novel, but with the pace and narrative drive customary in urban fantasy – it’s a heady mix. The character that stands out is Silver. Scarred and crippled, she regularly communes with Death, who appears to her as a large black wolf. He often helps her – but also can be taunting and apparently unconcerned when she is in trouble. There is no sense that this communication is somehow a secret weapon that makes up for her physical weakness and the aching void left by being unable to run with the rest of pack. Silver tries to remember not to talk to Death in front of others – she is aware that far too many people already believe she is mad – but occasionally it is not always possible. So does the depiction of such a compromised character work in a sub-genre that habitually produces tough females who are able to square up to the males and give as good as they get? Yes – because Silver refuses to see herself as a victim, and can still assert her own form of authority. One of Held’s major sub-plots also involves Susan, the human mate of a were alpha, who finds herself on the edge of were society without fully appreciating her own danger. Until Silver takes upon herself to ensure Susan knows what she has got herself into.

I found this book immensely affirming in a way that many books featuring female protagonists simply don’t. I’ve grown a tad tired of the generic kick-ass heroine, armed and feisty, who has Attitude oozing out of every pore along with a smart mouth, is drop-dead gorgeous/sexy – and able to produce an arsenal of lethal weaponry from the back pocket of those skintight jeans she is wearing and mix it up with the roughest, toughest male in the neighbourhood. Okay, I’m exaggerating – but you get the point… That formula has been done to death.

Silver is none of those things and Held makes it very clear that there is no cure lurking around the corner for her terrible injuries. She has to make up for her physical weakness by living on her wits and keeping sharp – there is no magic gismo to give her any sense of invulnerability. Yippee! A heroine I can empathise with. Because the hard fact is, as any woman who’s ever been faced with an angry/drunken man will testify, we are weaker and in any physical conflict, we mostly come off worse.  If you are a fan of urban fantasy, track down Silver and give it a go. That’s what I’m going to do – I need another fix of Held’s world until Reflected comes out next year.
9/10

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