Review of Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

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I managed to get hold of an ARC copy of this book, which is due to hit the shelves on 6th February. I love this author’s trilogy The Griffin Mage and recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligently written, nuanced and entertaining fantasy – read my review here. Would I also enjoy this YA offering by Neumeier?

Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic and protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. Before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them and their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

This is an interesting twist on the supernatural world, with an innately difficult relationship between the short-fused, shape-shifting black dogs, their human relations and the Pure – those rare individuals whose magic can calm and civilise the darker instincts of the black dogs, who all too frequently slide towards darkness and bestiality. Neumeier’s hallmark is setting up a world with a set of magical laws – and then introducing a number of individuals who subvert those laws. So her fantastic landscapes are complicated by messy relationships, giving plenty of tension in amongst the action scenes and making them matter.

blackdogWe first encounter the three siblings on the run. Natividad, one of the protagonists, is twin to fifteen-year-old human Miguel and both of them spend much of their time trying to keep their older black dog brother, Alejandro, calm enough to keep his shadow at bay – the shadow that causes him to shapeshift. I very much like the fact that anyone dealing with the black dogs in human form has to take care not to extend eye contact and keep their body language submissive. It’s details like this which elevate the run of the mill to the above average.

Neumeier certainly drops us right in the middle of the action. The attack that wipes out the youngsters’ village and orphans them is the aftermath of a recent war fought and won against the vampires. Most black dog clans fought against the vampires, who managed to keep their existence and that of any other supernatural beings below human radar with their mind-fogging skills. Now that they have gone, the black dog clans are counting the cost – and some opportunistic, brutal individuals are making a play for the power vacuum opened up by the defeat of the vampires. Neumeier’s is a great proponent of ‘show, don’t tell’, so these slices of information unfold within the story – but what it means is that the reader is presented with a strongly crafted world with a detailed backstory every bit as riveting as the narrative arc within the book.

The other main character in the book is Alejandro, who now has to try and demonstrate sufficient control to get himself and his siblings accepted by the Dimilioc clan – and if he doesn’t it will mean almost certain death. Through his viewpoint, we learn about the issues black dogs face if they are to keep their humanity and not slide into feral strays that end up ripping their own family apart, before going on the run.

I really enjoy the fact that Neumeier always portrays the cost involved in being part of a magical/supernatural community – and the cost is invariably high. I’ve read one or two protests at the manner in which Natividad agrees to pair up with any of the black dogs offered to her, when she turns sixteen. I didn’t have a problem with this aspect of the story. She is a fertile female within a community of half-animals – it is a consequence of this difference that such terms are negotiated, and Neumeier makes it clear that the humans within the clan are also part of the ranking. If they cannot contribute something useful, they will be right at the bottom of the heap – a miserably uncomfortable spot…

I’m conscious that this review gives the impression that this is some worthy read full of interesting world-building and complex characters – and not much else… What I haven’t mentioned is that from the moment I picked up this book, it hauled me into the world and I read faaar into the early morning to discover what happened – while Himself, who has started five books this week and wandered off, muttering into his beard that they’re all a bit boring, devoured this offering in a single greedy gulp.

Once more, Neumeier has produced a cracking, satisfying read – and I’m hoping that Black Dog is the start of a series as I want more of this excellent world. If you enjoy urban fantasy and relish something different, track it down – you’ll be thanking me if you do…
10/10

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