If ever you’re looking to blur the lines between adult and young adult fantasy, look no further than the enigmatic Rachel Neumeier. With a volume of work that can never quite be pinned down neatly into one category and with stories more complex than could be conveyed in any blurb, Neumeier strikes a unique balance between the worlds of children and adults.
Her work is, quite frankly, magical.
I’ve found myself entranced by a number of Neumeier’s creations—enough that I have been able to notice an established pattern in her writing. Neumeier’s work is always politically underscored, she embraces the complexities of clashing cultures and always challenges her characters (and readers) to see beyond their natural borders. Her books are each balanced between several points of view, somehow always catching me by surprise when I become as deeply engrossed with her male characters as her female (yes, I’ll admit it, I identify better with female characters—doesn’t mean I don’t try to challenge myself). Neumeier always creates an underlying thread of romance so subtle it could go unnoticed, a tactic I find refreshingly charming when so much fantasy, particularly in the YA world, seems to have prioritized romance over substance. But the final defining characteristic of a Rachel Neumeier book is my favorite—the elaborate magical structures that form her worlds.
Neumeier creates magical rules with such certainty that it doesn’t even matter that us as readers aren’t privy to all of them. Personally, I detest feeling like a not-so-eager school child when I crack open a new fantasy world and the author sits me down to explain How Things Work. With Rachel there’s never once been a dreaded explanatory tangent, and the trust she shows her readers is a credit to her craft. Nearly all of her works are stand alone, and yet she has somehow learned to draw readers in and immerse them directly into her worlds without an orientation meeting. Her characters know the world so well that we as readers are able to understand the smooth flowing mechanics by watching them function.
With Black Dog, however, Neumeier entered an untrodden realm—Urban Fantasy. I was thrilled when I discovered that one of my favorite high fantasy authors was dipping her toes into werewolf lore and urban fantasy. See, I fell in love with urban fantasy about two years ago. Previously I was a strict high fantasy kind of girl, and then women like Kate Daniels, October Daye, and Mercedes Thompson came crashing into my life, and suddenly my eyes were open. There was this whole new sect of fantasy I’d never experienced that was so fast-paced and engrossing that I couldn’t put them down. I love the lore of the supernatural and seeing how each author takes on these things we all feel we know in unexpected ways. So coming into Black Dog I had no idea what to expect. Would it be too similar to others? Would Rachel Neumeier lose that spark that threads so strongly between each of her books? Would it be totally awesome?
Why yes, yes it would. Be totally awesome that is. Black Dog in no way reflects too heavily on any other lore I’ve encountered (I’ve heard it compared to Eilieen Wilk’s World of Lupi series which I have yet to read, but only in a positive light which very much makes me want to jump all over that bus), and not only that, it’s still so very much her. Everything about Black Dog screams to me that it is a Rachel Neumeier book, and yet it’s such a different track for her that I don’t know if I’d pinpoint her as the author if I went in blind.
Black Dog sheds the fantasy clichés of a buildup to war or a discovery of power and dives right into the aftermath. The war has already happened. A vampiric miasma that kept the human population unaware of the supernatural for centuries has lifted, leaving the world free from their grasp and now vulnerable bystanders to the power struggles of the fall out. Because what’s left over after the war? Black Dogs. Black Dogs aren’t really werewolves at all; they aren’t bound to the moon (though those exist, too), they are born rather than created, and they certainly aren’t inclined to run in packs. Those few ‘civilized’ groups of Black Dogs that existed kept order over strays and protected the Pure women who could perform protective and calming magics, but those groups have dwindled to nearly nothing in the battle. Three siblings, one Pure, one Black Dog, and one human, seek refuge with the Dimilioc, the group of Black Dogs that rule from the Northeastern United States, unintentionally leading their own enemy to Dimilioc’s gates.
Black Dog is the ideal recipe. If you want to read it strictly for its entertainment value, you certainly can—it revs up quickly and doesn’t slow down until the final pages. But for those readers who want something deeper it’s also more than that. Neumeier beautifully and respectfully incorporates Mexican and American culture and sets the stage for her patented challenging perspectives by giving us the viewpoints of light and dark, brother and sister, Black Dog and Pure. She creates the type of familial relationship that is so often neglected in anything but Middle Grade literature, and through these siblings we are able to see and understand all aspects of her world. The Black Dogs that must struggle to separate themselves from their shadows, the humans that have something to offer if given the chance, and the Pure that are meant to protect rather than be protected. The siblings force a centuries old culture to reevaluate itself, and take on a horrifying new enemy that is beyond their previous imaginings.
The one issue I could see readers taking lies with the romantic aspects of this book. Our primary female character, Natavidad, is only 15 years old. Because of the relationship that exists between Black Dogs and Pure, she fully expects upon entering Dimilioc territory to be forced into a relationship with a (potentially much older) Black Dog. While the politics and traditions of the world surrounding Pure/Black Dog relations are colored with uncomfortable and unappealing notions, it is recognized that Natavidad is too young. Of course, waiting six months till she’s 16 to pair her up also seems a bit young, but I was personally unperturbed given the world building that supported this. The romance in Black Dog is both more overt and more nonexistent than in other works. Natavidad is very clearly courted by one of the Black Dogs, and yet, we are not forced as readers to see the long-term results of any choice she might make. To me, the Pure/Black Dog relationship created interesting conflict and dynamics within a group of creatures constantly charged and on the edge. I thought it was well handled.
Black Dog is, like the characters within its pages, frightening and beautiful and solid right down to its core. While I went in excited and unsure, I came out on the other side feeling that this might just be my favorite Rachel Neumeier book yet (admittedly, I think that after every Rachel Neumeier book I read). I couldn’t recommend Black Dog more. If you love a great stand alone, if you’re craving a unique new take on some well-worn lore, or if you’re a fan of urban fantasy in general, pick this one up.
Black Dog is available now from Strange Chemistry.