TL;DR on it.
There are four reasons why this book appealed to me: I’m going through a Romance burnout (I know!) so I wanted something different (because werewolves are about as rare as unicorns, right? Right?); the main characters were Mexican; I’ve heard great things about Ms. Neumeier’s books; and the cover was pretty.
The werewolves in this story have a magic shadow that allows them to change at will. They are born that way and are known as black dogs. Regular werewolves, or shifters, are the product of a bite, and unlike black dogs, they can only change during the full moon. Then we have magic humans known as the Pure. Because their shadows hold a lot of power over them, the black dogs are in a constant struggle to control their natures, but the Pure have a calming effect over them (a bit like the Omega wolves in Patricia Briggs’ books), so they are considered valuable by some and useful by others whose intentions aren’t that good.
Natividad, Alejandro and Miguel are three siblings whose parents were brutally murdered by a very bad black dog who is now chasing them. Natividad is a Pure, Alejandro is a black dog and Miguel is human. They left their Mexican village in a hurry and are in their way to the North American Black Dog territory, also known as Dimilioc.
The Dimilioc wolves lost a lot of power after the war with the vampires, which resulted in the annihilation of the latter. Now, there are only a few Dimilioc wolves left, and although their alpha is doing his best to keep his pack alive while protecting the local human town, he sure could use a Pure woman to help him. Which is why when the Toland siblings (their father was American and a former member of the Dimilioc pack) trespass their territory, he gives them shelter instead of killing them.
But shelter comes with strings attached. Natividad is a Pure woman, which makes her highly coveted despite being 15 years old, because black dog women don’t have viable pregnancies and Pure women do. So the alpha lets them stay as long as Natividad chooses one of the pack’s wolves as her mate. She has six months to decide and only one real contender: Ezekiel, the pack’s executioner and perhaps their most powerful wolf, who, thank God for small favors, also happens to be a teenager.
But romance is not in the air now that their dangerous enemy has finally found them and wishes to claim Dimilioc for himself.
I really, really liked the world building. It’s incredibly cohesive and simple enough to easily understand. The shadows and magical elements were unique and compelling, whereas other elements like the way the Pure magic works and the organization of the pack, reminded me of beloved werewolves books by authors like Kelley Armstrong and Patricia Briggs. So it’s a mix between new and familiar that works like a charm.
Natividad is close but not quite a Mary Sue. She’s kind, good, and everyone likes her. Ezekiel, the borderline psychopathic executioner (here’s a Kelley Armstrong similarity), is drawn to her and wants her for himself. Even the humans, who are wary and frightened of the wolves, immediately trust her. On the other hand, she makes a couple of foolish, too-stupid-to-live mistakes that, believe it or not, gave her character some dimension and were perfectly justified by her young age. She acknowledges that Ezekiel is dangerous and wants her for reasons that have nothing to do with love. This made me almost like her, and turned what could have been a creepy and problematic potential romance into something more interesting and worth following. So she didn’t quite work as a heroine, but she wasn’t entirely repellent either.
Alejandro is the other main character and point of view of the story. I wish we had spent more time with him, because I thought he was the most interesting character of the book. As the eldest, he feels responsible for his siblings, but he’s nowhere near in control of his shadow or his emotions. Not to mention that he’s volatile and doing a poor job of protecting them. In Dimilioc, he finds the order and structure he was lacking, yet he still struggles with the various roles he plays both in his family and the pack. He’s not as strong or experienced as the other wolves, so he must prove himself over and over. And overall I found him to be the most fascinating hero even though his sister was the real center of the novel.
But Black Dog is far from perfect. As I mentioned, black dog women can’t have children, because their sons are killed by their shadows and most of the times the daughters are stillborn. So of course they are resentful and jealous of Pure women who can have healthy babies (in all their variations). Men, as expected, don’t have this issue. Is it tragic? Yes. Is it necessary to the plot? Only if your goal is to reduce women to their child-bearing abilities. However, the secondary character that embodies the jealous black dog woman is complex, and the story hints at a possible romantic pairing with Alejandro, which promises an interesting dynamic and negotiation of power. So there’s hope.
And last but not least, we have the terrible Spanish. I give kudos to the author for making her characters diverse. Sure, the kids came from a village that didn’t even have running water until their Gringo father installed some pipes, but the kids were proud of their culture and were raised in a loving environment, so I’m willing to overlook what’s perilously close to a stereotype. But why would you include so many Spanish phrases and words without doing the proper research? Even if your audience is primarily English-speaking and probably won’t notice or care, you’re using a different culture and you should be extra careful. Butchering their language is disrespectful, and it infuses the whole thing with the stench of appropriation.
Here are some examples (the quotes are in italics, the errors in bold, and the rest are my notes):
“Hush. We're alright. Somos bien.” It should be “Estamos bien”.
Neumeir, Rachel. Black Dog (Page 15, Loc. 218). Strange Chemistry, Kindle Edition.
“their belongings, escaso – scant – as they were” "Escaso" is singular, and since it’s referencing their belongings, it should be the plural, "escasos".
Neumeir, Rachel. Black Dog (Page 70, Loc. 1067). Strange Chemistry, Kindle Edition.
“He wondered whether he should begin planning now for some kind of ambush, some ataque sorprendió” It should be "ataque sorpresa".
Neumeir, Rachel. Black Dog (Page 79, Loc. 1208). Strange Chemistry, Kindle Edition.
“No, no, mia hija. No, I am not sad. Only… No, never mind.” It should be "hija mia", not "mia hija". This is some bad Google Translate shit right there.
Neumeir, Rachel. Black Dog (Page 115, Loc. 1762). Strange Chemistry, Kindle Edition.
“Especialmente cuendo su primero ataque pue un fracas. Black dogs follow a leader who wins.” It should be: “especialmente cuando su primer ataque fue un fracaso.”
Neumeir, Rachel. Black Dog (Page 208, Loc. 3190). Strange Chemistry, Kindle Edition.
“No hay señas de los enemigos perros negros,” It should be “perros negros enemigos” Again, Google translate is not your friend.
Neumeir, Rachel. Black Dog (Page 248, Loc. 3802). Strange Chemistry, Kindle Edition.
The characters also use Mexican jargon in a few occasions, but I’m not familiar enough to confirm their authenticity.
This is the first thing they should teach in “How Not to Write Different Ethnicities 101”. I don’t think it was intentional, but carelessness can be hurtful, especially in a book in which the thought and care that went into creating the world a characters is more than clear. Will I read the next book? Yes, I want to know what happens. Hopefully the same mistakes won’t be repeated.
Sensuality: McPrude (Remember that this is not a Romance, and even though it's YA, there's violence and gore).
Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge--the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases--like for Natividad's father and older brother--Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.
But before Natividad's mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them.
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.
In the snowy forests of Vermont they are discovered by Ezekiel Korte, despite his youth the strongest black dog at Dimilioc and the appointed pack executioner. Intrigued by Natividad he takes them to Dimilioc instead of killing them.Now they must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. Alejandro must prove he can learn loyalty and control even without his sister's Pure magic. Natividad's twin Miguel must prove that an ordinary human can be more than a burden to be protected. And even at Dimilioc a Pure girl like Natividad cannot remain unclaimed to cause fighting and distraction. If she is to stay she must choose a black dog mate. But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier
Strange Chemistry. February 4, 2014