Kelley Armstrong: Forbidden

Forbidden is essentially connective tissue for Kelley Armstrong’s ongoing Otherworld setting. It’s a handsomely illustrated novella – four images by Angilram complement the text in stark red, black and white. But really, the point of this followup to Frostbitten is to move young, scrappy werewolf Morgan Walsh from the wilds of Alaska to the potentially friendlier territory of the North American Pack.

Walsh, it seems, is exploring the options for his future when he pulls off the road in the small town of Westwood, New York to grab a bite to eat. This turns out to be a poor decision, as Walsh wakes up after his meal naked in the middle of the woods and surrounded by gun-toting locals. It’s up to rising Pack Alpha Elena and her taciturn husband Clay to drive to Westwood to get Walsh out of the hoosegow, except, of course, it’s not allowed to be that easy. Their tires slashed and bad weather closing in, Elena and Clay are trapped in the town with Morgan, who still can’t explain why he was naked in the woods in the first place. And, of course, there’s the dead body that turned up, one perhaps tied to strange sigils marked on the trees and a cave full of bones.

As a way of moving Morgan closer to the Pack, breaking down both his fear of commitment and Clay’s suspicions about this “mutt” with an apparently self-control problem, the book succeeds. Clay and Elena’s mature but loving relationship also gets an enjoyable depiction. And make no mistake, this is Elena’s book. Her sections of the narrative are in first person, while those focusing on Walsh or witchy local police chief Jess Dales are in third.

To be honest, it’s the mystery of precisely what’s going on in Westwood that’s the weakest part of the book. So much space is devoted to Elena’s personal matters (and, to a lesser extent, Morgan’s) that there’s really no time to develop the mystery or the motivations of the people behind it. “Outsider comes to a small town with spooky secrets” is a time-honored model for horror plots – witness everything from The Wicker Man to Haven – there has to be some meat to the town’s mystery or the lure of the place falls flat. And Westwood, for all its bone caves and creepy cabins, doesn’t set the hook well in Elena or the reader. There’s a lot going on, but the elements – a creepy cabin, a town recluse, a grieving mother searching for her missing son, mysterious attempts to keep the strangers in town – don’t really mesh, and there’s no time given to developing either the villains or the reason for their villainy. As a result, the climax feels a little lightweight, a necessary stop on the road to get Morgan off the road and into Pack territory. This is probably more of an issue for newcomers to the setting than it is for longtime fans. Those who want more of the Otherworld are likely to be satisfied with what they find here, while those looking for something more self-contained may be disappointed.

(Subterrannean, 2012)

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