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Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer
This was one of my Books & Breakfast books, and it's one of the kind of books that I'm never quite sure how to review. Because I really enjoyed it! But I have no idea whether my enjoyment of it will translate to anyone else, because I enjoyed it for pushing a very particular set of my buttons.

To talk about this, I have to back up a bit and discuss The Werewolf Problem.

I love werewolf books, in theory. Werewolf: The Apocalypse was my first RPG, and I played the hell out of it, and Werewolf (old and new) remains my second-favorite set of games. (Changeling, game of my heart, is still #1.) While everyone else who gamed in my area was about blood-drinking and backstabbing, I was more about howling at the moon and ripping my enemies in half. I love Blood and Chocolate and Sergeant Angua and Elfquest (where, okay, they aren't werewolves per se, but close enough) and the Brecilian Forest quest in Dragon Age.

And then, with the supernatural romance/new urban fantasy explosion, there was a big upsurge of werewolf books!

And they let me down, man. Because I quickly came to realize that having werewolves in supernatural romance was often an excuse to have a male character who was either a) a creepy stalker, or b) a raging, possessive, controlling jackass, who in both cases a and b tended to have crazy double standards for gender into the bargain, and somehow it was Okay because it was because he was a (were)wolf! It totally wasn't his fault! He couldn't help being a stalker or a jackass and a hypocrite on top of that because *insert bizarre handwavey discussion of wolf behavior here*. Often with "bonus" scene in which the male werewolf bites and turns the human protagonist in a distressingly rapey way.

(Side note: Wolves are not like that "naturally;" claims that they are are based on outdated and rather poor science, based on wolf behavior in artificial situations. It is just as thin an explanation to me as every "well men can't help being dicks" explanation. If you like a romance in which the guy is a gigantic dick, own that. Don't blame the wolves!)

So I have slogged through many a werewolf romance in which the guy is a werewolf and the girl is a human and the werewolfyness is an explanation for him being a raving jackass. (Occasionally the girl is a werewolf too, but then there's usually some handwavium about how he's stronger and more dominant because he's a male werewolf, and my eyes roll out of their sockets.) I liked some of them, I retain a fondness for Bitten by Kelley Armstrong despite its faults, and Mercy Thompson (who, okay, were-coyote, but close enough), and a few others. But mostly I decided that the genre and I wanted different things out of werewolf books.

And then I read Nightshade (no, I had not forgotten that that was the ostensible topic of this post!), and let me tell you what, within the first chapter or so it was established that the main character, Calla, was a young female werewolf who actually hunted! And fought! And was strong! And was going to be alpha of her new pack! And was totally cool with that—and so were her packmates.

So: yeah. Sold. I had been looking for a werewolf book with a strong female werewolf who was smart and tough and assertive, and I found one, and that was basically all I needed.

There are also some interesting deconstructions of some of the things that do bug me about werewolf romances. Some of the characters expect that Calla will be "feminine" and will eventually submit to the male alpha... and that attitude, as it turns out, is not natural in the wolves-are-just-like-that handwavium, but is just as artificial as similar attitudes about human women. Calla has to make some tough choices: while she resents her parents trying to protect her, it turns out that they aren't trying to protect her due to generalized parental overprotectiveness, and she needs to face that she is genuinely putting herself and her pack in danger. Also, I found Calla's relationship with her younger-but-not-much-younger brother entirely plausible (I myself have a younger-but-not-much-younger brother, with whom I get along well), and rather charming. Even more, I appreciated that her younger brother didn't have any cliche grumpy "I am a DUDE and should be ALPHA instead of YOU" angst: he occasionally fights with his big sisters, but he also accepts her as alpha.

It's not a perfect book, by any stretch. There's a love triangle, and I know a lot of people (myself included) are getting kinda bored of love triangles. The book is awfully talky in places (and I hear the sequel is worse). It's set in Vail, CO, but was written by someone who actually hadn't been to Vail, and it kinda shows. And one of the members of the love triangle has a kind-of-ridiculous set of useful skills, on account of how he apparently deliberately modeled himself on Indiana Jones, right down to the whip. (I admit it, I laughed when he broke out the whip.)


Female alpha werewolf, running around on the mountaintop, hunting and fighting, solving mysteries, and being a stone cold badass. It hit me where I live, is what I'm saying. And if you like that kind of thing too, well, maybe it'll do the same for you.

Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer

Crossposted to Dreamwidth Comment here or there. comment count unavailable comments currently at DW.

Sounds fun to me!

Is the Indy imitator afraid of snakes?

Thanks for the recommendation. (I think you'd like the werewolf on Buffy -- it's a story arc, rather than the main thing, but well done, I thought.)

Buffy is one of the series that I really need to watch at some point. People keep telling me things about it that make it sound very much my thing!

It's probably a good thing we didn't start geeking Changeling at Sirens, or we would still be there, having forgotten to sleep or get on the bus.

(I don't know if I specified, but my mask was made for a Changeling LARP.)

Ha! Yes.

It's interesting, because Changeling: The Dreaming is probably the game I've done the most tweaking of. I played Werewolf essentially straight out of the box—I mean, I invented a new cult and a bunch of new spirits and fetishes, but I didn't mess with the concept or rules at all. But Changeling, every game, I was tweaking something. I think it's because Changeling felt like it was attempting to cram two or three or possibly even four different promising games into one game, which means that there was a ton of awesome but it was also kind of a mess, and really rewarded digging around in the settings and mechanics and trying to sort them out.

That might be a big part of why I do feel so attached to it, actually: having spent that much time reading and rereading the books, and rewriting big chunks of the history (because seriously, I've got nothing more than a BA in medieval history, and I could tell where it was Wrong Wrong Wrong), and playing it one way one time and a different way a different time... well, I got invested in it in a way that I didn't in the games that I just sat down and ran or played in.

Yeah, the Changeling I played was very much Not Your Grandma's Changeling. I got into it through the LARP, and have to remind myself that our STs were operating on a very idiosyncratic vision of the game; for example, the notion that every Kithain soul is an expression of a specific dream (a nocker as "the destructive power of the tools of man" or a sidhe as "the fertile Other Woman who lures a man away from his barren wife") is . . . not actually in the books, so far as I'm aware. But I like that version, which allows you to scale Changeling up to very mythic levels; in fact, at one point Kyle and I worked out a cosmology that made Changeling the real foundation of the World of Darkness, of which everything else was just a Prodigal expression.

I'm curious which two or three or possibly even four games you see in it. I'd never thought of it in that light (beyond noticing that Banality is two or three or possibly even four different things, not all of which make sense together), but I think it's very apt.

Okay, this got kind of long-winded, sorry! Apparently so much so this requires two comments. You were right about never actually making it home if we started talking about this in person....

The way I see them as different games does have a lot to do with the nature of glamour/banality, and, by extension, the nature of what a changeling was. It seems to me that there were several ideas in there that were overlapping but not really quite the same thing:

* Changelings are descended from, or reincarnations of, actual extremely-powerful ancient beings that existed independently of humanity, and who were called 'gods' and 'faeries' and so on semi-interchangeably. If there is or was a sidhe called Nuada or a troll called Athena, that's because there actually was a Nuada or an Athena stomping around at some point in the past.
* Changelings are physical/spiritual embodiments of powerful concepts, such as "beautiful manipulative people" or "honorable warriors." If there is or was a sidhe called Nuada or a troll called Athena, that's because those are the shapes that ancient people gave to those ideas.
* Changelings are physical/spiritual embodiments of creativity and joie de vivre; essentially, the game might as well have been called Muse: The Dreaming. If there is or was a sidhe called Nuada or a troll called Athena, that's because those shapes were particularly useful in coaxing a particularly useful-to-changelings set of feelings from mortals at some point in the past.

The ideas aren't totally incompatible: you could say—and I think the game was trying to say—that a changeling was all three: a reflection of an ancient being called Athena and a reflection of the abstract concept of 'honorable warrior' and a reflection of the creative dreamstuff that makes humans feel a certain important way. But the three ideas sort of bumped uncomfortably along with each other. If they're abstract concepts, why were they in so much danger? It's not as if "beautiful people may manipulate you, date you, dump you and steal your boyfriend" is a concept that's dying out, so why are sidhe always having to scramble for Glamour? If they're really purely muselike and based on modern dreams/emotions, why the ancient folkloric motifs? (A friend of mine, on that theory, ran a game in which he dumped terms like 'satyr' and 'sidhe' entirely; all the characters were modern urban legend-y creatures, on the principle that if you're trying to get an emotional response from modern people, that makes a lot more sense.) Etc., etc.

It does show up the most in banality. Banality rules used to make my head hurt. You'd get the acknowledgement that the sidhe returned due to the moon landing, but the books still mostly assumed that science = banal. Sometimes glamour seemed to be tied to creativity and banality to uncreativity, sometimes glamour to strong emotion and banality to doldrums (but then again, sometimes it was implied that strong negative emotions were banal, too...), sometimes glamour seemed to simply be 'clap your hands if you believe in faeries!' literal faith and banality simply disbelief, or, relatedly, glamour was old/archaic stuff and banality was current/modern stuff. And each of those makes sense depending on a different sort of concept of what a changeling is, but cramming them all together into a single game caused a lot of confusion.

(As a side note, I think part of the problem is that, even more than most WoD systems, 'glamour' tended to get simplified as 'good' and 'banality' as 'bad;' people with a lot of glamour were, if not morally good, then at least awesome and interesting to be around. So you got weird things where inspiring strong emotions in people was glamorous, and in theory the strong emotions that a redcap or a sluagh inspired could be something like 'terror' or 'dread' or 'agony'... and yet you'd get text that made it sound like, say, partner abuse was inherently banal. Which makes no sense if inducing a human to provide glamour is done by inducing strong feeling, but does make sense if you've gotten stuck in a context where glamour=good, because of course nobody wants to say that partner abuse is good. It confused things.)

So I think most people picked one paradigm and stuck with it. I always really liked the idea that Changelings were basically the embodiment of a particular concept, and that—for them—glamour had to do with promoting that concept in some fashion. If you were a pooka whose concept was, Varric-like, bending the truth to make everyone sound more awesome, then when you got humans to believe your stories (or, better yet, start doing the same aggrandizing in their own lives), you got glamour! Whereas the troll whose concept was the rigidity of honor might actually have the opposite going on, getting glamour when they inspired people to be truthful even when it hurt. And if the pooka had past-life memories of being, I dunno, Gwydion, that just means that this particular concept wore that name and face at some point in the past (and at a point when the idea had more impact, and therefore they were more powerful).

But I knew someone who basically hated the entirely of the 'inspire creativity in mortals!' angle, dumped it, and ran a game where Changelings were diminished literal faeries, who were not inherently tied to human dreams/concepts but had latched parasite-like onto them in the past as a means of sustaining themselves, and the point was to inspire literal belief in the unknown. That was metaphysically an entirely different game, and yet it required not really any more tweaks than my favored 'powerful concepts' idea.

This probably all makes it sound like I didn't like the game much, and I did. But like I said, the books crammed in a ton of different ideas, not all of which fit together all that well (as you said, banality was a pretty key example of this), and half the fun was figuring out which elements you liked the best and making the rest fit around those.

Yeah, it sounds like we wound up seeing the same issues, just from different angles; my own critique began with the banality thing. Is it disbelief in magic and possibility? Is it mundane, boring life? Is it static and unchanging things? Is it negative emotion? (Ravaging somebody repeatedly can kill their creativity, after all.) Is it the antithesis of a given changeling's nature? If an accountant takes great pleasure in a nice, tidy column of numbers, is that banal or full of glamour? Is one changeling's glamour another one's banality, as in your pooka/troll example?

(The route I went with Memento, the game that gave rise to the Onyx Court books, was alchemically based: Banality was philosophic sulphur, the fixed principle, and Glamour was philosophic mercury, the volatile principle. The perfect melding of those two made the player-characters immortal at the end of the game.)

Some of it, honestly, is just an artifact of the whole World of Darkness shtick, where everything's supposed to be horrible and breaking down, and also where you have to account for lots of supernatural things co-existing, but not cooperating. The whole "Banality is static and unchanging" idea, for example, mostly comes about as an attempt to explain why vampires -- despite believing in all kinds of crazy-ass magical shit -- are banal and therefore bad for changelings to hang out with, and also to (somewhat retroactively) shove everything into the Wyld/Weaver/Wyrm framework. I think you're supposed to imagine that in the World of Darkness, ordinary people are so dead inside that "beautiful people may manipulate you, date you, dump you and steal your boyfriend" is dying out as a concept -- or at least the only response it produces is apathetic misery. But frankly, that's a scenario nobody really wants to spend much time imagining, so nobody ends up running a game that looks that way. (Changeling in particular fit very badly into that scenario in the first place, which is why it's the red-headed step-child of the WoD.)

I also had issues with the basic conflicts built into the line; the mechanics as written largely back up the idea that the sidhe are just More Awesome than everybody else (which is especially problematic in a LARP), and I frankly thought the way they approached the Shadow Court thing was stupid. Dauntain, to me, are just misery-inducing for the player -- they create a scenario in which you get punished for enjoying your character's powers -- so at that point you're down to Fomorians and such, which were never thought through as well as they should be.

And yet, somewhere in there was a flexible core that people could, as you say, interpret in all kinds of different ways. For all its flaws, Changeling is -- or perhaps I should say, can be made into -- an awesome game.

Oh, yes, the sidhe thing bugged me. Especially since it got worse with each expansion--by the end there were several (often broken in terms of the mechanics) sidhe-only magic tracks, sidhe-only treasures, etc. Plus the various houses stepped on what should have been the coolness territory of the commoner kiths. (Why be a troll if you can be a Gwydion sidhe with the same concept and also be gorgeous and have better gifts and magic?) It didn't help that sometimes the flavor text seemed to back up the idea that, say, nockers are good at making things, but Dougal are extra special magical shiny good.

I can sort of see where they were going with that in the core book—if you want the sidhe at the top of your power hierarchy, and you also want them to be newcomers to your settings (so you can't just say 'well, their power has been entrenched for centuries,' as you could with, say, the ruling-class tribe of werewolves), you need something to explain how they came to trump the commoners. But it's hard to work with the idea that some PCs really are better, out of the gate, than others.

In fact, I was briefly in an online Changeling RPG, and the gamemaster for that one had a hell of a time getting anyone to play commoners at all. People would pick a concept like 'sex and passion' or 'sneakiness' and make up a Fiona or an Eiluned instead of a satyr or a sluagh. And it was sort of hard to blame them, given the skew in the game!

(By the time I got around to reading about the Dauntain and the Fomorians, I was already getting kind of overwhelmed with kiths and starting to glaze over, between the original kiths and all the add-on kiths and the Native American kiths and the Inanimae and so on and so on.)

They did make the occasional attempt to balance the Arts so commoners had a few things . . . but it didn't work. Sidhe have a near-total lock on Sovereign, Chronos, and Naming. Commoners have Metamorphosis, and supposedly Soothsay -- but the writers went ahead and admitted what everybody was thinking anyway, which was that no way in hell would the sidhe ignore something as useful as Soothsay. (Meilge, for example, is a master of it.) The only real disadvantage sidhe have is that they take double Banality. But since they control most of the freeholds, they can just burn that off, problem solved.

(They also theoretically don't reincarnate. But I never really figured out how the heck that was supposed to work, given the amount of time that has passed since the Resurgence. Are new sidhe souls continuing to filter through from Arcadia? They must be, since your alternatives are to say that they do reincarnate after all, or new ones are being created from modern dreams. The latter would be interesting, but would run totally counter to the whole WoD setup. And the former just wipes the distinction away. Even saying they're coming in from Arcadia, though, undermines the notion of that being the place nobody can get to or from anymore.)

My other problem with a sidhe/commoner conflict is that in a LARP (or a large-enough online game), where you're pitting PC against PC, you're inevitably setting up half the player base to be the villain and/or the loser against the other half. If it's a game about the sidhe oppressing the commoners, it sucks to play a commoner. If it's a game about a commoner revolution, it sucks to play a sidhe. Were I to ST a game like that, I would probably create half a dozen sidhe NPCs for the local barony, and restrict PCs to commoners -- but I can see people being annoyed by that solution. If you want to play a Fiona, it isn't quite the same thing to play an eshu instead.

Re: add-ons to the kiths -- I kind of liked that stuff, but only because I appreciated attempts (however bad they sometimes were) to expand the setting beyond its very north-western European origin. Then again, I'm kind of, um, maybe a little crazy . . . <looks shifty> Okay so maybe I wrote an entire splat-book's worth of folklore-based Mesoamerican kiths and Arts that I'm now using as a setting for short stories shut UP I KNOW

I agree: if I was going to run a War in Concordia game, it'd have to be with PCs all on one 'side' or the other, or the game would just tear itself apart. And people chafe at those kinds of restrictions.

Mesoamerican kiths and arts sound awesome, actually. :D The main problem I had was that, well, the first thing they did when expanding the kiths was to add more Celtic ones, and then the other ones often had rulesystems that either didn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense, or that were almost totally incompatible with the rest of Changeling. (Case in point, Land of Eight Million Dreams, which was an admirable attempt to not just try to shoehorn Chinese folklore into a Western paradigm. But it resulted in a game that you couldn't really mix with the rest of Changeling—the rulesets weren't just different, they were borderline incompatible—and that honestly felt far more like a Werewolf spinoff to me than a Changeling one.)

Yeah, the hsien are very clearly designed more to fit into the "Year of the Lotus" line (Kuei-jin, hengeyokai, etc) than basic Changeling. A part of me likes that, as you say, because it isn't just shoehorning Asian material into a Western paradigm. I could have wished for them to do a better job with it, though. The Nunnehi were a pretty tone-deaf system, too. And then once you get into weird-ass things like the Denizens, it devolves into whut?

For the Mesoamerican stuff, I built the "Courts" around the tropical model of wet season/dry season, and filtered that through the paradigm of sacrifice: fae in the wet season would sacrifice themselves, those in the dry season would sacrifice others. And then I invented kiths out of things I'd come across in my folklore reading, like ocelotlaca (jaguar people), aluxob (agricultural trickster spirits), etc. Their sidhe equivalent were the quetzalcoameh -- feathered serpents -- who were even more powerful, but a lot rarer. And I tried to think through the history of how all this interacted with colonialism and Western fae coming in. But I'll be the first to admit that it didn't have much to do with the creativity = Glamour paradigm of regular Changeling.


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