I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t cotton on to Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series for the longest time, because the thing is, I’m not really a big one for werewolves. I like witches and the fae and other kinds of shapeshifter—and, of course, vampires—in my Urban Fantasy, but werewolves are way down there on my scale of paranormal goodness. (Well, except for Kitty Norville. And Oz from Buffy. And I am kind of digging MTVs Teen Wolf at the moment, in a cringey kind of way. But these are merely the exceptions that prove the rule.)
It was only with the third novel in this New York Times best-selling series, 2004’s Dime Store Magic, that I decided to give this series a proper looking over. Because… magic? There was magic now? But… hadn’t the first book in the series been called Bitten? Had the blurb not promised unrelenting wolfiness? And wasn’t the second book in the series, Stolen, also narrated by one Elena Michaels, reluctant werewolf?
Yes, indeed. But there is a reason that Armstrong went with the name Women of the Otherworld as opposed to, say, Werewolves of the Otherworld: because her universe is much, much bigger than just one type of fantastical creature. And is given to us by more than one such narrator.
We do indeed kick things off with werewolf Elena in Bitten (2001), as she both glories in and rails against her two-naturedness, having been turned years earlier by someone she had loved and trusted. The only female werewolf in existence, she spends a good deal of the book desperately rebelling against her Pack, all the while solving a mystery and struggling with loss—of loved ones, of identity, of freedom—and having, y’know, sex.
Then 2003’s Stolen widens our focus considerably; instead of just the Pack, we’re now confronted with witches, dark sorcerers, demons (both good and bad), and sundry beings possessing other paranormal talents and powers; Elena is still our narrator, and she is so taken aback at the existence of other kinds of supposedly mythical creature that you just want to reach into the book, shake her, and yell: “You’re a werewolf, you dummy!”
But the book? So awesome.
The aforementioned Dime Store Magic is where we leave Elena, and head into the head of witch Paige Winterbourne. There follow full-length outings, now twelve in all (including this month’s release, Spell Bound), and a panoply of short stories featuring the first person accounts of clairvoyants and ghosts and necromancers and yet more demons—and yes, there are vampires—which makes this series very much a “something for everyone” proposition.
And which wouldn’t be worth a damn if the writing wasn’t as good as it is.
Whether in Elena’s head, or Paige’s, or even one of the compelling and studly suped-up men with whom Armstrong has such a deft hand, one can always hear the distinct voice of a distinctly fascinating person. Flawed and vulnerable, often maddening and occasionally straight-up stupid, they are nevertheless real-–or, at least, as real as they can be while becoming marauding beasts or casting impossible spells. My favorite is Savannah, a witch/sorcerer hybrid whom we first met as a pre-adolescent in Stolen and who has since come into her own as a sharp-tongued and quick-witted, if flawed, exponent of the magical arts, as star of the two latest Otherworld books, last year’s Waking the Witch and the aforementioned Spell Bound, which came out this week.
One thing you notice about these books, and contrary to many a series of likeminded egalitarian supernaturality (*cough*Anita Blake*cough*), is that while Bitten may have been very much about The Sex Stuff, as the series has progressed it has drawn away from its Paranormal Romance roots to become true Urban Fantasy. For example, it would be impossible to call Savannah’s books thus far even mildly erotic—which I, for one, applaud. Oh, there are touching, thrilling love stories aplenty in here, and you will certainly find a plethora of blush-worthy passages throughout the dodecalogy thus far, but Armstrong is clearly not afraid to let her tales play out minus the creative and multi-species coupling, if she feels it unnecessary. There’s no gratuitous naughtiness for its own sake; when there is sex, it’s essential to the plot, subtle and well-crafted, and while occasionally fetishistic and sometimes outright puzzling, it’s never…well…tacky.
All said, the Otherworld is just a really fun place to spend your time, should you happen to be at all paranormally inclined. Whether you’re into weres or witches, sorcerers or spirits, demons or the undead, you’ll find them here, along with a succession of clever mysteries, periodic and exhilarating chases, labyrinthine motivations, elaborate politicking and compelling relationships, both realistic and surreal.
Plus, oh! Did I mention Clay? I didn’t? Never mind. You’ll just have to discover him for yourself now, won’t you?
Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.