Women of Otherworld

15 Apr

Canadian author Kelley Armstrong’s novels straddle the grey borderland between horror, speculative fiction and urban fantasy, without entirely falling into any of these genres. Despite the fact that her books deal with many types of supernatural characters, including witches, sorcerers, werewolves, necromancers, ghosts, shamans, demons and vampires, there is actually not a huge amount of gore, shocks or frights in them. Instead, Armstrong’s novels tend to superimpose supernatural characters upon a backdrop of contemporary North American life, with strong romantic elements. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that Armstrong has drawn strong comparisons with Charlaine Harris, Laurell K Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all of whose books tend to inhabit the same genre of contemporary paranormal romance as hers. Whilst the Southern Vampire, Anita Blake and Rachel Morgan series are all well known, however, Armstrong’s Women of Otherworld and Darkest Powers series are perhaps less so. However, for their wit, verve and sheer readability, I’d recommend any fan of the aforementioned other authors to seek out Armstrong’s work – you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

All of the Women of Otherworld books share the same central premise of a strong female heroine trying to deal with everyday concerns as well as those of a more ‘otherworldly’ nature. In the first couple of novels in the series, Bitten and Stolen, we are introduced to Elena Michaels, a werewolf who has to deal with a terrible childhood as well as accepting all of who she is. Elena is an appealing central character, being tough, independent and conflicted. This helps the story to never get bogged down in the standard tropes or horror and werewolf lore. At the start of the story Elena has managed to settle into a somewhat normal existence, living with her ad-exec boyfriend and ignoring her wolf side as much as possible. It is only as time goes on and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to live a ‘normal’ life that Elena is forced to accept the fact that the werewolf inside of her can never quite be tamed – the many enemies of her and her Pack will simply not allow it. Interestingly, Armstrong says Bitten was inspired by an X-Files episode on werewolves. She had the idea to portray werewolves as other than ‘bloodthirsty, ravening beasts’, and quickly wrote a short story about a young woman who becomes a werewolf to present to her writing group. Eventually, Armstrong fleshed out the short story into a novel that became Bitten, with quite considerable success – she has been a New York Times bestselling author for the last 10 years.

Dime Store Magic and Industrial Magic feature Paige Winterbourne, who is a witch. Not that you’d notice – no warts, no green skin and no cute little wiggle of the nose whenever she casts a spell. What I particularly like about the Paige novels (and this goes for all of the Women of Otherworld books to an extent) is that Armstrong always puts the story first rather than the horror or genre elements. Paige and the other heroines in the series are largely depicted as just normal women, leading ordinary lives until all hell breaks loose – quite literally in some cases. This keeps the books grounded and accessible to casual readers as well as dedicated horror fans. This is perfectly summed up by one of the scenes in Dime Store Magic in which Paige comes across some modern day wiccans solemnly performing rituals and asks them to lighten up. Both Armstrong and her creations are able to take a step back from the weirdness in the novels, which makes them even more appealing. The other ‘Women of Otherworld’ are the ghost Eve Levine, the half-demon Hope Adams, the necromancer Jaime Vegas and Paige’s adopted daughter Savannah. All the novels are inter-connected with an ongoing meta-plot and in the background there is a revolving cast of vampires, sorcerers, clairvoyants and others.

I should also say a brief word about Armstrong’s other creation, the Darkest Powers series, a set of paranormal novels which revolve around the Edison Group, a team of supernatural scientists, and the subjects they experimented on. Aimed at a younger audience than the Women of Otherworld books, the Darkest Powers novels are an amalgam of everything from X-Men to Twilight. Whilst this series is wildly popular among the Vampire Diaries generation, more mature readers might find them a little slight (though still a lot of fun thanks to Armstrong’s engaging writing style). It is interesting to note the rising recent popularity of Armstrong, Harris, Hamilton and other authors like them, and the fact that these days the sub-genre of contemporary fantasy/paranormal romance is actually just about the most lucrative in the field of horror. Why this is and, perhaps more importantly, whether it will last, are even more interesting questions.

3 Responses to “Women of Otherworld”

  1. rich April 15, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    what is speculative fiction?

    • anilbalan April 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

      It’s just a fancy word for fantasy as far as I’m aware…

      • rich April 15, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

        is it possible it’s someone’s way of avoiding using a certain genre term? the way i see it, if you’re great at writing something, be proud of it. i’d rather be great at writing erotica than just decent at science fiction, or horror, or whatever else. and i’m not putting down writing erotica. other people do, but i don’t.

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