Alma Alexander requested that I read this book before reading and reviewing Shifter, the third book in the Were series. I have to admit to having been reluctant to read Wolf. I love the real world wolf species. It always seemed to me that werewolves in wolf form should behave like actual wolves. Yet I've rarely seen that. Authors of werewolf fiction usually either idealize their wolves, or portray them as monsters born of human prejudice. Alma Alexander does neither. She avoids the issue.
In Random Alexander draws a curtain over the actual shifting by having it take place behind a locked door. In Wolf there is no locked door. We see the characters just before they shift, then there's a fadeout. Mal, the viewpoint character, doesn't remember his experiences as a wolf. So the narrative doesn't resume until after the shift three days later. I feel distanced from the characters' wolves. I'm not appalled as I am when I see werewolves portrayed as uncontrollably savage killers who attack humans because they're bloodthirsty. (Real wolves avoid humans. They only attack humans to defend themselves or their packs.) Yet I am disappointed because there is no wolf presence in this book. Frankly, I expected to be disappointed. I would have been quite astonished if Wolf successfully portrayed both the human and wolf aspects of werewolves.
From a thematic perspective, this isn't really a novel about werewolves. It's a novel about the misuse of drugs and the misuse of science. Authors have often used science fiction to disguise their writing about serious social problems.
First, there is the familiar story of a drug that has been widely distributed without the population that is taking the drug (often very unthinkingly) being fully educated about it. How many of us know everything we should know about common pharmaceutical remedies that we can pick up without a prescription? Let's take acetaminophen as an example. Do you know how easy it is to overdose on this pain medication?
Then there's the genetics lab that is doing experiments on people without getting consent and making sure that their families know nothing about it. They tell themselves that their subjects are valueless. There is nothing new about medical atrocities. They have happened in the United States in mental institutions and in the American South.
I appreciate Alma Alexander's thematic focuses in this novel. They cause readers to think about these issues.
The strongest aspect of Wolf is character development. Mal matures over the course of the book. His growth process is painful and very moving. Yet he has family and friends to help him through. By the way, I just loved Asia. She had her own growth process. During the course of the novel, she had to re-define family and make painful choices. I am hoping to see more of Asia in the third book of the series.