Nightshade is the first book in Andrea Cremer’s trilogy of the same name. Published in October 2010 by Philomel, Cremer’s debut work has found a solid audience among young adult readers and is now an international bestseller that’s been featured on the Young Adult Library Services Associations Top Teen Reads of 2011. The second book in the trilogy, Wolfsbane, came out in July 2011, and the final book, Bloodrose, comes out January 2012.
The protagonist is Calla Tor, a teenage Guardian (a shapeshifter who turns into a wolf) who has been selected as the leader of her generation. She’s been raised to be a warrior and to follow the instructions of her masters, the Keepers in all things, regarding everything from her friends to her future spouse. Her life has been planned for her from the cradle, but will she fulfill her duty or follow her heart to something else?
An original world
I found Nightshade to be an interesting mix of urban and dystopian fantasy. On one hand, you have a shapeshifter living in modern Colorado. On the other, she’s part of a highly controlling patriarchal society where one’s entire life is planned from birth to death and questions are not tolerated. Cremer pulls off the blend rather well, albeit with a heavy dose of feminism. I think the book could have been stronger with a bit less emphasis on modern feminism and more on personal rights and freedom in general. Cremer is also building a completely original world, not relying on preexisting mythology. I enjoyed being able to look at her work with fresh eyes without mentally comparing it to myths I already knew.
Fans of strong, driven female characters may find Calla a bit disappointing. While Calla is certainly a strong protagonist, the entire book is about her coming to terms with what she wants to do with her life. For someone who has been trained to be obedient to her designated leaders, this is no easy task. She has a lot of doubts about the choices she ends up making. Instead of being driven by a deep conviction that the society she lives in is ultimately right or wrong, she makes her choices based on her ability to tolerate the future those choices give her, and she never quite commits to a decision until the very end of the book. Calla is not someone who is comfortable with her choices, but I think that makes her believable. It also makes her relatable, because whether we’re sixteen or eighty, we all have periods of doubts in our life. I can’t imagine many people walking away from that kind of society without deeply struggling with their choice.
Yes, there’s a love triangle
I think it’s unfortunate that in the YA genre, female characters’ choices so often boil down to being between two boys. Ren is the young man Calla’s people chose as her mate when they were both five. Shay is a human boy, new to the area, who fascinates Calla. They serve as metaphors for the choice Calla is facing: stay with the pack and do her duty, or leave and try something new. While I understand Cremer’s decision to present the problem in this way, and I acknowledge that she does it well, I would have been happier if Calla’s decisions about her future focused on herself and her own needs without the added weight of romantic entanglements.
Why you should read this book
Nightshade is a solidly written book and an entertaining read. It’s original and has a lot of relatable characters. This coming-of-age story about finding one’s own voice and empowerment will keep you guessing until the last chapter.