Wilderness, originally published in 1991, has recently been rereleased. I presume it’s because tales of lycanthropy are all the rage at the moment. Wilderness is an excellent novel and I’m thrilled that it will get the chance to reach new readers — myself included, as I hadn’t heard of it until the new edition popped up on shelves — and at the same time, I hope it will find its way to readers who will appreciate it for what it is rather than wishing it were something else. I worry that the new cover art will lead readers to expect a novel more in line with the books of Laurell K. Hamilton. If you’re looking for the latest lycanthropic smut-and-gore fest, Wilderness is not it.
So what is it? It’s a love story, but it’s not a “romance novel” and doesn’t adhere to all of the conventions of that genre. It’s a werewolf story, but it’s not horror. It’s deeply romantic and intensely psychological. I want to call it contemplative, but that might give the impression that it’s long and slow-paced, and Wilderness is neither. When trying to think of another novel to compare it to, the closest I could think of was another 1991 release, Megan Lindholm’s Cloven Hooves. While Wilderness is less melancholy than Cloven Hooves, both novels explore the idea of the “wild,” authentic self vs. the “tame,” conventional self. And both writers share a talent for describing the beauties of nature.
We meet Alice White, a 32-year-old woman who happens to be a werewolf. She has been a loner since adolescence, afraid to reveal her true self to anyone and afraid of hurting people during her monthly transformations. I loved her instantly, especially in her approach to college education; she wishes she could follow her passions, take whatever classes she wants whenever she wants to take them, rather than conforming to a set schedule or sequence. Meanwhile, she does tons of reading in mythology and folklore on her own, without anyone ever awarding her a degree in it. Boy, how I could relate to that…
Her love interest is Erik Summers, a biology professor in the thick of a messy divorce. She’s not used to getting attached to people, and he’s still not quite over his ex, which is why it surprises them both when they rapidly develop a deep bond. These early stages of the relationship move at a quick pace. There’s even a literary version of the Falling in Love Montage that you might recognize from movies. This might seem a little rushed to some readers, but it works. It helps move the story quickly toward the real meat of the book, the real test of Alice and Erik’s love. She decides to tell him about her lycanthropy.
Danvers makes us sympathize with both characters here. We feel for Alice, who wants to be believed and accepted. It’s easy for us to condemn Erik. We’re reading the book, after all, and we know Alice is really a werewolf. But how would we react if we were in his position, rather than looking in from outside? (If it were me, and Alice showed me her full-moon confinement set-up, I’d probably careen right past “she’s crazy” to “she’s abusing dogs” and I’d be out of there before you could say “ASPCA.”) Suffice it to say that everything gets messed up, and then Erik must undertake a quest to find Alice again and make it right.
Wilderness contains a lot of insight into animal behavior, including human behavior. Danvers never lets us forget that we too are animals, and that our customs and etiquette might look just as strange from the outside as penguin behavior looks to us. He also includes several chapters narrated from the point of view of Alice’s wolf-self. These are sensitively written and “feel” like the real thoughts of a wolf. I find myself wondering whether Faith Hunter, who is also excellent at writing from an animal POV, has read and been influenced by Wilderness. (If not, I think she’d like it!) Danvers subverts the idea that the wolf-self is the more dangerous one.
The only element I found annoying was Erik’s random ogling of women. He seems unable to pass a pretty woman on the street without it being mentioned in the narrative, and one of my personal quirks is that this gets on my nerves. Yet I know exactly why Danvers did it. It shows that Erik’s attraction to Alice isn’t just lust or the desire for a rebound fling. He could satisfy those urges elsewhere if that were all he wanted. He wants the connection he has with Alice. Plus, I think that’s just the way the male brain — heck, the human brain — works.
Wilderness devoured me for two days and evoked the whole gamut of emotions. I recommend it to readers looking for a moving supernatural love story, with themes of trust, acceptance, and forgiveness. This is more in the vein of the “old-school” urban fantasies than the “new” style. It’s not a noir story, not much ass gets kicked, and many of the developments take place within the characters’ psyches. It’s a beautiful example of what it is, though, and I hope it finds its way to the right niche of readers.