Review of J. Damask’s Wolf at the Door

By Stephanie Cawley

Even before it is an urban fantasy novel about shape-shifters, J. Damask’s Wolf at the Door is a story about sisters. About family and blood ties and the forces that threaten to break them.

The novel is enlivened by this core of relatable human drama, and protagonist Jan Xu is compelling in part because she is far from the clichéd hot young woman at the center of most sci-fi or fantasy fiction. Instead, Jan Xu is a wife and mother long retired from her time spent as a butt-kicking Buffy-esque vigilante, part of a group called the Gang of Four. That Jan spends most of her time worrying about mundane matters, like her relationship with her sister or her spouse, humanizes her, and makes the disruption caused by her sister Marianne’s boyfriend Steve all the more troubling.

Jan’s devotion to stereotypically female matters such as caring for her family, childrearing, and serving as maternal caretaker for a number of younger friends might be seen as problematic from a feminist standpoint, but I think it is still a highly welcome alternative from the usual focus on a young, hot, female hero whose sexual attractiveness is constantly on display. After all, Jan certainly used to hold her own in fights against some major baddies, and though I wouldn’t call her an overtly feminist character, it seems clear that her current lifestyle is chosen freely based on her own desires.

The handling of race, via metaphor and allegory, is another aspect that adds a layer of depth to Wolf at the Door. The primary conflict of the novel is between Steve and Jan (and her family/clan) over Steve’s ideology of “species purity.” This ideology bears obvious comparison to real-life historical and present ideologies of racial purity, and the setting of the novel in Singapore, a country of great racial and ethnic diversity, contributes further to this reading. The overriding moral philosophy espoused by Jan and her friends and family is one of tolerance and diversity, traits embodied by Jan’s Gang of Four. Without giving away the ending, this is the attitude that seems to triumph.

Singapore, from williamcho on flickr.

At its core, then, the novel expresses a potentially postcolonial politics with regards to racial differences. The different species (races) of the Myriad peacefully coexist, for the most part, with each other and with the humans in Singapore. The Myriad is an umbrella term for all non-humans, including Jan and her family, who shift to wolves, Ling, who shifts to a fox, Kiat, who shifts to a dragon, and a number of Taoist Elves. The message of diversity and harmony is not superficial, either, as the philosophy espoused and embodied by the leading characters does not attempt to erase species-based “cultural” differences or boil them down to stereotypes. In the case of the Gang of Four, the different abilities of the members of different species are recognized and used to the group’s advantage in battle. It is only through banding together across different species that the Myriad can fight oppressive forces such as Steve and his pack.

Although the message of harmonious interdependence is certainly part of the novel, J. Damask avoids too neatly resolving the ideological conflicts she establishes. This is most clearly seen in the fate of Jan’s sister Marianne. The morally ambiguous resolution to Marianne’s storyline complicates the ideological conflict, as Marianne is torn between the two opposing viewpoints.
Though the novel does explore these broader philosophical questions, at its heart it is about the intimate relationship between sisters, and so Marianne’s unsettling and distressing fate feels true to the emotional core of the story. Damask suggests that the legacies of a sibling rivalry cannot be resolved easily along ideological lines, and they leave a lingering sense of remorse and uncertainty.

 

From OnceAndFutureLaura on flickr.

The moody dream sequences, the vivid and grotesque scene in which Marianne appears at the wolf pack’s hunt, and the surreal and horrifying fate that awaits Marianne at the end of the novel were all surprising and distinctly haunting images that made Wolf at the Door stand out from the pack of werewolf fiction. Though I could take or leave the flashbacks to the Gang of Four’s glory days and the somewhat predictable plot leading up to the novel’s climax, the handling of the complex and conflicting emotions between sisters is compelling enough to keep the pages turning to the unexpected end.

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