Title: Unacceptable Risk (Hidden Wolves #1)
Author: Kaje Harper
Cover Artist: Winterheart Designs
Publisher: MLR Press Buy Link: Amazon.com Unacceptable Risk
Genre: Paranormal/Gay Romance
Length: 332 pages/111000 words
Rating: 5+ stars out of 5
A joint guest review by Raine and Sirius.
Summary: Traditional werewolf trope wonderfully re-energized by clever, thoughtful characters and controversial world building.
Simon Conley was born a werewolf, making him one of a tiny minority in a sea of vanilla humans. The safety of the pack lies in absolute secrecy, sometimes violently enforced. In a species where pack-members are born and not made, being gay is considered a perversion. So when Simon falls in love with a human man, he is twice damned. Even his Alpha’s grudging tolerance may not be enough to shield him from the hatred of the other top wolves. Then his lover Paul stumbles across pack secrets Simon was sworn to keep, and if the pack finds out, they may both end up dead.
Sirius: I grabbed this book for review because I enjoyed this writer’s previous works very much, but then I realized that I need help of somebody who knows about werewolves much more than I do. I decided to do a joint review after seeing a similar conversational format on the Dear Author website and approached Raine.
Hi Raine, why do you love werewolves so much?
Raine: This is going to sound really like something out of an essay but it’s what I think so here goes. Mainly that as creatures of fantasy they combine the qualities of man and animal and create an archetypal ‘outsider’ character. So emotionally the possibilities for conflict, reconciliation and love are almost limitless ( though sometimes after reading yet another Alpha/ Beta / Omega rehash I might question that.) Visually the range of description can be from the monstrous to the beautiful, fantastic or realistic and all hybrids in between. I particularly like the adaptations available from the standard werewolf myth…..reinvention that places fantasy within some kind of realism……..ok shutting up now.
Sirius: Did you feel that the initial set up of the story was in any way shape or form similar to the werewolf books you have read before?
Raine: I found not so much that it was different, but just developed very carefully and with some thoughtful imagination. There is the initial reality of a new romance; an OFY relationship slowly, beautifully built with humour and heat…completely believable. Then there’s that next level—the OMG my boyfriend is a werewolf vibe. I also really liked that the snow-covered and bleak Minnesota setting reflected the harshness of the werewolf mindset.
Now I know werewolves are not your favourite fantasy creatures so was your first interest here how a good writer worked with them?
Sirius: Well, actually if I were to choose a favorite from the fantasy creatures I like to read about, werewolves will be right on top. I loved Remus Lupin from Harry Potter, so I could not say no to a werewolf character ever since. Now, it is true that I prefer stories about human beings and recently got tired of many fantasy creatures all together, but I will certainly read about werewolves, if I know it is well written. But yes, here I definitely wanted to read the book not because I wanted to read about werewolves first and foremost, but because I grew to love this writer’s style. I definitely was not disappointed.
In many ways this was the most believable and enjoyable story about werewolves I have ever read. I loved how the writer changed some familiar features of werewolf lore—like superhuman strength, or them being killed by silver bullets—to ground them in reality as much as possibly can yet still made them recognizable and to a degree creatures of magic.
Raine: Okay, I’m confessing to a deep affection for Jacob, but moving on quickly…. how about the main characters here?
Sirius: I loved how Simon and Paul were done. I really enjoy when in a contemporary story the writer takes time to show that the character actually had been living a life before he met his beloved and he actually has a job he is passionate about, in other words he has a fully-fleshed personality. Paul is extremely passionate about working in the veterinarian clinic he founded. He loves the animals, but the writer shows us not just the joy he receives from treating them, but also how much toll his work takes upon him. The reader gets to see and feel what Paul feels, and you want him to reach the goal of being happy and content that he set for himself. It is clear from the beginning that Simon could be the man to help him reach it.
Raine: It was good that Paul, while forced to play the more passive reactive role, never seems weak—he’s very self confident about his work, which balances his social insecurities. His reactions after the awful work day at the surgery were written so well and anchored the reality strands of story. Indeed his responses are often not the obvious ones—not in connection to being unexpectedly gay or even being unexpectedly gay with a werewolf! He didn’t haul off and act offended after the kiss,…..ok he was drunk….. but liking the kiss was so sweetly done. Even when he has to think about it all he never flounces or is silly. More important he didn’t just run away after meeting the werewolf.
Sirius: Simon is a very, very interesting character. He is used to living amongst the pack with extremely rigid rules, and he is so smart and resourceful and strong that he actually managed to stay alive which was no small feat. Simon manages to walk a thin line between submission (faking it if needed) and not compromising the inner core of himself.
Raine: Both guys come across as original characters and not stereotypes, which is incredibly difficult to pull off especially when creating the werewolf romantic lead. Simon is so strategic in the way he thinks, but he is not coldly calculating; his warmth and tenderness for Paul is beautifully done. The way Simon builds Paul’s self esteem by taking him to gay bar and then wanting to feed him all the time is a lovely mixture of human and animal instincts.
Sirius: It looks like we both enjoyed the settings, how the protagonists were written, and how romance was done. Do you want to talk about the issue we somewhat disagree on? Actually let me ask you this, did you have any issues with this book at all?
Raine: None. My reactions were far more shallow! This is the significant point of difference for us where you have really strong feelings about the pack morality.
Sirius: I did have some issues, and I really struggled to figure out whether I thought it did not work for me as part of the story structure, or I simply did not like it. For a while I thought it was both, but then I decided that it worked as part of the story and it was my issue alone. I however feel a need to talk about it simply because some readers may have the similar issues.
I thought this pack takes the hierarchy to the whole new degree of rigidness. The way they deal with their young who commit various offenses…well, let’s just say I really disliked it. And I felt that the list of offenses for which the punishment is death was pretty long. I can see how this is meant to invoke associations with the real plight of gays even today in many countries, I do, but with how much care the writer took to set up the situation of these species at first made no sense to me. There are no female werewolves in this world and human women who get pregnant rarely carry the baby to term, and if they do, then it is always a boy who can shift. The pack’s first priority is to survive and as much as their readiness to kill humans if they are noticed annoyed me, I at least get that. Survival at all cost, survival of the fittest and all that. But if you are so eager to survive and you have so few youngsters arriving in this world anyway, would it not make more sense to protect them and cherish them at all cost, no matter who they want as a partner? But then I thought about it and I realized that in the totalitarian society fear often overrides logic and common sense. While I understand that, I still dislike it, probably due to personal experiences of growing up in the totalitarian society as well.
Anyway, I enjoyed how the writer mixed animal and human characteristics in her werewolves, on the other hand I really disliked most of them. Maybe because they behaved exactly as some people I knew behaved. Keep your head down and avoid the displeasure of your leader.
Again, I see how the writer may have wanted to invoke associations with real life totalitarianism (I am just guessing since I am not in writer’s head) but I guess I wished for some change to be seen eventually. Yes, it looks like it may come with Aaron, but what I saw just was not enough for me to be happy. He was too eager to explain violence by who they are at the end, in my opinion, and I guess I just was not feeling a true change?
Of course I thought it was a very smart choice not to make Simon like that, which saved him from being despised by me. I liked how he was shown to be willing to kill but only in extreme circumstances and only if it truly threatens the secrecy of the pack or to protect his partner. And I loved how he put “protecting his partner” beyond anything else. In other words, while he was not so romanticized as to stand out as a sore thumb amongst other werewolves, he, to me, was a much better person than many of them. I did not mind that at all, because I frankly could not stand most of other werewolves. Not that they were bad “people” or should I say “creatures”, because them not being completely human is stressed many times, but they were living their lives in such submissive compliance of the rules of the pack that I just wanted to shake them all.
The bottom line for me is this—I would not want to be their champion if that’s how they treat their mentally ill and minorities.
Raine: Unlike you Sirius—and this sounds so flat after your passion—I had no real problems with the werewolf society. Although I really disliked the moral cowardice which had permeated the pack, I do feel that the writing trails it sufficiently for me in terms of the stories cohesive emotional mood. Moreover I felt that Paul’s worries and emotional dissent is perhaps meant to reflect those of the; he is the voice of humanity… ok… a liberal humanity.
And that even with the werewolf societies underlying totalitarian ethos it is because of the time the book covers—the pack is in dramatic transition with the Karl-led power struggle over an aging Alpha—that the violence is so very bad. Aaron—a great character combining charisma, diplomacy and sense—is the real hope for future.
Also a really practical point—this is only book one in The Hidden Wolves series.
Sirius: I think your reactions are reactions of the mature reviewer, and mine at this point are of too emotional reader. I am consoling myself with the fact that at least the reviewer in me fully realises that the book deserves five stars and whatever did not work for me was not because the writer failed to coherently describe the society and characters. I simply had some of my hot buttons pushed here, that is all. Actually I did not know that this book is the first in a series, so this gives me hope that we may see more change in future installments.
I am assuming your grade is five stars as well?
Raine: I’m actually leaning towards my very first 5 plus DIK here, because this book is one I both really loved and admired, and that combination doesn’t come along often for me. I guess compromise at 5 stars is the done thing!