Elena Michaels seems like the typical strong and sexy modern woman. She lives with her architect boyfriend, writes for a popular newspaper, and works out at the gym. She’s also a werewolf.
Elena has done all she can to assimilate to the human world, but the man whose bite changed her existence forever, and his legacy, continue to haunt her. Thrown into a desperate war for survival that tests her allegiance to a secret clan of werewolves, Elena must reckon with who, and what, she is in this passionate, page-turning novel.
As I already said, this is the second time I read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. I read it again because I wanted to read the second one in this series, Stolen, and I remembered nearly nothing about Bitten except that I liked it a lot the first time I read it.
This post covers my thoughts about Elena, the heroine of Bitten, because damn, I have a lot:
In the post linked above, I asked if Elena is a kick-ass heroine because Bitten is the only urban fantasy novel I’ve read so far. Nath said she isn’t a typical one “as in, tough attitude and language. She has her weakness, but she’s strong and smart” and I agreed with that. She also can be quite sarcastic at times.
Elena is strong in that she overcame her horrific past. She survived being bitten by a werewolf. And while she is strong physically, she knows she can’t take on every other werewolf and knows that sometimes it’s better to run. There are also things she’s squeamish about doing. For example, she can’t stomach watching someone getting tortured. Much of that is due to her struggle to not lose her human side to the werewolf side.
So yes, Elena is a mix of strong and weak and she faces one of my favorite problems in novels: the question of identity. She’s not sure who she really is. She wants to be human but – from her perspective – her werewolf side keeps messing this dream up.
But GROWL!, for roughly three hundred pages I was writing a major rant in my head about her while I read the novel and I constantly asked myself why I had liked Bitten a lot the first I read it. What had I been thinking!?
Elena starts the novel on the wrong foot for me: she struck me as a barely concealed Mary Sue character I so often encountered in fanfiction back when I read a lot of it. Only something in the world? Check. Orphan? Check. Molested by foster fathers? Check. Thinks of herself as rather unattractive? Check. But still highly favored by males? Check. (Yes, I know, it’s only the male werewolves that slaver over her, and that’s only because she’s the only female werewolf in existence but the effect is rather the same: Elena is very “special.”) “Loved little sister” statues with with quite a few men? Check.
This is accompanied by quite some interesting but rather unattractive character traits. Such character traits combined? Uh-oh. Very exhausting when you’re stuck in the head of that character for the whole story because it’s written in first person. Like Bitten is.
Elena is full of anger. She’s also stubborn to no end and argues and digs her heels in over nothing but barely bats an eyelash when she has cause to argue. She’s totally without self-awareness, coupled with stubbornness this means that she’s right and the others are wrong. All the time. I didn’t trust her one bit.
She engages is juvenile battles for supremacy with Clay, she lets herself get cuddled (and carried around) like a pup by all male werewolves of the pack (except Jeremy, the alpha, of course), she gets into trouble mostly because of her stubbornness. In short, she doesn’t act like what I would expect from a mature woman of thirty years.
And I haven’t touched upon how she handles her werewolf side and her relationship with Philip, an architect she’s living with in Toronto. Totally irresponsible.
Of course, the point is that Elena has a lot to learn about herself. As I said, Elena’s struggle with her identity, her needing to accept her werewolf side, is the major story line in this novel. My problem is that for over 300 pages, there is not one ounce of self-awareness discernible on Elena’s side, and that, after ten years, she doesn’t at least have some kind of grip on and acceptance of her werewolf side. Even more, for three hundred odd pages, Bitten doesn’t exactly read as if Elena’s struggle with her identities is the major story line.
The balance is off. During that time, I didn’t understand Elena. While I don’t need to like characters, I need to understand them. At least some.
Maybe I was prejudiced by my Mary-Sue impression of Elena, maybe there is actually more in regards to her identity problem in the first three hundred pages and it was just too subtle for me to catch, maybe Elena was supposed to be a heroine you can’t trust, maybe it would have been better to see the “black moment” in Elena’s and Clay’s relationship (although I really liked that it happened off stage) to not snicker at dialogs like this [words in bold are in italic in the book]:
“You’re miserable because you don’t have what you want. Not because you want me.”
“Goddamn it!” Clay swung his fist out, knocking a brass penholder off the desk. “You won’t listen! You won’t listen and you won’t see. You know I love you, that I want you. Damn it, Elena, if I just wanted a partner, any partner, do you think I’d have spent ten years trying to get you back? Why haven’t I just given up and found someone else?”
“Because you’re stubborn.”
“Oh, no. I’m not the stubborn one. You’re the one who can’t get past what I did no matter how much–”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Of course you don’t. God forbid any truth should complicate your convictions.”
Clay turned and strode from the room, slamming the door behind him. (249/250)
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
For whatever reason, the characterization of Elena failed to engage me for three quarters of the novel and several times, I really was tempted to put the book down and be done with it.
The turning point
I’m glad I didn’t.
While I wouldn’t say that the last one hundred pages more than made up for what went before (the balance thing), at least there I found what I was looking for for the first three hundred pages: Elena’s two identities get confronted. Her struggle for identity – barely hinted at before because Elena was determined to be human – finally took center stage. What before read as an angry and stubborn chick bungling her way through a few days turned into a psychological interesting drama that forced Elena to face her two identities and deal with them. No longer was it possible for her to separate them and keep them in different worlds.
And yes, on the last few pages of the novel, Elena finds her self-awareness. She’s still argumentative, stubborn, aggressive, violent, moody, and all that (429), but she’s now aware of herself and accepts these traits as part of herself. And that turns her from a whiny and self-absorbed character into an interesting character. Now I’m looking forward to reading Stolen when before I was dreading it. A lot.
Hard to believe but I have more to say about this novel. So later this week: my commentary about Bitten.