Jack and the Pack
Kelley Armstrong’s first two books featured Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf in this parallel version of our reality, and a woman more than able to take care of herself. Having explored Elena’s strengths and versatility, Armstrong didn’t succumb to the temptation of staying with such a popular and engaging character without a story worthy of that heroine, and of her own talents as an author. Instead she broadened her scope and honed her skill writing about different characters and themes, expanding the Women of the Otherworld milieu with impressive results. As a result I feel confident Armstrong will have brought her readers back to Elena only because she has had suitable inspiration.
But I must confess to one major reservation. The cover tells us the initial impetus for this plot is Jack the Ripper’s ‘From Hell’ letter. Personally I regard the Jack the Ripper motif within supernatural fiction in much the same way as I do King Arthur and the Grail in fantasy. It’s been done. We know it too well. It’s been done well, indifferently, and frequently badly. It’s not even that good a story. It’s even been done in Star Trek and Babylon 5! I wouldn’t think of touching it. So it’s a measure of how much I enjoy Kelley Armstrong’s books that I opened Broken with considerable interest to see how she handles this particular poisoned chalice.
The first surprise has nothing to do with Victorian serial killers. Elena is now settled, secure in her dual nature and living with her extended adopted family, her pack. That family is about to grow larger, as indeed, is Elena. She’s pregnant, something not previously believed possible. This is an excellent move by Armstrong. In previous adventures, we’ve seen Elena’s strength and intelligence. She learned from her experiences and developed into a confident, powerful opponent for any supernatural foe. Some writers deal with their increasingly dominant protagonists with corresponding escalation among their enemies, in some cases going far beyond what’s credible. Others opt for emasculation, introducing some equivalent of kryptonite. That’s not what’s happening here; Elena is in no sense diminished by her pregnancy. But it does create new concerns for her. It also changes her relationships with her supernatural allies and with her pack mates, making this more of an ensemble piece than her previous outings. All this adds a new dimension beyond what we’ve already seen.
Pregnancy also gives the reader new points of contact with Elena and with Clayton, her lover. We won’t ever be able to know what it’s really like to be a werewolf, but a lot of us will become parents, if we aren’t already. Even if we don’t, the possibility, the questions and the apprehensions are something we can all relate to. Pregnancy notwithstanding, Elena and Clay continue to enjoy a full and active sex life. Armstrong continues to write these scenes with an astute sense of what warrants explicit detail and what is best left to the imagination. But now that their lives have moved on, this aspect of their relationship has similarly grown and changed, again giving this book and these characters new dimensions that ground the fantasy in reality.
So where does Jack the Ripper fit into this idyll? Quite simply. In return for information on a rogue werewolf preying on humans, Elena and the Pack are asked to retrieve the notorious ‘From Hell’ letter — long since stolen from the original files of the London police — from the private collector in Toronto who now has it. There’s a celebrity, nothing to do with the supernatural side of life, who wants to run DNA tests hoping to finally identify the Ripper once and for all. Given Patricia Cornwell’s well-publicized crusade, that’s all nicely plausible, and again ties this fiction to our reality, as do other passing references to Ripper lore such as the recent Johnny Depp film.
Stealing the letter presents some difficulties which are solved with not too much difficulty, only the letter turns out to be a portal to a pocket dimension. Out comes a bowler-hatted Victorian thug with a penchant for knives. Dealing with him turns out to be a bit more difficult, but it’s done. The next problem turns out to be what came through the portal with him, initially unnoticed. Now the challenges are coming thick, fast and complex, especially when it turns out the putative Jack isn’t nearly so dealt with as they thought. Plus the Pack’s various supernatural allies prove to have agendas of their own.
All of which adds up to real page-turner with, thankfully, a nicely original take on the Ripper mythos as one of several motifs within the overall story rather than a dominant fixation. Armstrong’s skills as a writer ring the changes through the sequence of good news, bad news and worse news. Sometimes there are clues so the reader is half a page ahead of the characters, experiencing that sinking feeling as they head into trouble. Elsewhere, reader and characters alike are blind-sided. Then again, sometimes the reader is left to play catch-up as characters’ knowledge and experiences within their own reality enable them to cope more than competently with a potentially lethal situation.
As with the other books in this series, Broken can be read as a standalone novel, and works very well as such. Then again, there’s added value for those of us who have enjoyed Armstrong’s previous books. We have background to flesh out minor characters even if it’s not needed for this particular story. If we’ve read Haunted, we know exactly what kind of richly-deserved Hell awaits Victorian killers trapped between life and death.
The book and Elena’s pregnancy come to a conclusion together. The ending does not disappoint, bringing us back to that vital connection with these characters through aspects of life, good and bad, that even magic cannot fix and even supernaturals cannot escape. Thus we reach a natural, unforced point for a break in these adventures as Kelley Armstrong turns to stretching different writing skills in a crime series. If this proves to be the conclusion of Women of the Otherworld series, Broken is a worthy final installment. If some way down the line we revisit these characters and see how their lives have progressed, I for one will be thrilled as I’m confident that new story will be well worth reading. In the meantime, I shall re-read the books thus far and recommend them widely.
This review originally appeared in Emerald City.