Like a lot of readers, I have “comfort reads,” books I turn to when I’m sick, stressed, or otherwise in need of familiar pleasures. There’s value, though, to reading books that offer a challenge of some kind (Sunita has a great post on Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone.) On my vacation, I read J. L. Merrow’s Camwolf. I admired and enjoyed it, but reading it wasn’t comfortable.
Camwolf is a paranormal m/m romance about a pair of werewolves: Nick, a history fellow at Cambridge, and Julian, a student. I don’t read a lot of paranormal romance, because it tends to contain tropes I don’t much like: the dominant/obsessive/protective alpha male and fated mates. Camwolf has both–sort of.
Nick is an alpha, but initially he doesn’t understand that about himself. He was turned three years previously by a boyfriend who didn’t really explain much about being a wolf. The first time Nick changed, the two fought; Nick fled, horrified, and his only other attempt at a relationship since turned abusive because of the possessive instincts that come to the fore near the full moon. Nick’s wolf nature is a source of shame and self-disgust.
But Julian, an ultra-submissive omega wolf fleeing an abuser, needs a protective alpha; their relationship helps Nick to accept his wolf side but also to find a balance between wolf and human that the book’s villains lack. Julian, meanwhile, learns that he deserves love, that to be submissive doesn’t have to mean being abused. Moreover, because Julian understands the world of werewolves in a way Nick doesn’t, he has something to teach Nick. That balances the power in their relationship a bit. I still don’t love these tropes, but I found Merrow’s use of them original and thought-provoking. Her characters are fully realized, more than the familiar paranormal roles they play.
What really made me uncomfortable was the fact that Nick is a teacher and Julian a student (though not Nick’s student). I know teachers and students can be attracted to each other. But given my professional experience, I could only see a relationship between Nick and Julian as profoundly unethical. It did not help that Nick frequently thinks of Julian as a “boy” and that we never see events from Julian’s point of view. The novel itself points up the way the relationship creates an ethical conflict: Julian’s friend Tiffany is Nick’s student, and at one point Nick’s jealousy of her causes him to snap at her in a tutorial; Tiffany worries about whether he will grade her fairly. The novel (and characters) never fully addressed these issues, so my discomfort lingered.
But in the end, oddly, I admired it the more for that. Readers of m/m romance often praise it for offering a fresh take on romance and stretching genre conventions. Romance protagonists are typically called the hero and heroine for a reason: they are basically good people, and readers expect to root for them to get the happy ending they deserve. Neither of the main characters in Camwolf is entirely or straightforwardly heroic, and my discomfort meant I wasn’t rooting whole-heartedly for their relationship. But Merrow made me see how it was right for them. I don’t think the book exactly asked me to approve of them, as so many romances seem to. That’s a risky choice, and one that makes the book more realistic. It’s not my right to approve or dispprove of the relationships of real people around me, either–though of course I have my opinions.
Another risky choice was showing us Julian only from the point of view of other characters. Most of the novel is told from Nick’s point of view, but there are also passages from Tiffany’s. I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance using a secondary character’s point of view. This allow Merrow to have scenes where Julian, but not Nick, is present, but to keep Julian a rather mysterious object of desire (Tiffany, too, has a crush on him). I didn’t love this. I was uncomfortable with the way Julian remained somewhat objectified even at the novel’s end. It was, though, a deliberate and effective stylistic technique. I couldn’t forget that these characters are werewolves. A lot of paranormal characters come across as ordinary people with extra powers. Nick, Julian, and the other werewolves in Camwolf really are not-quite-human, so my discomfort with them seems appropriate. In the end, it made me admire the book more.