Having completely revamped goblins and elves in her Hollow Kingdom trilogy, Clare B. Dunkle turns her hand to werewolves in "By These Ten Bones." This dark little fantasy is set in long-ago Scotland, when superstitions ran rampant and witches might still be burned.
Two travellers come to Maddie's town -- a drunken old man, and a quiet young carver. Then the carver is found covered in claw marks, and is taken in by Maddie's family, while they try to find the evil supernatural creature responsible for it. But Maddie finds out the hard way when the carver -- whose name is Paul -- enlists her to chain him up in the woods for a day.
Turns out that Paul is possessed by a parasitic werewolf, which turns him into a bloodthirsty monster once a month, and it's getting stronger. And with his companion jailed (and then killed) by a thuggish villager, he has no one to keep him restrained. Desperate to save Paul -- both from the villagers and the werewolf -- Maddie searches for a cure. But to cure Paul, she may have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Like vampires, werewolves have been pretty much done to death. So it takes something special to make a werewolf story stand out the way "By These Ten Bones" does. For one thing, Dunkle reinvents the werewolf -- here's it's less a shapechanger, and more a demon. No wolfly tendencies. Just a sort of shadow with claws.
And it's all set in a very ordinary village, full of old prejudices against anyone who is different, such as the scholarly, crusty Lady Mary. While Dunkle allows that these people had good intentions, she doesn't hesitate to show all the ugliness of what they are doing. Only a few people, such as Maddie and the kindly priest, dare to be just and open-minded.
The whole thing is wrapped up in Dunkle's detailed writing, which gives the story an autumnal, faded atmosphere. She also includes some genuinely chilling moments, such as Paul's first transformation, or when old Ned's chopped-off head appears to be following Maddie.
But this is not just a horror story, or even a story about prejudice, but a love story. Maddie is a likable everygirl (not terribly pretty, by her own admission) who is has plenty of fears and uncertainties, but loves Paul enough to endanger herself. And Paul shakes off the "traumatized youth" cliche, since his curse makes his feelings all too understandable.
Clare B. Dunkle gives readers a new spin on werewolves, which isn't easy to do. "By These Ten Bones" succeeds as horror, historical fiction, and as a love story.
As the other reviewer before me said, werewolf stories have been done to death. Thankfully, BY THESE TEN BONES does offer the reader something more than the usual myths, gore and investigation. What Dunkle has achieved is to write a book which uses the werewolf myth as a way of looking at how communities stay together, and why they may break down; superstition; love; plus the idea that sacrifice may be required for the greater good. Quite an achievement for such a short book - directed at young adults, to boot.
The story follows Maddie, a young girl who lives in a small Scottish community, where life follows a regular cycle of birth, marriage, then death. Upon the opening of the book, Maddie witnesses strangers entering her village - something that is unusual. Amongst these is a young boy, who has a talent for carving wood. Those around Maddie think that he is dim witted, as he doesn't speak at first. It is only Maddie who sees more to his silence than the others - she describes him as being haunted. Maddie begins to fall for this young man, and he begins to feel drawn to her, until he then reveals the secret that he has been keeping.
That, of course, is a brief synopsis. As I have said, it is amazing how much detail Dunkle manages to put into this short book. Although it did start a little slowly, once you are hooked it will not let you go. The examination of life within the small village, and all the superstitions of the time, are eloquently brought to ife.
Human interaction and histeria are also examined, as the village folk begin to panic about the 'strange' goings on within their usually quiet lives. The courage and humanity of Maddie is really very touching - she far outshines the majority of her elders for the compassion and sense of justice that she has.
This is a fantastic book. It is highly recommended.