Anyone who’s read Rachel Neumeier’s essay at the end of Black Dog Short Stories I (or the preview chapter at the back of Black Dog) would see the “twist” that Pure Magic opens with. Or you could infer it based on sweeping statements made throughout either of those volumes. There’s often talk of black dog sons and Pure daughters, how Keziah and Amira are the much rarer female black dogs, etc.
Justin, the protagonist in Pure Magic, is a Pure son. According to the genetics essay, this means he’s from a very different line of descent than Dimiloc and Saint Walburga. (In this universe Saint Walburga is attributed with the creation of the Pure as she was trying to work a spell on an unborn black dog daughter. She is apparently a real saint and somewhat interesting if you choose to look her up. There are a lot of saints in Christianity and I know nothing of them.) From what I retained (genetics is not a strong point of mine), the gene in Dimiloc that can result in a Pure child would only appear in daughters. It is not the only such gene in existence and there is a possibility outside of Dimiloc for a Pure boy.
Justin is, in many ways, a better viewpoint character than Natividad. He literally has no idea what the Pure are until he’s sitting in a priest’s refectory, about to enjoy some coconut cake, when a black dog crashes through the window. Followed by Ethan Lanning. And then Ezekiel Korte. Who then proceed to bring Justin to Dimiloc. Nothing like diving right in, eh?
If you were hoping that Pure Magic would elaborate on its title subject, you will be disappointed. Even when Natividad teaches Justin how to do magic, there’s not a huge amount of theory explained. Or rather, nothing really in addition to what you could have picked up from the first book based on what Natividad said and did. What the second novel does do is use Justin’s viewpoint to explain how he perceives magic, which is very different from Natividad’s perception. You see, Justin likes math. A lot. And so he views magic through that lens, to the point of seeing equations and functions. It does also mean he can easily create perfect circles for his mandalas by mentally specifying the radius and trusting 2πr to do what needs doing.
As for the main plot outside of Justin’s trying to come to terms with the fact that his life has just become a whole lot weirder, Dimiloc is stretched pretty thin at the moment. They’re still rebuilding after the war with the vampires and while they’ve got more members than at the end of the last book, it’s not nearly enough to regain control over the entire United States’ supernatural affairs. Thaddeus and DeAnn are out in one location (probably Chicago but I don’t feel like looking it up), Alejandro and Ethan are in Boston, Etienne is in Denver with a sept of Dimiloc, and Ezekiel is sent where Grayson needs him most.
So when Justin has had enough of feeling like a kidnapped prisoner, Natividad decides she may be able to kill two birds with one stone…
I could easily come to dislike Natividad. But that may be the point. The Black Dog series is young adult, a fact made obvious simply by the average age of protagonists – roughly seventeen. The actual adults are, for the most part, offscreen or dead. Or enemies. Sure there’s always Grayson Lanning, but for some reason he’s not usually where our heroes are. The point is, Natividad acts like a typical young adult protagonist who is aboslutely certain she’s right and will save the day. But here’s where we see Neumeier’s skill and understanding at work. Natividad is not always right. She doesn’t necessarily know better than the adults. Some of the problems she finds herself dealing with are her fault in the first place because she thought she knew best.
And that is part of what makes these books so good from an adult perspective. In too many young adult books the grownups are either shoved aside, dead, or stupid beyond belief. Which of course means the kids are in charge of their own fates and get to decide what to do and when. It can work. Just look at Lord of the Flies. But part of what makes that book work is that it’s over sixty years old and was markedly different from its competitors at that time. Today…it’s been done. It’s been done to death. Repeatedly. I’ve bemoaned the size and general quality of the young adult section in many posts for multiple reasons. And one of those is that trends seem to accumulate quickly in young adult. You can have that awful Stephanie Meyer quartet ripped off in every horror theme imaginable, you can have all kinds of magic schools, you can have all sorts of dystopias, etc. Any young adult book that makes a significant amount of money is going to create a new subset of books trying to capitalize on its success by copying what it did with a few changes for copyright purposes.
But Rachel Neumeier, for all she is a young adult author, is not some copycat. She’s put a lot more thought (and, I hope, effort) into her books and has produced some compelling reads that may be told through a teen’s perspective but don’t put the kids forward at the adults’ expense. All people have value to Neumeier, regardless of age, race, gender, etc.
After Pure Magic, it was simple enough to go ahead and finish up Black Dog Short Stories II. I’d already read the first two tales yesterday with the expanse of leftover lunch time and reached a point where I determined I really should stop in case I really found spoilers. Which, yes, I would have. So overall it was a good call and it left me with only two stories to read today – easy enough.
Like Black Dog Short Stories I, the second collection features for new tales bridging the gap between novels, plus another insight into the technical world of the series. Well, I say they bridge the gap, but that’s not wholly true. The first story here, like the last story in the other, is from years ago.
“Mothers and Daughters” is the formative backstory of Keziah and Amira, the Saudi female black dogs who were recruited into Dimiloc. There’s still a gap between the end of this story and their arrival in Vermont, but that span of time is not as vital. It’s mentioned repeatedly that Keziah is likely a Saudi princess, though she refuses to give any details about her family. Having read this story, I can well imagine why.
Keziah and Amira grew up in an Arabic villa where women are lesser creatures confined to their own section of the house. It’s not the first harem story I’ve read, but in many others there is a sense of benign neglect from the males in charge. Here, given that this is a black dog House, it is not at all benign. Add in the fact that female black dogs are uncommon and generally frowned upon from all angles and two black dog sisters become something of a problem.
It’s a tale of tragedy, heroism, and sisterly love. In fact, this is probably the most adult story in the series thus far, given the conditions Keziah must endure. All I can say at the end is that I’m grateful she and Amira were able to make their escape to America.
Going to “Unlikely Allies” which does take place after Pure Magic, this is an Ezekiel story. He’s working from Denver at this time, out in the field investigating a series of murders. And rapes. And the spoiler I had noted for this story turned out to be fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, so it worked out fairly well as a standalone tale. But the implications, especially right after Keziah’s…it’ll be interesting to see what Neumeier does with that. Because I don’t doubt for a moment it’ll come up again.
Then there’s “Bank Job”, where Ethan Lanning and Thaddeus Williams are clearing out strays in the Midwest when Grayson calls and tells them to go to the Arch. It seems that some black dogs are involved with a bank robbery, and Grayson’s ally Harrod asked for some backup. In the world of Black Dog, the Special Forces were created once enough vampires were slain to defuse the miasma they’d coated the world in. This unit is meant to deal with supernatural forces and during the war, Grayson and Harrod formed an alliance of convenience. Neither is fully comfortable with the other, but they’ve found their uses over the years.
This story’s best purpose is to show that yes, Ethan’s an ass, but he does know it and he is trying to be better. And while Thaddeus is pretty impressive for a born stray, there’s a lot he could stand to learn. At least they’ve got each other’s backs.
Lastly is “A Family Visit” where Justin finally does see his grandmother again. This story takes place about a year after Black Dog began and like any good landmark moment, it’s as much about potential future directions for the series as it is about helping Justin come to terms with his family and his past. And this story leads right into Neumeier’s fact section, which is about witches. Yes, in addition to werewolves and vampires, this world has witches. You can even blame the witches for the existence of both werewolves and vampires. But they’re not nice people and can be a threat. So we’ll see how that plays into the rest of the series.
Unfortunately that’s all I have from the world of Black Dog at the moment. There is another novel available, as well as a third collection of short stories, but I don’t have either of those at this time. Not to mention that the short stories are probably only available digitally until she has a fourth collection to combine it with for physical print, based on the books I already have. Point being, I’m looking forward to reading more in this world in the future.