In Frost Burned, the coyote rushes in where werewolves fear to tread…again

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Frost BurnedSomeday, one of the Mercy Thompson books will not live up to the standards set by its predecessors. It’s inevitable. It’s statistics! However, Frost Burned most certainly wasn’t that book.

After a Mercy and Jesse sustain a fender bender during their girl bonding time, a no-prisoners taken battle with Black Friday, they find themselves unable to reach any of the pack. When they reach Mercy’s garage, Ben and Gabriel met them with conformation of what Mercy feared: the pack has been taken. Her bond with Adam gives them a chance to gain valuable insight into the situation, and after teaming up with Stephan to rescue Kyle, the small band of not actually werewolves start plotting to get their people back. With a surprising assist from Bran in the form of Asil showing up on their doorstep, Zee’s son Tad reappearing in time to help, and Marsilia’s expensive car becoming steadily more wrecked, they might pull it off after all…but who’s really pulling all the strings and why?

It may sound cliché to say that each of the Mercy books is better than the last, but the fact remains. A great deal of this series’ success lies in the characterization of Mercy Thompson, coyote shape shifter, Volkswagen mechanic, and mate to the local werewolf alpha. Rather than trying to come up with bigger explosions and more evil foes to function, the stories rely on the reader’s connection to the people in the book. So instead of having to learn the plural of apocalypse, the reader has to learn to understand, sympathize with, and root for the complex character of Mercy.

I’m starting to find it very noticeable when main characters come rapidly into a great deal of uncharacteristic power. One minute you’re reading about a quiet farm boy who just wants to get the crops in and marry his childhood sweetheart. A few pages later, he’s the most powerful wizard in all known history having simply skipped the normal twenty years of study and all the required tests. Frost Burn, however, excelled in this field. It doesn’t commit the other sin of simply ignoring all the previous books. Rather, it uses the structure they’ve built to add a few twists to an already complex character. You don’t meet Coyote in one book, and then carry on as usual in the next.

But the part that excited me most was how very limited Mercy was this entire book. Sure she always squeaks through and typically gets to help in the dramatic conclusions, but, as we are constantly reminded verbally in the stories, the fact remains that she’s out of her league. Sure she gets to work some really amazing coyote magic for the first time, but she goes by instinct, and it ends up not working perfectly. Later on, she’ll be helped out of her mess, but only by an extremely powerful individual. During a fencing match with a fae, Mercy isn’t the one who picks up a sword and then suddenly turns into a natural duelist. She sneaks and hides and acts like a coyote, and even then she doesn’t get off scot free.

And this book even goes the extra mile of drudging up some really nasty baggage from a few books back for Mercy to deal with on top of everything else. But somehow, through amazing writing and seven books worth of coming to understand Mercy, she doesn’t come across as Wonder Woman off saving the day. She comes across as a very stubborn, strong, predatory human who has already seen and done too much. She is scarred, wounded, and fragile like everyone else. But she has the courage necessary to focus on the moment, do whatever she has to, and then falls apart later on her own time.

There’s been a call for more “strong female characters” in the world of speculative fiction, and I think sometimes that term can be misleading. We’re not necessarily looking for a woman who can mop the floor with a bunch of ninjas without a hair falling out of place. We’re asking Mercy and her kind. Women who love. Who are vulnerable. Who bleed and break and cry, but still reach for a tire iron to protect what they love.

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