Kelley Armstrong, Brazen

Brazen_webBilled as a manhunt (for certain values of “man”), Brazen is really a character piece. Officially labeled volume 13.1 in author Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Underworld series, it focuses on the thus-far underwhelming Nick as its main protagonist. Handsome and unambitious, Nick’s been perceived as sheltered for much of his life as a werewolf, to the point where he’s largely seen as a - forgive the pun - party animal and playboy, more than an asset. Brazen is all about Nick stepping up to challenge those assumptions, both within and outside of his Pack, while pairing him with half-demon operative Vanessa Callas.

The plot is deceptively straightforward: deposed former Pack leader Malcolm is somewhere in the wind after escaping from the compound where he was being held. Vengeful and cunning, Malcom’s not the sort of guy you want running around loose, especially since he’s a homicidal maniac who’s probably going to come calling for revenge at some point. And so pack Alpha Elena has assigned Nick the task of finding Malcolm and, potentially, bringing him down.

To do this, Nick’s hired a paranormal PMC, with the operation being run by half fire-demon “Ness” Callas. The tension of their first meeting feels a little forced - Ness harps a little too long on exactly how many of her operatives Nick’s already bedded - but when one of Callas’ field agents gets expertly ambushed by Malcolm in Detroit, the two head off to Michigan to try to rescue her.

Complicating matters are a bunch of low-rent monster hunters gunning for a bounty on werewolves. We only get to meet one of them and he’s not much for conversation, but their addition nicely complicates what would have been a straightforward pursuit.

As for Malcolm, he’s the best thing in the book, an effortlessly monstrous villain whose goals are sensible and whose actions make sense. He knows what he wants - largely, to humiliate Nick in order to draw out the elders of the Pack - and he’s efficient in getting it. There’s no overly complicated plans or “women in refrigerators” here, just a cold-blooded killer using all of his skills to manipulate his prey.

But Malcolm’s just a vehicle here, a means for Nick to express his growing maturity, self-confidence and capability. It’s not a subtle transformation; we’re told at the beginning that everyone thinks he’s an “omega male”, and then we proceed to watch him step up as a leader, as a fighter, and as a mensch.The final confrontation with Malcolm is a bit underwhelming, but the fight isn’t the point. What matters is that it’s Nick taking point, being smart and taking care of business. The fact that the other characters actively recognize this in the epilogue is the point of the whole exercise.

If there’s a weak link in the book, it’s that there’s not enough Vanessa in it. She repeatedly reminds Nick - and the reader - that she’s not a field agent, and that the rough and tumble stuff isn’t her thing, but she’s smart, she’s got access to field gear that’s a nice complement to Nick’s wolf gifts, and her tradecraft is spot on. She’s no shrinking violet, but it’s clearly Nick’s show, and a little more sharing of the spotlight at key moments might have done more to reinforce the partnership Armstrong sets up here.

That being said, Brazen is an enjoyable, quick read. The leads have strong chemistry, and Malcolm’s definitely a villain to be reckoned with - his genuinely gruesome handiwork standing in stark relief to his urbane, calculating personality. Fans of werewolves brawling might be disappointed at the lack of action, but action’s not the point. Nick growing up is, and he does so nicely, just in time for whatever adventures Armstrong sets out for him and Ness.

(Subterranean, 2013)

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