“‘I never thought we would find any hope when we left this place. It feels good to belong somewhere again. I feel like there are people outside these walls that want us to be free.”
John Mauro and I teamed up for a buddy read and a non-spoiler discussion of Phased, the young adult fantasy by Victoria Tecken. Let’s start with the official summary.
Back of the Book Summary: According to the Domestication and Assimilation Organization (DAO), Val and Lyla Blackwood are the most dangerous kind of werewolves. Although they were raised in the wild, their Trueblood heritage has made them little more than experiments for years. Now, their freedom depends on their ability to become as human as possible, thrown into an assimilation school with humans and werewolves who have never known what it means to be wild. Trapped in a world where they don’t belong and fighting to stay one step ahead of the horrific past that chases them, any wrong move could send them back to those stark white cells, losing their last chance of freedom.
[John] Val and Lyla are two Trueblood sisters, powerful werewolves who struggle to control their primal instincts.
[Sofia] At least that’s what is implied by the DAO, a shady organization that aims to suppress the werewolves’ phasing between humanlike and lupine states. Without the DAO, Val and Lyla wouldn’t be forced to battle their wolf sides, which would otherwise be an integrated part of who they are.
[John] Lyla seems to have more control over her emotions and, as a result, a greater control over her phasing behavior. Val, on the other hand, is more powerful but volatile. The relationship between the two sisters is at the core of the novel. Tecken creates a realistic portrait of two sisters who love each other but have frustrations in their relationship.
[Sofia] I love the depiction of the anger that sometimes flares between the two. They’re so different and they aren’t always able to understand why the other acts the way she does. Tecken writes both sisters very well and candidly portrays the struggles in their relationship as well as the joys.
[John] Ultimately they are looking out for each other and will do what’s best for one another. But they may have different interpretations about what is best.
[Sofia] The two sisters aren’t the only great characters in Phased. There’s a compelling cast of side characters as well, although many of them fall into the usual archetypes.
[John] My favorite supporting cast member is Christopher. He is such a cinnamon roll: intelligent, thoughtful, kind, caring, and in need of protection from a werewolf friend.
[Sofia] I think what he needs is a hug.
[John] I’ll give you a hug, Christopher.
[Sofia] I like how the members of the friend group each see werewolves from their own points of view. That’s explored in interesting ways throughout the book. There’s Christopher, an inquisitive human sympathetic to the Truebloods. There’s Lex, a “Domesticated” werewolf who gets his first taste of his natural instincts. And then there’s Jules, a sweet Were who doesn’t know firsthand what it’s actually like to be a werewolf and humanizes terms like “the pack” because she doesn’t understand the full meaning of the word in the context of werewolf culture.
[John] Even though some of the characters fall into archetypes, I found them all to be very relatable.
[Sofia] I agree. There’s a reason why those archetypes formed over time. I think Tecken did an excellent job with the characters.
[John] Phased has a modern, present-day setting. There are phones, emails, and text messages, but fortunately no pop culture references that would make the book seem outdated a decade from now.
[Sofia] I think a lot of fantasy books—and novels in general—with a contemporary setting unfortunately fall into the trap of saturating the narrative with modern colloquialisms and references that fade quickly over time.
[John] Agreed. Victoria Tecken has done an excellent job balancing the modern setting with a more timeless feel to the story and narration. For me, the present-day setting helped to make the characters and story feel more relatable.
[Sofia] As with most school settings in fantasy books, tropes of social cliques, bullies, and bookworms are used. This makes certain aspects of the book, especially the inter-character relationships, feel predictable. But again, these are cliches for a reason: they reflect the universal high school experience. Personally, I’m very fond of schools in fantasy and thoroughly enjoyed the drama.
[John] The scope of the worldbuilding broadens in the latter part of the book, including the history of the werewolves and their relationship with humanity. This works effectively because we’ve already built a strong connection with Val, Lyla, and many of the side characters at this point. There’s also more to the DAO than is initially apparent.
[Sofia] Overall, the worldbuilding was immersive, interesting, and effective.
Plot and Pacing:
[John] Victoria Tecken maintains a consistent pacing throughout the novel: not too fast, not too slow, building up to some intense action at the end.
[Sofia] Phased is so enjoyable. The plot doesn’t demand a lot of reading between the lines, but it’s still emotionally subtle when it needs to be.
[John] That’s an excellent point about Tecken’s subtlety, a refreshing change from many other young adult werewolf fantasies…
[Sofia] Everything falls together in a satisfying yet realistic way. There were several surprising and well-paced plot twists. It’s definitely a carefully planned book.
[John] Victoria Tecken is especially strong when it comes to depicting mental health issues in her characters, focusing on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by the sisters as a result of childhood trauma. These struggles are handled with nuance and honesty, which set this book apart from many others.
[Sofia] I agree. That was the most impactful aspect of the book for me.
[John] I was particularly struck by the numbness that the sisters experienced at certain points in the novel. Their human and lupine identities are both critical to who they are as characters. By suppressing a part of themselves, they risk becoming numb to their entire being.
[Sofia] The DAO wants to eliminate the aspect of the werewolves that they see as primitive and feral. By forcing them to masquerade as human, something that is a fraction of who they are, the DAO condemns them to live what is basically only half a life. That’s one of the things the sisters struggle with throughout the book. But we know they can find friendship and happiness with humans while also living as they were meant to live. That’s what the DAO refuses to understand.
[John] There is also a strong focus on themes of sisterhood, friendship, and found family. There’s even some light romance. Do you think this worked effectively?
[Sofia] I don’t think much about the story would have changed had these characters been “just friends.”
[John] Agreed. The romance was unnecessary but ultimately innocuous. I’m also curious to hear your thoughts about friendship versus blood bonds, which kind of forced a different type of relationship between characters.
[Sofia] I didn’t see it that way. I think the characters involved were concerned that a blood bond would cause them to misconstrue their own feelings for each other, but I don’t think the formation of the blood bond forced any development to occur.
[John] Perhaps it only accelerated the inevitable.
[Sofia] The author also did a great job presenting misunderstanding between people who come from different backgrounds and the danger of dehumanizing those you don’t understand.
[John] I appreciated the surprising sympathy that came from some unexpected sources.
[John] Victoria Tecken’s writing is well-polished and straightforward, written in a young adult style that serves as an effective vehicle for delivering her story. The flashbacks to Val and Lyla’s childhood days in the forest are well done and pack an emotional punch.
[Sofia] For me, the bigger emotional punch came from the sisters’ reactions to situations in the present day that reminded them of their past and the life that they lost.
[John] What are your overall thoughts on the novel?
[Sofia] I really liked Phased. It’s a book that I can appreciate from a thematic and emotional perspective and also enjoy as an entertaining story. My rating is 4.5/5.
[John] I fully agree with your assessment and also rate this book 4.5/5. Although it’s a young adult novel, I highly recommend this for adults as well.