I will be the first to say, that I have not read a lot of YA urban fantasy fiction. I will also say that a dystopian YA fantasy book about werewolves would not have been something I would have thought I would have so much fun with! But I did! I truly enjoyed “Phased”, by Tori Tecken, which is a story about human society attempting to abolish any trace of werewolf behaviour, by any means necessary.
In “Phased”, as readers we get primarily receive the POVs of the two Blackwood sisters: the elder Val and the slightly younger Lyla, both teenagers. This pair are no ordinary teenagers. They are werewolves, of the rarest kind: Trueblooded, and raised in the wild, rather than assimilated amongst the human species, and other, more tame werewolves.
This is a problem for the Department of Domestication and Assimilation (DOA), whose sanitarium features scientists and administrators who have turned Val and Lyla into their favourite guinea pigs, detained indefinitely, to be studied, and experimented on.
The passionate and more impulsive Val, and the more cool and controlled Lyla are an inseparable team, bonded by more than just their mutual blood. They have an even deeper, supernatural bond, and can’t bear to be separated from one another. But the DOA doesn’t care. The choice before the sisters is assimilate, or become prisoners again of the DOA.
So the sisters are sent to a boarding school designed to mingle more feral werewolves like them with more domesticated ones, and humans.
But the ultimate price for not being able to fit in at Westbrook High is not cat calls from the other students, having no one to sit with in the lunchroom, or being picked last for sports teams. The price would certainly be their freedom, if not their very lives.
At it’s heart, “Phased” is a wonderful character-driven book, and Tecken impressed me with how easily she made me attached to and care for the players. The sisterly affection between Val and Lyla had all the hallmarks of a close but sometimes volatile teenage sibling relationship. There is competitiveness, stubbornness, and feelings of superiority sometimes, yet a deep abiding love, protectiveness, and profound sense of friendship and mutual respect in what Val and Lyla share. Any strengths or weakness in their bond takes on an added dimension when considering their werewolf blood. They are characters that most readers would definitely root for unabashedly.
The secondary characters were very interesting, and my favourite – Jackson – comes from this group. He comes off as clearly a ‘bad guy’, a bully, with a grudge against the sisters. But there is more going on there that meets the eye, and I very much wanted to know more about this character’s backstory and motivations at the end of the book.
Like Jackson, at first Jules, Lex, and definitely Christopher, are players with very distinct personalities, who seem ambiguous in terms of who they are, and what their true intentions might be. I found them well-drawn too, and they really added a lot to the variety of the cast of characters.
There are other auxiliary characters who are more obviously ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and one character in particular who came off as more deceived and led astray (even brainwashed) but with some potential nobility behind her actions, that made me wonder what side she would ultimately land on. I truly enjoyed her character arc.
The worldbuilding, as noted, is that surrounding some kind of dystopian world, with the novel’s action taking place in the United States, where the technology seems relatively present-day, save for the type of advanced (and terrible) science used at the DOA.
We get reference to Kleenex boxes, cell phones, the state of Florida, and many of the trappings of modern 21st century life. Tecken provides us with some interesting lore and backstory as to how the co-existence of werewolves and humans has gone up to the point of the events of the novel, and why humans have felt the necessity to treat werewolves in the manner they have.
Readers are provided the hierarchy of wolves, with Alphas at the top of the pyramid. Alphas can control other lower ranking werewolves, and Val being an Alpha makes her considered that much more dangerous to some, as she’s thought to be capable of inciting other werewolves to rise up against the humans.
We also, sadly have other features of modern times we have seen too many times over the course of the centuries. Some of these include mandatory medication, unscrupulous and highly dangerous physical and psychological manipulation testing, intolerance, suspicion and fear of the “other” (in this case plainly being werewolves), in society, and a narrative where the dominant oppressor exploits the narrative about who and what werewolves are.
How could they be anything other than a menace to society, the oppressor asks, needing to be rigidly, controlled, and if necessary, culled? And really, if they can’t tuck in their fangs, and be polite, meek, and docile, why do they deserve to live?
The settings of the DAO and Westbrook High seem highly structured, and seem to represent order, and both are run by oppressors. The difference is the people who occupy these institutions. In both locations, although people are being repressed, controlled, and there is cruelty, sometimes from the occupants of both spaces. But at least Westbrook holds some promise of slight autonomy, while the DAO holds none.
It is only in the wild, open forested spaces, or the sanctuary of a placid and welcoming family home of one of the auxiliary characters, is there any hope for security, freedom, and tranquility achieved for souls seeking peace, rest, and escape from being subjugated.
There are plenty of worthwhile themes to chat about in “Phased”. These include, but of course are not limited to: coping with mental illness, torture, abuse, the ethics of forced experimentation on sentient beings, PTSD, trauma, loss, grief, family, found family, loyalty, sacrifice, mind control, the use of propaganda to spread a false narrative, corporate greed, courage, survivor mentality, compassion, belonging, and some teenage angst and yearning.
Trust is also a huge theme in the book, as the sisters must trust each other, and learn to trust those new friends after feeling betrayed by almost everyone in society that wants to root out who Val and Kyla are.
The mental illness topic, and how Tecken dealt with it, is to be commended. While confronting this issue unreservedly in the book, it is handled with appropriate sensitively and nuance.
This is a novel about the underdog, and in YA fiction, social outcasts are often protagonists. Typically, those outsiders don’t stay friendless or unpopular for long, and often wind up being the beloved or cool one in the end. This is not your usual YA book, however we do see that trope being featured, and nicely subverted by Tecken.
Why the themes in this book worked so well for me, I think, is that the author mostly simply shows us the themes in the story in a very efficient fashion, focusing mainly on the strong relationship with the siblings, the horrors they have to undergo, and their courage and perseverance in the face of the impossibility of the situation they find themselves thrust in as werewolves, along with the normal problems of teenager such as angst over friendships and burgeoning romantic feelings. All the while, trusting the reader not to miss out on the author’s subtle commentary (or merely laying out of events) about these issues.
What I took away from all this, among other things, was that the fate of the entire world does not INITIALLY appear to be at stake in “Phased”. It’s more about OUR morality, and the natural beauty and right to exist of werewolves their true form, being at stake.
Can human beings overcome fear, bigotry, prejudice, distaste for werewolves (who are also part human), and learn to treat them not just humanely, but as equals? So, ultimately, in a way, the fate of the world IS at stake. It’s the fate of the world we should be aspiring to – one where we treat all creatures, especially creatures that are essentially US, with care, dignity, respect, and autonomy.
The scariest (and sadly highly realistic) element of “Phased” is that that many of the humans in the story have convinced humanity, and the werewolves themselves, that it’s not enough to for the werewolves to not harm other humans. The werewolves must be, in essence, devoid of the essence of their being, in order to be “accepted”, or “tolerated”, among the majority human population. Only ERADICATION of their werewolf traits will suffice, in the end.
To fit in, the werewolves must not only act human but BE human. The werewolves undergo terrible physical emotional pain, even risking death, to have their true nature suppressed. What happens if they can’t? Oh well, increase the dosage of their med, no matter the risk, and if that doesn’t work, lock them up. The end justifies the means, for those whose moral superiority entitles them to protect everyone from the “monsters”.
This disturbing fact was handled with such aplomb, making it all so feasible in terms of how werewolves were treated in the world the author crafted.
A quick comment about the romance here: while quite tame, and not as fiery or explicit as I prefer, it is very credible and well done. It is tender, and heart-warming, with feelings developing realistically and organically, rather than instantaneous smooching and groping.
The action and thrilling moments truly made me wonder how seriously certain characters might be hurt, who was going to make it out alive, and there were some surprises as to who didn’t make it, for me. The climatic battle was appropriately tense and chaotic. There were also quite a few twists and turn I didn’t see coming, and some tragedy that will pull at the heartstrings.
The prose here was quite understated, but that does not mean it was ineffective. My love of lyrical, elegant fare is no secret. Still, the writing in “Phased” was clear, concise, and accessible. This was a smooth, quick read that one can quickly digest, just under 400 pages in length.
Led by two teen sisters whose bond is as unshakable as their courage and compassion, a disparate band of characters, and other teen werewolves like them, fight for a right to exist and to reclaim their true nature, and to be free of constraint, in an eerie dystopian setting. This book wasn’t supposed to be “my thing”, but it was a delightful surprise that I ended up truly enjoying it! And if YA and werewolves is your bag, then you will absolutely be enamoured – run out and get it!
While the ending satisfactorily wraps up events that occurred in this book, there is clearly hints of a sequel in the last words on the novel. I’m DEFINITELY intrigued enough to look forward to a second book about the Alphas, Betas, Omegas, humans, and the rest of the characters of “Phased”.